Christine Kelly set up Little Kickers 18 years ago. Today it’s an award winning business with hundreds of franchises operating in 34 countries
Christine Kelly’s son Lucas was two and football mad. Every day he urged his mum to take him to the park for a kickabout. Christine did her best, but she was no Lucy Bronze - during her school days, football wasn’t encouraged as a woman’s sport.
“I tried to find a football class for him, but there was absolutely nothing for preschool kids,” Christine remembers. “The only classes available in London at that time for kids of that age were music and dancing and Lucas wasn’t interested in those.
“It was then I had the idea of running a little pilot class for Lucas and his friends near our home in Clapham, south London and when it was oversubscribed by 400 per cent I thought I might be on to something.”
From little acorns
She was! 18 years later and after putting £300 into the fledgeling business Christine is founder and chair of Little Kickers, a global franchise providing fun-based, football-themed activities for youngsters aged from 18 months to six years old.
Today, the award-winning company, the single biggest player in the education-through-football space, operates in 34 countries, with 335 franchises providing weekly classes for 66,000 children and last year turning over more than £23 million.
Change of career and facing new challenges
After university, Christine became a trainee chartered accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers before switching to risk management at JP Morgan.
“I loved the job, but it soon became clear that operating in London and on Wall Street wasn’t conducive to settling down and starting a family, which made me think the moment was ripe for something completely different,” she says.
As a former risk manager, Christine expected setbacks and challenges in her new venture and they weren’t long in coming. A would-be competitor claimed she had stolen his idea - she hadn’t - and his threats brought in the police. “I ignored him,” Christine says.
The still prevailing macho image of the sport in 2002 meant some parents weren’t enthusiastic about signing their children up for football classes run by a woman and so early literature and posters shortened Christine to Chris.
There were no sports programmes for preschoolers in the UK and Christine, who had been encouraged by her parents to try everything from athletics and tennis to skiing, wanted as many youngsters as possible to have the same opportunities.
“I grew up loving sport,” she says. “If you get kids involved in sport at two or three, they are far more likely to stay with it as teenagers and adults. When I dreamed up Little Kickers I knew deep down that I was on to something that would be the perfect setting for children to mingle with their peers and learn team-building skills, self-esteem and inner confidence.”
But first, there was the problem of formalising the approach and finding sports coaches to teach preschoolers.
“We weren’t planning to be an elite scouting operation, but something that was fun and provided every child with a positive exposure to sport,” Christine says.
By a stroke of luck, Christine met a qualified football coach, who helped her set up the Little Kickers programme and tested its viability
When it was eventually launched - at Lucas’ nursery school - Christine asked her friends not to sign their children up for it. “I didn’t want lots of people joining just because they felt sorry for me,” she explains.
But money was tight. Looking back, Christine says: “It’s a challenge for anyone setting up a business for the first time. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you just bumble about a bit in the dark hoping that everything is okay.
“There was no one to tell me if my ideas were awful, so there we were trying to set up classes in supermarket car parks so that parents could drop their kids off to play while they did their shopping.
“I didn’t really start taking a salary until the second or third year. Every penny I made went on building an IT system, registering trademarks, sorting out branding and registering the programme.”
A philosophy of ‘play not push’
From the outset, the Little Kickers philosophy was ‘play not push’, meaning that youngsters should have fun while they were learning and not be pressured into becoming sports stars. That meant avoiding taking on franchisees and coaches who might have the wrong motivation.
“In fact, the coaches we wanted were virtually non-existent, so we had to train our own,” Christine says. “Many had childcare backgrounds. The main thing was that they were willing to learn our methods and knew how to engage young kids.
“We needed to make sure they believed in our mission and values and just weren’t looking to make money. We have always asked: ‘Is this a person we’d be willing to work with, do they love kids and are they doing it for the right reasons?’
“If you don’t have the right approach, the kids will just run about like a pack of wolves. We realised from the start that we needed to develop a programme that was focused on preschool children, so a lot of what we do involves imagination-based games.
“The kids think they are, say, rescuing treasure from pirates, but we are actually teaching very solid skills without them realising it. Nowadays there are a lot of competitors popping up, but I don’t think most of them have cracked the technique of teaching very small children. It’s very different from coaching youngsters who are older.”
Winning formula equals franchise growth
Christine’s formula was spot on - the business took off and in the first year, Little Kickers opened 25 UK franchises.
“We got them through word of mouth because we hadn’t advertised for franchisees,” she says. “At that point, I realised there was a solid demand for our programme and began to think that it might have the potential to grow into a substantial business.
“Our first international sales were in 2006 to South Africa. The fact the business worked outside the UK and that international growth was an option was very exciting.”
But there were some social barriers to overcome before overseas business could be built up. In India, for example, parents tended to prioritise education over physical fitness and were more interested in maths and engineering classes for their preschool children.
“Things began to change when parents started to see that kids learn best when they are having fun and that we were teaching a lot of early learning skills,” Christine says. “We are doing well in India now.
“In China, we faced a local difficulty because it was during the one-child policy and parents wanted their kids to be engineers so that they could support them in their old age.”
There were also initial difficulties in Brazil because parents regarded European football as inferior to theirs, so what could their youngsters learn from the Brits? But Christine found a way around that: “What we did was work with Cambridge University to develop a programme that taught young kids English while they played football.
“They learn the language faster while they’re doing sport and so the classes gave the parents added value.”
A business with a benevolent side
Little Kickers also has its altruistic side. In Africa, coaches are being trained to run programmes in orphanages and for underprivileged youngsters. A pilot scheme in Malawi has worked well. “We received an overwhelming response from our network of coaches about getting involved in these non-profit initiatives,” Christine says. “It’s great to see so many people passionate about this cause.
“What I want to do is get Little Kickers to people who really need it. There are so many kids in the world whose parents can’t afford our classes and it’s not expensive for us to give them to these people. I want to focus on getting as many kids involved as possible.”
Rise of women’s football
She’s also delighted by the rise in popularity of women’s football and the way this is being reflected in Little Kickers classes: “Our aim is to get more girls involved in sport at an early age because the data shows that if they start early and enjoy it, the chances of carrying on into adulthood are a lot higher.
“We now have about 25 per cent of girls in our classes, which is not bad, but we would like it to be a lot higher. Canada and Australia have a higher girl/boy ratio and we actively encourage girls in our promotions.”
This is greatly helped by the fact that around 50 per cent of Little Kickers franchisees are women. “It’s just worked out that way,” Christine says. “We look for people who will do a good job, take it seriously, make sure the kids have a good time and reflect our values.”
The company’s sustainability stance
An increasingly important value at Little Kickers is sustainability. “We’ve largely flown under the environmental radar until now,” Christine admits, but that is now dramatically changing.
“We had a conference at Manchester United last October for our franchisees and one of the things people kept bringing up was that our strips for the kids were made out of polyester. We’re ashamed to admit that up until now we’ve been responsible for the annual production of over 100,000 football strips made from man-made fibres that are swathed in unwelcome plastic.” This year, Little Kickers will be supplying their customers with excellent quality kits made from sea harvested plastic and wrapped in biodegradable bags, followed by a full range of biodegradable merchandise.
“We appreciate that we have a relatively light footprint,” Christine says. “But on the eve of our 18th anniversary, I wanted to take a stance that is as much about leading from the front and heartfelt convictions as it is reducing needless landfill.”
An important part of the plan is giving youngsters the option of returning their kit when they’ve finished with it - to be laundered and dispatched with balls, whistles and goals to one of six centres for disadvantaged children in South Africa.
New markets, overall strategy and future plans
For the past 11 years Christine, a warm and perceptive woman, has divided her time between the UK and Canada, where her two children are at university, and she has an elegant home in Toronto’s beautiful Beaches area.
She has been a hands-on boss - she took her first-ever holiday after 15 years - but nowadays Little Kickers CEO Alan Kennedy looks after day-to-day business, allowing Christine to concentrate on new markets, overall strategy and future plans. Her current major project is developing a new range of merchandise and building a children’s sportswear brand. “There doesn’t seem to be one at the moment for our age group,” Christine says.
After 18 years, she still loves the business and is as enthusiastic as ever about its future.
“The market for teaching football to preschoolers is enormous and we’ve only just scratched the surface,” Christine says. “There is potential for huge growth in our existing markets and there’s a lot of the world we haven’t explored yet.
“I find it fascinating going into new countries, finding new franchisees and tailoring our systems to new markets. As far as I’m concerned, the sky’s the limit.”
Franchising your business
Christine Kelly’s six steps to success
1. Make sure your financial model works. There have been cases where people running an unprofitable business think that franchising it will make it successful. It won’t.
2. Don’t become so vital to your business that you can’t teach franchisees how to replicate it successfully without you.
3. Have great communication with your franchisees. Ask them what you can do to make their lives easier and what you can bring to the business that will make it more profitable.
4. Choose your franchisees with great care - pick people you will enjoy working with.
5. Seek sound advice. Franchise agreements can be a minefield and need to be drawn up by a specialist. For instance, make sure you have protection for your branding.
6. Prepare yourself for some tough times ahead, but keep going and you’ll get there.
Two global franchise awards: “Our finest hour”
Little Kickers won not one but two Global Franchise Awards ahead of its 18th anniversary.
Christine Kelly collected the prizes for Best Children’s & Education Franchise and Global Franchise Supreme Champion at the annual awards ceremony, which took place in Orlando last February.
She says: “It’s impossible to put into words the positivity generated by such a prestigious award, not only in terms of recognising each and every member of our Little Kickers family for their unstinting support for our blossoming cause over the years but in terms of the added momentum it provides our ambitious business moving forwards.
“It’s so rewarding when industry experts cast their eyes over your operation and say you’re doing a great job. The fact that our finest hour came on the eve of our 18th anniversary makes any recognition doubly sweet.”
The Global Franchise Awards are organised by the team behind Global Franchise magazine, the sister publication of What Franchise.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport