Puddle Ducks founders Jo Stone and Tracy Townend have grown a successful local business into an award winning national franchise network
How soon should children learn to swim? Everyone, it seems, has their own opinions on that, but Jo Stone and Tracy Townend’s belief in “starting them young” is pretty convincing. After all, it’s led directly to the spectacular success of Puddle Ducks, now one of the UK’s biggest providers of specialist swimming classes for babies and toddlers, which encourages mums to let their babies take the plunge when they are only a few days old.
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“The younger they come to us the better, because tiny babies have an instinctive affinity with the water - it’s a natural environment for them,” says Jo, who with her friend and business partner has built Puddle Ducks from a tiny village enterprise into an award-winning 32-franchise network teaching 20,000 babies and children swimming and water safety every week.
The pair were recently crowned Woman Franchisor of the Year and Overall Woman in Franchising winners at the ninth annual NatWest Encouraging Women into Franchising Awards.
However, three years ago Tracy was struck down by a near-fatal virus that put her into intensive care for months, unable to speak or see and communicating through hand squeezes.
Now she is on the mend and back at work. “She had the sheer determination to recover,” Jo says, while Tracy adds: “Jo has been wonderful. She kept the business thriving and was a tower of strength, not only for me and my family, but for the whole Puddle Ducks team.”
It all started in 2002 after Tracy and Jo met at antenatal classes in the Cheshire village of Cranage - their babies were both born on the same day. But as their friendship grew, they realised they had more in common than the birth of their first children.
“We had both had successful careers in corporate management, but we felt we still had something to prove and wanted to create something of our own that would give us the work-life balance we had always wanted,” is how Jo remembers it.
Tracy was a Shell Chemicals supply manager and Jo was an IT project manager at Barclays - pretty impressive business experience - but the path of entrepreneurialism was still something untried and unknown for them.
For Jo, the pull of working for herself wasn’t an entirely new experience: “At school, I dreamed of being my own boss and starting my own company. Although at university I had a maths background, I was always keen on sport and the outdoors.
“But until I met Tracy, I didn’t have the confidence to go it alone. She was the ideal partner for a business venture and, like me, she felt that a corporate career was not what we wanted any more.”
What they did want fortuitously dawned on them during weekly swimming sessions with their baby daughters. Jo says they had found a book on baby swimming and tried out some of the techniques in a pool with their babies.
“We realised there were virtually no specialised swimming classes for small children,” Jo explains. “Many people still thought it was unwise to teach a child to swim under three and there was still a quite widespread belief that tiny babies might stop breathing underwater. The experience with our own babies had shown us this was not true - there was great joy and value in teaching tiny children to swim.”
It also dawned on Tracy and Jo that there was a gap in the market - and Puddle Ducks was born. “At first, our classes were just called ‘Baby Swimming’,” Jo says. “I was on holiday when I saw a canal boat called Puddle Duck and it seemed the perfect name.”
Now the partners dived head first into setting up the business. They found a swimming pool for classes and attended swimming and leadership courses to prepare them for the venture.
“It was full-time from the beginning,” Jo recalls. “It was never just little part-time jobs – we always intended to be something bigger.”
From the beginning. it was clear they were on to a winner. “We did a bit of local advertising, but we really didn’t need to advertise, as classes filled up as quickly as we could organise them,” Jo says.
Looking back, the partners realised almost from the beginning that the business could progress two ways: as a purely local enterprise with its own swimming venues or as a nationwide franchise.
“While we weren’t thinking about franchising at the very beginning, we always had the vision that the business would grow into something that would replace our corporate salaries,” Jo says. “Eventually it became evident that franchising was the way forward.”
Tracy and Jo spent two years meticulously planning their franchise launch, which finally took place in 2007. Determined to get everything right, they worked with consultants to formulate the franchise model and put legal and commercial strategies in place.
They remember: “We learned early on that we had to have all our ducks in a row before we even thought about franchising what had become a very successful local business. Once we felt happy with the systems and processes and realised that local relationships with pools, teachers and customers were vital, we decided it was time to franchise.”
“The younger they come to us the better, because tiny babies have an instinctive affinity with the water”
By 2006 they were ready. They had grown Cheshire Puddle Ducks to a good size and knew that to achieve further growth they had to entrust others to carry the brand forward. This involved recruiting a head office team of experts in their field, which enabled the partners to work on the business rather than in it, freeing their time to concentrate on growth.
From the beginning, Jo and Tracy believed in doing things professionally to the very highest standard. They articulated their values with the acronym EXPERTS - Exceeding Expectations, Professional, Enterprising, Respectful, Trust and Supportive.
As Jo says: “The main challenge of working with independent franchisees is to ensure that you are working to the same goals. Finding out the reasons behind a potential franchisee’s decision to join Puddle Ducks was key. We had to be sure their end goal was consistent with that of our brand mission and vision.”
To make sure they had got it right, a class teacher was recruited to run a pilot franchise and bench test the ideas and processes.
“It wasn’t easy to construct a completely new business, but luckily we had understanding husbands, and before the children were old enough for school we took turns to look after each other’s kids while the other worked on the business,” Jo says.
“It was a struggle in the beginning and a lot of work was done in the evenings, when the children had gone to bed. We obviously couldn’t go on like that forever and it was agreed that when the business began to make a profit it would be ploughed back, so that we could employ more staff and improve our work-life balance.”
From the start, Jo and Tracy took infinite care to select the very best franchisees. “We have learned that it’s far better to say no than to recruit someone you aren’t sure about,” Jo says. “Puddle Ducks may sound like a fluffy, fun place to work, but at the end of the day we and our franchisees are business people.
“Puddle Ducks has a very clear mission, vision and set of values that is at the heart of everything we do. Everyone who joins the brand must have a passion for swimming, an ambition for growth and an ambition to become an expert in every aspect of the business.
“We followed all the guidelines from The Swimming Teachers’ Association, which stipulates that progress must be led by the child rather than the teacher. From the start, we firmly believed that the aim was not only to help young children to swim, but to be confident and safe in the water and, of course, have fun.
“Where franchisees are concerned, drive and determination are really important. Franchisees must be self starters, follow the model, get their heads down and push on with the business, no matter how challenging it might seem. If they don’t have any tenacity and ambition, they won’t get anywhere.”
But stick to the Puddle Ducks script and the rewards are impressive. A successful franchisee can make a profit of at least £100,000 a year, often a lot more, and the network regularly rakes in franchise of the year awards and has won the WorkBuzz five star franchisee satisfaction award six years running.
A Puddle Ducks franchise costs around £24,000 and franchisees’ backgrounds range from solicitors and accountants to midwives and, not surprisingly, swimming teachers. What do they get for their investment? “They get all the training and equipment to run their first classes,” Jo explains. This includes 300 hours of classroom training, pool work and working alongside experienced teachers.
New franchisees also get marketing material, clothing, equipment, financial tools and software, plus access to a head office team that provides business health checks and guidance. “I don’t think there’s anyone more experienced in the UK swimming industry than our team,” Jo believes.
Even so, it takes about nine months for a franchisee to be fully trained, with a mixture of distance learning, on the job training and consulting a vault of online manuals, which cover every aspect of running the business.
But Jo cautions: “Some skills you can’t teach, like staff management and inspiring your team. These are instinctive and you must be certain they are already in place with a prospective franchisee. Puddle Ducks is basically a management franchise and at least half our franchisees no longer go into the water, but they know how to run and grow a successful business - and that’s the important thing.”
Nothing at Puddle Ducks is left to chance. To make sure every process works, Jo and Tracy painstakingly wrote out every single activity in their lesson plans, supplementing them with videos, so that teachers can log on and follow the procedures down to the last detail.
All documentation is to the highest possible standard, achieved by bringing in experts to create an IT system that analyses the weekly intake of youngsters and detecting business patterns, which are shared with franchisees.
But initial training is only the start of joining the Puddle Ducks family. The partners have always believed that communication in the network is the key to success, encouraging it with newsletters and Facebook forums.
Communication is two-way: when some franchisees suggested having their own swimming pools, Jo and Tracy happily gave the go ahead, provided expert advice and recommended specialist suppliers and contractors.
There are also events throughout the year, including an annual conference, a franchise summer school, regional marketing meetings, business health checks and technical visits. “The support franchisees give each other is phenomenal,” the company says. “Emotional and practical support is given in bundles.”
Community spirit also abounds among Puddle Ducks: the network has raised over £130,000 for franchisees’ local charities. “Of course it’s a business, but over the years it has become a lot more than that for all of us,” Jo says.
What’s next for Puddle Ducks? “Our vision is to have 50 franchises by 2020, teaching 50,000 children,” Jo says. “We want to make sure our services are available to as many people as possible.”
Puddle Ducks dived headfirst into franchising. Now it looks like making a splash for a long time to come.
1. Make sure your franchise operation is a separate business and build every process on the assumption that it will be scaled up.
2. Document everything and update it as changes occur. Make sure franchisees will understand every last detail.
3. Employ as much top grade specialist help as you can, particularly legal and business experts.
4. Recruit a support team to run the original business you are franchising. Give the team clear job descriptions and honest appraisals.
5. Take time to recruit the right franchisees and listen to their concerns.
6. Trademark your business from day one. This provides legal back up and the confidence to grow your brand.
7. Invest wisely in IT and consult your franchise network on major decisions. It must work for them in order to make their businesses more streamlined and profitable.
8. Make a three to five-year business plan and keep it up to date. This helps to stop you getting bogged down in tasks you should be delegating.
9. Get the best possible advice when compiling your franchise agreement. Cutting corners here can result in major problems later.
1. Consistency is vital in someone taking on a franchise. Customers expect the same high standard of service from every franchisee. To ensure this, Puddle Ducks provides 300 hours of training in all aspects of the business, including marketing, teaching methods and customer service.
2. Puddle Ducks picks ambitious, hard-working people who have the company’s standards and values, plus drive, ambition and determination. They should be trustworthy and professional, but showing respect to customers and colleagues is the most important thing the company looks for.
3. Franchisees must have an instinct for staff management and running and developing the business. Previous management experience is not essential, but the potential must be there.
4. Find out why a franchisee wants to join your network. Make sure their ambitions and end goals are consistent with yours.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport.
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