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The Art of the Successful Franchise

Lindsay Miller, 3, standing at left, talks with Abrakadoodle teacher Samantha Mattox as Caroline Zarne, 3, Vivian Kreeb, 3, and Eleanore Kreeb, 6, look on.
Lindsay Miller, 3, standing at left, talks with Abrakadoodle teacher Samantha Mattox as Caroline Zarne, 3, Vivian Kreeb, 3, and Eleanore Kreeb, 6, look on. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

Twenty-four years ago, Mary Rogers, a young wife and mother, co-founded a small business in Great Falls to teach children about computers when the new technology was unfamiliar. Its success encouraged her to expand, and in 1987 she took the business a major step forward by franchising it. By the time she sold her interest in 1997, Computertots had 150 franchises in 11 countries.

Now she's doing it again, this time with children's art lessons, as many test-oriented school systems are cutting back on non-basics. Her new business, Abrakadoodle, offers art classes for children ages 2 to 12. Three years after launching it as a franchise, Rogers and a new partner boast 70 Abrakadoodle locations around the United States.

One was on view recently at the Falls Church Community Center, where four 3-year-olds were busy telling their Abrakadoodle teacher about the cherry blossom paintings they had just made. Their mothers gushed that the children now had an appreciation for art and loved to show off their work.

Rogers, 57, who was a special-education teacher before starting Computertots, is by all accounts the quintessential successful franchiser. She is completely sold on the idea that this is the way for an entrepreneur with limited capital to expand beyond the start-up stage. "It's wonderful to have a business you can see replicated in multiple locations," she said. "You have people truly invested in building their own businesses."

That is the heart of the franchising advantage: The franchiser uses other people's money to grow his or her business. The franchisees put up the funds to start their individual businesses and pay an ongoing royalty fee, generating a continuous cash flow for the franchiser.

To franchise a business -- whether it sells burgers or brain food -- owners must make sure their business model can be easily replicated. Can the potential franchisees do exactly what the original store does? Can they sell the same, teach the same or create the same product, even if they might be thousands of miles away from one another?

And is the owner willing to relinquish some control? It means leaving the business's operation and reputation largely in the hands of others. "They have to be prepared to let a little bit go," said Matthew Shay, president of the International Franchise Association.

A different attitude is required of the franchisee. "I look at it as pioneers and settlers. Some people are pioneers and want to start their own large business. Then you have settlers, people who want to take advantage of someone else's experience and mistakes," said Lori Kiser-Block, president of FranChoice, a franchising consultant.

Hooked on Franchising

When Rogers and Karen Marshall, then Rogers's business partner, started Computertots, they were surprised at the reaction. Schools and parents were asking them for more, more, more. There was clearly a need, and just as clearly there was money to be made . But both partners had children at home and couldn't imagine doing the traveling involved in opening outlets in other cities.

That's when the thought of franchising occurred. With no experience in such a venture, Rogers said, she turned to the Yellow Pages and picked out a franchise attorney. She asked him for guidance on whether a franchise would work for her and Marshall -- and he liked the idea so much that not only did he tell them to go for it, he invested in the venture. (Her fingers did the walking well: He is still her lawyer.) With the advantage of a very replicable business and curriculum, Computertots grew rapidly. In 1997, Rogers, who said she wanted to spend more time at home with her middle-school child, sold her portion of the business to Marshall.

Hooked on franchising, Rogers worked part-time as executive director for the International Franchise Association's educational foundation, which conducts research and provides education for franchise owners and related professionals. She did some private consulting. And pretty soon, she got the urge to get back in the game.

This time, she knew from the start that she wanted to launch a franchise. She knew just what model to follow and felt there was a real need for the classes since schools were cutting arts in favor of more traditional, academic classes or for budget reasons.

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