Franchising for Beginners

Do your homework before leaping into a franchise business model.

by Sherron Lumley.

“I didn’t want to start from scratch,” says Ann Bell who bought a Subway sandwich-shop franchise in 2010 with her husband Steve. “I was a stay-at-home mom and our kids are older now and off to college, so I decided it was time to go back to work,” she says. Although her husband had small business experience, Bell was more of an entrepreneurial beginner, so buying a franchise appealed to her as a safe way to invest in a business and re-enter the work force. “I work better under structure,” she says.

Pull-Quote.pngIn the franchise form of business, a franchisor licenses to a franchisee the right to operate under a trade name, sell its products and services, and receive guidance, in exchange for a fee. “My first step was to research the business model, to see if I could believe in it and embrace it,” says Bell. Typically, the franchisor provides business expertise in the form of marketing plans, management guidance, financing assistance, training, and sometimes site location. The Bells who are from Oregon, went to “Subway School” in Connecticut for training.

Here is a look at three early steps to franchise ownership.
Step One – Decision to buy a franchise: Yes/No

A franchise is a familiar form of business in America, accounting for 10.5 percent of all businesses with paid employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Clearly, the decision to buy a franchise has some strong advantages. In The Franchise Bible, How to Buy a Franchise, or Franchise your own Business, author Erwin J. Keup, says that group advertising power, recognizable trademarks, franchisor experience, patents and designs, training from experts, and a lower risk of failure or loss of investments are top reasons to become a franchisee. Other reasons are uniform operation, assistance in financial and accounting matters from the franchisor, and ongoing support.

Although ongoing support is typically considered one of the greatest advantages of franchising, it comes with a price. Nolo.com, a legal resource publisher, provides a look at some of the disadvantages to franchise ownership, which include royalty payments to the franchisor, advertising fees, and high start-up costs. Indeed, nine of the top ten U.S. franchises have start-up costs averaging more than $100,000 and the top three (Hampton Hotels, ampm convenience stores, and McDonald’s) are beyond the million-dollar mark to start.

For a sense of the ongoing fees franchisors expect, Subway requires franchisees like the Bells to pay 12.5 percent of their gross sales every week to the company; 8 percent of this goes toward franchise royalties and 4.5 percent goes towards advertising. This is in addition to the initial franchise fee of $15,000 and Subway franchise capital requirements fall between $115,000 and $258,000. However, not all franchises require such a hefty investment. Number seven on the list of the Franchise 500, Vanguard Cleaning Systems, has start-up costs of just $8,000 to $38,000.

For more information on choosing between launching your own business or buying into a franchise, check out our recent story: “My Way or the Buy Way.”

Step Two – Shopping for a franchise

Certainly, cost will be a factor and franchise options will be far different for a small business owner with a few thousand dollars of capital versus another with a million or more to invest. Here are a few of the many ways to shop for a franchise at all budget levels:

The Franchise Registry, through a partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) maintains a list of companies with franchises that are pre-approved for expedited loans.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends attending a franchise exposition to compare a variety of franchise opportunities and using a franchise broker who can help with applications and paperwork. But remember, the brokers often work for the franchisor. Information about upcoming national and international franchise expos and trade shows is available online at FranchiseDirect.com.

Franchise.com is another popular online resource. It offers an interactive search of franchises for sale by budget, industry, and location. The Internet is full of franchise websites to research, but “be on the lookout for certain characteristics that are very common among untrustworthy or illegitimate franchising sites,” warns Kevin Murphy, author of The Franchise Handbook. He specifically cautions against dealing with a company that does not provide full financial details at the outset and says that websites with overly aggressive marketing and a lot of hype should also be avoided.

As with any small business venture, consider the demand, competition, and ability to operate the business in making a franchise selection.

Step Three – Follow a franchise investigation strategy

“Never do business with people you have not met,” say the authors of Street Smart Franchising, Joe Mathews, Don DeBolt and Deb Percival. “Franchising at its best is a highly personal relationship. You are entrusting your dreams and capital into the care of the franchisor leadership,” they say. Visit the franchisor’s home office and further investigate the franchise by interviewing franchisees in person, and reviewing the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) with an attorney with expertise in franchise law.

In interviewing other franchise owners, ask questions about their experiences, both good and bad. “It’s important to interview people so you know the bad and ugly,” says Bell, who found this helped her know ahead of time what it would really be like to own a franchise. For example, she learned that unlike working for someone else, “It’s nice to work for yourself, but you do take your work home with you,” Bell says.

A look at financial prospects for franchising

Using Census Bureau data, the International Franchise Association released a detailed report on this segment of the U.S. economy called The Franchise Business Economic Outlook: 2011. It forecast growth in all industries except Business Services, reporting: “The largest percentage increases in the number of establishments in 2011 are projected in Lodging (4.4 percent), Automotive (3.9 percent), Retail Products and Services (3.9 percent), and Commercial and Residential Services (3.7 percent).”

“The forecast of stronger growth in 2011 for franchise businesses is good news for our country. When franchise businesses are stronger, so is our economy as a whole,” said IFA President and CEO Stephen J. Caldeira. “However, while the forecast reflects a stronger outlook for the franchise industry and the overall economy, franchise businesses will continue to struggle with accessing sufficient credit that would enable business expansion and job growth,” he said.

Caldeira says that lending to franchise businesses was down in 2010. “For 2011, the credit gap between supply and demand should show some improvement, but we are a long way off from the pre-recession, more robust appetite for business investment and lending.” According to the SBA, total small business lending peaked in 2008, when depository institutions in the United States held small business loans valued at more than $711 billion, then declined by 8.3 percent to $652 billion by 2010. In the first quarter of 2011, the SBA reported bank lending to small business [including franchises] fell by $15 billion.

Since 2007 when the Census Bureau first gathered franchise data, the number of franchise establishments is estimated to have grown steadily from 765,723 to 784,802, whereas overall entrepreneurship has had a slight decline. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data for self-employment in non-agricultural industries.) Perhaps one explanation for this is that risk-averse behavior kicks in during times of economic duress. The Bells wanted to own a small business, without all of the risks involved with going solo. By buying into something larger, gaining considerable expertise and centralized marketing, advertising, and promotion, Bell says she felt comfortable with the decision to buy a franchise. “I’m really happy with my outcome,” she says.

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Additional Franchise resources:

The Franchise Registry, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration maintains a list of companies with franchises that are pre-approved for expedited loans.
Read the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Guide to Buying a Franchise.
Find franchises for sale by budget, industry, and location online at Franchise.com
Investigate franchise and business opportunities with the Better Business Bureau
Learn about upcoming franchise expos and tradeshows at FranchiseDirect.com.

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