How to Franchise Your Business — The Right Way

franchising your business properly

By Michael Seid, Managing Director, MSA Worldwide

A franchise system is much more than a set of legal documents

Those of us experienced in franchising are amazed when companies considering development of a new franchise system (even large, well-established international companies) begin the process at the end – development of their legal agreements. Presented with a lengthy questionnaire by their legal counsel, they are asked to provide information necessary to prepare franchise agreements and franchise disclosure documents. The problem, though, is that those questions then become the main guide to how the franchise system is structured.

As a potential franchisor considering franchising your business, you may not fully understand all of the questions you need to ask, or have an independent frame of reference to know what all your available options truly are. Attorneys, knowledgeable in the law and prior agreements, can provide advice and direction. However, without the benefit of being able to evaluate business alternatives, conduct research, and fully explore the strategic considerations that most of your decisions require, your franchise system can easily end up operating as a legal vehicle for expansion rather than what it truly should be — a business structure for expansion.

When the franchising process begins with development of the legal documents, a new franchisor  may view their franchise system as a legal device governed primarily by the rule of law. Experienced franchisors, however, understand that while the law is an element of franchising, it truly is a minor portion of the way franchisors manage their business, make decisions on its direction, or how they interact with their franchisees.

Legal documents come later

Letting legal agreements take the lead in the franchise development process, is similar to an attorney asking you questions necessary to draft leases on a residential building before market studies are conducted, location is selected, engineers have completed their site review, the building is designed, the financing is in place, the permits are obtained, the builder has been selected, or even before costs for construction and management are known… Except that in franchising, especially if it is your first time developing a franchise system, the issues are more complex and the risks extend not only to your company and its stakeholders, but to your future franchisees.

  • Keep in mind: while you may have an operating business with a long history and experienced management, you are developing a new business – a franchise system. It should be the structure of that business that you focus on first, not the structure of the legal agreements.
  • Therefore, before you begin to develop your legal agreements, before you invest in the creation of a franchise system, before you print brochures, hire your franchise staff, and start selecting franchisees, the first thing you need to do is understand that franchising is a business.
  • All your legal documents should do is describe your business and the terms you are offering to your franchisees.

Basing your franchising business strategy on legal questionnaires is simply insufficient for the design, development, long-term growth, management, and financial well being of your franchise system.

So, where should you begin?

Before you begin the often costly process of developing a franchise program, conduct a franchise feasibility examination to determine if your business is ready to expand and whether franchising is an appropriate strategy for your company.

After the feasibility examination, you can develop your franchising strategy. Development of your legal agreements is one of the last elements of developing the franchising strategy.

A. Conduct a Franchise Feasibility Examination

A franchise feasibility examination measures a company against the recognized benchmarks typically used in franchising. It is designed to assist a company’s management in determining whether they are ready to expand, and whether franchising is the correct growth strategy. It also explores other methods of expansion that may be available and better suited for the company.

Is your business franchisable?

But, even before conducting a feasibility examination, here is a simple test to determine if a business is not franchisable or ready for expansion. If the existing business:

  • Is only a concept and has not commenced operations;
  • Has only a limited operating history;
  • Is not profitable at the unit level; and
  • Does not currently achieve a reasonable return on investment at the unit level

…then it’s not franchisable – at least not yet.

To be franchisable, the business has to be a business, and that business must at least be profitable and achieving a reasonable return on investment.

Think of the elements in a franchise system that you should be offering to future franchisees. One of the principal elements is your experience in operating the business to be franchised. If that experience doesn’t exist, or is so minimal as to be negligible, all that you are really offering potential franchisees is the opportunity of being a guinea pig. While legal counsel could develop franchise documents sufficient to offer franchises for a business that never existed, and you might even find individuals willing to buy your franchise, the risk of failure for both the franchisor and franchisee will be high. Unfortunately, with the abundance of franchise packaging firms (both consultants and attorneys) existing in franchising today, these high-risk “opportunities” do exist.

Review your business and financial benchmarks

When conducting a feasibility examination, we first review business and financial benchmarks. The benchmarks used depend on the industry segment, the company, and other determinants, but broadly fall into a few interrelated and interdependent buckets, including:

  • the underlying business
  • its products and services
  • how well the business can be systematized for new and existing franchisees
  • the skills required by franchisees to operate the business
  • the organization and support required to manage and grow the system
  • the potential for expansion
  • the underlying business economics

It’s not possible to discuss in depth here all of the elements that require review in a feasibility examination. But let’s examine some of the highlights.

How many locations should you have before you franchise?

You need an operating business before you begin to franchise. But, is it really enough to have only one location before you begin to expand? In a practical sense, two would be better, but probably more are required.

Several locations in different neighborhoods or areas will give you an indication of whether your business is a single-unit local market phenomenon, or something that has wider consumer appeal. Possibly more important, though, is how long you have operated the business. Understanding how it operates in different seasons, whether it can be successful against the competition, who its customers are and what they really think of the concept may be more important than the number of locations you currently operate. Keep in mind that your franchisees will have to follow in your footsteps – will they be able to, based upon your experience and knowledge of your industry?

What you are trying to develop is a chain of businesses using the same name, usually the same look, and almost certainly the same methods of operation. To secure and maintain a “brand personality” that consumers recognize and can rely upon every time they hear your brand mentioned requires consistency. Having a business that you can model for successful duplication is essential in determining franchisability.

Your products and services

Let’s consider the products or services your franchisees will be offering to the public. Are they any good? Are sales based upon a well-established consumer demand, or only a passing fad? How are your products and services different – and hopefully better – than those offered by the competition?

Understanding who your competition is – and what actions they are likely to take in the marketplace –  allows you to determine whether your offering is sufficiently competitive. It also enables you to proactively respond to expected market changes. When examining your options for expansion, you also need to determine whether consumers will want or need your product or services tomorrow. Understanding their buying patterns and changes in the marketplace is essential in understanding the long-term popularity of your product or services.

Do you understand the competitive landscape?

Is it likely that other companies will be able to absorb your products and services into their consumer offering? If you don’t think that is possible, look at what happened to the frozen yogurt market when every ice cream stand and green grocer added frozen yogurt machines. Notice the impact on bagel franchises when Dunkin’ Donuts added bagels? Do you wonder about the future strength of the smoothie market as other chains add it to their menus? They will likely have to change from a single-product offering simply to survive, but will that cause them to lose their competitive distinction?

What will changes and improvements in technology do to your consumer offering? Will it make your product or service unnecessary, or necessary less often? Remember when cars needed a tune-up every 15,000 miles? Well, today it’s closer to 100,000 miles, and requires equipment and expertise not thought of 15 years ago. Notice the resulting reduction of specialized tune-up shops. Remember when automotive dealers did a poor job, had miserable service, and charged more for an oil change than you paid for the car? More customers today are going back to their dealer for routine maintenance. Improved technology and changes in customer service have certainly had an impact on the franchised automotive aftermarket, and many franchise systems have therefore evolved from their original concepts.

Understanding your true competitive position is critical – not only against other franchise systems, but also against everyone who offers your product or service. Understanding how market conditions will affect your offering is essential in looking at the feasibility of expanding by franchising your business.

Systematization of your business

The interesting thing about branded locations is that before consumers ever walk through the door, based upon their experience at other locations or based upon recommendations of others who have shopped at other locations, they have expectations about how you operate and what their experience will be like. Making their expectations into a shopping reality requires that your business operate consistently from location to location.

During the feasibility examination, ensuring that consistency is possible requires a few assessments to be made, including:

  • Whether the business, at the unit level, can be defined and broken down into clearly defined steps that can be included in operating procedures and manuals; and
  • Whether franchisees and their staff can be taught, within a reasonable period of time and at a reasonable cost, to execute those steps.

These determinations also necessitate analysis of whether the prospective franchisee, or their future staff, require any specialized skills or licenses before they become franchisees.

Are there available franchisees?

The skills or licenses your franchisees or staff requires may reduce the pool of available candidates, and have an impact on the ability of the franchisor to find people able to meet their expansion goals.

Earlier we stated, “Before there is a single franchisee, there has to be a franchisor.” Well, before there is a franchise system, there has to be someone willing and able to become a franchisee. Are they out there?

It’s not sufficient to guess whether a pool of potential franchisees exists. Simply knowing who your potential franchisee might be is not enough. You also need to know whether the pool of candidates available to purchase your franchise will be sufficient to meet your expansion goals.

Even if you determine the pool of potential franchisees is adequate, are you certain they would be interested in your franchise? If they are, will they be able and willing to make the required investment? Answering questions about the marketability of your franchise offering, and the extent that it can be marketed, is essential in determining whether your business is franchisable.

What will your franchisees need?

Determining whether there is likely to be a sufficient pool of franchisees to meet your expansion requirements, at a very basic level, requires you to determine:

  • What basic skills will your franchisees will need?
  • Will they be able to hire employees with the needed skills?
  • If they can’t hire skilled staff, will your training program enable your franchisees to give their staff the necessary skills?

You can’t wait until you begin to offer franchises to have answers to questions about your system’s marketability. You may find out that you have all of the documents required to invite people to come to your party, but nobody shows up to help you blow out the candles. One of the reasons so many new franchisors experience little – if any – growth in their franchise systems is that the pool of candidates was never adequate for their purpose. A feasibility examination could have determined that before they began development of the system.

The franchise support system and fees

It’s not enough to call yourself a franchisor simply by selling franchises. Expansion of your franchise system is only one goal. The management of a growing and profitable franchise system is your long-term objective.

Good franchisors today provide support and other services to their franchisees sufficient to give them a sustainable competitive advantage over the competition. Will you be able to provide the necessary support? During the feasibility examination you will need to determine:

  • The types of headquarters and field support services that will be required
  • How and when you will provide those services
  • The cost of developing and providing those services

Establishing franchise fees and other sources of revenue will be a significant focus when you begin to design and develop your franchise system. But, during the feasibility examination, it’s essential to make certain that sufficient income will be available to expand your business through franchising.

Remember that ultimately, your fees and other sources of revenue need to meet two tests:

  • First, they need to provide the franchisor with sufficient income to provide the services required, while providing for a reasonable return on investment for developing and operating the franchise system.
  • Second, when paid or incurred by the franchisee, the franchisee needs to have sufficient revenue to be profitable and have sufficient residual income to ensure a reasonable return on their investment.

Setting franchise system fees correctly

Setting appropriate franchise fees is one of the most difficult decisions a franchisor will have to make. If you set your fees too high, your franchise may not be marketable against the competition, and your franchisees may not be profitable. If you set fees too low, your franchise may be marketable — but you may not have enough revenue to provide the services needed to your franchisees. Neither alternative is satisfactory.

We often find in discussions with established franchisors that their franchise fees were set primarily by profiling those of their direct franchise competitors. But when you think about it, even if franchisees offer the identical product or services as their competitors, their investment, sales, or costs of operation will not be identical to those of their direct competitors. Even if the franchise system looks the same as others, the cost structure, growth strategy, exit strategy, and a host of other variables will not be the same. Establishing fees based primarily on those of the competition is not only foolish, it’s potentially dangerous, since the fees need to be based upon the reality of the business being franchised.

Unfortunately, many new franchisors who do not strategically develop their franchise systems, and who do not sufficiently understand their system’s economic realities, simply review the listings contained in publications like Entrepreneur 500, determine what the competition is charging their franchisees, and set their fees lower. If all you have to offer a franchisee is lower fees, do you really have anything worthwhile to offer? If the fees you select are too low or too high, the impact on the future franchise system can be dramatic.

Franchise Agreements are long-term contracts

Franchising is an inelastic method of distribution; that is, one governed by long-term contracts where changes in the fee structure during the term will be difficult if not impossible. Franchisors have to live with the fees they set initially, at least for those franchisees that enter under that contract. In addition, while setting ongoing fees simply as a percentage of gross sales may be routine for most franchisors, it may be the wrong structure for your system. Changing how you charge royalty fees will be equally disruptive.

The franchise feasibility analysis should provide some assurances that once developed, your franchise system will be able to meet the financial expectations of both the franchisor and future franchisees. During the subsequent strategic planning process, when all of the variables are examined in detail and the costs are better known, the final rate and structure of the franchise fees can then be determined.

Your goals and ability to expand

By definition, the reason companies enter into a franchised method of distribution is to expand their businesses. What are your goals for expansion? Are they realistic and achievable?

Few franchisors successfully develop into a national chain overnight. Many, because they do not have a market development strategy, allow phone inquiries to determine their expansion strategy – and find themselves with one location here, the next one a thousand miles away. Spending all their royalty revenue in travel to a distant franchisee – or worse, not visiting that franchisee because they can’t afford to – is a reality for some new franchisors.

It’s extremely important, for new franchisors, to make certain that you have available markets where you can economically support growth and achieve the required critical mass to sustain franchisee profitability. At a bare minimum, your should conduct market studies to determine that you have available expansion options and where and when you should expand. You’ll also need to decide how you will expand into the markets; entering core markets and tertiary markets will likely require different strategies. Will franchisees be available that meet the requirements of each type of market?

None of the elements of a franchise system really stands on its own. Each element rests to some degree on your ability to achieve the others. However, realistically assessing your potential through a franchise feasibility analysis will enable you to determine not only whether you should expand, but will also assist you in determining what may still need to be accomplished before you are ready.

Conducting a franchise feasibility analysis is your first step in developing a franchise offering. Developing your legal agreements is still far down the path.

B. Design the franchise system strategy

View the franchise feasibility analysis as a 30,000-foot high look at your future franchise system. After that, the process of designing and developing a franchise program will bring you down to ground zero.

Design and development of a franchise system requires that you evaluate each element of the future franchise system, determine how it integrates with other elements, make changes based upon the information collected, and begin developing the tactical elements you will require.

The process will differ for each company and each industry, but the elements will contain similarities. If your feasibility analysis was properly conducted, you’ll be able to build and expand on its elements as you develop your franchise system strategy.

Some of the broad strategic and tactical elements will include:

  • Existing management’s capabilities and other staff that you will require in managing and growing the franchise system.
  • Competition both at the franchise and consumer level.
  • Potential conflicts between the franchisor and franchisee, and methods to reduce or eliminate these problem areas.
  • Economic impact of franchising on the franchisor and franchisees including investment, cash flows, and return on investment.
  • Financing requirements and exit strategies for the franchisor and franchisees.
  • Market strategy including market approach, targeted markets, critical mass requirements, franchisee profile, structure of the franchise relationships used, selection criteria as well as marketing, closure, and sales compliance strategies.
  • System information and management, including accounting, IT and point of sale systems among others, and the use the system makes of the information available.
  • Policy formation, including real estate, advertising, territorial rights, supply chain management, terms of the franchise offering, equipment, signage, etc.
  • Training programs and manuals, including what is covered in the training programs and manuals, participants who will attend training, other training required or offered, costs for training, locations, procedures, training staff, etc.
  • Monitoring mechanisms, including site selection and development, operating standards, financial management, sales and marketing, trademark usage, in-system operating and qualitative evaluation, competitive analysis, etc.
  • Support programs, including headquarters support, field support, ongoing visits, contact reports, research and development, motivation programs, franchise relations programs, system communication, etc.
  • Ongoing services and programs, including cooperatives, advisory counsels, etc.

The above is a preliminary list, but only after these and a host of other elements are evaluated for inclusion into the system, their cost for development and implementation is determined, and their impact on the revenue and expenses for the system at all levels are determined, can you properly determine the fee and other structural elements of the franchise system. Only then can you truly provide proper information to your legal counsel for the development of the required franchise legal documents.

Set yourself up for success

The reason usually given for why franchisees are better prepared to operate their new businesses than independent business owners is that the franchisor is prepared to provide them with the necessary tools and structure. When new franchisors shortcut the process, skip the necessary evaluations and the development of the underlying components, and move directly into development of legal documents, it’s unlikely the benefits of franchising can truly be realized for either them or the franchisees. Planning and evaluating the underlying system is the first step in providing your franchisees with the tools they require to succeed.

Do you have questions about developing a franchise system?

MSA Worldwide provides expert guidance on building a successful and sustainable franchise business. Contact us today for a complimentary consultation.

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