Posted: Tue 25th Feb 2020
Christine Kelly has built Little Kickers into an international business with 330 franchises in 34 different countries.
We spoke to her about growing when you bootstrap, the key barriers to entry and the need for business owners to not take things too personally.
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Little Kickers is a pioneering, fun-based and footy-themed franchise that seeks to provide children with a positive first exposure to sport.
Back in 2002, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as a hard-working career mum with the depressing dearth of activity-orientated initiatives for energetic and inquisitive children.
When my pilot class was oversubscribed by more than 400%, I knew I'd stumbled across a real unfulfilled need that could provide a springboard for a pre-school brand to establish itself.
Little Kickers isn't an opportunist fad, it's a constantly evolving business that has morphed into a dynamic global operator with 330 franchises in 34 different countries that enables 65,000-plus curious kids to attend classes each and every week.
At the time it was disconcerting to turn my back on a well-paid job. I had absolutely no spare money to set up which resulted in me and two ex-business partners investing £300 of our own money. History shows that our hunch was right. However, our self-funding mantra meant that in the early years we grew very slowly.
Little Kickers resonates with health-conscious parents who personally subscribe to active living regimes and who want like-minded activities for their children.
Early on, we faced all manner of barriers to entry issues that included:
Unearthing a sufficient number of great coaches to recruit ( coaching football to pre-schoolers was a new concept).
Discovering that a number of parents continue to struggle with the concept of signing their children up to football classes run by someone called Christine - I had to quickly tweak my point of sale and support literature to "Chris"!.
Dealing with a vindictive local rival who went to incredible lengths to dis-credit my fledgling venture.
There were long-term barriers too:
It's changing slowly, especially with the meteoric growth of women's football, but I still find it amazing just how many parents don't believe fun-based activities based loosely on football isn't right for their daughters. Fifteen years down the line and I'm proud to report that our young girl attendee numbers are rising steadily - at present, 20% of the children we work with are girls.
There is also too much historical baggage around the term "franchising", a career format that often found itself under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Historically some franchises were set up in such a way that they became tarred with unfortunate phrases like "never-ending money pits" and "impossible to extricate from contracts" that stifled true entrepreneurship.
We learnt early on that a collaborative friendship with our franchisees is absolutely central to our success. Franchisees come from so many different walks of life that their diverse skill sets and outlook are integral to our business vision to never stand still.
Our franchisees know the competitive landscape in their local area and have phenomenal creative energy that we're keen to foster. Some of our best initiatives have been nurtured by ambitious franchisees from birthday parties and the creation of older age groups to an inbuilt English language programme, which has gained real traction in markets like Mexico and India.
On a personal level, being given an honorary Doctor of Business Administration by my old university Aston for contribution to entrepreneurship was a very proud moment.
On a business level, I was voted one of the 10 most powerful women in UK franchising by the British Franchise Association. Not bad when you recognise that franchising businesses bring £17bn annually to the UK economy.
The emphasis is more "help" than "helped", as we've only just had our eyes opened to your amazing SME community. Our big vision is to turn ourselves from a great franchise to a great brand and we'll need lots of advice from the Enterprise Nation's wise owl community.
We also believe that Enterprise Nation can assist us in finding ways to showcase franchises in a more positive light.
Any brand worth its salt should consider having a socially responsible legacy because it's important that responsible business gives back to society.
Plans are already afoot to create a meaningful range of environmentally friendly uniforms and merchandise. We also hope to pilot a recycling scheme whereby when kids finish working with us we can send their kits to send on to disadvantaged African children.
We've incidentally just gifted a Little Kickers franchise to my old university Aston, whereby we pay the salaries for two franchise under-graduates to set up a local football operation. Any money earned over and above their salaries will be given back to the university to fuel future student scholarships.
Avoiding complacency! To date, we've built a good head of steam. Our franchisees are on board with everything we're trying to achieve and we're committed to innovation and investment.
That said, when you make the transition from dynamic disruptor to category leader you always have to be wary about the next challenger brand that might appear in your wing mirrors.
Never lose sight of what you're really good at. Over the years we've dabbled with other ventures like dance and rugby but it's dawned on us that football is our specialist subject.
Don't take things too personally. You can try your absolute hardest to do the right thing but sometimes even that isn't enough for everyone. There will always be detractors because it's impossible to please all the people all the time. Just do the best you can with integrity!
Trust your gut. It's incredible just how many of those niggling thoughts that ferment at the back of your head are right all along.
Nothing good happens overnight, so just stick at it!