The CEO of the British Franchise Association sits down with Paul Thompson to get the low-down on this international brand that’s well beyond just treading water
Water Babies has come a long way since Paul Thompson founded the business to fill the much-needed gap for baby swimming lessons in 2002. Now in its 18th year, Water Babies has grown from its initial launch in Yorkshire to become a national and global brand.
It is now operating a U.K. network of 56 outlets and franchises in five international markets: Canada, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and China. Like most franchisors, the road to getting the international formula correct was rocky.
“The international journey of Water Babies started typically of a young, excited franchisee who immediately jumped at the chance when asked ‘can you go to this country?’” said Thompson.
Floundering down under
A reactive approach to international franchising has challenges, which Thompson found out when approached by one of his teachers to take Water Babies to Australia after operating for just five years. He remembers: “We set up a license out in Sydney which is an example of how not to do it properly, not only because we were far too young, but because it was on the other side of the world and we could not resource it.”
After a year in Australia, the franchise was unfortunately taken out of the market. “That journey gave us the bridge to do things properly and so we waited until we were bigger and stronger. Our international journey really started in 2008.”
A life preserver
To understand how to proactively take Water Babies to an international market, Thompson needed expert advice and so decided to seek the guidance of a consultancy group.
“It’s quite funny, actually. When I was asked where I wanted to go, I explained that we have just come out of Australia and that we wanted to try again, and also go to America,” said Thompson. “After much laughter, I was told that those are two of the most complicated markets to possibly go to and that we needed to have a more humble start. So off we went to Ireland!”
Increasingly, franchisors are dipping their toes into the international landscape by scaling up in markets that are closer to home. This provides the opportunity to manage the relationship closely, and remove issues such as incompatible time zones, language barriers, or clashing cultures.
“Being an international franchisor means you’ve got a raft of things to learn, including building infrastructure, making alterations, and creating a new franchise agreement. This makes Ireland the simplest route as it’s close geographically and in terms of culture, so you can get all of your processes in place in a market that is relatively benign in comparison to jumping to Australia.”
Making a splash
As luck would have it, Thompson received a call from a couple that wanted to take Water Babies to Dublin around this same time. However, that’s where his luck seemingly ended, with Water Babies launching in Ireland the same week as the financial crash of 2008.
“We got to that point where everything had been put in place with the Irish franchise agreement, and unfortunately we launched the week the world economy went bang! I was at the kitchen table in floods of tears, thinking ‘oh my God it’s going to be a car crash’,” said Thompson.
What would seem like a reason to throw in the towel turned out to be the most successful launch in Water Babies history. “We actually had the fastest growth we ever had, going from teaching 0 to 1,000 clients a week in one year – an achievement that took our first U.K. franchisee three years.”
Seeing the success of Ireland, even in the face of a financial downturn, Thompson gained the confidence to continue his ambition of international growth, breaking into Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and China.
Growing a brand on an international scale brings unique challenges. How can a franchise be sure its brand image and values will not be diluted as the operation grows?
“The world’s a very small place, and you can find franchisees in every country who are just as diverse as we are”
Thompson believes it’s all about having the right partners: “The assumption when you go to a different country is that the culture’s going to be different and prospective franchisees won’t understand what you are saying. You think they’re just going to be interested in the numbers. We decided that we didn’t want to compromise; we wanted to find people who have our vision. And we did! The world’s a very small place, and you can find franchisees in every country who are just as diverse as we are.”
While adapting to culture can be a challenge, it also can bring unexpected benefits. “As you start adapting the business structure to the culture, you find that it could work really well back home, and it starts to influence the business model,” said Thompson. “The biggest example for us is our move to China, as we couldn’t hire swimming pools in China, which is difficult as our business runs on the pretext of hiring pools. So, if we wanted to go to this market, we would have to build our own aquatic centers. We were thinking about doing it for a long time, but our expansion accelerated this idea. It fundamentally changed our view of our business going forward.”
As Water Babies stands now, Paul Thompson is happy to continue developing the network within the countries the brand has entered.
“If we can replicate where we are in the U.K., in the countries that we’re in at the moment, I’d be more than happy! We want to embed into our current markets rather than continuing to add more.”
What’s more, Water Babies is driving to set the standard for baby swimming lessons across its global network.
“In the U.K., we’ve got standards and diploma-level teaching qualifications, but not all countries have this. With us involved, however, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We want to drive standards to make a broader impact everywhere we go.”
Pip Wilkins is CEO of the British Franchise Association