Just as there are many ways to kick a ball into a net, there is more than one trajectory to becoming a franchisee for Little Kickers, a pre-school soccer academy.
Larissa Gibson was working at a soccer supplies store and meeting franchisees as customers. Crystal Hartog was in marketing when she reached out to a franchisee to reconnect with her lifelong love of soccer. Ryan Baker moved to England after completing a degree in sports administration to take up a position as the franchise’s director of coaching, and ended up spearheading the franchise’s establishment in Canada.
Today, each is a Little Kickers franchisee.
Despite their different paths, these three also share things in common. They’re all aged 35 and under. They grew up playing sports. They love working with children. And maybe most significantly, they all aspire to pass along their love of sports to a new generation.
Baker, a new father with a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, articulates it best as he reflects on this motivation. “We just want to make sure that their first experience in any type of sport is a really good one, because if it starts poorly, then maybe they’re turned off from playing sports or being active. We feel like we’re offering something that gives a lot back to the kids,” he says, adding that his daughter is already a Little Kicker and loving it.
A common growth trajectory
Back in the trenches, these franchisees already boast positive growth in their businesses.
Gibson, whose major athletic focus growing up was on ice skating (she achieved gold levels in ice dance and became a figure skating coach at age 13), started her franchise in April 2014 at age 27. With her life-and-business partner Sean Cuthbertson, she runs Little Kickers North York, where she has grown attendance from fewer than 30 at start-up to more than 400 children this summer.
Baker started his first Little Kickers franchise in the Wimbledon/Putney area of London, England when he was 25. He returned to establish the master franchise in Canada in the Toronto area (he also brought back his wife Michelle, who started a Little Kickers in the Oshawa/Clarington area). In 2011, the couple moved to Chilliwack, British Columbia, to be closer to Michelle’s family, and to establish the franchise out west. Now 35, Baker owns two territories, the initial location in Fraser Valley, and a second in Surrey. The Fraser Valley location is consistently among the top 25 in the world, and today his two franchises offer 40 classes a week and employ 20 part-time coaches.
Hartog started full time as a coach with Little Kickers in 2013 at age 22, after connecting on Facebook with the owners of Little Kickers Toronto West and East York. She credits her newfound mentors Kevin and Courtney with helping her make the leap to her own franchise. “They’re great. I owe everything to them. I worked for them, I still work for them, and I learned the ins and outs of the business,” she adds. When Little Kickers East Hamilton became available, she jumped in and launched in February 2016. Hartog has grown the franchise to six venues, and works with 10 coaches to teach 250 children each week.
As a pre-school soccer program, Little Kickers classes are focused on teaching fundamentals in a non-competitive environment. Classes are offered at several levels, the first a parent-and-tot program for children from a year to two-and-a-half years old, all the way up to Mega Kickers for children aged from five to seven. Classes are generally capped at 16 children, and last for 45 minutes, held indoors from October to May, and outdoors from May to September. Franchisees rent venues in their areas, from baseball diamonds and local parks to school gyms and church basements.
Each week is planned around a theme, from jungle to space. “It’s not just like, ‘Okay, we’re going to kick the soccer ball. It’s, today, we’re going to play our games in the zoo and we’re going to do our tiny turtle kicks on the coach’s whistle.’ There’s always a storyline behind every week,” says Hartog, adding that besides learning the basics of soccer, the activities also teach skills like how to wait your turn and follow instructions.
Besides coaching classes (Saturday morning is the busiest time), franchisees handle class registration, find new venues, hire staff, and market their businesses. Initial training includes three days at head office learning health and safety procedures, registering for insurance, and training on the online business system. A coaching director helps franchisees put together lesson plans and does class visits. Follow-up includes monthly one-on-one meetings with head office, and master coaching classes. An online forum allows franchisees to share ideas worldwide.
Benefits and challenges
Besides the opportunity to work with children, franchisees say they also like the flexible hours of running their own business. Gibson adds there’s also a bonus in renting spaces, rather than dealing with the hassles of a brick-and-mortar building.
Baker likes the fact that he and his wife have turned the franchise into a family business. Today, his mother handles the business administration, and his brother-in-law and sister are coaches. He says he’s especially pleased that his sister Caitlin, who has a developmental disability, has become one of the strongest coaches on his team. “She’s very good at what she does. She started as an assistant coach and built up. Now I would say she’s one of my more confident lead coaches,” he says, adding that she also helps train new coaches.
In terms of challenges, Gibson says initial ones included brand awareness, educating customers, and being comfortable on the phone. “Know your information off by heart from the very beginning,” she advises new franchisees.
Another challenge is scheduling. “Especially during the week, there’s a small leeway where the parents can get home from work, take the kids to our program, and then go home in time to have dinner and go to bed,” Gibson says, adding that afternoon programs can also be tricky, since many children still nap.
To Hartog and Baker, the biggest challenge is staffing. Coaching positions are generally part time, but the goal is to find coaches who can commit long term. Finding the right type of person is also essential. As with franchisees, Baker says comfort around children is often more important to identify in a coach than soccer or even sports knowledge. “Some of those skills working with young children are kind of hard to teach to people who haven’t been around kids before,” he says.
Hartog agrees, listing the questions she asks herself when interviewing. “Are they outgoing? Can they have a conversation with a parent? Can they connect with a two-year-old?” She adds that besides sporty types, actors often do well as coaches, given their storytelling abilities.
Franchisees handle the staffing challenge by posting job ads continuously. Hartog adds that she focuses on retention providing coaches with positive feedback and gift cards. “They really like that, feeling like they’re part of a team and part of something bigger.”
These business owners say their youth is not particularly a challenge. Gibson says, if anything, there are positives, including the fact that youth gives her the energy to run around after the kids and an openness to new ideas. Hartog says that growing up as a millennial in a tough job market means she was ready to work hard.
Looking to the future, these franchisees share ambitions for growth and community connection. Baker wants to build his second franchise to the level of the first, adding more venues and classes. Gibson aims at more classes, more kids, and more theme days to keep it fresh for her long-time clients. She also wants to repeat community events like her kids’ participation in a local parade, and a tournament with other local franchisees. Hartog plans to open new venues, and offer more classes. She also wants to expand her work with families in the Children’s Aid Society, to whom she offers free programs.
And they all plan to keep instilling that love of sport. “I feel like I have an important job, and that’s very important to me, that we are making a difference in these children’s lives,” says Gibson.
By Suzanne Bowness