Q: What are the most common mistakes made by franchisees that I should avoid as I get started?

It is proven statistically and backed up by plain common sense — business owners who operate under a known brand and with an established business model have a big advantage over owners who have to start from scratch and figure out their operations, marketing, and point-of-sale-systems on their own.

Still, you shouldn’t assume franchises are fail-safe. They’re a wonderful way for professionals to build thriving small businesses, but there are some icebergs out there that potential franchise owners need to avoid.

Failure to absorb the FDD. It’s baffling to think that a franchisee would invest thousands of dollars in a business venture without knowing what he or she was getting into — especially when the law requires franchisors to disclose detailed information about operations, costs, earning potential, and legal requirements.

But it happens. All the time. People get so excited about their business venture that they don’t read the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD), or they just read the Item 7 expenditures and Item 19 earnings information, and skip over the rest. Then they’re caught by surprise later, when it’s too late.

If you’re thinking about buying a franchise, you should review the FDD thoroughly and carefully, preferably with a good franchise attorney, who can help you pinpoint problem areas or language that needs clarification.

Underestimating what you need. It’s an easy trap to fall into — underestimating how much working capital you’ll need to make the business work. Small business loans are hard to come by these days. Unless you’re fully capitalized already, you’ll be cobbling the financing together from assorted sources, and it’s tempting to think that you can scrape by on a minimum investment.

It’s a very risky way to go. If you hit a rough patch, you’ll need cash reserves to tide you over until you recover, and if the business account is empty, you run the risk of going under.

Failing to do due diligence. Before you even sign the franchise agreement, you need to go through the validation process, talking to franchise owners about the ground-level benefits and challenges of running the business.

Do it, and do it thoroughly. Don’t assume that talking to three top-performing franchisees is enough. You have to talk to the average franchisees, long-time franchisees, new franchisees, those doing well, and those doing not so well. You should find out specifically why former franchisees left the system, whether it was a systematic problem or a matter or one of the errors detailed here.

Under-budgeting your time. Franchise ownership is not a hobby. It takes commitment, especially in that critical first year. After years of success, many franchise owners can afford to work the business part-time and hire managers to take care of the day-to-day duties.

But it usually takes several years of success to get to that point, and until then, you simply have to put in the hours to get your franchise up and moving. Too many people go into franchising thinking they can get by on six-hour days at first, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Going your own way. There’s a paradox at the heart of franchising. The industry tends to attract aggressive and smart self-starters, take-charge types who never saw a business proposition they couldn’t improve. These people can make horrible franchisees.

When you buy a franchise, you’re not buying a job, and you’re not bringing something to life from nothing. You buy an established name and system in a business you own, and the price for the advantage is the investment, franchise fee, and royalties. That’s the deal. (Put another way: You didn’t build that. Not alone, anyway.)

But time after time, we see some franchise owners’ do-it-alone instincts get the better of them. Three or six or 12 months in, they get restless. This marketing plan is stupid. I can do it better. This sign doesn’t work in my market. My customers want a different message and more menu choices. The franchising graveyard is filled with businesses that failed because the franchise owner didn’t follow the system, presumably the reason why he or she approached the franchisor in the first place. The system’s there for a reason. Use it.

John Blair

Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations

FRANNET