Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hidden Flaws in Business Models Cause Business to Falter

Our last two newsletter segments have been dealing with the decision one of my client’s made about closing down their business. If you are a new subscriber (Welcome!) and you missed either of the installments, you can find them at I spoke last week about the importance of having a solid business model and executing it well. Today I want to talk about what the problems were in my client’s business model and why we were not able to overcome them.

My client’s were first time business owners. They are both professionals with years of experience in their own fields who both found themselves laid off by their respective companies. They knew each other through church and had been friends for some time. Working with agencies set in place to help them find new work, they were introduced to a program set up to help displaced workers start their own businesses. The program provided good advice, resources, and structure for new business owners.

The friends decided to explore opening a business as partners. They began exploring different businesses and were drawn to franchising because of the remarkably high percentage of success for franchise outfits. Their interest in franchises led them to investigate a local operation that was selling franchises. The franchiser was new to the franchising business and had sold only one franchise to an employee so the model was largely untested.

The franchiser led the partners to believe that all was rosy with the original business that spawned the franchising. This was not the case. The original business and the first franchise were actually operating at a deficit and were being propped up by continued investments of personal funds by the owners. The original owner was far more interested in selling franchises than in giving a realistic view of expected results. The business model had some flaws that made it difficult to do well in this business even though the service was a very valuable one to the target market.

Flaw #1—Slim margins.

As I mentioned before, every dollar in sales cost 65 cents in payroll and insurances. An additional 3-7% (depending on the price structure they chose in buying the franchise) went for royalties. Once you subtract out rent, utilities, office supplies, and so forth, there was little if any left over for advertising and marketing. And the owners were left without a paycheck most weeks.

Flaw #2—Built in cashflow issues.

Employees were paid every two weeks for work performed. Customers were billed every two weeks for services already rendered. So the cash leaves the bank account before it is received. Naturally the customers often took 30 days to pay so the cashflow for every transaction ran six weeks behind.

Flaw #3—Pricing inflexibility.

Franchisees could not lower or increase their pricing bases on the market they were serving. In the State of Maine, where this business is headquartered (and this is true of most areas of our country), there is a wide disparity of resources. The southern part of the state has higher income levels than the northern part of the state. The seacoast tends to have higher income levels than the western mountains. Depending on where your franchise is located you could find yourself priced out of the market.

Flaw #4—Name recognition.

When you think fast food, you think McDonald’s. When you think McDonald’s you picture the golden arches. You have an expectation of what you will get—the restaurant will look a certain way, the food will be universally awful. You know exactly what to expect. The same is true of every other successful franchise—Dunkin’ Donuts, Olive Garden, Hardee’s, H&R Block, etc. With the business my clients entered, there were no strongly defined franchises so the expectation had not yet been created. This means they had to explain what the business was all about. It wasn’t a case of being able to say, “I own an H&R Block franchise” and everyone knows what you are talking about. This makes it an uphill battle.

Flaw #5—No strong marketing program to build name recognition.

Part of the responsibility of the franchiser organization is to do the legwork to build name recognition. The franchiser did some local advertising through events and radio advertisements which were a good start. I have to say, though, that if I am going to consider buying a franchise I want to see some serious commitment to building name recognition before I sign on the dotted line. When you mention the name of the franchise, I want to be able to immediately know exactly what you are talking about. That kind of familiarity takes a very concerted, and sometimes expensive, effort on the part of the franchiser.

Flaw #6—Where are my Step by Step Business Building Techniques?

The glory of a franchise is that for any task or challenge I can simply flip open the operations manual and see step by step exactly what to do. With this franchise, the most important piece was missing…How do I build the business? What specific steps do I take to create buzz before the grand opening? What steps do I take to attract the attention of my target market? How do I get the business to a point where I can make a living?

In addressing these issues with the franchiser, it became increasingly apparent to my clients that their grand dream of making minimum wage for themselves was far off in the distant future hence their decision to sell.

Next week, I will continue discussing the all important topic of business models. A good business model well executed is a critical success factor for every small business.

On a personal note, a very Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate that holiday. I am looking forward with eager glee to a fine selection of pies baked by my mother and my aunt. May you enjoy the day.

Until next time,

Caroline Jordan
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