With a lifetime in education, one woman’s infectious passion for learning led to a family business opening in the form of MagiKats, the tutoring franchise, which is conjuring up growth across the UK
We felt lucky that Sarah Marsh managed to fit us into her hectic schedule as she detailed a jam-packed agenda ahead including an upcoming information day for new franchisees, as well as business trips to Scotland and Brighton. “It wasn’t originally planned that way but it’s all been condensed into a very short period of time,” she says. “But that’s the way it works sometimes,” Marsh adds, painting a vivid picture of her role as operations director at MagiKats, the tutoring franchise dreamt up by her mother Jan Lomas.
Daughter and mother have worked together for years, initially in Lomas’ franchise as they teamed up before the former went off to university studying music. Her period of study gave Marsh time to consider options for the future though and it transpired that music would not be the theme to her life after all. “My practical head took over and I realised that wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted. I didn’t want to live out of my suitcase in London moving from one gig to another. I wanted a more stable lifestyle, so I couldn’t be a professional musician.”
With the experience from working with her mother, Marsh became a franchisee on her own after leaving university in the late nineties and, although she never had any desire to teach, she found herself in the education sector in tutoring and later in educational games. “My whole life is running an education franchise, which wasn’t exactly part of the master plan when I was a teenager,” she laughs. Adding why she didn’t end up involved in a music franchise, Marsh confesses: “I’m firmly of the belief I would be an absolutely rubbish music teacher. I enjoy doing it so much, I don’t think I could teach it well at all.”
While Marsh was doing her own thing as a franchisee, education veteran Lomas, who’s worn many hats including teacher and examiner, started operating a maths study programme called Mathamagic and it began turning heads. “Jan was running that on her own and my father Rick got involved to help her get organised,” Marsh recalls. “She was writing lots of worksheets and materials, so he got helping her organise things by creating the tech, which is now the backbone of our MagiKats programme.” By the time 2005 rolled around, her parents’ efforts were paying off and Mathamagic incorporated English and was rebranded as MagiKats Maths and English. “It became obvious Magikats was starting to take off and my mum and dad needed additional help to do some of the aspects of the business, so I took the decision to join them at that point. And then my sister joined soon after.” With the family on board, the company was able to start scaling and it wasn’t long before the franchising opportunity arrived.
Many businesses may take the time to actively decide to franchise but that wasn’t the case for MagiKats. “We really fell into franchising,” says Marsh. “We were approached by people from various parts of the UK and also overseas – one of the first franchisees is in South Australia.” With requests to buy the tutoring materials in their respective areas, franchising was the obvious answer given their background but Marsh quickly found it wasn’t as simple as first thought. “I’ve been on a steep learning curve,” she says. “I don’t think any amount of studying can prepare you for becoming a franchisor because between franchisor and franchisee there’s no other business relationship like it.”
With franchisees to take care of right out of the blocks, refining the materials over the first few years was a priority for the team. That, combined with everything from training, return on investment, territories and so on to be considered meant formal business processes were put on the back-burner – though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. “Very quickly it meant we had a big number of students across the country and overseas who could test our materials for us,” says Marsh.
Given that structures weren’t formalised from day one, choosing franchisees was done on instinct. “We worked very much on gut feel initially,” says Marsh. That meant meeting prospects for a chat and determining if they shared the MagiKats aims and attitudes for children’s education. This freestyle approach to franchisee search didn’t work as well as it did for the materials though. Because while some franchisees were sharp on education they’ve lacked the business acumen to drive their franchise forward. “We still have one of our original signees from that first year but equally, to be honest, we’ve had failures over the years,” admits Marsh. “Over the last three to four years we’ve really been in a position to understand what we’re looking for.”
Now when it comes to finding franchisees, MagiKats seeks people open to upskilling. Unsurprisingly, many teachers want a piece of the pi. “A lot of teachers are open to continually educate themselves and believe in the power of education,” Marsh details. “Business skills can be taught to a certain extent. What you can’t assess when you’re looking at a potential franchisee is whether they’ll have the drive and energy to put everything into practice effectively. Will they go out and run a stall at school fete and will everybody think they’re wonderful because they’re filled with energy and enthusiasm?” However, Marsh was keen to highlight that franchisees needn’t be seasoned educators to work with MagiKats because it’s the mentors that are employed who are responsible for teaching.
Although skill assumptions were made in the early days, no stone is left unturned now to ensure franchisees are as clued-up as possible. “With some some people it will be ‘I already know this aspect and don’t know that aspect’ but other people can be very different,” says Marsh, attributing that to the wide variation of franchisees they attract. “We’re now assuming we have to explain everything and in some cases that’s a useful recap and in other cases that’s new knowledge for them.” And in terms of the most crucial element of the franchise running smoothly, that would be consistency, according to Marsh. That means kids and parents should have the same basic experience no matter where the MagiKats centre is and, similarly, franchisees need consistent support too. “But at the same time, the needs of each franchisee are vastly different,” adds Marsh emphasising the need to recognise those in the network as individuals and not numbers.
After a peak year for growth in 2017 with seven new franchisees brought into the network, Marsh revealed that scale this year has slowed, which she attributes to Brexit. With the team at HQ bolstered and more efficient processes, she’s confident things will change though. “Speaking to colleagues across the industry I think it’s been a quiet year so far for many people in franchising in general,” she says. "As a small franchise network and a family business, people are almost becoming part of the family when they join the network, which is something we wish to maintain as we grow. We would like MagiKats to be seen as one of the top, if not the top, provider of after-school maths and English tutoring for kids from pre-school up to GCSE. The optimist in me says as soon as the dust has settled on Brexit, we’ll be rushed off our feet.”