From pitching her own show on Netflix to rubbing shoulders with Sandra Bullock, Katie Verner’s franchise Little Music Stars is belting out success
Leaving your whole life behind to start over in another country is something few people dare to do. However, Katie Verner, co-founder of Little Music Stars, the pre-school music and movement franchise, was brave enough to do it. A few years ago, she moved to Los Angeles with her son hoping to find success. Before undertaking her new role as franchisor, Verner was singing her heart out on stages in front of big audiences pursuing a career in musical theatre but after her child was born she decided it was time for a new adventure. “I was living in a lovely village near London called Thames Ditton, which was nice but it just wasn’t enough for me and I wanted to go and explore and see what it was like living in another country,” Verner explains.
In the US, it all started when a musical education franchise caught Verner’s eyes, giving her the perfect opportunity to earn a living and raise her kid at the same time. “I’m a single parent and I wanted something that fitted around his school schedule so I knew that I could go pick him up,” remembers Verner. Combining her passion for musical theatre and her love for kids, Verner decided to go for it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly what she thought it was going to be. “I started teaching [with] the franchise and it just wasn’t working,” Verner recalls. She ended up deciding to part ways with the franchisor.
Determined to not let the experience hold her back, she decided to launch a pre-school music business of her own together with her old school friend Jeanne Friedman. “I wanted to start again and build my own franchise and I thought I could do a better job and make it more modern,” Verner explains. With both of them having singing and acting backgrounds they had everything in place to create the musical content. Together, they began to write music. And it didn’t hurt that Friedman’s husband was a record producer and that their Grammy-winning friend Rich Jacques helped pump out a few tunes. With the music in place and a drive to make this plan a reality, Verner started working on the business plan. “I sort of put what I have learned from [musical theatre] into what I thought a child would benefit from,” Verner adds.
To fund the business, Verner decided to sell her house in London. Having already sold an apartment she owned in the Big Smoke before moving to LA she was now ready to fully commit to her dream. “I knew that I wasn’t going to go back to that area in London so I sold my house and I made quite a big profit on it,” says Verner. “I decided to take a third of that chunk of money and put it into Little Music Stars.” Most of which was spent on getting the copyrights for the nursery rhymes they use in addition to their original songs.
And so Little Music Stars was born, offering a range of pre-school music and movement classes for kids aged between three months and three years. “We had people like Sandra Bullock come to one of our classes,” she remembers. “Penny Lancaster and Sarah Michelle Gellar [were also] there. [So] quite a few famous kids came along.” However, Verner’s visa was running out. So after three years of living the American dream it was time to move back to England. With her moving back, Friedman eventually decided to close the operations in the US.
Encouraged to make Little Music Stars a success back in Blighty, Verner started to teach classes in Kent where she moved after coming back from America. While it took some time for people to get familiar with the brand, Verner has managed to build a great reputation for Little Music Stars. “We’re hitting our fourth year and things are really busy all the time, there doesn’t ever seem to be a dip,” says Verner. “[It] takes quite a while for a business to launch and now I just feel like we’re really up and running.” With more demand than she could handle it was time to expand her business.
Looking at ways to scale the company without losing its character, she started to consider franchising. “I felt that it was right for franchising because it was doing really well, it’s a proven business and I have managed to start it up from scratch,” Verner explains. “I just thought if I can do it and if someone replicated exactly what I have done then I don’t see how it could fail.”
However, putting the franchise model together took longer than expected. In order to get everything together she locked herself up in her office and started typing away on her computer. “I just sat in front of the computer for many, many, many hours and slowly built up the curriculum,” recalls Verner. The entrepreneur made sure to list everything in her model, from all the instruments needed in the classes to how many students the franchisee should be inquiring. With the agreement and the model typed up Verner felt ready to embark on her new adventure.
Eager to put her model into action, she went looking for her first franchisee. But she quickly discovered that far from everyone had the right calibre. “I’ve had one lady who actually wanted to buy it and at the last minute I just thought this is not going to work,” Verner remembers. “She was quite a tricky lady. She talked to me like this is a big corporation and it isn’t. It’s a very small franchise, low-key. I wanted her to be more passionate about the material and the music and she was just talking from a business point of view. I understand that as well but it’s none of that artistic integrity coming through at all and I just felt she wasn’t the right fit so I said ‘Look, I don’t think this is going to work.’”
This lack of passion for the material and the music was understandably a no-go for Verner. To ensure aspiring franchisees do make the cut, she’s now devised a few tests to ensure they fit the bill. “Each franchisee has to sing for me for a start, I have to hear their singing voice,” Verner reveals. For the rest she relies mostly on her gut feeling. “You just get a feeling from somebody,” she adds.
This search bore fruit when Davina Owen responded to an ad on social media and it didn’t take long before the franchisor knew she would be the perfect first franchisee for the network. “She’s this very bubbly lady ,” Verner explains. “She’s got four children herself, a background in music and her husband is a composer. So she just fit the brief completely.” It didn’t take much convincing on Owen’s part and in May 2018, she bought into the franchise. “Within two or three weeks she put down the deposit so she was kind of like ‘Yes, I’m going to go for it,’” she adds.
To ensure franchisees represent her brand well, Verner provides hands-on training from the very start. “[I] initially ask for the deposit,” says Verner. “Then I send them some lesson plans and some songs and then I say why don’t you go off and do some classes on your own. You don’t have to charge [for maybe teaching] some friends’ kids [and] see how you find teaching the curriculum.” Practicing the classes in front of some family helps the franchisee get comfortable with singing the songs. “It’s nerve-wracking but how else are you going to do it?” she shrugs. Even after the franchisees go off on their own, Verner is still there to guide them through it with weekly phone calls or however often they may need her help.
Now Verner would like to add more franchisees to her network. “The idea is to slowly build it up over the next five years,” the franchisor explains. “I don’t really want to have like hundreds of franchisees but I would definitely like to sell maybe two next year and maybe three the following year.”
But expanding her network isn’t the only thing on her radar. “We’re actually now in the process of pitching our pre-school television show to the BBC,” she explains. Using all their music and getting some producers on board, Verner and Friedman are starting a new chapter. Having pitched to Netflix once but lost to Julie Andrews, the franchisor is now about to get back to the home-streaming service for a second round. “It’s not going to be called Little Music Stars because we’re not allowed to call it by the company name,” Verner reveals. “But it’s fairly similar so we’re quite excited about that.” We can only agree – exciting is definitely the right word to describe this franchisor’s future.