Fiona Simpson left her job as a solicitor to spend more time with her children. But playing with them also inspired her to launch the arts and crafts franchise ARTventurers
Becoming a mother changed everything for Fiona Simpson, founder and managing director of ARTventurers, the children’s arts-class franchise. Having established a career as a family lawyer, her priorities changed with the birth of her two kids. “Instead I wanted to do something more flexible that I could fit around my children,” she says. Drawing inspiration from playing with her son and daughter, Simpson realised that there was a gap in the market for fun art classes where parents could be creative with their kids. Not one to rest on her laurels, Simpson founded ARTventurers in 2009 to bridge that gap. “Did I think it would become as it big as it is today?” she says. “No. I actually believed I’d eventually return to the law once my kids became older.” However, as the company grew in popularity she realised that her days as a lawyer were over.
But her success didn’t happen by itself: Simpson invested a lot of time and effort in spreading the gospel about ARTventurers. “I’m a big a believer in getting out there and speaking to people face to face,” she says. “No one can communicate your passion for your company the way you can.” So instead of posting messages on Facebook and Twitter, Simpson went old school in her marketing efforts. Armed with leaflets, she championed her venture at baby shows, playgroups and spoke with other new parents. And given how quickly her customer base grew, Simpson’s efforts certainly paid off. The experience also taught her a lesson she’s more than willing to share with her franchisees today: move beyond marketing your brand on social media. “You can do a lot behind a keyboard but it doesn’t beat meeting your customers in person,” she says. “Obviously our classes are brilliant but parents also buy into the person running the classes. They need to know, trust and relate to them.”
By 2013 the business’s growing popularity left Simpson with a challenge: finding a way to scale things up to meet the demand. “People had begun to talk to me about franchising,” she says. “However, I wasn’t entirely sure if that was the right route for us.” To assure herself of the viability of her model, she decided initially to license the ARTventurers brand to three mothers. This provided the licensees with the freedom to try out new things and their feedback gave Simpson the essential insight she needed to perfect her franchise before it launched. “This made me confident that franchising could work and showed me how much support and guidance franchisees would need,” she says. Having launched the licensing model in early 2014, Simpson felt ready to take the full step into franchising by the summer of 2015.
While her experiment with licensing had prepared her exceptionally well for this next step, Simpson recognised that transforming ARTventurers into a franchise could still be a challenging endeavour and enlisted the help of a franchise consultant to help her refine the model. “He really helped me pull everything out of my head and turn it into a proper franchise package,” she says. With the guidance of the consultant, Simpson was able to not only perfect her operations manual but also to get all the legal documentation out of the way. “However, the biggest benefit was that he helped everything move along much quicker,” she says. “He pushed me to produce everything by certain deadlines.” And in August 2015, ARTventures became the UK’s newest playtime franchise.
However, no franchise is complete without its franchisees. Fortunately, there were a lot of people interested in joining the network. “On my first discovery day, I had three ladies come in and all three joined me,” she says. But while there was no shortage of interested candidates, the franchisor rapidly learned that not everyone was cut out for the job. After some initial recruitment mistakes she learned that being able to run ARTventurers classes doesn’t equate to having the proper skillset to become a successful franchisee. “I realised that I have to look for people who have that extra drive and ambition,” she says. “I really need franchisees who actually want to grow their business.”
To ensure each franchisee can make the most out of that drive, they’re all provided with rigorous training tailored to their specific needs. “For instance, because a lot of our franchisees are mums who travel for the training, our face-to-face training only lasts one day,” she says. On that day, the franchisor ensures that the budding franchisee understands the fundamental aspects of running a business and the events. The day is then followed up with an online training package including more in-depth details about running the business and how to market it. “That way they have the flexibility to do it from the comfort of their own homes,” she says.
Recognising her franchisees are usually in a similar position as she was when ARTventurers first launched, Simpson is also adamant that the people joining the network don’t overwork themselves. “It should fit in with the rest of your life,” she explains. “That’s why we don’t set a minimum or maximum amount of classes or parties that you have to run each month.” Given her emphasis on supporting new parents who join the network, it’s hardly surprising that Workingmums.co.uk, the organisation promoting flexible working for new mothers, awarded her both the Supportive Franchisor of the Year award and the Overall Top Franchise award at the Top Franchise Awards 2017. “I was over the moon,” Simpson says. “It really reflects the efforts of the team to make ARTventurers a fun company with a great reputation for high-quality activities for kids.”
This reputation has enabled her to grow the network to include 29 franchisees and Simpson isn’t stopping there. “Obviously we want to expand it further,” she says. “We’re getting a lot of enquires in areas where we don’t have a branch yet and I really want to get those covered.” In order to ensure that she can focus on growing the brand, she has formed a network of regional franchise leaders consisting of experienced franchisees who can help support new members of the ARTventurers family. “That takes away some of the pressure on me and also provides them with a chance to become more involved in the business,” she says.
Looking back on her years running ARTventurers, Simpson doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s been challenging at times. “Being self-employed is a rollercoaster,” she says. “You get great highs and horrible lows and it’s up to you to make sure you get back up high.” However, her passion and ambition has helped her overcome every hurdle and grow a nationwide brand. And it has enabled her to do something even more important. “I have been able to work around and spend time with my kids whilst doing something that I love,” she concludes. “I love ARTventurers. It puts a smile on my face that being a solicitor never did.”