Joel Kern founded the franchise when he was just 15 years old. And 13 years later, he’s not strayed an inch from the company’s core purpose: helping kids shine
Joel Kern’s interest in the arts and business has been apparent from an early age. His professional career started at the age of 12, when he would make pocket money as a DJ for corporate events, weddings and hen parties near his home in Ilford using kit his mum bought from Argos. A natural talker with a love for performing, his entrepreneurial spirit shone through even brighter when he helped stage a production of Greece for charity. While Kern invested the £4,000 he’d made from gigging, the production took £10,000 – allowing him to donate the £6,000 profit to the Parry Charitable Foundation, a children’s disability charity.
Filled with confidence after his glittering foray into theatre, Kern decided to launch Make Believe: a performing arts school for kids aged three to 18 that delivered lessons in theatre, singing and dancing. This was 2004: Kern was just 15 and still in school. His humble HQ at the time was his school’s library, where he would take calls from parents, manage the business’s accounts and plan lessons.
At first, the entrepreneur taught classes of just five kids by himself while swotting up on business and marketing on the side. It was almost as if he was preparing himself for playing the role of Joel the businessman rather than Joel the teenager. “When you’re 15 and trying to get adults to take you seriously, you can’t necessarily act like a 15-year-old,” he says. “I sought advice from people around me and looked at how TV stars or people I admired carried themselves. I also emulated my dad a lot; he’s always had great charisma.” In fact, Kern’s early lesson plans were modelled on his school drama teacher’s notes, which he would sneak a cheeky peek at while the teacher stepped out of the room. As for his website, that was created by borrowing ideas from other sites he liked.
And thanks to Kern’s innate passion and charisma, it wasn’t long before word of mouth started to build. “When kids are happy they tell other kids and when parents like something they’ll talk about it at the school gate,” he says. “Next thing I knew there were six more people coming to class the following week and it just spiralled from there.” With demand for classes growing in other parts of London, it wasn’t long before Kern found himself opening 14 schools around the city and employing professional teachers. He also expanded into other areas, such as starting a production company that staged shows in the West End, as well as setting up a talent agency that helped kids get hired for professional jobs in the industry.
However, there was only so much the entrepreneur could do himself. “What sets Make Believe apart is that we’re personal: I knew every kid and parent and they knew me,” he says. “But there came a point where I couldn’t be everywhere at all times and I realised that to grow I’d have to delegate some of the responsibility.” Franchising wasn’t necessarily the first solution that sprang to mind though. “I’d always been a bit skeptical about franchising: I was concerned that franchisees might damage the brand I’d worked so hard to build,” he admits. But Kern came to see he had to relinquish some control and figured that franchising was preferable to employing managers. And so in 2010 Kern persuaded one of his existing teachers to step up and become the company’s first franchisee in London’s Rotherhithe area.
In one of his first acts as a franchisor, Kern devised a franchisee training programme, though he admits now that it wasn’t quite up to scratch. “At first it was just me doing the induction and it probably wasn’t the best,” he says. “But what I’ve learned is that the foundation of any good franchisee is the training: it has to be so detailed.” Over the years, Kern has devised a structured onboarding programme for franchisees and teachers that covers everything from marketing to running classes, with the head-office team available to lend a hand to franchisees whenever they’re needed.
And as the franchise network grew rapidly in London through the power of referrals, Kern has always ensured the business never strayed too far from its core mission. A fan of marketing consultant Simon Sinek, who encourages leaders to find their “why” – their core mission – in business, Kern is clear about Make Believe’s purpose. “We’re about empowering kids and seeing them shine,” he says. “Early on, a kid came into our class for the first time and they could barely make eye contact. Fast forward six months and they were singing their heart out during a solo performance on stage. That’s what it’s all about.” He’s also adamant that however much demand grows, Make Believe will remain accessible for people from all backgrounds. “My mum was a single parent and there were times when money was tight, so it’s important to me to maintain a fair pricing policy,” he says. “I don’t want talented kids to miss out because they can’t afford the lessons: performing arts shouldn’t just be for the middle class.”
But while the franchisor has always been clear about his mission, Make Believe hasn’t always gotten it right in other areas, such as recruiting the right franchisees. “When I was younger I was perhaps too impetuous: because it was all so exciting, we ended up taking on franchisees who weren’t quite right,” he says. “Growing quickly is great from a numbers perspective but franchisees are the glue that holds everything together so you have to get that element spot on.” While this resulted in some franchisees not staying on, Kern is clearly not somebody who’s afraid to learn from his mistakes. And in the long run, those initial teething problems have helped him hone his franchisee screening process. “There are probably very few businesses out there that have a 100% success rate when it comes to franchisees,” he says.
The franchisor is constantly reviewing and improving his recruitment strategy, which at the moment involves informal group meetings on Fridays to allow people to get a feel for the opportunity. These are followed by a series of conversations with people from across the business, including marketing, finance, operations, HR and existing franchisees. “Whoever I bring on is going to affect the entire network so it’s important that franchisees play a leading role in the process,” says Kern. He’s also got a clear idea of who he’s looking for. “You don’t have to be a performer, you can hire professionals for that, but we’re not looking for administrators either. Our franchisees need to be passionate about helping young people: they have to be someone who parents and students will look forward to seeing and miss if they’re not there for a day.”
With a fine-tuned training programme and recruitment plan, not to mention a marketing strategy that communicates the “why” behind the franchise, Make Believe has exploded in London and now includes franchisee-managed schools in 34 territories in and around the capital. It’s also started venturing further away from Kern’s home turf in London: a franchisee opened a school in Brighton at the start of 2017 and another has just come on board in Manchester. The brand’s gone global too: when a friend moved to Australia in 2016, Kern spotted an opportunity to grow down under and ended up selling her the master franchise rights. “It was important to build a strong foundation close to London where my networks are but we’re now ready to branch out,” he says. “I’d love to be in most UK cities within the next ten years and we’re planning to have 18 schools in Australia within six.” And all this hasn’t gone unnoticed: the Federation of Small Business crowned Kern the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the South East back in 2014.
So given that he’s now heading up a successful franchise and being recognised for his achievements, does the franchisor feel like he no longer needs to merely play the role of Joel the businessman? “I’ve found my own way of doing things and I’ve grown into my identity as an entrepreneur,” he says. “I’ll never be an authoritarian sort of leader, that’s just not my style. It’s about being passionate about what I do and caring about people. And they naturally want to be a part of that.”