Sophie Allnut and Emily Whyte launched Mini Professors aiming to embed science in every child’s life. And they took the franchise to another level after partnering with Wow World Group
With scientific and technological advancements becoming increasingly ubiquitous, it’s imperative for children to have a strong foundation in the subject early on. And when two friends, Emily Whyte and Sophie Allnut, had their respective children and took them to baby classes, they saw a gap in the educational industry. “That’s when we started thinking maybe we could do something science-based because no one had ever done it for children as young as two,” Whyte remembers. And hence the two science professionals launched Mini Professors, the science lessons franchise for preschoolers, in January 2013. “It was kind of ideal for children because they’re naturally curious and like experimenting,” she adds.
The duo’s entrepreneurial journey began after they were made redundant by pharmaceutical company Lilly, as it shifted its Basingstoke-based manufacturing unit abroad. This forced the pair to explore new ideas – ones which would allow them to work sans the long hours. “So it was kind of having children and the lack of opportunities and not wanting to go back to quite an intense corporate atmosphere,” Allnut states, shedding light on their thought process.
The underlying reason for Allnut and Whyte to start the company was because they realised how important it is for children to develop an appreciation of science. Moreover, they wanted to encourage girls to study STEM subjects. “When we first started, we had a little girl who said ‘Am I allowed to be a scientist because I’m a girl?’ and it made [us] realise that media portrays scientists as male a lot of the time,” Allnut argues. “So in our classes we tend to have girls and boys in equal measure in the videos and everything we show.” Along with having equal representation in their study material, the children see the female founders as role models as they’re the ones teaching. “It puts it in their mind that it’s normal to be a scientist if you’re a woman and it really helped with trying to bridge the gender divide,” Allnut adds.
Interestingly, having a venture which encourages children impacted their own families too. “I’ve got three girls myself and it’s been really inspirational for them to see their mum [create] something like this,” Whyte says, adding that her personal experience was another reason she’s persistent on changing the imbalance prevalent in the science sector. “We faced sexism in the industry ourselves and it was very male-dominated. We’re very determined to try and balance it out.”
During the infancy stages, sourcing money was tough. And Allnut and Whyte chose to keep their investment down to reduce potential risks, so they used household items which didn’t require much money. Additionally, they received a council grant of £1,500 which equipped them with the necessary essentials like laptops. They also saved on expensive rent as they secured a space in the local library for a minimal price thanks to its manager. “He was more interested in getting children into the library than making money out of us and we’re very lucky to get someone like that behind us,” Allnut remembers. “It’s getting these lucky breaks and people who appreciate what you’re trying to do.” And after the classes started attracting more children, it meant they had more money to reinvest into the company.
However, funding wasn’t the only stumbling block. Persuading parents to sign up for the classes was an uphill trek. “We also had to convince the customer that children as young as two can get involved with science,” Whyte says. “Most people assume they’re too young but then they come to the lessons and see how interesting it is. We’ve had feedback that kids go back home [from our classes] and repeat things they [have] learnt to their parents which means they’re taking it in.”
Despite these obstacles, the two were ambitious to see children across the UK and the world attend these classes. Consequently, they realised franchising would be ideal. They started by thinking about investing into a franchise mentor but quickly saw the drawbacks. “We saw how it would take longer and we didn’t want anyone to copy our idea,” Allnut says. “We felt once it was out there, people might – with more money – try to do this sort of thing.” As a result, they decided to approach preschool franchise Baby Sensory for advice and impressed the franchise manager with their idea. And after a meeting with Ian Sharland, co-founder of the Wow World Group, the multi-brand franchisor which owns Baby Sensory, they signed a partnership with the company in 2014 where Sharland and his co-founder Lin Day joined the Mini Professors board as directors.
While having an umbrella brand which took care of the franchise contracts and the franchise model sounds ideal, Allnut and Whyte faced a fair share of challenges when the partnership began. “Some of them [were] very friendly, some of them more reluctant,” Allnut admits. “They were very divided as to where they wanted to go with the company.” And since Mini Professors was the first business the franchisor was buying into, they were inevitably cautious – as were Allnut and Whyte. “We were very worried whether to set up on our own or whether to go with a company that’s already established,” Allnut adds. “But then once we made a decision to go with them we realised, in hindsight, it was much better to go with someone who is already established.”
Indeed, the partnership proved to be a profitable decision as Allnut and Whyte were able to tap into numerous territories thanks to the Wow World Group’s global franchise network. “They started advertising it to their franchisors with bargains to begin with like ‘If you took up this programme, the training would be free,’” Whyte says. “They pitched it in a way that got people on board and in the beginning everyone wanted to do it. And we wanted to get it out there really quickly and that’s what we did. That was our main aim – to beat the market.”
Since then, Allnut and Whyte have learnt what it entails to be a franchisor and that “franchising isn’t easy.” “Even though [the franchisees run] quite autonomous businesses, they still need to know you’re there for them and they need that support – you [must] build your relationships with them,” opines Allnut.
Clearly, the franchisors are doing their part by providing an extensive training programme. And they ensure they tell franchisees their main aim, which is to get more girls in the classes. “That’s a part of our training course, we do a whole section on it,” Whyte says. “Without being too in your face about it, the message is there and we want all our franchisees to go out, be aware and expose young girls to science and make it a norm to them that it’s something they can do.”
The founders’ passion for spreading science is evident as they’re continuously looking into newer opportunities. For instance, the franchisors started pitching their classes to schools so they can tap into more customers. “We’ve had to really look at developing the offering for the franchisees over the last few years to make it more appealing and give people new areas of creating revenue,” Allnut says. “Which is why we pushed into nurseries and primary schools and gave them party plans to make it more of an attractive business to buy.”
Indeed, Allnut and Whyte have the right chemistry for a growing franchise. However, even though they were fuelled with a desire to increase their network size quickly, they learnt the importance of going slow and steady. “We cover a lot of equipment in our lessons and by launching quickly we didn’t realise how big it was going to go and it was having to figure out what equipment was needed by everyone and getting it to people,” Whyte states. “Had it been only one person locally we worked with, we probably would’ve realised all the ins and outs before we went to a whole host of areas.”
Despite the challenges, today Mini Professors has around 45 franchisees scattered across the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia, with plans to add ten more by the end of this year. With a training programme coming up in June, the two are confident about getting a good number of potential franchisees for it. As such, apart from the business idea, Whyte notes that being a British company was an advantage when going overseas. “International businesses tend to think of British education as quite a superior product if you like,” she affirms. “That’s how they often sell it, [as] ‘This is from Britain.’”
Looking at the way the franchise is escalating its presence, it’s easy to see why the founders are confident about its success. “Our aim would be to match Baby Sensory and get a few hundred [franchisees] out there, spread science nationwide and beyond,” Whyte concludes. “It’s definitely heading in the right direction. It’s all very positive.”