Almost dying from a rare virus and facing the fear of failure didn’t prevent Tracy Townend and Jo Stone from leading Puddle Ducks’ network of franchisees to make a big splash across the UK
“We had something to prove,” Tracy Townend declares. Her voice carries surprisingly well and not just because of the somewhat unreliable telephone line. The Puddle Ducks co-founder is still recovering from a rare virus that left her in intensive care for months in 2016, unable to speak, feed herself or see. Still, being confined to a hospital bed didn’t stop her from leading the pre-natal and children’s swimming franchise, communicating with light hand squeezes.
Over the years since, those small signs have turned into speech and she’s now up on her own two feet. “Tracy had sheer determination, drive and tenacity to recover,” says Jo Stone, the co-founder. Townend says her friend’s support and that from the network of 32 UK franchisees they’ve built up together has certainly helped her recover. After all, it’s the duo’s baby, almost as young as their actual daughters.
And that’s what Townend is talking about when she says Stone and herself had something to prove – not overcoming the disease but demonstrating they could make a success of the launch of Puddle Ducks in 2002. After all, leaving an established career for the unknown path of entrepreneurialism is a huge undertaking. “It was easy being an employee,” Townend explains. “And we wanted to prove we could do it without the backdrop of being an employee. We wanted to prove it could work.”
Their prior careers had seen them gain vital experience for their future endeavour – Townend had previously worked as a supply manager at Shell Chemicals and Stone had been an IT project manager at Barclays. Although, while they’d enjoyed their jobs, they felt the pull to create something of their own. And for Stone, this wasn’t a new experience. “I always wanted to be my own boss and start my own company when I was back in school but I didn’t know what that business might look like,” she reveals. “I certainly didn’t have the confidence of going at it alone and doing something entrepreneurial.” Her previous hesitations washed away when she met Townend at an antenatal class when they were both pregnant with their first children.
Not only were their daughters born on the same day, weighing seven pounds each but the two friends also found they had a lot more in common. As they kept meeting after the birth of their children, this fact became even clearer. “We talked lots and lots about what we wanted to do in the future because we realised that perhaps the corporate career wasn’t what we wanted to do next,” says Stone.
They found the answer to what their next step would be during their weekly swimming sessions with their daughters. Having found a book about baby swimming, they played around in a pool with their babies. And they loved it – not least of all because it helped them bond with their tiny tots. “In the water you’re on the same level,” Townend explains. “In the water your eyes are on the same level whereas on the land you’re towering above your baby.”
And why did they do it themselves instead of going to a baby swimming lesson? “There was just nothing around,” Stone answers. Indeed, today there may be several UK-based franchises operating in this sector – from Water Babies and Turtle Tots to Mini Swimming and SwimKidz – but back in 2002 these opportunities were few and far between. Recognising this reality inspired them to launch Puddle Ducks. “We were definitely one of the first,” Stone claims.
Fortunately, they had some time to make the transition from corporate workers to entrepreneurs. “We had the luxury of doing it while we were on maternity leave,” Stone recalls. “We could take the time out to ensure we did things properly.” This by no means meant they rested on their laurels. Instead, they dived headfirst into the task of setting up their business. This meant searching and finding a swimming pool to have their classes in as well as attending leadership and swimming courses to prepare them for their venture. “It was full time from the beginning,” Stone says. “It was never a little part-time job, [it was] always intended to be something bigger.”
Even though they had buckets of tenacity, their venture still lacked a name. “The first few classes were literally called Baby Swimming,” laughs Stone. The inspiration for the brand came when she was on vacation with her husband. “And then one day we went on a trip and I saw a boat called Puddle Ducks and that immediately struck a chord,” she recalls. “It was appealing and quite nurturing and I thought it was perfect for young swimmers.” After telling Townend and trying the name on a few friends, the founders eventually christened their business after that boat. And there was clearly a demand for their services. “We did a little bit of local advertising but it wasn’t long before we didn’t need to advertise,” Stone says. “We had filled up all our classes and we really didn’t need to get anymore [customers].”
Things seemed to be going well for the entrepreneurial duo – they had plenty of clients and a pool to hold their lessons in. “And then suddenly, out of the blue, one day we weren’t allowed to teach in it anymore,” Stone says. As it turned out, the pool caretaker had grown unhappy with the health and safety demands attached to hosting Puddle Ducks’ classes and decided to end the partnership.
For the the two founders, this meant they had to quickly find a new place to teach or be forced to refund the parents who’d signed up for their classes. Stressful as this might’ve been, Stone and Townend pushed through to save their enterprise. “Giving up wasn’t an option,” Stone states. “In less than a few weeks we found a much better pool that had opportunities for more days, [meaning] we could have lots more classes. So actually, it was a blessing in disguise.” That pool was soon joined by a few more. “We’d learned our lesson – not to put all our eggs in one basket,” Stone declares. This is a lesson they’re communicating to their network to this day.
Having secured pools, the business thrived. Although, it was only the beginning of their entrepreneurial adventure. “At the time we thought we had a proper business when we only had 100 customers,” Stone jests. “We didn’t.” Even from the start, they aspired to make Puddle Ducks grow out of its Cheshire origins and become a countrywide tour de force. “While we weren’t thinking about franchising from the very beginning we always had the vision it would grow into something that would replace our corporate salaries,” Stone continues.
No matter what form this expansion would take, the founders knew they had to keep track of everything they did. “Whether it had to do with the business side or the lesson side, we documented and constantly improved it,” Stone explains.
This certainly helped them when they decided in 2005 that franchising was the way forward. “For us it was franchising that won because we realised all the relationships with the pool owners and the customers were all things that a local franchisee could offer,” Stone explains. “That alongside all the documents from the [first few] years meant franchising was the natural option for us.”
Endeavouring to get it right off the bat, the franchisors-to-be enlisted the services of a franchise consultant to help them formulate their franchise model. “We spent about two years working with the consultants to help us get the training, manual and everything else in place,” Stone recalls. They also recruited a woman from one of their classes to run a pilot franchise. “She sold the business after a couple of years but she was really useful for testing out our ideas and processes,” Stone says.
All these efforts paid off in 2007 when Puddle Ducks recruited its first two real franchisees. “They came from an advert we made and that advert got one person involved and she told a friend about it and they started at pretty much the same time,” Stone remembers. Both franchisees are still members of the network. Today, Puddle Ducks has 32 franchisees operating across 50 territories, teaching more than 21,000 customers each week. “We have several franchisees that are earning profits of over £100,000 per year,” Stone says.
However, getting to this point wasn’t easy. “Mistakes were made,” acknowledges Stone. That’s despite the franchisors taking special care to be in constant contact with the people in their network, ensuring franchisees know everything they need to do, teach the lessons the way they’re supposed to be taught and follow the model to a tee. “The network realises that their success is our success, that we know that for us to be successful we need them to be successful,” explains Stone. “And that means working together. So if a franchisee isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, the franchise network knows we’ll try to talk to the person and make them work in a way that’s beneficial for the rest of the network. If not, then they won’t be a franchisee anymore.”
Despite always trying to work things out, the franchisors are unafraid of taking the nuclear option if franchisees fail to conform to expectations despite several nudges from the leadership. “Puddle Ducks sounds like a fluffy fun place to work in but at the end of the day we and our franchisees are business people,” says Stone. While it may sound tough, there are reasons for the excommunication of franchisees unwilling to follow the model. “Because if a franchisee isn’t paying their invoices, [then it’s] damaging the brand [and is] going to damage everybody’s reputation,” explains Stone.
Having failed in their recruitment in the past, Puddle Ducks is particular about the talent sourced to the network these days. “We’ve learned that it’s far better to say no than recruiting somebody you aren’t sure about,” says Stone.
The franchisors have also learned more about what they look for in successful members of their teams. “Drive and determination are really important,” Stone declares. Moreover, they must be self-starters, follow the model and get their heads down to push on with the business no matter how challenging it might seem. “If they don’t have any tenacity and ambition, then they won’t get anywhere,” she explains.
Additionally, to be a successful candidate, prospective franchisees must believe in Puddle Ducks’ mission of making every British child adore swimming and respect the water. “All the franchisees absolutely love what they do and having that passion has to be there in the beginning to get the babies able to swim,” summarises Stone.
But what exactly do franchisees get for their investment? “They get all the training and all of the equipment to run the first lot of classes,” explains Stone. This means they get all the marketing material, equipment, clothing, financial tools and software that they could possibly need. Moreover, Puddle Ducks also offers franchisees its bespoke training, both in person and via its huge range of e-learning tools covering everything from how to teach classes and keep the children in their care safe to business and financial training. Additionally, each franchisee has access to the head office team, which can offer business health checks and guidance. “I don’t think there’s anyone more experienced in the UK than our team,” says Stone.
Equally important as what the franchisor can teach its franchisees is what the network can teach the franchisors. More specifically, they listen to suggestions the franchisees have on how to improve the business. “We get lots of good ideas by allowing franchisees a little bit of innovation,” says Stone. “The best ones get rolled out across the network. The bad ones don’t.”
Case in point from 2015, husband and wife team Gary and Suzanne Horton had grown tired with pool owners in their areas not giving them enough time slots to meet the demand of their customers. After talking with the franchisors, the franchisees decided to buy an old pub. The idea was that they would convert the bottom floor to their own pool and then live on the top floor. The initiative proved so successful that the couple received the bfa HSBC Franchisee Innovation Award in 2017.
Following the stellar performance of the trial, the franchisor has taken steps to help other franchisees create their own similar pools. “We’ve now got someone in the head office who’s a real expert in pool build,” Stone reveals. Moreover, they’ve found dedicated suppliers and contractors to streamline the creation of similar swimming facilities across the network. Several franchisees are already interested in taking the franchisor up on this offer and the founders hope new franchisees may be interested in building their own pools as part of them joining the network. “It’s that evolution again,” says Stone. “It’s a different type of person that’s putting that investment into different investors.”
And if they want to see how it works in reality, they soon won’t have to look too far. “We’re well into the conversations of having an HQ pool built in Cheshire,” explains Stone. “So fingers crossed we’ll have something by the end of this year.”
In the almost two decades since Puddle Ducks launched, the company has acquired an impressive collection of awards. The list includes several wins and nominations at the annual bfa HSBC Franchise Awards and the NatWest EWIF Awards, picking up multiple Smith & Henderson 5-Star Franchisee Satisfaction Awards and being among the UK’s 100 best franchises in the EF Top 100 2018 list. And Stone is certain picking up prestigious gongs like these will only be good for the company. “It gives us credibility and recognition,” she says.
With breathtaking accolades such as these underneath its belt, one has to ask what’s next for Puddle Ducks. “Our aim is to continue to make sure [our services are] available to as many people as possible, to make it as inclusive as we can,” concludes Stone.
With such a focused outlook, we’re certain the franchisors will continue to make a splash for years to come.