Razzamataz Theatre Schools has won over parents – and a Dragon – with its refreshing approach to performing arts
Denise Gosney, founder of Razzamataz Theatre Schools, admits to being a quiet soul when she was at school. And while dancing and gymnastics helped her come out of her shell, she was still something of a late bloomer. “I actually didn’t start taking performing arts – in particular dance – seriously until I was ten,” says Gosney. “It was quite late, considering I have gone on to make a lifelong career from it. But I completely caught the bug.”
Gosney went on to become a professional dancer, performing in pantomimes and on cruise liners, before becoming a choreographer. However, when she reached her late twenties, she had to think again about her career. “A dancer’s life is actually quite short,” says Gosney. “Probably at about 26 or 27 I was starting to think, ‘what else am I going to do?’”
Following a brief spell as a fitness instructor, Gosney was yearning to put her unique talents to good use. Thankfully, she already had some experience. “Gymnastics really brought me out of my shell,” she says “I was teaching by the age of 12 and I went to Canada to teach Canadian children at 15. That’s where my confidence built because I realised I actually did have a talent for something.”
In 2000, Gosney started the first Razzamataz Theatre School, offering classes in West End musical theatre, street dancing and pop singing to children aged two through to 18.
However, while teaching would be at thecentre of her new venture, Gosney very much wanted it to serve as an extra-curricular activity for its ‘customers’, free of the constraints and pressures of education. “I never wanted a dance school because dance school is full of exams and that is one thing that we don’t do at Razz,” she says. “My wee boy is seven. He is going into his SATs and there is so much pressure put on them at such a young age with exams. We do arts awards now but there aren’t a lot of exams, as such. It is all about building confidence and giving them opportunities.”
As Gosney explains, the way the performing arts sector has changed over the years also influenced her choice of business model. “Years ago, in the entertainment business, the dancers danced, the comedian did their piece and the singers sung. But it’s changed – it’s all show teams now. In the West End, you expect it to be a triple set, as we call it in our industry. That means you are able to do all three disciplines: dance, drama and singing.”
Before she knew it, Gosney had set up Razzamataz schools in Penrith, Carlisle, Dumfries and Galloway, South Cumbria, Kendall, Keswick and Paisley. But it was upon opening a new school in Edinburgh in 2006 that she realised she could no longer grow the business on her own. “I went to Edinburgh and realised there was only one of me. I couldn’t do this anymore,” says Gosney. “My teachers were expressing an interest in doing something similar so if I didn’t franchise they were only going to set up in competition against me.”
Franchising certainly seemed the best way for Gosney to take the business forward. “I looked into franchising and thought that was a good route to grow my business while keeping control of my brand,” she says. “Also, it seemed a good opportunity for me to mentor a lot of my teachers – who are younger than me – in running their own businesses.”
It was also around this time that Gosney decided to go on Dragons’ Den but it wasn’t Razzamataz she wanted to pitch. “I did have a new, innovative idea, which was actually a performing arts game but I didn’t have the prototype ready in time,” she explains. “They then obviously looked at my website and said, ‘You have got a franchise. Why don’t you come on the show with that?’”
Gosney was initially wary about taking her fledgling theatre school business in front of the Dragons but ultimately decided it was worth the risk. “I was actually a bit reluctant at first because it’s my baby really,” she says. “Obviously, running a business is about investment and making money but it’s quite personal for me as well. But I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and I also thought, ‘What harm can it do?’”
Gosney ended up wooing Duncan Bannatyne, gratefully accepting his offer of £50,000 for a 25% stake in the business. It was the first time a Dragon had offered the full amount and not haggled over the equity. “I obviously researched all the Dragons but I genuinely – and I’m not just saying this – wanted Duncan to invest,” says Gosney. “All of the others liked products; they like to touch and feel a product and put it on a shelf. Duncan started with a chain of ice-cream vans, then he had a chain of nurseries and then he had a chain of nursing homes. And now he has obviously got a chain of health clubs. So I knew that if anyone was going to be interested in a franchise or a chain, it was going to be him. He is also from Goven, Clydebank, which is round the corner from Renfrew, where I am from.”
And there was another surprise in store for Gosney too. “I was actually expecting my first child and didn’t realise it,” she says. “So it was a bit of a double whammy. Not only had I just got Duncan Bannatyne a partner; I found out I was going to be a mum for the first time.”
Last September, Bannatyne sold his share in Razzamataz Theatre Schools back to Gosney, who couldn’t be more thankful for what he has done for the company. “You couldn’t buy the kind of PR that he has brought to the business,” says Gosney. “He is obviously a respected businessman. He doesn’t take any carry-on. He is very much a family man and he is actually a bit of a closet actor.”
In addition to the 40 franchises Razzamataz now boasts on these shores, it is working with the likes of First Choice, P&O, and Thomson, with classes offered to children at holiday parks or on cruise liners. Direct Line and Cravendale have also shown an interest in Razzamataz’s talented crop of young performers and, most recently, Universal Movies has signed them up to help promote the upcoming Barbie film.
While her eyes are now set overseas, Gosney is still eager to expand the company’s presence in the UK to 100 franchises. But such is the attachment to her business and her young students, Gosney is happy to sacrifice rapid growth for the sake of getting the right people on board and supporting them. “I would rather expand slowly and make sure all my franchisees are well-supported and well looked after, than expand too quickly,” says Gosney. “Having the passion and time to devote to your students, to your parents and to growing your business is really important.”
Razzamataz franchisees enjoy having a say in the overall direction of the whole business, not just their individual franchises. “The beauty of buying into a fairly young business, like us, is that we very much listen to our network,” says Gosney. “It is very much their business as well and we want them to be part of that. We have just launched a new website and new branding and that was all a network decision. It wasn’t just a head office decision.”
Gosmey admits “it’s been a bit of a whirlwind” but seeing children leave her schools with a spring in their step makes it all seem worth it. Her favourite story is of a little girl who came through her door and was very shy. Four or five months later, she recited a poem in front of a room full of people; a difficult feat for an adult, let alone a small child. “The difference you see in a child coming through your doors on day one to even just a few months later is unbelievable,” she says.