With Photography for Little People, Melanie Armstrong and Jan Massey have enabled franchisees to capture the love shared by new families
No one should be shocked to hear that the two most popular images to ever be posted on Instagram are of Beyoncé announcing her pregnancy and the birth of her twins. Not only does the Crazy In Love singer have legions of fans but Queen B also tapped into the love people have for seeing new parents pose with their bundles of joy. And Grammy-winning superstars aren’t the only ones who enjoy immortalising their babies’ first days in life; in fact, Melanie Armstrong and her mother Jan Massey have spent the last decade building a successful business snapping pictures of tiny tots.
However, given that Armstrong has been a passionate shutterbug since her youth, it’s hardly surprising that she’d end up as the co-founder of Photography for Little People, the baby-photography franchise. “Following my A levels, I took a year to travel Australia where I discovered my love for photography and [trained with] a local photographer in Perth [to learn] how to work my way around a camera,” she says. Upon her return to Blighty, Armstrong dove head-first into a career using her new skills and began to work in a studio taking pictures of kids. And while she took a break when her own children came along, in 2005 Armstrong rekindled her passion. “I was pregnant with my youngest child when my mum and I decided to go into business together,” she says. And people certainly sat up and took notice of the studio set up in a Gateshead shopping centre: in 2007 the company was named Women in Retail North East Entrepreneur of the Year at the Women in the Network awards.
Having proved the strength of their idea, the founders decided to expand the brand across the UK. “[We] wanted to offer this to as many families as possible,” says Armstrong. And the mother and daughter team had no doubt about what the best way to grow the business would be. “To be honest, we never really considered options other than franchising,” she says. “We felt all along that this was the best method for us to take our knowledge and products to customers and future photographers all around the country and [once we made that decision] we never locked back.”
Reshaping the company into a franchise also enabled the founders to reimagine the business model in one crucial way. “We made everything mobile,” says Armstrong. “[That way we] can capture the early memories of newborns for families in a way that photographers with fixed studios can’t.” In other words, instead of working from a studio, franchisees would go and take pictures of new families in their homes. Not only did this help keep overheads down but it also meant the franchise could more easily expand its customer base. “Mums [often told us] how hard it was to leave the house with a baby in those early weeks,” she says. “A mobile studio seemed an obvious fit.” However, to ensure that the new format worked, Armstrong personally tested it for a year before launching the new business model in 2008.
Satisfied with their preparations, the new franchisors set out to find the perfect franchisees to man the growing enterprise. But as they began touring different franchise shows, they were cautious about the people they let into their network. “Photography for Little People is our baby, our brand and we had to make sure we protected that and entrusted it to those that were right for our franchise,” says Armstrong. And the mother and daughter team were very clear about the qualities they were searching for in candidates. For starters, all their franchisees must be passionate about photography and love working with families. And given how particular they are about the franchisees who join their network, it’s hardly surprising that they’re very hesitant whenever they see a red flag during the recruitment process. “Some […] have mistakenly believed they were looking at a job and didn’t quite understand the franchise concept,” Armstrong says. “[They didn’t understand] they [would be] investing in a business for themselves, run by themselves but with support, knowledge and experience of our specialised franchise system.”
But if budding franchisees can demonstrate a clear understanding of what’s expected of them and a passion for the concept, the franchisor is more than happy to train up any skills that they may lack. “Many of them aren’t qualified photographers when they join us but following their practical training with Photography for Little People they become professionals who are able to create beautiful pieces of family art,” says Armstrong. She personally oversees the initial training each new member of the network receives at the headquarters. During those five days, she teaches them everything from how to safely handle little ones, set up their business and sharpen their skills with a camera. “It’s practical and lots of fun,” says Armstrong. “The franchisee is exhausted at the end of each day, as am I. But at the end of the week it is so rewarding and the franchise has gained valuable hands-on experience with a whole range of photoshoot scenarios, from brand new babies to toddlers, parents and [families].” This initial training is then followed up with workshops and phone briefings to bring everything into focus for franchisees.
With meticulous preparations and training such as this, it’s hardly surprising that the franchise has grown steadily since its launch. “We actually have 18 franchisees now,” says Armstrong. And having already launched in Hong Kong, the franchise is now eying opportunities to grow further both domestically and internationally. “We are looking to expand abroad and are currently in talks with a couple of potential franchisees who are looking to take Photography for Little People to their country, including the Middle East and Europe,” says Armstrong. They are also looking to expand the network into the US.
It’s been just over a decade since the mother and daughter team first joined forces to launch Photography for Little People but it seems fair to say that neither Armstrong nor her mum would have it any other way. “[It’s been] exciting, eventful and amazing,” she says. And even though the growth of the company is enough to excite her, Armstrong points out that there is one thing she loves about running the company more than anything else. “I love to see parents [look] with absolute love at their new babies,” she says. “My favourite part is when we do their family images and I ask them to look at each other – there are often tears and it’s so lovely. That’s the best bit.” And with a flash from her camera, those parents will have a memory that could potentially give Beyoncé’s Instagram post a run for her money.