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Hannah Elbaum is streets ahead with her franchise

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 08 August 2017. Posted in Interviews

Despite its tender age, novel kids’ role-playing franchise Little Street is proving to be a smash hit with children and franchisees alike

Hannah Elbaum is streets ahead with her franchise

While the founders of Little Street, the children’s play centre that encourages kids to role-play in a miniature town, had discussed the idea of running their own business, it was only when ill health struck that they decided to make a go of it. “My husband was diagnosed with epilepsy, which meant he lost his driving license,” says Hannah Elbaum, the franchise’s co-founder. “So suddenly he had to leave his job and his career options were limited.” As Elbaum had previously worked in HR and project management and her husband Shay in hospitality management, they knew they had the skills needed to build something new. But given they had young children to look after, the couple knew they had to find an opportunity that fitted around family life. “We were looking at ways we could both work but also be around to raise our own kids,” Elbaum says.

Sometimes entrepreneurs find that the perfect business concept is right under their noses but the Elbaums ultimately found their inspiration considerably further afield. “We were on a holiday and went to a soft-play centre that happened to have a few role-play rooms,” she says. “We were completely blown away by the concept.” And when some cursory research revealed that there wasn’t anything like it back in Blighty, the couple realised this was the perfect opportunity to bring something completely new to market. “From that moment, we knew we were going to do this,” she says. “We started planning the day we landed in the UK.”

And this didn’t just involve jotting down a quick business plan on the back of a napkin. “We knew fairly early on how we wanted it to look and how we wanted our customers to engage with the facilities,” says Elbaum. “But for the actual operational side of running the business, we had to do a phenomenal amount of research.” Many hours of late-night googling and phone calls to the council helped the entrepreneurs iron out everything from health and safety requirements to the kind of coverage they would need from insurers. And resolving to research the new business’s potential market, they also put out a SurveyMonkey questionnaire on Facebook and local parenting groups. “1,000 people responded and gave us feedback about their pricing expectations and what their priorities were in terms of children’s play centres,” Elbaum says. “That enabled us to start doing our financial model and working out what our break-even point and pricing would be.”

However, one thing became clearer than anything during this initial research: the benefit that role play can bring for developing minds. “There’s a huge amount of research about the importance of role play,” says Elbaum. “It helps children to grow their confidence, develop future language, learn about sharing and play in a way that builds leadership.” Not only has this seen role play increasingly embraced as part of the early-years curriculum but Elbaum believes it can also be invaluable in helping more anxious children make sense of the world. An example she gives is when her daughter felt apprehensive about their first holiday abroad, she and her husband showed her photos of the airport and role-played various scenarios that they would encounter while there. “Role play really helps children to understand their place in the world and what’s going on around them,” she says. “That’s invaluable to kids that suffer with anxiety.”

And without a doubt this has shaped the creation of Little Street. Every element of its service is tailored around creating a rich world to spark kids’ imaginations: Little Street’s 90-minute sessions allow children to play at being builders, firefighters, doctors or posties all within a miniature town. “We invest heavily in bespoke play equipment that you can’t buy off-the-shelf,” Elbaum says. “We also spend an awful lot of time designing and developing bespoke graphics, which really brings the playroom to life.” However, the business isn’t hoping to stimulate just little minds: its play is also designed with parents in mind. “A lot of the local SureStart centres found they had parents who weren’t really sure how to interact and play with their children,” says Elbaum. “So when we designed Little Street, we very much wanted to create an environment that enabled parents to role-play alongside their kids.”

Understandably as word got out about this new play concept, a real buzz began to build around Little Street – and this was without much real effort on the part of the franchise itself. “We agreed to have a fairly soft opening because it would enable us to fine tune things,” says Elbaum. “But from the moment we opened we were pretty much full.” And while Little Street has recently begun to experiment with using marketing to build its brand and grow its reach, the viral growth it has been seeing has brought in customers from far and wide. “Aside from printing a few thousand leaflets, we didn’t spend a penny on advertising,” Elbaum says. “From there, it just grew from word of mouth: it just went mad.”

In light of this demand, it was inevitable that the Elbaums would soon be looking to expand and one model clearly suited Little Street better than any other. “From the day we opened, customers were saying ‘do you franchise?’” says Elbaum. “And you can grow quicker with financial investment from others: we knew we could open more by franchising.” While the couple were advised to wait until they had a longer trading history, by the time they started to investigate opening their second corporate-owned location it became clear that a franchisee would be much better placed to run a centre in a new area than they would. “What works so well with Little Street is that we really know the area and the community,” Elbaum says. “Franchising meant you would have local families running those centres and we would retain that family feel to each of the individual Little Streets.”

From here franchisee recruitment began in earnest and it’s safe to say the entrepreneurs had certain characteristics in mind when filtering through candidates. “They needed to like children and be good with people,” Elbaum says. “Then on the business side of things, we look for people that are very self-motivated, ambitious, determined, enthusiastic and have a desire to run their own business.” And once it has found the perfect prospective franchisee, Little Street provides comprehensive training to help new recruits get up to speed, beginning with things like accounting, IT systems, marketing and recruitment. “Then franchisees spend time on one of our other sites and we give them hands-on training on the day-to-day operations,” says Elbaum. “And when they open their own centre we provide further training on site to them and their staff.”

While it’s still relatively early on in the Little Street story, the company has already opened two franchised outlets in West Byfleet and Maidstone and is proving to be a smash with customers and franchisees alike. “It’s been a phenomenal response: it’s far exceeded expectations and we’re really thrilled with it,” says Elbaum. Not only has the franchise received rave reviews on social media but even though it has done very little promotion of the franchise opportunity itself, it has already been inundated with enquiries. “From a franchise point of view, the number we’re receiving blows my mind,” Elbaum says. “We probably get upwards of 20 every week.”

Despite this, however, Elbaum would rather focus on sustainable growth than spreading Little Street too thin. “We’re never going to open 100 Little Streets in a year,” she says. “If we can open five in 2018 that would be good growth: it would never be more than ten.” And the franchise is increasingly receiving enquiries about international expansion: while Little Street isn’t quite ready to become part of the global village just yet, the entrepreneurs are beginning to plan what form this would take. “We’re starting now to explore what it would mean and what it would look like to expand internationally,” Elbaum says. “That’s not on the agenda this year but certainly that’s how we foresee growing the business.”

Given how it has grown in just three short years, it’s safe to say that Elbaum is ecstatic with Little Street’s success. “It still surprises me the level of interest that we’ve had,” she concludes. “It makes me a little bit lost for words and I have to pinch myself.”

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

When he isn’t tooling around on trains in a tux like the Daniel Craig of the Greater Anglia transport system, Russell spends his time living the glamourous life of an enterprise journalist, judging Digital Business of the Year at the National Business Awards and attending conferences like NixonMcInnes’ Meaning 2013. However, like all good secret agents, Russell lives a double life – in his case, as a closet revolutionary. Social enterprise, sustainable business and collaborative practices are his true passions, something that he has had plenty of opportunity to air in his features here at Elite Franchise.

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