Bringing to bear years of experience as a detective for the Metropolitan Police, Jenny Williams is giving children and adults the opportunity to get their CSI on
Given the popularity of detective dramas like Luther and Sherlock, it’s no surprise that many people fancy themselves amateur sleuths. Fortunately The Detective Project, the franchise organising CSI-like parties, provides an opportunity to become just that. However, given that the company has grown to include several franchisees, it may be surprising to hear that founder Jenny Williams never really intended to launch a business. “I had no entrepreneurial aspirations at all,” she says. Instead she was happy working as a police detective at the London Metropolitan Police , although that changed with the birth of her children and her decision to take a career break. “I took a marketing job and it opened my eyes to the world of self-employment,” she says. “I realised that I liked setting my own targets, working my own hours and not being told what to do.” That was the push she needed to leave the force and try launching her own business.
But Williams didn’t know what her new venture would be until she planned her son’s eighth birthday party. “I framed it like a crime scene with a pretend body and told the kids to solve the mystery,” she remembers. “And they loved it.” The children celebrating her son’s birthday weren’t the only ones: the parents really liked the concept too. “That was the lightbulb moment when I realised that this was my thing,” Williams says. Not one to rest on her laurels, she quickly set herself upon the task of making her vision a reality.
Rather than funding the launch with bank loans, the budding entrepreneur bootstrapped the company. “I’m very lucky to have a very understanding husband,” she says. Thanks to the support from him, Williams was able to start out on a modest salary and to invest any revenue back into the company. “I set myself a target of paying myself £15,000 in the first year and when I hit that I thought, ‘okay, what’s next?’” she says. “That really kickstarted my entrepreneurial side.”
To attract customers Williams began doing some low level marketing like building a website and investing in local advertising. But the founder found the best way to promote her business was to rely on word of mouth. “Fortunately it was a quirky company that people didn’t mind spreading the word about,” she laughs.
After three years of providing fun events to both grownups and kids, Williams decided that it was time to grow the business. “I looked at several different models but kept coming back to franchising,” she says. One of the benefits that particularly convinced her was that it would allow her to scale the business rapidly by recruiting franchisees who were enthusiastic entrepreneurs in their own right. “Rather than having to subcontract or take on more staff, I could simply train others to replicate what I was already doing,” she says.
Determined to make the new franchise model as robust as possible, Williams hired two franchise consultants to help her. “It was a really steep learning curve for me because I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she says. Fortunately the consultants were able to lead her through the franchising process, get the legal documents in order and write the franchise manual. “It was really a matter of getting everything out of my head and onto paper,” says Williams. Once she’d dotted all the Is and crossed every T, the new franchise was launched at the Franchise Show at the ExCel in 2013.
While satisfied with her efforts to ensure the franchise had a replicable recipe, finding the right people would prove easier said than done. “Your first franchisee is usually a big mistake,” says Williams. “Lots of franchisors don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for and end up having to get rid of their first one.” That was certainly the case with the first person to join her network. “In hindsight, my big mistake was not realising that he was looking to buy himself a job and not a business,” she says. “Some people don’t understand that work won’t just fall in their lap but that they have to work for it.” Even though the two eventually had to part ways, the experience taught her to always ensure new franchisees are willing to do the hours and have the essential grit to run a company. Having learned her lesson, the business leader is now more particular about the people that she recruits.
And that is sorely needed, as a vast number of prospective franchisees regularly apply to the company. “Most of them are either in it just to make money, don’t have any presentation skills or aren’t credible,” Williams says. This goal to find candidates with the right authenticity has meant that she has turned down a lot of interested people. At the moment most of her franchisees either come from a policing, science or presenting background. “I’m not exclusively looking for these types but for now they seem to be what works for the company,” she says.
Once accepted, each franchisee is provided with thorough training to bring them up to speed. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that they know what they’re doing,” she says. The preparation includes three days at the head office in Bristol where new franchisees learn how to manage marketing, accounting and how to find new customers. They’re also provided with the chance to shadow Williams at one of her events and for her to help them on theirs. And it doesn’t stop with the initial training: franchisees are also provided ongoing support via weekly Skype calls, annual meetings and further training as needed. “This ensures they’re happy and confident,” says Williams.
The only downside is that the extensive training has slowed down the growth of the network. But while The Detective Project currently only has four franchisees, this may soon change. “I aim to add three to five new franchisees every year,” Williams says. “So far this year I’ve recruited three more but I hope to reach five by the end of 2017.” And it isn’t stopping there: Williams has even grander plans for the network and what it could eventually be capable of. “I’d like to get up to 20 or 25 franchisees,” she says. “Then we’d be able to cover a better proportion of the country because at the moment we’re spread quite thinly for the amount of work we’re asked to do.”
And she’s not just got an eye on locations on these shores. “My long-term goal is to take it overseas but I know I have to walk before I can run,” says Williams. But keeping her cool has proved to be a challenge: interested parties from countries like the US, Canada, Australia and the United Arab Emirates have already reached out and asked about the possibility of bringing The Detective Project to those nations. “I really have to sit on my hands and stop myself from being led down there,” she says. “It would be an entirely new ball game and I would need an awful lot of money to do that. But ask me again in a year and I may have changed my mind.”
Thinking back on the last seven years, Williams couldn’t be happier about her decision to leave the Met. “It has been an absolute adventure, given that I launched the company without knowing where I wanted to take it,” she concludes. “I’m really excited to see where else I can push it and very proud about what we’ve achieved so far.”