The founders of this baby-swimming franchise are using their combined industry experience to grow the business at home and abroad
Gaby Lixton was amazed when her daughter was born. And while the emotions of a water birth certainly altered the course of her life, what really astonished her was how her child behaved. “She was underneath the water for a few moments when suddenly her amphibian reflex kicked in and she swam to the surface,” Lixton says. Four weeks later, when she brought her new-born toddler to her first baby-swimming lesson she did it again. “It was absolutely wonderful and life-changing,” says Lixton. “That’s when I decided to become a baby-swim teacher.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, in 2006 Lixton joined Water Babies, the baby-swimming franchise, as a franchisee and over the following six years she grew the businesses until it was teaching over 900 toddlers to swim per week. Then, in 2011, she decided to take the plunge and break out on her own, launching Turtle Tots, the baby-swimming franchise. “I brainstormed so many names but I decided on this one because my family has always loved turtles,” she says. “I adored the alliteration and that the name signalled that we were in the baby business.”
Given her experience and the similarities between Water Babies and Turtle Tots, you may be surprised to hear that Lixton initially didn’t have any plans to franchise the new enterprise. “It wasn’t until six months later that I realised that both the company and other people would benefit from it,” she says.
However, that wasn’t the only thing that changed during that initial period. While Lixton was submerging herself in the realities of her new venture, another entrepreneur was also creating ripples across Bristol: Caroline Sparks, the founder of Little Monster Baby and Toddler Shows, an exhibition company for new parents.
The two business women had previously met at a mutual friend’s wedding. When Lixton launched Turtle Tots, that same friend urged the pair to meet up for a chat to share their tips and experiences of running companies in the same market. One meeting lead to a second and a third. “And when Gaby asked me to join her and to franchise Turtle Tots, I ended up selling Little Monster without a second thought,” says Sparks. Together they set themselves upon the task of turning their joint venture into a success.
To do this, the pair put £10,000 each into the enterprise and spent days in Lixton’s garden ironing out the details of how to franchise the business. During those sessions in the sun, they focused on three things that would enable Turtle Tots to truly blow the competition out of the water: a cashflow forecast, a marketing plan and the creation of a new website. The website in particular required the most attention: it needed to both accommodate franchisee recruitment and microsites for the new franchisees that would soon join the business.
That being said, it turned out that the website’s recruitment tools weren’t necessary to attract Turtle Tots’ first candidate. “Our first franchisee was actually one of the mums from my class in Bristol,” says Lixton. Much like Lixton herself, the woman had gone to one of the baby-swimming classes and fallen in love with the concept. And in the years since, 60% of Turtle Tots’ franchisees have joined the business the same way. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” says Lixton.
Given that the experience of joining a Turtle Tots class has persuaded several new mothers to become part of the business, clearly providing a great experience for parents and babies is a part of what sets Turtle Tots apart from other baby-swimming franchises. “We develop great relationships with our clients,” Lixton says. “Joining our classes doesn’t feel like a chore because our teachers know the parents and what their babies’ names are. That combined with our teachers’ passion creates a family feel that our customers really love.”
To ensure that each franchisee can establish that intimate relationship, the co-founders are adamant about how important it is to recruit the right franchisees. “Before joining us, they’ve usually have had children, which means they’ve developed the natural empathy and understanding they need for this market,” says Sparks. Turtle Tots also looks for franchisees who’ve acquired transferable skills from previous careers: amongst the current franchisees, there are a few teachers, a GP, a former head of marketing and an ex-biochemist. Those previous careers also demonstrate that potential candidates contemplating joining the business have strong work ethics. “I cannot stress this enough: it’s really challenging,” says Sparks. “Sure it’s flexible but you need to be ready to work hard.”
However, while know-how from previous jobs goes a long way, it’s not enough to ensure that budding franchisees know what they’re doing. “We want our customers in Aberdeen to have the same amazing experience as they would be getting in Cornwall,” says Lixton. “Obviously it takes a lot of work to ensure that consistency.
That’s why Turtle Tots doesn’t throw its budding franchisees in at the deep end but gives them rigorous training before setting them off on their new endeavours. Not only are new recruits required to possess a certificate from the Swimming Teachers’ Association, the world’s largest independent swimming teaching and lifesaving organisation, they also have to conduct 30 supervised lessons at Turtle Tots. On top of that, they spend several weeks acquainting themselves with the business model and its values, getting photography lessons and learning about business development and marketing. And it doesn’t stop there. Once new franchisees launch their franchise, they get access to ongoing training through Turtle Tots’ custom-made e-learning platform and through in-house lectures.
This focus on not only finding the right people but ensuring that they are appropriately onboarded has enabled Turtle Tots to grow organically from its first franchise in Berkshire to covering a quarter of the UK. Furthermore, it has helped the business fulfil another long-held aspiration: expanding the company beyond Britain’s shores. “We’ve always had the ambition to go global,” says Lixton.
And in February 2015, the co-founders finally had the chance to prove their model internationally when the brother of one of their Scottish franchisees set up the company’s first franchise in Ireland. “It was quite interesting actually,” says Sparks. “We usually think that Ireland is very similar to us but there are actually a few cultural differences like how they check background references.”
One year after the launch, the Dublin franchise is flourishing and the experience gained from setting up the international pilot franchise enabled Turtle Tots to go down under and launch the business in Australia. And further international expansion is on the horizon. “Right now, we’re looking for the right business partners to help us launch in Canada, the US, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea,” says Lixton.
However, while the co-founders are heading to New York in the beginning of 2017 to find their next international franchisee, they’re still very much focused on expanding their business further across Blighty. “We won’t stop until we’re all over the country,” says Lixton.
Almost seven years after Turtle Tots first tested the waters in Bristol, the company has grown to having 45 franchisees and 150 teachers in three countries teaching over 10,000 children every week. Looking back on the years gone by, Sparks’ decision to join the franchise has certainly paid off. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride with plenty of highlights,” she concludes. “But we wouldn’t change a thing.”