Paul Thompson plunged straight into the deep end when he turned his favourite father / daughter pastime into Water Babies, the national baby swimming franchise
Life used to be very different for Paul Thompson, owner of Water Babies, the national baby swimming franchise. After giving up a high-powered job in 1999 and travelling to the Caribbean, he became a stay-at-home dad to daughter Imani. Relishing the chance to spend time with his daughter, their days would always be jam-packed with activities.
“I took her to a variety of baby-related classes, one of which was baby swimming,” he recalls. “Her physical and mental development was amazing. I just saw her accelerating away. It was the thing I looked forward to doing most all week.”
The experience whet his appetite and Thompson soon signed up as an instructor. The lightbulb moment followed. “It was a life-changing moment for me and I realised I had real empathy and was absolutely born to do this thing called baby swimming which is quite funny, if you know me,” he laughs. The entrepreneur within Thompson swiftly surfaced and he began looking into the business of baby swimming.
The family relocated to Ilkley, Yorkshire, and decided the time was right to launch their own baby swimming business – unaware of the long voyage ahead. “We were just going to have a few classes but it went nuts and exploded around us,” says Thompson. “And that’s where it all began, in June 2002.”
The business of dunking toddlers under water, as one might envisage, would require some serious know-how and consideration; Thompson and wife Jess dived straight into research.
“There were no standards and very little professionalism around it, which was quite frightening,” he says. “We started to put all that in place. Right from the word go, we were determined to be as professional as we could be.
We created systems and standards and put a lot of structure into it. We travelled the world clocking up lots of ideas and information – both scientific research and what people are doing – in order to put our programme together.”
The company now works closely with the governing body and even developed a diploma in baby swimming, meaning interested parties can a gain qualification as they would in engineering. “But only through Water Babies,” Thompson interjects.
With the boxes ticked on research and developing a comprehensive baby swimming programme, Water Babies launched with a meagre £5,000. “We put everything into our branding, our websites, and leaflets and so on,” says Thompson.
They may be water pros, but the founders also put in some serious leg work on dry land. “We ran around the streets giving out leaflets,” Thompson recalls. “Jess had a background in PR so we did local PR as well. We take underwater photographs of babies swimming, quite powerful images, and we got a lot of free press.”
Six months down the line, the first franchise opportunity came a-knocking. “Franchising happened to us by accident,” Thomson says. “I got two phone calls in the same week: one from my sister-in-law in Bristol, and another one from friends who lived in Edinburgh. Both said they wanted to get out of the ‘rat-race’ to do something more rewarding and they were interested in what we were doing.”
After some initial ambivalence, the Thompsons weighed up their options and decided that franchising was the best way to grow the business and to involve family and friends.
“We are really particular about standards, quality and service and as a franchisor, you get to keep all of that and manage it and this suited us,” he explains. “As a franchisee you get to run your own business, albeit with a support structure, and that suited our friends.”
The second Water Babies also went off with a bang, instructing over 100 clients within the first six weeks. The reality that they were responsible for hundreds of families quickly dawned on the founders and they went to seek some solid franchising counsel. The next franchise opportunity wasn’t too far behind.
“After another six months of putting our systems, procedures and operating manuals in place, we got a call from another person who was our first independent franchisee,” Thompson says.
Within 18 months, Water Babies expanded from four franchises to 40, growing completely organically. “There’s something unique about Water Babies and franchising in that we’ve never advertised for a franchisee,” explains the entrepreneur.
Like Thompson, many Water Babies franchisees were people who had powerful careers in their previous lives. “The calibre of our franchisees tends to be very high but the main thing we look for are people who have a real passion for what we do,” he says. “Water Babies is very big on people.”
The company’s ethic, Thompson says, is built around people and giving them a chance to excel and then to exceed. “What makes us particularly unique is the incredibly strong bond that we develop between our parents and our teachers and Water Babies,” he says. “Parents tend to turn up at their first lesson very scared, with a two-week old baby, half a family and 14 carloads of equipment. Ten weeks later, they’re swimming this baby on their own and they are really empowered.”
The ethic of empowering those he associates with is evident in both the management of the Water Babies franchise and the relationship Thompson has with his franchisees.
“We’re probably the most supportive franchise in the UK. We’ve got 52 franchisees and a head office team of almost 30 people covering all areas of support for them”
He explains that the franchise operates as a network of family-run businesses. “If I go and see a franchisee I’ll expect to stay on their sofa,” he elaborates. “I’ll bounce their kids on my knee. We’ll cook tea while we’re talking. But we do business as well, so managing those two things is difficult and can actually be very challenging because you have to be a hard franchisor sometimes.”
One can be expected to be a little hardcore when teaching 40,000 babies a week around the country. With those stats, Water Babies is the biggest baby swimming company in the UK and while there’s little to no competition, the founders would welcome some friendly rivalry.
“It makes you sharpen your pencil,” Thompson elaborates. “It helps you really focus on what you do, it makes sure you don’t get lazy in the marketplace and it also helps spread the word. As long as the people who are practising are good and professional, there’s plenty of space in the market for everybody.”
But there’s still no harm in having some standout USPs, such as the age at which babies can dip their toes in the water. “Our youngest ever client was two days old,” says Thompson. “Most swim schools start from six months and above but we take them as young as the parents are brave enough to come.”
Water Babies is a fast-moving young company and at 12 years old, the Thompsons are swimming towards a bright future.
“Objective number one is to keep growing in the UK and Ireland, teaching more clients,” says Thompson. “Objective number two is to go international. We went to Ireland five years ago and were hugely successful there. We’re now going further afield into the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and New Zealand. We’re also looking at setting up a new franchise business called Water Bumps for pre- and post-natal pregnant women; the first of which will be rolling out in the next six weeks.”
The success of Water Babies might be a good marker for what the future holds for Water Bumps as the franchise is yet to suffer a business failure.
Now a seasoned franchisor, Thompson believes that franchising done really well means it’s not an adjunct to your business, it is the business that you’re going into. He concludes: “You are becoming somebody who is rolling out a network of businesses and your job is to support all of those businesses and make them successful.”