Having initially hung up her ballet shoes when she was 14, dancing has now become Claire O’Connor’s calling. Today she’s pirouetting around the world with her family to build on the 74 babyballet franchisees she has in the UK
As Claire O’Connor takes our call she’s enjoying the Canadian sun at a cafe in Toronto – a city she and her family have temporarily made home. It’s a stark contrast to Halifax which the Yorkshire-grown founder of babyballet, the infant dance franchise, proudly calls her hometown. Describing the transition, O’Connor says: “It’s a different way of living. We’re in an apartment, which is different to home but it’s exciting.”
With husband Chris working in Toronto, the self-described “Halifax girl” considered it ideal timing for a unique family experience while growing babyballet, having relocated from the UK’s north in June. “When I was thinking about it, I was like it’s now or we don’t do it,” she says. “I’m not too proud to say ‘it’s not worked’ or ‘it’s not what we wanted’ – you can always head home.”
Long before her North American adventure began, ballet was introduced to O’Connor organically through her mother’s dance school. “I was literally born into the world of ballet,” she says. Naturally, she started going to lessons but despite possessing talent, she lost love for the dance as it increased in competitiveness. “I was comparing myself to the best rather than enjoying ballet as a hobby,” she admits. “To be a ballerina you’ve got to be practically fabulous in every way like a top sportsperson would be.”
That self-administered judgment resulted in her hanging up her dancing shoes when she was 14 but there was no escape. “It was very much in my life because my mum still had a school,” O’Connor says, admitting she remained immersed in the world by helping out now and again.
Having completed school studies and headed off to university, it was in her third year when O’Connor discovered she was pregnant with eldest son Harry. “It was a bit of a shock to say the least,” laughs the now mother of four. Being a young mum was one thing but with post-natal depression too, she and Harry moved in with her parents. She started working but none of the temporary jobs were suitable as a single parent getting back on her feet. “One day I came home and my mum said ‘I can see you’re trying really hard to make ends meet. Do you want to help with the dance school?’” O’Connor recalls. She took the opportunity and got working on the day-to-day running of the business.
And soon enough, O’Connor’s old mixed feelings about ballet returned. “There were kids who would come as a hobby but I could see the sadness in their faces if they didn’t get the top results,” she says. “I wanted to bring more fun, something else to ballet.” The stars aligned and her mum found a place where she could lead preschool classes, which were an instant success. “For me the pressure was gone and people were having a really nice time with their child.”
From that point, she started referring to the classes as babyballet to give it some identity. Keen to expand it but low on confidence, the late 1990s was when O’Connor realised franchising would be a good business model. “There were quite a few other preschool businesses that were franchised,” she says, noticing there were no ballet franchises then. With the internet gaining traction in 1999, researching her new project was made much easier. “I had a vision bigger than just a class – I wanted to create a programme, a syllabus, a real magic environment for these kids to come and enjoy ballet,” she says.
Refusing to rush into franchising though, O’Connor spent years on research around working full-time for her mum and family life, the latter of which saw her have her second child in 2003. She eventually decided to spin babyballet into its own business in 2006 with her mum’s blessing and told her husband about the plan, then swiftly added a pink car and huge teddy bear to her company wish list. Following an appearance at the Franchise Exhibition in October 2006, a friend of a friend became the first franchisee and joined in January 2007. “[My] friend saw my passion and belief, how thorough I was and the vision I had and knowing the other person wanted a career change, had a child and wanted to come out of her career and invest in something,” she details.
11 years later, there are now 74 UK-based franchisees, which O’Connor attributes to “the passion and belief from everyone in [the network].” “Whether it be a teacher or someone who joins the admin team, it’s about knowing the brand and what our beliefs are,” she adds. “I wouldn’t be happy if franchisees thought head office was creaming all [the money] in and there was no reward for them.”
That outlook worked wonders for the franchise, which expanded overseas in 2017 and found itself Down Under after a promotional babyballet tour across five cities in three weeks helped O’Connor spread brand awareness. Unlike the UK approach though, a licensee method was adopted by the franchisor for two reasons. Firstly, the scene in Australia and New Zealand already had plenty of dance schools that were ripe for disruption with a baby-facing element. Secondly, a short-lived partnership with a well-known Australian dance industry face changed the strategy. “We partnered up but quite quickly after had a change of direction and he moved to New York,” O’Connor recalls. “We were going to do a joint venture but it’s now 100%-owned by babyballet.” And that wholly-owned side of the business now has almost 40 schools in the region signed up already.
Given the distance of Australia and New Zealand, O’Connor opines: “For the level of support, I didn’t think I would be able to deliver what I could in the UK over there with it being so far away. It seemed like the best model to keep standards and everything very tight on the agreement.” Another deciding factor was that many of the dance schools already had existing business support consultants in place. However, that’s not to say franchising is a total write-off. “Franchising could become key there,” she adds while insisting it’s wise not to pirouette before they can plié. “Like anything it’s got to go with what people are wanting.”
With three trips Down Under in under three months, the distance was the hardest thing to manage for O’Connor. “I was like ‘oh god, I don’t know my own name’,” she laughs. At that point, the international strategy wasn’t concrete but the globetrotting foundation has very much set now. “I feel I can immerse myself in it and lead global business development, whereas at that point I was still very much involved in the day-to-day running of the UK.”
With that experience now under her belt and the march on Canada underway, O’Connor is keen to break as much bread with dance schools across Toronto as possible to understand how things work there before deciding her next move. “Every country is so different you can’t presume everything works the same,” she says.
Indeed, there are legal and accounting angles that must be taken into consideration for franchising. And in terms of getting a footprint stamped into the market she’s open to both franchising and licensing, having cracked both at home and abroad. “It’s got to be built to manage,” she adds, noting that a master would likely be appointed but whether on a state-by-state basis or countrywide remains to be seen.
But no matter whether she’s making a quick soubresaut into another licensing scheme or a retiré devant into a new franchise model, you can remain certain the people teaching tots to dance will be up for the job. “I’ve always been a true believer that it’s the people who surround you that makes a business what it is,” O’Connor concludes. “People have to believe in what you’re providing. So as long as you get the right type of people, you’re flying.”