Starting as a single class in Wales, Pyjama Drama’s fun-filled sessions are now entertaining kids in all corners of the globe
When Sarah Owen founded Pyjama Drama back in 2005, she probably didn’t envisage her children’s drama classes being taught in Australia, Malaysia and the USA 11 years later. However, she is now taking international expansion in her stride.
Owen launched her first class in hometown Welshpool following a career as a secondary school drama teacher. Having had her three children close together, she introduced them to drama by playing games and making up songs at home. “One day I thought: ‘I wonder if I can turn this into a class,’” says Owen. “The children were responding with such imagination to the things I was doing.”
Realising she might be onto something, Owen sent a flyer about the classes to her son’s playgroup. “There was a good response straightaway,” she says. And from there, she started working with Welshpool’s three nurseries. Fortunately, it didn’t take much capital to get the fledgling business off the ground. “It was just printing off a few flyers at home, grabbing a few of the kids’ instruments, making up a few songs and hiring a hall,” says Owen. “It’s a cottage industry really.”
Despite the strong start Owen had enjoyed in her hometown, the idea of franchising Pyjama Drama wasn’t yet on the agenda. “When it started to be successful in Welshpool, a few people said I should franchise it,” she says. “But I thought that was too far down the line. At the time, I was enjoying what I was doing and organically developing the programme through trial and error.”
But, when her youngest son started school, Owen was faced with a decision: should she return to full-time teaching or continue building her new venture? Opting for the latter, Owen decided it was time to franchise. As she explains, it was the route that made the most sense for the business. “Pyjama Drama is quite personal and you put a lot of yourself into the sessions,” she says. “You need to feel like you own it rather than employing teachers who maybe don’t have that same sense of ownership.”
Before she could start recruiting franchisees, however, Owen had to alter the name of the business, which was launched as Dinky Drama. “It was indicated that Dinky Drama probably wouldn’t be approved as a trademark as there was another business called Dinky Dancers that offers pre-school dance,” says Owen. “So I had to change the name to Pyjama Drama.”
Once the new name was approved, Owen brought Anna Lingard on board as her first franchisee. As a mother who already attended the classes, she was the ideal candidate. “Anna was a perfect fit because she knew first-hand what the classes were all about,” says Owen. “She also had two young children of her own, so she wanted something that fitted in flexibly around her family.”
The other thing that worked in Lingard’s favour was her drama skills, which Owen looks for from all Pyjama Drama franchisees. “You don’t necessarily need to have taught it but you do need the skills,” she explains. That’s in addition to ambition, tenacity and a personable nature. “Franchisees need to be good with children but they also need to be good with mums, dads and other nursery workers,” she adds.
Pyjama Drama currently has 32 franchisees in the UK, with another four set to join before July. “The last six months have been really busy,” says Owen. And, for the past year, Owen has been juggling UK expansion with the company’s first foray into international territories.
The company’s overseas expansion was sparked when existing franchisee Amanda Plumridge decided to move to Australia. “She was very determined to take Pyjama Drama with her,” says Owen. Having not previously entertained the idea of taking the franchise outside the UK, leaving it in the hands of somebody she knew gave Owen some much needed peace of mind. “Because Amanda and I have built up a lot of trust, that was a really good starting point for our international development,” she says. “If it had been somebody I didn’t know, it would have been a lot trickier.”
Aside from a few tweaks to the vocabulary – “flip-flops are called thongs and duvets are called doonas,” Owen explains – the Pyjama Drama programme has translated quite well to the Australian market. And, once Plumridge has proven the model in Perth, she will be given the chance to expand the brand across the rest of the country. “The agreement with Amanda is that she is going to take on the master licence in the not too distant future,” says Owen.
It’s a similar case in Malaysia, where Pyjama Drama launched this January. Rather than proactively exploring opportunities in the Asian country, Owen was approached by franchisees Karen Tan and Shanie Loo, who had been following the brand for a couple of years. “They liked what we do and decided to make contact when they saw we had gone to Australia,” says Owen. After numerous conversations over the course of six months, Tan and Loo started delivering classes on Malaysia’s Penang Island earlier this year. “I just thought they were the right people,” continues Owen. “They are the kind of franchisees I had been searching for over here.”
Because English is the second language for the majority of children in Malaysia, the structure and content of the classes haven’t needed too much altering. “There is a slight change in delivery, so training is taking a bit longer,” says Owen. “But the feedback from Karen and Shanie is that the children are responding fantastically.” Given the size of the Malaysian market, the intention is to eventually expand Pyjama Drama beyond Penang, with Loo and Tan taking on the master licence. “It wouldn’t have made sense to just sell one franchise in Malaysia and walk away,” she adds.
Most recently, Pyjama Drama landed in California. After stumbling across the company online, drama teacher Sarah Rijnen is now delivering classes in the Central Coast region of the US state. “If Sarah proves that Pyjama Drama can work there, we will set up a franchising company together,” says Owen. “The laws are slightly different in America so Sarah isn’t a franchisee; she is a partner who will hopefully go on to sell franchises across the country.”
Having snapped up three international territories in a little over a year, things certainly seem to be on the up for Pyjama Drama. However, the franchise isn’t looking to add any more countries in the near future. “The strategy now is to just stop and focus on what we have got,” says Owen. “It would probably be a little bit naive to take on another international franchise at this stage.”
And if her initial overseas experiences have taught Owen anything, it’s that finding the right people can make life a lot easier. “If you take on the wrong franchisee in the UK, it can be difficult,” she says. “But it’s never going to be as challenging as taking on the wrong person abroad.”