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.