Steve Jobs once said: “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” And it’s fair to say the late Apple co-founder was on to something. Today, knowledge in robotics and programming is more essential than ever. Understanding this, Mad Science, the Canadian science enrichment franchise, is teaching kids as young as five how to code and has grown to an international teaching powerhouse with a footprint in 28 countries and counting. And for Shafik Mina, global president of the company, the chance to help children succeed more in life is what drives him to constantly push the company towards excellence. “To be a part of the Mad Science mission is exciting for me,” he says.
However, the franchise’s prospects haven’t always been this optimistic. While the company had enjoyed a long successful stretch since it launched in 1985, by 2013 it suffered from abysmal franchisee satisfaction and staff motivation as well as a lack of vision, which all hampered the franchise’s growth. At the time Mina had served as an in-house legal counsellor for five years. During that period he’d gone from being excited about Mad Science’s future to being disappointed about the leadership. “I was fairly frustrated so I went to see the owners and told them ‘I don’t see my future here so I want to leave,'” he remembers. Fortunately, owners Ariel and Ron Shlien shared his sentiment and revealed they were actually looking for someone new to come in and take over. “And I immediately said ‘I would love to throw my hat into the ring,'” he recalls. “They said ‘we’ll hire you as an internal president for a year and in that year there can be two outcomes – either we’ll be happy with what you deliver and if not we’ll hire a president from outside and you can go back to your in-house counsel position if you want.'” How did it go? Well, Mina is still spearheading the company, isn’t he?
Today Mad Science has partnerships with NASA and the Kennedy Space Centre but it didn’t start like that. After stepping into the president’s shoes, Mina had to tackle various issues. For instance, franchisees globally were frustrated due to lack of communication and support from the franchisor. “You gotta listen to your franchisees,” he says. “The good and the bad. That to me is worth its weight in gold.”
To make the challenge even greater, he had several international markets to consider – the UK market being one of the biggest. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t challenging,” he says.
The company had set foot on British soil in 2005 and by the time Mina took over, it was clear the route had to change, even though the value proposition was on point. “We entered with the wrong model,” he says. At the time area developers or mini-master franchisees, bought a territory with the capacity of three or four franchises and would own and operate the first franchise and support the others. “The problem was the developers would focus more on growing their own franchise and had less time for the whole territory,” he says. “It just wasn’t focussed. We want our franchisees to be successful and it made more sense for them to focus on the business which paid their bills.”
This change strengthened Mad Science’s franchisor-franchisee relationship. However, it wasn’t easy for Mina. “The whole process required time – we worked with our local partners and it was a work in progress for a while,” he adds. “Since the UK is a very important market for us, we give it all the love and care it needs.”
But Mina faced another challenge in the UK. “We weren’t adapting ourselves to the local market,” he says. To better understand it, his team started to be more present at regional franchisee meetings where they realised Mad Science had totally forgotten about British children’s school uniforms. However, none of the kids in their marketing material did. “Our franchisees told us that parents couldn’t relate to these ads since it wasn’t their reality,” he explains. Since then, he ensured all photo shoots include school uniforms. It also brought home an important lesson. “Just because a recipe works in the US and Canada doesn’t mean it will work in the UK,” he says. “We assumed you could cut and paste around the world. But you have to be conscious of the local culture and the local particularities.”
Fast-forward five years and the company is experiencing an upward trajectory. “The UK comes in our top five regions globally along with the US, Canada, Netherlands and China,” Mina says. “In terms of critical mass, the UK is becoming a serious player.”
The key for a successful network lies in finding the best franchisees even if that means being picky. “As a mature franchise we can afford to say ‘maybe you’re not the right partner for us,'” he says. To be in the Goldilocks zone, budding franchisees must have a passion to make a positive impact on children. “And that’s what I look for while recruiting apart from strong business acumen,” Mina explains.
Once chosen, the franchisees kickstart by spending a few weeks at the headquarters in Montreal where they familiarise themselves with the Mad Science brand and tricks to scaling a business. A support staff member is then sent with the franchisee to the new region for a week where all the operations are put in place. With regular webinars, trading videos and manuals, franchisees are hand-held through any challenges they might face. “This wasn’t given priority in the management before,” Mina says. This forced him to be adamant about the changes to be made even if they are difficult. “But that’s what my journey has been about,” he says. “We are still in the transforming stage. Not where I’d like to be. But we are sailing in the right direction.”
With 160 franchisees worldwide in total, 13 of which are in the UK and five more are in the pipeline, Mina is set to change the way children view technology. “Looking forward there will be a strong demand for tech education and we have a program which not only teaches the how’s but also the way tech will affect lives,” Mina concludes. “After having made the ship steady when I became president, we are now aiming to grow further, tread into new lands and educate little brains about man-made machines.”