Puddle Ducks’ founders have overcome serious illness and built a national powerhouse together

Almost dying from a rare virus and facing the fear of failure didn't prevent Tracy Townend and Jo Stone from leading Puddle Ducks' network of franchisees to make a big splash across the UK

Puddle Ducks’ founders have overcome serious illness and built a national powerhouse together

“We had something to prove,” Tracy Townend declares. Her voice carries surprisingly well and not just because of the somewhat unreliable telephone line. The Puddle Ducks co-founder is still recovering from a rare virus that left her in intensive care for months in 2016, unable to speak, feed herself or see. Still, being confined to a hospital bed didn’t stop her from leading the pre-natal and children’s swimming franchise, communicating with light hand squeezes.”

Over the years since, those small signs have turned into speech and she’s now up on her own two feet. “Tracy had sheer determination, drive and tenacity to recover,” says Jo Stone, the co-founder. Townend says her friend’s support and that from the network of 32 UK franchisees they’ve built up together has certainly helped her recover. After all, it’s the duo’s baby, almost as young as their actual daughters.”

And that’s what Townend is talking about when she says Stone and herself had something to prove – not overcoming the disease but demonstrating they could make a success of the launch of Puddle Ducks in 2002. After all, leaving an established career for the unknown path of entrepreneurialism is a huge undertaking. “It was easy being an employee,” Townend explains. “And we wanted to prove we could do it without the backdrop of being an employee. We wanted to prove it could work.”

Their prior careers had seen them gain vital experience for their future endeavour – Townend had previously worked as a supply manager at Shell Chemicals and Stone had been an IT project manager at Barclays. Although, while they’d enjoyed their jobs, they felt the pull to create something of their own. And for Stone, this wasn’t a new experience. “I always wanted to be my own boss and start my own company when I was back in school but I didn’t know what that business might look like,” she reveals. “I certainly didn’t have the confidence of going at it alone and doing something entrepreneurial.” Her previous hesitations washed away when she met Townend at an antenatal class when they were both pregnant with their first children.”

Not only were their daughters born on the same day, weighing seven pounds each but the two friends also found they had a lot more in common. As they kept meeting after the birth of their children, this fact became even clearer. “We talked lots and lots about what we wanted to do in the future because we realised that perhaps the corporate career wasn’t what we wanted to do next,” says Stone.”

They found the answer to what their next step would be during their weekly swimming sessions with their daughters. Having found a book about baby swimming, they played around in a pool with their babies. And they loved it – not least of all because it helped them bond with their tiny tots. “In the water you’re on the same level,” Townend explains. “In the water your eyes are on the same level whereas on the land you’re towering above your baby.””

And why did they do it themselves instead of going to a baby swimming lesson? “There was just nothing around,” Stone answers. Indeed, today there may be several UK-based franchises operating in this sector – from Water Babies and Turtle Tots to Mini Swimming and SwimKidz – but back in 2002 these opportunities were few and far between. Recognising this reality inspired them to launch Puddle Ducks. “We were definitely one of the first,” Stone claims.”

Fortunately, they had some time to make the transition from corporate workers to entrepreneurs. “We had the luxury of doing it while we were on maternity leave,” Stone recalls. “We could take the time out to ensure we did things properly.” This by no means meant they rested on their laurels. Instead, they dived headfirst into the task of setting up their business. This meant searching and finding a swimming pool to have their classes in as well as attending leadership and swimming courses to prepare them for their venture. “It was full time from the beginning,” Stone says. “It was never a little part-time job, [it was] always intended to be something bigger.”

Even though they had buckets of tenacity, their venture still lacked a name. “The first few classes were literally called Baby Swimming,” laughs Stone. The inspiration for the brand came when she was on vacation with her husband. “And then one day we went on a trip and I saw a boat called Puddle Ducks and that immediately struck a chord,” she recalls. “It was appealing and quite nurturing and I thought it was perfect for young swimmers.” After telling Townend and trying the name on a few friends, the founders eventually christened their business after that boat. And there was clearly a demand for their services. “We did a little bit of local advertising but it wasn’t long before we didn’t need to advertise,” Stone says. “We had filled up all our classes and we really didn’t need to get anymore [customers].”

Things seemed to be going well for the entrepreneurial duo – they had plenty of clients and a pool to hold their lessons in. “And then suddenly, out of the blue, one day we weren’t allowed to teach in it anymore,” Stone says. As it turned out, the pool caretaker had grown unhappy with the health and safety demands attached to hosting Puddle Ducks’ classes and decided to end the partnership.”

Case in point from 2015, husband and wife team Gary and Suzanne Horton had grown tired with pool owners in their areas not giving them enough time slots to meet the demand of their customers. After talking with the franchisors, the franchisees decided to buy an old pub. The idea was that they would convert the bottom floor to their own pool and then live on the top floor. The initiative proved so successful that the couple received the bfa HSBC Franchisee Innovation Award in 2017.

Following the stellar performance of the trial, the franchisor has taken steps to help other franchisees create their own similar pools. “We’ve now got someone in the head office who’s a real expert in pool build,” Stone reveals. Moreover, they’ve found dedicated suppliers and contractors to streamline the creation of similar swimming facilities across the network. Several franchisees are already interested in taking the franchisor up on this offer and the founders hope new franchisees may be interested in building their own pools as part of them joining the network. “It’s that evolution again,” says Stone. “It’s a different type of person that’s putting that investment into different investors.”

And if they want to see how it works in reality, they soon won’t have to look too far. “We’re well into the conversations of having an HQ pool built in Cheshire,” explains Stone. “So fingers crossed we’ll have something by the end of this year.”

In the almost two decades since Puddle Ducks launched, the company has acquired an impressive collection of awards. The list includes several wins and nominations at the annual bfa HSBC Franchise Awards and the NatWest EWIF Awards, picking up multiple Smith & Henderson 5-Star Franchisee Satisfaction Awards and being among the UK’s 100 best franchises in the EF Top 100 2018 list. And Stone is certain picking up prestigious gongs like these will only be good for the company. “It gives us credibility and recognition,” she says.

With breathtaking accolades such as these underneath its belt, one has to ask what’s next for Puddle Ducks. “Our aim is to continue to make sure [our services are] available to as many people as possible, to make it as inclusive as we can,” concludes Stone.”

With such a focused outlook, we’re certain the franchisors will continue to make a splash for years to come.”

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson