Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email email@example.com.
Steve and Stefani Kulawik wanted to open a family business that strengthened their community. In search of a business that would provide a positive impact, they discovered Children's Lighthouse Learning Center, an educational childcare franchise. With Stefani already working in childcare, the couple knew this could be the perfect fit. Here's what the Kulawiks have learned while using franchising as a way to give back to the San Antonio area.
Name: Steve and Stefani Kulawik
Franchise owned: Three Children’s Lighthouse Learning Centers in San Antonio and Schertz, Texas
How long have you owned a franchise?
We have been franchising with Children’s Lighthouse for a combined eight years between our three units.
We decided to open a family business that reflected both our moral values and commitment for the surrounding community. We had to provide a positive force for the people around us, whether it was creating jobs or making someone’s everyday life a bit better. Eventually, we got lucky and found a model that helped us accomplish all these goals. After lots of research and a few signatures, we got to work with a brand that offered a proven system for ethical and sustainable success. We also wanted some reliable support as we got the business up and running, and finding the right franchise provided that.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
Before opening our Children’s Lighthouse centers, Stefani was already working in childcare and school administration. Steve was a practicing attorney and Certified Public Accountant. We have also been doing philanthropic and charity work for years, something that we remain very passionate about. Earlier this year, our family traveled to Peru to provide aid for a girl’s orphanage. We installed a couple hot water heaters and helped update the building’s maintenance.
Why did you choose this particular franchise?
We looked at a lot of franchises in the childcare industry. Out of all the options we explored, the ownership at Children’s Lighthouse impressed us the most with their clear commitment to finding talented and passionate operators for the Children’s Lighthouse system. The brand’s ownership took their time getting to know us, made numerous visits to San Antonio, where we live, and always made themselves available when we had questions.
It sometimes felt like other franchisors were simply trying to sell as many franchises as possible to whoever would pay. It was important for us to know that the brand’s ownership was as committed as we were to doing positive, community-oriented work in our business, rather than focusing exclusively on the bottom line.
How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
The project size when I opened my first unit was about $2.5 million, of which I financed about 80 percent with an SBA loan.
Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
We did most of the research ourselves. We visited and interviewed other franchisees, studied their curriculum and reviewed whatever press we could find about the brand. We also asked the franchisors lots of questions — the Children’s Lighthouse team offered ample advice regarding real estate, site selection, government agency issues and HR. Fortunately, our background in entrepreneurship and childcare already put us ahead of the game, and we knew what to look for and ask about.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
We faced the biggest challenges opening our first franchise, and those primarily had to do with real estate and construction. We had some minor obstacles working with the construction crew and getting the building finished on time. However, our second and third centers opened very smoothly.
One of the benefits of franchising with an established brand is the initial support you receive. The Children’s Lighthouse team are experts in opening new centers, and we got to benefit from that when we joined the system.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
First and foremost, do ample research on franchisors. Talk to other franchisees in the system and do not hesitate to ask any question you want answers to. Visit several different franchise locations, get permission to shadow an existing franchise’s manager or owner for a couple days, and do whatever else you can to get to know the franchise system before jumping in.
Most importantly, be aware that you are buying a process and a brand. It is up to you as the franchisee to manage and operate the business and make it successful, not the franchise company. I have encountered some franchisees that thought franchisors are responsible for the success of individual operators, but this is not the case.
Also, if you are building a location for your business, work with a local builder who knows the area and may have worked on similar projects in the past. Try to avoid construction crews from out of town – this can make a huge difference.
What’s next for you and your business?
We will continue to own and operate our three existing locations and working with our 110 fabulous employees. We are introducing a new curriculum in our centers that will continue to revolutionize our incredible education programs, and enable our teachers to inspire kids in wonderful new ways. We have also begun to scout locations for a possible fourth Children’s Lighthouse center around the San Antonio area.
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