Prospects at International Franchise Expo

March 31, 2011

BY MELANIE ALNWICK/myfoxdc

WASHINGTON - Doggie day care is big business these days. But it was just beginning to take off when Amy Nichols left a job to open her first "Dogtopia" nine years ago.

"I found telecom to be very lucrative, but at the end of the day I felt very empty, I didn't feel I had made a difference," she recalls.

By putting her hard work where her heart is, Nichols and her husband now own a corporation that has 20 licensed franchises, and growing.

"We're definitely living the dream, and you know, opening the business, was fantastic. Helping other people open businesses now is just so much more rewarding. To see them be able to do what they really love, and to be successful, and to replace any income they used to make...

It never leaves me, or gets past me, that every dollar I make is because I created something, “says Nichols.

It's dreams like that, that bring people to the annual International Franchise Expo. More than 200 companies looking to expand will fill the hall of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown DC. Choices range from chocolates to cleaning... home care to hamburgers, and just about every other business you can think of.

"The great thing about franchising,” says Scott Lehr, vice president of U.S. and International Development for the International Franchise Association, “...is that you are in business for yourself, but you have the background of the franchise company. As we say, being in business for yourself, but not by yourself."

For that, prospective franchisees will pay a fee, ranging from $15,000 on the low end to $50,000 on the high end. Owners also have to be willing to follow the company's blueprint.

"If you're very entrepreneurial and want to make all the decisions yourself, then franchising may not be the business for you," advises Lehr.

On the other hand, it's a great way for people who want to own their own business to get a jump start. Finding a good fit is one of the keys to success, says Lehr.

"I hear all the time, people ask me, what's the hot franchise to get into? And really from my perspective, the hot franchise to get into is the business where you're going to enjoy working 40, 50, 60, 80 hours a week."

There are also start up costs, which can run from $75,000 for some mobile businesses to more than $4 million dollars for a high end hotel.

Capital has been hard to come by in the last few years, especially with shrinking home equity and retirement funds. Lehr says the International Franchise Association has been talking to the Small Business Administration and other lenders to loosen up some business loans.

Dogtopia's Nichols says in addition to securing financing, it's important to ask how the company will support its franchisees once they're off & running.

"The hard part is staying open and becoming profitable. So a great question to ask is... 'What do you do if I'm in trouble?'," she advises.

So what does she look for in a prospective franchisee? Nichols says having experience managing hourly employees is really big. She also wants someone with an entrepreneurial spirit because, as she says, C.E.O. means "Chief Everything Officer."

"I think above all you really have to have a love for customer service. I like to say the dogs don't have credit cards, "she laughs.

But they do have doting parents. Happy parents, make happy customers -- and a thriving business to build on.