It is safe to say while some people are born to be business owners, others must go down several other paths before entering the world of franchising.
This is exactly the scenario for Sara and Kevin Allan of Abbotsford, BC, franchisees of both Once Upon A Child and Plato’s Closet, under the umbrella of Winmark.
As explained by Sara during a recent interview with Canadian Business Franchisewhile Kevin was natural as an entrepreneur, it was something she personally did not expect to get involved with.
The couple quickly realized that instead of striking out on their own as independent business owners, the franchise model made a lot more sense.
Sara also spoke about the importance of finding the right team, striking a work/life balance, and the challenges caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Canadian Business Franchise (CBF): Did you always envision yourself as an entrepreneur? If not, what were your career aspirations?
Sara Allan (SA): I never thought of being an entrepreneur. I envisioned myself as a mother first followed by working in the fitness industry. My husband (and business partner) Kevin was born an entrepreneur. His mind is always turning and planning. It made sense to go down the path together.
CBF: Why did you choose franchising?
SA: We didn’t initially choose to get involved in a franchise. I was staying at home with our two babies. I love being a mother, but I needed something else, too. My husband was ready for a career change. When Kevin decided he wanted to invest in a business for me to be a part of, we dedicated more time to researching Winmark. The Once Upon A Child resale model appealed to me. It didn’t make sense to try and create something like this on our own, when everything was already developed, tested, and available for us to get involved with.
CBF: How did you discover this franchising opportunity? What drew you to this business?
SA: I had heard about Once Upon A Child, but we didn’t have one local to us or even in our province. As a newer parent, it looked like a store I would like to visit. Every now and then I would check to see if one was opening, otherwise, it was the typical small consignment store or online swaps in our community. I really did enjoy the thrill of buying and selling my children’s items through swap groups, but waiting in parking lots and having strangers at my door grew tiresome quickly. At some point, my husband brought up the idea of us getting involved with opening a franchise location locally. We contacted Winmark and attended an information session soon after.
CBF: Can you describe the process and experience of purchasing your franchise? (eg securing financing, selecting a location, legalities, documentation, etc.)
SA: It was a long process for us to get to our grand opening day, from the time we signed our franchise agreement to the day we did our first sale. We had the full support of Winmark through the process. The main issue within our city was the rezoning and bylaw issues. We found a great location rather quickly in an area that was being rezoned for commercial from industrial. The longest process was waiting for the rezoning and having our city approve our type of business. We essentially needed to prove that we weren’t another pawn shop. Financing was a lengthy process, but we were able to provide enough information from our franchisor and personal history to make it happen. Winmark was transparent with us from the beginning, noting it could take nine to 12 months from the start of the process to the opening day, and this was pretty accurate. We took about a year to get through all the hurdles and onto our grand opening.
CBF: What was involved in opening your franchise? (eg constructions/renovations, franchise training, hiring staff, marketing and promotion of your franchise, etc.)
SA: We started from scratch. Our commercial location was an old industrial car shop or something along those lines. Our landlord handed it to us as a vanilla shell and the rest was up to us to contract the trades to come in for the rest of the build. It is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to open a new business, but Winmark mainstreams the process well. They already have preferred vendors set up that are accustomed to our store builds. Once they have the plans for the unit you’re in, the store is designed with Winmark and we order all the supplies from their vendor. It covers everything from the fixtures to the operational supplies to marketing direction and support. After opening, if you want to source ocally to save money, this is an option we took for many of our supplies.
As far as training, you get two weeks of basic training through Winmark, plus ongoing support depending on the stage you’re in (they have start up, opening, and ongoing support employees). Like anything, it’s a great starting point with basic training, but you learn so much more when you’re hands on in the first year of business. We found hiring quite simple back when we started in 2013. The main challenge was training people on something I was just learning myself.
We did heavy marketing and pushed towards a really exciting grand opening with giveaways to appeal to our community and grab their attention. When you’re a newer brand in a new market, you really need to focus on your brand awareness and getting your name out there. It can be a tough one to swallow but marketing is a huge positive investment in your business.
CBF: Describe your opening day.
SA: January 30, 2014 was our opening day. It feels so long ago. Like any milestone, it was an exciting blur of a day. We spent all this time, money, sweat, and tears working towards this day and when it was finally there, it just felt like a relief. It was a fun event. There was so much going on and we were finally able to offer our growing community an affordable option for buying and selling their kids’ items and move forward with running our business.
CBF: Describe a typical day of running your franchise.
SA: A typical day involves providing our best customer experience possible. We provide families the option to come and sell their kids’ items, but also shop for the next stage. When our doors open for the day, we start buying and we don’t stop—we literally buy all day, every day. This is all balanced with helping our customers on the shopping side and processing the items we buy from our customers that day. It’s a fine-tuned system. Our team members are what keep it running smoothly, I can’t do it without them.
CBF: Do you feel your educational background helps in your day-to-day tasks and when making business decisions?
SA: If you don’t have experience in business or finance, Winmark provides support and tools that make this all easier to understand. This is a learning process like anything and understanding how it all comes together in our store. Between my husband’s experience and educational background, and our shared determination, organization skills, and ability to follow our franchise model, I feel this is what contributes to running our day-to-day tasks and business decisions.
CBF: What have been the highlights of running your franchise?
SA: I really love meeting new people; this includes employees and customers. I love hearing about their lives and plans. As an entry level workplace, we get many young employees with many different life paths and, often, we are a first job. We get to see a lot of growth in people, which is interesting to me.
CBF: What have been the challenges of running your franchise?
SA: Being self-employed can be challenging, period. There are always emails and phone calls, and usually at the least desirable time (like dinner or vacations). The biggest challenge in running a small labour-intensive business is not having enough of the right employees. The pandemic just furthers this issue. When you have the right people on your team and have given them the right tools and training, the balance between you being a business owner and having a personal life is great. You can spend more time working on your business than physically being in it.
CBF: How do you make your franchise standout amongst others in the market?
SA: It is important to us that our stores are a positive place in the community. Yes, we are a franchise and it’s hard to not fall under a “corporate” viewpoint to the customer, but we are a family owned and operated small business. We take pride in our customer service and our employees, starting with greeting all customers when they walk in our doors.
CBF: How has the business evolved since you first started?
SA: Every day, we are always learning. We are in our eighth year of business with Once Upon A Child and our fifth year with our second store, Plato’s Closet (also a Winmark brand). I still look at the first year being the biggest learning curve for both stores. We continue to learn and grow with experience year after year—from customer experience to the buying process to the ever-challenging employment issues.
CBF: How has COVID affected your business?
COVID-19 has affected everyone and every business. The pandemic has made it extremely challenging to hire and retain good employees. It’s a constant battle of keeping the morale up and not facing the fatigue and burnout that comes with being understaffed at the most unexpected times, putting added stress on your key employees. Additionally, we have had battles with inventory levels being too high or too low based on the demands of our customer’s shopping habits. This can be financially straining, but we are constantly communicating our ongoing inventory needs with our customers and employees to find this balance. We are not immune to this pandemic, but I am grateful for the type of business we have because it is essential.
CBF: What are your future plans?
SA: We are proud and content with our two franchise locations. They’re in the same complex and complement each other well. Our families that shop Once Upon A Child for their babies to tweens can transition to Plato’s Closet which focuses on teens to young adults. As a family with three kids, we feel life balance between being hands on with our two businesses and family is exactly where we want to be. We want to continue to provide our community with safe places to buy and sell their items for years to come.