The Playknox spoke with Christine Kelly, founder and CEO of Little Kickers, a franchising pioneer, the first company in the UK to operate educational football programmes for pre-school children via a far-reaching network of franchisees, and we are now the largest global operator in this space, having established the business in 34 countries.
Tell us about LKFC. What was the thought behind launching the project?
My son, Lukas, was the inspiration for Little Kickers – at 2 years old he was obsessed by football and after working really long hours at the investment bank, JP Morgan, and travelling a lot with work when he was a baby, I decided to take a bit of a career break. I discovered that Lukas wanted to spend all day, every day on Wandsworth Common in London with me in goal, kicking balls at me! I had never played football at school, so did not really know how to teach him so I looked for football classes for pre-school kids in my area and could not find any.
I found a football coach and ran a pilot in London and it was oversubscribed by 400%. I realised at that point that my idea had potential and I set up 35 classes a week in London within the first year. I then decided that I needed to look at alternative business models in order to continue growing the Little Kickers business successfully and started franchising the business. Little Kickers now operates through a network of over 330 franchisees in 33 countries around the world.
Why did you decide to franchise the business?
I wanted to provide as many kids as possible with a fun, positive introduction to sport whilst maintaining the quality of the classes Little Kickers delivered. Through adopting a franchise model, Little Kickers was able to create a network of small business owners who all had a strong interest in ensuring that the quality of the classes they offered was high, and that their businesses were successfully run.
I also discovered that many people find managing work / life balance very challenging once they start a family, so there was a large pool of very motivated and qualified individuals who wanted to take on a Little Kickers franchise.
What does Little Kickers provide to franchisees?
Little Kickers provide everything a franchisee needs in order to set up and run their own successful business in their local area, with the comfort of knowing that they will benefit from a world class brand, infrastructure and support.
Franchisees undergo three days of desk-based training initially, where subjects such as finance, marketing, data protection, health and safety, employee relations, finding a venue, training coaches etc are covered in detail.
There is also practical training, where franchisees have the opportunity to get involved in classes with experienced coaches, and really get to grips with how a physical class is run. Franchisees also receive ongoing video / online training material updates for dissemination to their coaching teams.
The administration of the classes is managed through a customised version of the Salesforce system and franchisees receive upfront training on IT / how to administer their classes.
The Head Office team carry out a lot of digital marketing support for franchisees, but franchisees are also provided with lots of materials which are continuously updated, so that they can carry out their own local marketing campaigns. Franchisees also receive discounted rates on a range of merchandise.
What’s the strategy behind launching the program in India? What has been the response from 2017 till now?
India is a growing market with huge demand coming from urban areas, and we’ve witnessed the rise of football as the 2nd most popular sport and the Indian Super League over the years. The growth in interest in football has been remarkable. We can see huge potential in the Indian market in the coming years and feel that it’s possible that it will develop into one of our larger markets on a global basis eventually.
Currently, we have a number of unit franchisees successfully operating in India in Mumbai, Chennai, Baroda, etc. We are launching new franchisees in locations such as Bangalore, Thane, etc. We are keen to find Master Franchisees who will receive full training on how to find, recruit, train and manage a network of franchisees across their state, as we feel the Indian market lends itself well to this model.
Initially, it was quite challenging to launch the programme into India because there was not widespread recognition of the importance of sport to a child’s holistic development, but we focused heavily on emphasising the early learning benefits of the Little Kickers programme (colour and number recognition, spatial awareness, social development such as sharing, taking turns etc.) and the Indian market appears to be embracing this in line with other developed countries. Now we can see that the “edutainment” market is starting to flourish in India and
we feel that the proven demand puts Little Kickers in a strong position to see our network achieve solid growth throughout the Indian market.
How is the organisation tackling COVID19 challenges?
Fortunately, we switched the entire business over to a new IT system (Salesforce) and moved to monthly recurring billing rather than invoicing our customers in advance for 12-week courses. As a result of this, when we locked down in most countries in March, our franchisees were able to put our customers’ memberships “on hold” rather than having to refund them. Then when it was safe to reopen, we just started up where we’d left off. We managed to maintain the bulk of our customers by doing this whereas had we not moved to monthly billing we would likely have had to processed hundreds of thousands of pounds of refunds.
We’re lucky insofar as, as an organisation we have very low fixed costs – all of our HO team and franchisees work from home and we pay coach wages and venue rental costs by the hour. When everything got locked down, we no longer had to pay for venues and government furlough schemes helped out with coach wages. So, in a sense our franchisees were mostly able to just “switch off” their businesses for the months we were in lockdown.
We took the initial decision not to try to move the entire business online and continue charging. Rather, we decided to try to engage our customers with lots of free online content: games, coach interviews, free classes on You Tube / FB etc and this seemed to be appreciated and kept our customers engaged. As the pandemic progressed, we set up tools for our franchisees to run online classes for their customers, but we hope that soon this will no longer be necessary!
India is one of the most adversely affected by COVID we have had to stop the physical classes after complete lockdown in March last year. But we are now seeing the signs of recovery and getting back on track. We are about to launch a few more areas in India in Bangalore, Mumbai, Thane, Pune, etc.
Do you aim to merge with organisations like LaLiga which run grassroots initiatives or work independently?
We have formed partnerships with some of the larger clubs and organisations over the years, but due to the age range we deal with (18 months – 7 years) there is typically not much overlap with the professional clubs and organisations.
We do act as a pipeline for these organisations in some instances – we provide children with the first love of sport and typically they want to continue playing football once they have turned 7 and are too old for our classes, so at that stage we work with clubs to help develop a pathway for them to continue playing the sport they love.
With the development of football in Indian Market like, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid & Borussia Dortmund investing & partnering with ISL clubs is a good sign for the overall development of football. So, in future we’ll be happy to explore this path with one of the Indian Clubs specifically for Indian Market.
Are you looking to work with the state governments too?
We do not have any immediate plans to do this but our main objective is to provide as many children as possible with a fun, positive introduction to sport so this may be something we do in the future if it would help to achieve our goal.