Franchising - faux or real entrepreneurship? ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

skitched-20080215-155420.jpgI've long been interested in the idea of franchising, though I'm somewhat conflicted about how to look at it. One the one side, it seems* like a relatively easy way to start a business, on the other side, it seems* a relatively cheap way to grow your business (*: within limits).

WSJ recently published an excellent study on high-performing franchises in the US. The choice of franchises is extensive, just like I concluded in my post on top-German franchises. At the same time, the most apparent choice, that of food, seems less and less attractive, and I quote from WSJ:

In particular, fast-food and casual-dining businesses, while still showing strength, with eight names on the list, also are facing pressure from wage and food cost increases. To lower operating costs, several food franchises already are shuttering some locations.
Arguably, a business that is thinking about growing through franchising is faced with some restrictions. Writing a franchisees-manual is a scientific process, you'll probably have to restrict the complexity of operations so that they can be replicated, and there will still be some overhead related to managing the brand and some of the more problematic franchisees.

I think that it is that standardisation of operations, made big through the economies of scale so easily achievable in the US, that is bring competitive problems to chains, even to wholly owned ones like Starbucks. If your core-product is simple, and your business uses a simplified operation, then how hard is it for your competitors to replicate your whole business-model and -strategy in the long-term, really? It is only if your business strategy includes complex competitive advantages, such as extensive vertical and horizontal integration across the value chain, and/or if your business-model is based on "high-tech" components or processes, that you have a real chance of beating the clones. And to relate it to the rising operating costs, mentioned above, business with true competitive advantage can raise profit-margins or off-set the costs elsewhere, instead of having to close operations.

But ok, long-term strategic considerations aside, I see franchising is an attractive way to enter the business-world as an entrepreneur. The question of whether it's faux or real entrepreneurship, is not pertinent, I think. Considering that you have a wide range of choice of franchise-business opportunities, you'll still have to work hard to succeed, and the growth-opportunities can include starting multiple franchises also, it is not that different from starting any other kind of business. In my mind, I compare it to internet-entrepreneurship, which also relies on a large amount of free tools and distribution-mechanisms, but is still dependant on that special something for it to be successful.

What makes franchising particularly attractive, is the decreased amount of risk. According to a study in the Netherlands, 65% of franchises are still standing after 3 years. Compare that to independent start-ups, of which only 15% are alive at that time.

A large cause is, I'm sure, the level of support from the parent-company, which differ from business to business, and can include delivery of goods, marketing, administrative and IT services, made cheaper through centralisation. And they are frequently guided through the process of setting up and running the business, including legal advice. In exchange, they give away either a percentage of profits (ranging from 5 to 40%) or a set monthly sum to the franchiser.

The WSJ-article also lists the amount of investment typically needed to start a franchise. It ranges from ca. $5200 for an automotive company, to a staggering $1,3 million for a steakhouse. Of the 25 franchises recorded, only 5 received some kind of financial assistance (none of which in food). Another article at WSJ discusses some of the attitudes towards financing franchises, particularly during the current US-recession. Incidentally, another article in Dutch Elsevier magazine, sees franchising as an excellent way for businesses to grow during a recession, as it requires less human costs.

All in all, it is probably a safer way to start a business, though with all the points I made above, I don't think of it as 'light' entrepreneurship. There's clearly a lot of risk involved, beforehand, in terms of choosing the right franchise with growth-potential, financial risk to fund your business, market-risk, when you launch, and competitive risk, after your up and running.

I still want to discuss this topic further at a future date, particularly focussing on what its like to turn your own business into a franchise, and some other stuff related to buying into one.

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