Conversations over coffee and then a text. That was the start of an incredible journey for the founders of Turtle Tots, Caroline Sparks and Gaby Lixton. Fast forward 11 years and the pair have their sights on world domination for their swim school franchise.
Turtle Tots was formed in Bristol in 2011 and now boasts over 50 franchise businesses across the UK and Ireland. At the heart of the classes’ philosophy is teaching children life-saving skills in the water.
Gaby and Caroline took the time to speak with LoveAdmin about how their business began, how Turtle Tots has grown so impressively, and the advice they’d give to others looking to follow in their footsteps.
Taking charge of their destiny
The duo’s backgrounds have been fundamental in shaping their success. Gaby, who has a business degree, explains: “Caroline had a very successful baby and toddler marketing market business and I exhibited at Caroline’s exhibition a couple of times. We would meet up for coffees and bounce ideas off each other.”
Gaby was confident she had something special on her hands with the first Turtle Tots. And it didn’t take long for people to show their interest in franchising the business. But Gaby didn’t want to take this step on her own. “The first person I thought of was Caroline, so I texted her.'”
The timing was ideal. Caroline was selling her exhibition business, and so a partnership formed. Within a few months, they had added three swim schools to their portfolio. It was then that Gaby took a step back from the swim school she had launched in Bristol in order to focus on growing the franchise.
The motivation for building their own business? To take control. Gaby adds: “When I had my girls I didn’t want to go back a gruelling 72 hours a week schedule. I wanted to be in charge of my own business and hours and destiny. That was really important.”
“Initially we did a lot of marketing,” Caroline explains. “On website listings, franchise websites and local exhibitions. But actually 70% of our franchisees have come from being customers. It gives families flexibility. So our business has largely grown organically.”
Planning for growth and being prepared for the next challenge. That’s how the duo have forged such a thriving franchise business. Gaby says: “We’re great believers in gearing up for future growth. We try to get there before the need.”
As Turtle Tots locations multiplied, the next stage was to build a supportive and highly skilled team around them. This was integral to maintaining the quality of the lessons provided and the reputation of the brand. Creating a culture of togetherness has ensured franchisees help one another, too.
The pair recently demonstrated how non-negotiable those high standards are when they made the tough decision to terminate a franchise agreement. A couple of customer complaints had sent some alarm bells ringing, explains Caroline: “It is a rare thing, but we had to do it to uphold the brand.”
Lessons come thick and fast in business. When asked about their steepest learning curve, Gaby says: “Internationalising the business.” Turtle Tots opened in Melbourne, Australia, but Gaby admits they underestimated the scale of work involved: “It didn’t take off in the way we wanted.” They dusted themselves down and moved on.
Gaby and Caroline also know the value of investing time in their franchises. By empowering the business owners with new and improved skills – from social media to admin best practices – everyone at Turtle Tots benefits.
Having overcome the squeeze on businesses like theirs during the pandemic, attention now turns to the next chapter for Turtle Tots. Going international remains very much on the cards, and their ambitions don’t stop there. With pools at a premium in the UK, Gaby and Caroline have another big project: building their own pools.
Gaby concludes: “We’ve had a couple of really good months and there’s a lot of pent up demand for what we have, so we’re running with that.”
A big thank you to Caroline and Gaby for speaking with us. If you have big plans too, here are some handy links to get you started:
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