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Doing Your Homework to Find Your Perfect Franchise

The first thing you need to keep in mind during your franchise research is that it is a process of mutual elimination for both you and the franchisor. You might find exactly the franchise you're looking for on the first try, but that is highly unlikely unless you have some expert help. Remember to ask any and all questions you can think of about a franchise business. This will allow you to remain focused and weigh all of your options to find the proper franchise opportunity.

You should also understand that it is unlikely that any one person contacting the franchise company will turn out to be a great match for them. Therefore both you and the franchisor are trying to determine if the fit seems right from the beginning of the investigation. If either party comes to the realization that this is not the right match, they simply inform the other party and move on.

Step 1 - General Information

The franchisor will begin by providing you with overview information on the company (typically a brochure and video package). They will then ask you to provide them with additional information on you (by filling out a questionnaire) to determine if you have the general characteristics that they are looking for, and the financial qualifications necessary for their franchise. Assuming that each party is still interested, based on this information exchange, you will proceed to the next step.

Step 2 - The Franchise Disclosure Document

This document, commonly referred to as the FDD, is the Federal Trade Commission mandated disclosure document that gives you a wealth of information about the franchisor. The form and composition of the document is standard with any franchisor and must include information on a variety of topics of interest to you. The major subject areas include:

  • The history of the franchise and its officers and directors.
  • A complete description of the business to be franchised.
  • All costs and fees that you will be subject to under the agreement.
  • The obligations of either party to the other during the term of the agreement and thereafter.
  • Any relevant litigation history of the company or its officers.
  • Any business failures, ownership transfers, franchise agreement terminations or other potentially adverse information relating to the success rate of the existing units in the system.
  • Audited financial statements for the franchise company for the previous three years.
  • A list of the existing franchisees.

A few franchisors also include an earnings claim in the FDD. Though they are not required to do so, this can be a real time saver for you if it is included. Even if it is included in the FDD, it is still imperative that you discuss this subject with franchisees during your fact-finding calls and visits.

You will carefully review the FDD and note any questions or issues that the material raises for further discussion with the franchisor. You may also choose to involve outside advisors to review material you do not understand.

Step 3 - Franchisee Calls and Visits

The most valuable source of information on any franchise system is the existing franchisees. You need to plan on calling or visiting a number of the existing franchisees during your investigation. It sounds almost trite, but whatever you find the prevailing attitude of the existing franchisees on any issue to be, it will almost certainly be your attitude on the issue as well if you decide to become a franchisee. Visit with a sufficient number of the existing franchisees to ensure you have a sense of the prevailing attitudes of the group.

Though you want to find the overwhelming majority of franchisees to be happy and supportive of the franchisor, it is important to try to find an unhappy franchisee during your investigation. When you do, not only listen to the complaints but also try to determine what makes this franchisee different from the rest. If you find you identify with the positive ones and feel the negative franchisee is not at all like you, then you should be fine. If you find that you are more like the person who is unhappy however, this is probably not the right franchise for you.

The following list covers the principle areas you want to investigate during these calls:

  • Training Programs - You need to determine how well the initial training programs and support prepared the franchisees for opening and running their business.
  • Opening Support - How easy did the franchisor make the process of getting the first unit open and operating? Was there assistance in site selection, lease negotiation, construction and design, securing financing, permits or any other factors unique to getting this business up and operating?
  • Ongoing Support - You want to know how effective the ongoing support services of the franchisor are in terms of helping franchisees deal with the problems that come up in the running of their business.
  • Franchise Marketing Programs - Most franchisors collect marketing dollars from every franchisee into a pool that is spent to promote the brand. You need to know whether the franchisees are happy and supportive of the way this process is handled. Note: this is typically the area where you will find the most complaining in any franchise you examine.
  • Purchasing Power - Does the franchisor use the collective buying power of the total system to get discounts on supplies and inventory beyond what an independent operator could achieve? This factor is one of the biggest advantages of joining a well-run franchise system and should offset much of the upfront fees associated with being a franchisee.
  • Franchisor/Franchisee Relations - Determine how the franchisees feel about the franchisor in general. Is the franchisor supportive, caring, focused on their success, responsive, effective, organized, and trustworthy? Make sure you have a good feeling about the values of the organization and that they are consistent with your values.
  • Franchise Investment - The FDD will give you a wide dollar range for the investment required in the business. Use the franchisee discussions to narrow that down to a reasonable and conservative estimate of how much capital you will need to be successful in this franchise in your market or region.
  • Earnings - It is critical that you have a strong sense of just where the average unit is in terms of earnings. You should know the answers to the following questions: How much money does the typical unit make given a specified length of time in business? How soon does a typical unit start making money after opening? What is the range of answers for these questions? If you are simply not able to determine these answers to your satisfaction in your research, do not settle! Tell the franchisor of the problem and that you cannot proceed unless you have these answers.

It is always a good idea to bring up the subject of earnings as the last point in your franchisee visits. Most people are reluctant to discuss their income with strangers and you will find the franchisees are more willing to cover this subject after you have spent some time visiting with them. At that point they know you're not a competitor trying to get information but rather a serious prospective franchisee who will need the information to proceed. They were all in your position at some point in the past, so if they develop a comfort level with you it may enhance the financial information you can gather.

Step 4 - Review the System Documentation

A strong franchise company will have documented their systems, operations and marketing programs in a concise and easy to use format for the reference of franchisees. Make sure that such documentation exists. The franchisor will probably not give you a copy of their actual manuals, but they can certainly provide you with the table of contents or index of every support manual they have. This will enable you to confirm that the documentation exists and will show the scope of the coverage of all their major business factors.

Step 5 - Meet the Franchisor

At some point in the process of investigation, you will want to have personal meetings with key personnel of the franchise company. This might be possible in your local market or you may need to travel to the headquarters of the franchisor. Many franchisors facilitate this need by holding what are referred to as "Discovery Days". These are structured events where you can go to a specified location and know that all of the key people from the franchisor will be available.

Be sure to get to know those people you will be working most closely with as you build your business. We would expect the President of the company to be an impressive person, but that's not who will be answering your call when you have a problem. Find out who will be providing the operational support and training directly to you and form an opinion about their competence. Make sure that any remaining questions or issues you may have are addressed at this meeting.

Step 6 - Make a Decision

If you have been diligent, the entire process outlined above should have taken about two to four weeks to complete. You have now finished your investigation and have all the information you need to determine if this franchise is right for you. It either is or it isn't, and you'll know which it is. In either case, it is time to make a decision and move on. Use the model you developed for yourself to evaluate what you wanted in a business. Don't settle. If this company has everything you wanted, do it. If it doesn't, eliminate it and go to the next one.


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