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Rob Cruise, West Sussex Franchisee Case Study

NAME: Rob Cruise
FRANCHISE: The Outdoors Project - West Sussex
TERRITORY: Currently my focus is in Worthing, Shoreham, Lancing and Crawley. I'm looking to expand into Horsham next year (2023)
START DATE: June 2017

1.    What was your journey to franchising? 
I left university in 2001 with a 2:1 in Literature and Philosophy and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for work. I loved the idea of working outdoors though and for the next 18 months I did labouring work on various building sites. After lots of conversations with family and friends about unskilled labouring not necessarily being the obvious choice for a new graduate, I ended up going to work a salesperson for a large media company in London. Between 2003 and 2016 I did a broad range of sales, marketing and business development roles. I also travelled a fair bit and did some very cool outdoors stuff in New Zealand, Canada and SE Asia.
I really enjoyed some of my sales roles but as time went by, felt more and more disillusioned and I knew I lacked a sense of purpose. I knew Joel and Sam (Outdoors Project HQ) through my elder brother, and I feel my original passion for joining the tribe stems from a cycling holiday round France I went on with my brother, Joel, and several others. I took every opportunity I could to ask Joel about The Outdoors Project while we were away. He clearly loved his work, and I knew I wanted to feel the same about what I did for a living. 

An opportunity presented itself to cover some shifts for the Brighton team and it was only when I started actually doing the job that I realised I was both good with kids and really enjoyed working with them! So, looking back on that I’d say the passion for the outdoors came first, and working with kids came second. Now that I live and breathe the job the two are synonymous.

At any point when you reflect on where you’ve come from you inevitably look for signs, clues and patterns that explain the journey: I can say now that my decision to study philosophy when I went to university meant that I was probably going to give myself a hard time until I was doing something that I felt proud of (if you’ve ever read about any philosophers you’ll find many of them give themselves a very hard time). I’ve always enjoyed spending as much of my leisure time as possible outside, now I don’t have to cram it solely into my downtime, my work means I’m outdoors loads. My achievements in sales were largely due to my passion for meeting and getting to know people, and also, I’m quite competitive and pretty decent with numbers. I get to channel loads of this stuff into my role now, but I do it with complete sincerity and genuine passion because I’m selling, growing and financially planning and recording my own business that I love. Running a franchise of The Outdoors Project aligns with so many facets of my character and plays to all my strengths.
 
2.    What advice would you offer to anyone thinking about taking on a franchise? 

The thing I’ve loved most about taking on a franchise is that it’s given me the autonomy of running my own business but without the anxiety of trying to invent everything from scratch. Creative input is always welcome from HQ so you can definitely bring your own ideas into the sessions but there’s no pressure to constantly come up with new ideas as there’s always a wealth at your disposal.  

The business model is tried and tested, and new franchises are statistically far less likely to fail than a completely new business. If you have a tendency to worry and over-think things as I do, a franchise means easier sleeps. 

I found the transition into running my own franchise particularly easy because I spent 6 months working for the Brighton business first, but now that The Outdoors Project is starting to really expand, I can see that the training and support available to the new franchisees is structured and comprehensive. Our online Operations Manual takes you through pretty much everything you need to get started and everyone at HQ is always ready and happy to help. Us franchisees are starting to talk more to each other too which is really helpful. From a lifestyle point of view, I have no complaints, working outdoors with kids is infinitely rewarding and never dull. I think being bored with your work is probably the greatest enemy there is, and I don’t remember being bored once in 5 years. As long as you’re organised and trust your team, being your own boss means that you can make time for your own family/priorities in a way that works for you. If you want independence, a sense of purpose, love the outdoors, love working with kids, can hold your nerve in the early days while you’re getting established, and, crucially, can keep on smiling and playing in 5+ hours of rain and mud, this is what you need to be doing. 
 
3.    What are some of the highlights personally and professionally in your time as a franchisee?

Funnily enough it’s some of the early “resilience” bits that I’m most proud of. Just after buying the franchise, I ran a few drop-in 60min NERF battles in a park in Worthing to try and help get the word out. I put a series of 3 on sale; the first and third sessions sold well with over 10 kids booking onto each. The second one though I think I got 3 children sign-up and then when I turned up hoping more would arrive, I actually only had one kid there! I refunded the mum her fiver and she was about to take her kid home, but I insisted that before they go the lad who turned up did some target practice. I gave him a load of NERF darts and whatever blaster he wanted, and I danced around in the trees while he shot me. It’s a well understood principle with the Outdoors Project that no matter how many children you have with you, you make sure they have a great time, and I think this is an extreme example of that principle. I remember laughing to myself at the time after the kid left that “the only way from here is up”.

A little more predictably it’s been the times when I’ve felt like I’ve taken a significant step up in numbers or capacity that have been the most rewarding. Summer holidays 2020 after several months of lockdown we ran our first series of clubs on school grounds. We sold out every day and it felt like a really special few weeks for the kids and for the team. I had an established team who worked brilliantly together all summer. We had a bubble system in place to keep the three groups of 15 children separate from each other and we just delivered a great experience for everyone who came. I think everyone felt quite emotional about being able to have fun outside again after the first horrible wave of Covid and we got such great feedback from our customers. 

More recently, January this year I finally moved the business out of my house and garage and into our office. The impact this has had on my work-life balance has been massive and I’m so pleased I held out for the right space to move into.

4.    What are your top tips for growing the franchise? 
I’ve always been passionate about people, and I like to think I’m an approachable and considerate boss. I’m genuinely interested in what my team want and need from the role, and I do my best to get them the work they need while being realistic about what’s available (for most people, this isn’t going to be their sole income). Sometimes this means putting them on shifts where they’re not technically “needed” in order to get them more experience and get their income up a little bit. I think the team have appreciated the investment I’ve put into them, and they know if they ask me a straight question, they’ll get a straight answer. It’s essential to have a team you can depend on as you will never have the confidence to expand if you think there’s a chance, they’re all going to disappear next week. I’ve also always tried to pay my team a little more than perhaps they might expect, and I make sure we make time for social events at least 3 times a year. I always think of the time I was leaving Vodafone after 5 years as a customer, all of a sudden they had the best deals in the world for me, if they’d called me up 6 months previous and offered half of what they ended up offering once I was sick of them they would have kept me on board. Once people think they’re being treated unfairly it’s probably a bit too late to act.

Sales and marketing – I’m learning all the time. I naturally incline towards building relationships with my customers and asking them to help me spread the word as that’s what I enjoy, and word of mouth feels the most natural way to get new business especially when it comes to childcare where trust and recommendation from a friend is so crucial. That said I’ve also got some solid relationships with large FB group moderators who I do regular paid stuff with, working our Mailchimp database is also essential of course. As I already said with the “one kid shooting me in a park” story above, the best way to sell really is to make sure that whoever shows up has a brilliant time. 
 
5.    What made you take the step to employ a full-time member of staff in Kieran & rent an office space? 

I’ve got ambitious plans for my territory, and I’ve known since I started that I wouldn’t be able to get there alone. When I first met Kieran (West Sussex Assistant Manager) in early 2019 I’d been operating for two years, and I was actively looking for someone who could be my right-hand person. I had a great feeling about Kieran from the start, he already had loads of experience working with children, he loved the outdoors, he was bright, calm, amiable, I trusted him pretty much right away and could easily see myself working with him. He worked the summer holidays with me in 2019 and then I took him on doing kit work for 3hrs a day plus leading 5 after school clubs a week. I stepped back from the business a bit when my daughter was born in November 2019, so he worked close to full time into early 2020. I had planned to make him a proper full time offer in the spring, then of course, Covid happened!  

Kieran was on furlough for a lot of 2020 but was always ready to spring back into action whenever we were able to operate bubbles, rule of six, 2m rule, 1m rule, unlimited outdoors exercise, exemption for childcare, all those terms still make me shudder. HQ was busy poring over the guidance and keeping our risk assessments up to date so we could operate whenever it was safe and possible to do so and Kieran kept the faith and waited with us, helping create a couple of our “Indoor Project” activity videos for the kids to do at home during lockdown. 

Finally, after a superb run of holiday clubs throughout 2021 I had the confidence to make Kieran a full-time salaried offer and to commit to an office and storage space. The psychological impact of taking these steps is almost as important as the practical advantage it brings. There’s something reassuring about having a premises and a full-time staff member, it says to you, your team and your customers “we’re here to stay!”

6.    How did your business change with COVID? The good, the bad, the ugly.
Covid was weird for us as a business; for approximately half of 2020 we couldn’t run, but then when we could operate we were full because nobody could leave the country, so many of our competitors weren’t running, and everyone was desperate to get their kids outdoors having fun with other children. Being already established as an outdoors activity company made us an obvious and safe choice for parents. To keep everyone safe; staff, children, customers, it was essential that our risk assessments were current and adhered to which made us more focussed, flexible and detailed as a business. It took us out of parks where our holiday clubs were no longer permitted and onto school grounds which turned out to be revolutionary for us! The long period of inactivity during the various lockdowns were tough of course, but we were better positioned than many businesses to ride it out and we definitely came out the other side better known and more established.