Before Skinner became a Kumon franchisee she’d worked in IT for 28 years.
“I was a programmer, project manager, IT architect, and managed design teams for two banks. For years my husband had been the entrepreneur, and I’d reached a stage in my life where I wanted to do something different. I’d always loved maths and English, and I’d tutored voluntarily for years. I also looked into opening a nursery school, but competition is high and so are initial start-up costs.”
Choosing the brand
Skinner investigated franchise brands looking for one that would match her strengths of encouraging and helping, and one with a low barrier to entry.
“It’s how I became interested in Kumon. I gelled with its philosophy of instruction and assisting, and it’s a well-respected brand,” she says.
“I applied to become a franchisee and was impressed by the fact that they emphasised getting to know me and my abilities through a three month training/evaluation period, more than my ability to pay the franchise fee. One is required to go through training before any fees are due.”
Becoming a Craighall franchisee
“During training Kumon assists you with market research: Evaluating potential franchise areas and demographics potential, and ensuring the location doesn’t encroach on existing franchisees’ territory,” Skinner explains.
“Although the south of Joburg would have been more suitable for me, there were already sufficient franchises there and Craighall Park became my point of interest. I agreed to pilot Kumon’s new business model, to position centres in shopping malls.
“Although more costly to implement than sharing premises with a church or community centre, advantages include ability to customise to one’s needs, and having a permanent location. Kumon also offers attractive initial and ongoing annual subsidy and allowance programmes over 24 months to offset marketing, branding, furniture and additional costs of renting retail space.”
Using personal savings to finance the franchise and decorate her retail space, Skinner opened up shop in The Colony Shopping Centre, Craighall Park, in August 2013.
“My annual target was to have 80 subject sign-ups, which I reached by the end of November. This enabled me to cover my direct operating expenses earlier than expected and draw a modest salary even though Kumon prepares one for an 18 to 24 month wait.
“I’ve been very fortunate that after some initial direct marketing to local schools, word of mouth and recommendations have brought me a lot of business.
Being positioned on a main road in a shopping centre with well positioned signage ensures ongoing marketing exposure. Even so, I prepared financially by scaling back and traded my Mercedes C190 for a Ford Figo with Kumon branding on it.”
“An initial challenge was developing confidence to set worksheets for the students. Be prepared to make a few mistakes and admit them — doing so can turn a negative situation into a positive.
Another challenge was becoming efficient in administration — reporting, invoicing, planning — as the number of subject sign-ups grow, while allowing for the unexpected.
Taking care to put students into specific time slots avoids unnecessary staff costs at quieter time periods. My initial assistant costs tended to be higher than absolutely necessary.
However, I’ve been blessed with wonderful assistants, and the success of the business is largely due to this dedicated team.”
Lifestyle and timetable
“Though I commute to my centre, my working hours are more flexible. A laptop, business cellphone and router allow me to take work home and avoid morning traffic.
I have set centre hours on four days a week (three weekdays and a Saturday morning), with the other days available for parent interviews, periodic training, business conferences, and other business needs. Kumon students don’t attend over the December school holidays, but participate in an annual ‘Summer Challenge’ to maintain their skill levels over this time.”
Preparation is key to operating a good Kumon centre: “An individualised monthly plan is developed for each student. Each centre morning I check the folders of the students for that day, and modify worksheets where needed.
“ I keep a close eye on students meeting standard completion times and identify where extra assistance is needed that day.” Once her morning’s work is completed, Skinner travels to Craighall Park and opens from 13:00 to 18:00 with the busiest time starting from 14:30.
Hitting her stride
“I’ve had a lot of support from the Kumon head office team, who have welcomed me to the Kumon family. An area manager provides regular support, and the head office team is there to provide advice, motivate, assist and encourage. Support in areas such as negotiating rental agreements, branding and marketing has been invaluable. It’s really helped me grow as a franchisee.
“Early learners/dependent learners need a lot of assistance, as they can’t yet read or concentrate sufficiently, which leads to a lower assistant/student ratio.
“The focus needs to be on developing students’ work skills so that they’re able to function more independently and effectively, with less reliance on assistant support over time.
“This affects how you schedule and helps increase capacity. I currently have 117 subjects and have capacity for 240 subjects across the available 30-minute time slots even though my store is only 76m2.”
Tips for prospective franchisees
Kumon expects a high level of personal interest in developing maths and English ability. Franchise owners are expected to continue to develop their own and staff’s abilities by completing worksheets themselves on an ongoing basis.
“You need to complete 22 levels in maths and English, and each level has 20 books. You also need to complete some of them with your non-dominant hand so you’re aware of your student’s learning level.
It’s a humbling experience and you appreciate how difficult it is for an early learner to learn new skills! Kumon is for someone interested in being hands-on and who enjoys the process of self-study, continuous personal development, and takes pleasure in seeing the potential in others being realised. This inspires