Franchise Players is Entrepreneur's Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email ktaylor @entrepreneur.com.
Cynthia Williams Landrum knew all about K-12 education: She had a master's in educational administration and had worked for 13 years as both a classroom teacher and library media specialist. But something wasn't clicking for her: She yearned to escape "the constraints of the public education bureaucracy" and educate kids her own way, via a business. So she turned to an educational brand she had respect for: Sylvan Learning Centers. Today, she operates three centers in two states and plans on expanding.
Name: Cynthia Williams Landrum
Franchise owned: Three Sylvan Learning Center outlets, in North Mobile, Alabama; Spanish Fort, Alabama; and Gautier, Mississippi
How long have you owned a franchise?
I opened my first Sylvan Learning franchise in 2009.
I had considerable background knowledge in the field of education; however, I had never run a business. I felt that a franchise would allow me room to grow as an independent educator while providing the structure of a sound business model with people to help me in areas where I was weaker. The support of a strong corporate system, as well as that of fellow franchisees, makes the transition from employee to employer much less intimidating.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
I worked in public education for approximately 13 years with students from kindergarten through 12th grade; I served as a classroom teacher and as a library media specialist. I completed my master’s in education administration and leadership and began looking for an opportunity that would allow me to use the new skills I had learned as well as make a more direct impact on students and families.
Honestly, I wanted to be able to help kids without the constraints of the public education bureaucracy. Sylvan allows for a personalized learning program that meets students' immediate needs and helps them reach their full potential.
Why did you choose this particular franchise?
I wanted to stay in the education field and knew that Sylvan had the best brand recognition in my area. Sylvan was a brand that had a good reputation in and around my community. I wanted to be a part of something I could use as a vehicle to make a difference in the lives of students and their families. I wanted to be a part of a brand that I could be proud of.
How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
It has been about six years since I opened my first center. Things have changed considerably since then. But the franchise license fee was around $48,000. I also had to buy a large amount of education materials, costing an additional $40,000. I purchased computer equipment for approximately $8,000 and [spent] another $8,000 for specialized and general office furniture. The build-out of the retail space was around $10,000, with probably another $5,000 in miscellaneous expenses, such as business licenses, utility deposits, office supplies, etc.
The cost of opening additional locations hasn’t been nearly as high. The cost of materials has been greatly reduced since we have moved to the iPad, to deliver our education programs. As an example, the most recent center required only about $3,000 in education materials. Sylvan Corporate has been working hard in recent years to reduce the startup cost, and that has certainly helped in my latest expansion.
Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
The Internet, of course! My parents, Stephen and Catherine Williams, helped me tremendously. They ran their own business so they knew the ropes and helped me get started, especially with managing my credit and capital. My husband, Shawn, who is a CPA, was instrumental in helping me set the business up and teach me how to manage my books. Since opening my first location, I have connected with a fellow franchisee, Anne Marie Naquin, who has helped me learn the business. I still call on Anne Marie at least once a month to bounce ideas off of and compare notes.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
Labor! I thought that because I had a network of teachers and what I perceived to be the easiest teaching job ever, due to the minimal prep and paperwork, that I would be able to find staff, without problems. I was wrong. It is still a constant struggle to find and keep the best teachers and support staff.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
I would say that you really need to spend time understanding your market and your franchise options. Research your competition, both nationally and locally; I didn’t do enough research on my first location. I thought that as long as I was centrally located, people would drive to get their kids the services they needed. This is not always true. I didn’t understand all of the cultural aspects of locating here versus there. I think I did a much better job choosing a location with the third center, but time will tell.
What’s next for you and your business?
I have just reached a major goal by opening my third location. Initially, that was the level that I felt I needed to reach to maximize my profitability and sustainability. I see now that I am not finished expanding. I am very interested in relocating my Mississippi center: I purchased it as an existing location and have found that it is not in an optimal location. I am also looking to other territories, but I will take it slowly and make sure the three current locations are in the best possible shape before expanding further. You have to always be open to opportunities.