Cracking the pre-school market

Kate Hilpern meets the mother with a franchise that helps kids let off steam through music
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Pop into a music class for young children and the chances are you'll find them sitting in a circle singing songs. When Helen Harrington's son was young and boisterous, this was less than ideal. "Don't get me wrong – these types of classes are fantastic, but my little boy needed something less rigid and more free-spirited, where he could do things like run around with his arms spread out. I thought there must be other children like that too."

Like any good entrepreneur, Harrington spotted the gap in the market and decided to try and fill it. Four years on, MAD Academy has become a roaring success as a franchised business of music and dance classes for children aged three months to five years. It has more than doubled its turnover year on year so that it currently stands at £130,000 and has 10 franchises operating more than 130 classes across the UK.

Having originally trained as a classical singer, Harrington has sung for pop, soul and rock bands since she was 18, as well as doing vocal coaching on a freelance basis. On the corporate side of her career, she started out in IT and later moved to a marketing agency. One of her clients was BBC Worldwide, which she then joined in 1996, leading to work in a range of marketing and sales roles, primarily looking after global brands such as Teletubbies.

"When I became pregnant, I decided I'd had enough of driving up and down the motorway and also I wanted to do something more flexible. Plus I missed the music side of things," she says.

Despite Harrington's performing arts background, she decided to get someone else to take the MAD classes from day one. "While doing the classes myself would certainly have been the easier option back then, I think it would have been harder to see where I could improve them."

In 2004, she began a year of researching and trying out ideas for MAD. "I asked mums all over the place what they'd like and then I put together the concept and tried it out, making lots of amendments as I went on. Since launching two and a bit years ago, it's been a great success. I think it's because I was focused right from the beginning. I didn't think, 'I'll do some classes and maybe franchise out later.' Instead I thought, 'There's a gap in the market. I've got the skills and the passion and now I need to put in a lot of time and effort to work out the details.'"

Harrington – and the six other people who work for the MAD Academy on a consultancy basis on everything from the website to recruitment – have no trouble attracting franchisees. "There are relatively low start-up costs and there's a great help and support network from me and my six consultants. There's also a good strong brand image and the training is second to none. Perhaps most importantly for some people, there is the flexibility to fit in classes around family commitments," she explains.

Ruth Brown, aged 53, is a case in point. Having recently started a MAD Academy business following a career as a health visitor, she currently runs four classes in the Camberley/Woking area and is planning to take on more. She has two children aged 15 and 10 and the eldest has ADHD and Aspergers syndrome, which means there are few options open to Ruth for after-school care.

Like many of the franchisees, Brown has no previous experience in music or dance. But with a passion for children, she felt she could learn the rest. She is eventually keen to develop a MAD Academy class for children with special needs. Other franchisees are also being innovative with their businesses – for example, providing birthday party entertainment. Meanwhile, Harrington is working hard to get a total of 16 franchises in operation by September next year and to expand the business in other ways, too. "We have lots of brilliant audio products we use in our classes, so I'm looking at new potential markets for those," she explains.

Like any entrepreneur, Harrington has had her fair share of challenges. "Getting the franchise concept together was a minefield and a very large expense. It was scary parting with thousands of pounds at such an early stage in the business. I had to be really sure it would work. Also, I hadn't realised that applying for a trade name would be so problematic. There is a magazine in the US called MAD and I had to get over a lot of hurdles to be able to use the name."

Then there was the fact that most of the early franchises were in the south. "We're getting over that now, managing to expand in the north. But it's really important that they don't feel out on a limb, so I'm currently looking into creating regional hubs."

The industry has practically doubled since Harrington took a chance on MAD. But she's not fazed. "It really doesn't worry me. Far from it, actually. It shows there is an audience and market for it and I am still confident we stand out. For example, if a child wanders off and starts looking out of a curtain in most classes, they'll be told to rejoin the group. But if a child gets up to do that in a MAD class, it's fine because we accept it's quite a challenge for any young child to concentrate for the full half hour. We also know that in a few minutes time, we'll be doing something else that will probably draw them back in again."