Taking on a franchise is a lower risk way of getting into business for yourself, discovers Alex McRae

Everyone likes getting thoughtful Christmas presents. But when Lynne Booth opened the gift her step-daughter had bought her from Harrods, she burst into tears. "It was like a light bulb going off," she recalls. "I'd finally found my product." The gift that reduced Lynne to tears of happiness was a glamorously packaged bottle of oil from a European franchise called Vom Fass, which specialises in selling speciality oils, vinegars, wines and spirits straight from the cask ( www.vomfass.co.uk).

For Booth, who had lost her much-loved previous job as a recruitment consultant during a company restructuring, the little bottle represented a chance to kick-start a new career as a franchisee. She'd been thinking about franchising as a way to run her own business for months - and had even found a location for a shop in a new retail village at Trentham Gardens, an 18th-century estate near her home city of Stoke-on-Trent that was part of a European regeneration project. All she'd needed was the perfect brand to invest in - and here it was. "I had to track it down. My husband found me searching the internet for the company at 2am on Boxing Day."

After tracking down the UK managing director of Vom Fass, Richard Mosconi, Booth had another challenge - to convince the businessman to enter into a franchise agreement with her and her business partner, Diane Ehaugh. "I had to persuade this high-end guy that Stoke-on-Trent was right for his products. He gave me one hour to discuss it - and, luckily, I had a good business plan."

After a long search to find a sympathetic bank manager, three days of intensive training at the company's head office, and a week of organising the shop fitting, the two women were in business. Seven months after setting up shop, Booth and Ehaugh are thrilled with how things have turned out. "I don't want to do a job where I sit doing the same thing every day. We work long hours, but I feel like a more satisfied person now. There's no bureaucracy or office politics. If something's wrong, we deal with it ourselves, or talk to Richard."

Franchising usually involves a legal business agreement licensing a person to sell products or services under the trademark of the franchise company. It's normally a close, ongoing business relationship, with the franchise company offering training and support to the franchisee. And it can be a relatively low risk way of running your own business compared with going it alone, says Dan Arch of the British Franchise Association, which vets its members against a code of ethical business practice, and provides information and advice to people thinking about entering into franchise agreements.

"Franchises have a far higher success rate than stand-alone small businesses - more than 90 per cent of franchises succeed. You're setting up a business under the auspices of a system that's already been proven to work elsewhere," says Arch.

This key point - that franchises are less likely to run into difficulty than other new businesses - might explain why more and more people are considering franchising as a career option. Arch points out that the BFA's website, www.thebfa.org, had 30,000 new visitors last month, and that they've seen a 60 per cent growth in the number of franchisors over the past 10 years. "What's most satisfying is seeing the liberation of people running a business. You're taking control of your own destiny, compared with working for an employer," says Arch.

But before you invest your life's savings in a franchise, it's worth doing your homework. "The biggest potential pitfall is not doing enough research," cautions Arch. "A franchise agreement often lasts five years, and it can last as long as 10 or 20 years. You need to go into it with your eyes open."

The BFA runs seminars and one-day workshops for aspiring franchisees, and encourages them to think about whether they have the funds to take on a franchise - and how it will affect their lifestyle. "There's an element of self-assessment," says Arch. "It may be that you're going to need to be behind the counter on Saturdays instead of taking your kids to football."

Rob McKinley, editor of Business Franchise magazine, says franchisees have more options, with online business flourishing and high street banks wising up to the rewards of supporting new franchises. "The amount you need to invest varies from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. If you're running an online business, the start-up costs tend to be low. Most high street banks and solicitors have a franchise department, so shop around."

But there's a great pay-off for those who put in the legwork, says McKinley. "The franchise provides a framework for your business. Once you're set up, it's your baby."