Franchises Offer Shortcuts, But Not Control

Q: I will be retiring this year at age 60 and intend to fulfill my lifelong dream of owning my own business. I'm too old to start from scratch, so I'm looking at several franchise opportunities, including fast food, auto parts, and an accounting service. What should I consider before choosing one? Anthony R.

A: Congratulations on the retirement, Anthony, and on the new business venture. As the old adage goes, when one door closes, a drive-through window often opens (or something like that).

Given the franchise types you are considering the first thing you should ask yourself is whether or not you want to spend your golden years cooking fries, selling mufflers, or doing taxes.

Franchising can be a great way to start a business career, but you should make sure you're not just trading one job for another. Unless you plan on being an absentee owner, which I highly discourage, you are gong to be working in the business just as an employee would, so be sure the business you choose doesn't turn your lifelong dream into a never-ending nightmare.

The primary advantage of buying into a franchise system is that it allows you to enter business quicker with a proven system, while minimizing risk and increases the odds for success.

The primary disadvantage is that you give up considerable freedom in how the business operates. In many ways franchisees are not really their own bosses because they are required to follow the rules set down by the franchisor.

Many franchise owners also quickly tire of asking: "Do you want fries with that?" and become absentee owners, which usually leads to the business being sold or shut down.

No matter what franchise you're considering, you should ask yourself the following questions before making a decision:

* Do you have past experience that pertains to the type of franchise you're thinking about buying?

* Are you prepared to work long, hard hours?

* Are you an effective manager?

* Are you willing to share your revenue with the franchisor?

* Are you willing to follow the franchisor's rules and regulations?

* And the biggie: do you have access to the necessary capital to invest in the franchise?

The big franchises like McDonald's and Midas Muffler can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy into, but unless you are a total business savant, the franchise is virtually guaranteed to succeed.

It's true that even a McDonald's closes on occasion. Roy Croc spins in its grave when it happens, but happen it does, so keep that in mind. There are thousands of lower cost franchises that you can buy into, but the lower the investment typically means the risk of success is higher.

As a rule, franchise operations are generally more successful than independent startups because they have a proven concept, a ready market, an established customer base, and a business model that can be replicated over and over again. Less than 5% of franchises fail during the first few years as compared to an 80% failure rate of independent ventures.

Many people have done very well as franchisees and often end up with multiple franchise operations. Adversely, many have not done so well because they bought into a franchise system that either was not all it was purported to be or they discovered that they did not fit into the franchisee's mold.

The key is to pick the franchise system that is right for you. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:

* Purchase a franchise that complements your skills, work experiences, and interests. Don't start a business in a field that is totally foreign to you.

* Plan on becoming an owner-operator versus an absentee owner. Absentee owners lose control and interest quickly and the franchise suffers because of it.

* Gather as much information as you can about the franchises you are interested in. You are considering investing a lot of money to buy into a system, so know who you are dealing with and what you are paying for.

* Experience the product or service firsthand, as a customer would. If you don't like the service you get at McDonald's, don't invest in a franchise thinking you can fix their problems and run things better. You can't and you won't.

* Interview other franchisees to gauge the franchisee satisfaction level.

* Ask how many franchises have closed and for what reason.

* Ask about initial and long-term training and support.

* Make sure the franchisor is profitable and financially sound.

* Finally, do your due diligence. Request a disclosure document that includes in-depth information about the franchisor and if a franchisor refuses to produce such a document, take that as a huge red flag and mark them off your list.

Small Business Q&A is written by veteran entrepreneur and syndicated columnist, Tim Knox.

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