Prior to founding Little Kickers, the children’s football coaching franchise, Christine Stanschus had a high-flying career in the City, latterly working as European head of collateral marketing for J. P. Morgan. Suffice to say, the nature of the role meant that family life took a backseat, something that eventually compelled Stanschus to step away from the corporate world. “I ended up being away more than I was at home so I decided I needed to find something else,” she says.
It also meant she could spend some quality time with her young son Lukas, who was football mad. “He just loved football,” Stanschus says. “Every day, I would drive him down to Wandsworth Common and I’d have to stand in goal while he’d kick balls at me.”
But, as much as she enjoyed her kickabouts with Lukas, Stanschus thought he would benefit from some proper football coaching. “It was really unusual for my generation of women to play football,” she says. “I just thought there must be other people who are better qualified to teach him football than me.”
A chance encounter at the park solved the problem. “I bumped into a guy who was there playing football with his son,” says Stanschus. “I had a chat with him about whether he would be interested in running some classes for Lukas and some of his friends.” He agreed and, when parents started flocking to the class with their children, Stanschus realised that there might be an opportunity to take the idea one step further.
Along with two friends (who she has since bought out) Stanschus was soon running a number of classes across London, which were targeted at children aged from 18 months up to seven years. As she explains, parents were less attracted by the prospect of turning their toddler into the next Lionel Messi and more by the opportunity of some meaningful exercise. “The main objective was to give kids a passionate introduction to sport,” says Stanschus.
And, while Little Kickers' first trainer may have had a bit of football nous about him, this isn’t an essential trait for every Little Kickers coach. “We look for people who relate well to kids, love spending time with them and enjoy physical activity,” says Stanschus. “We’ve developed a comprehensive training programme that can bring even the most inexperienced footballer to a level where they’re able to deliver our programme very competently.”
Nor is football experience a necessity for Little Kickers’ franchisees. Stanschus explains that she looks for people who are passionate, driven to succeed and self-motivated, adding that franchisees are provided with all the necessary tools to set up and run a successful business.
It was in early 2004 that Little Kickers sold its first franchise. At that point, Stanschus was running 35 classes a week across London and demand dictated it was time to take the concept nationwide. “By franchising the business, we’ve established a network of business owners who have a real passion for what they do and who are very driven to make the business succeed,” she says. “It also enabled us to expand our unique programme quickly across a large market, which minimised the emergence of serious competition.”
The franchise network grew very quickly and Little Kickers soon started to generate interest from overseas. However, Stanschus was careful not to expand her horizons beyond the UK too early. “Whilst it was very tempting to grow the business into new markets at an early stage, we felt it was really important to develop a solid base in the UK before we expanded overseas,” she says. “Once we felt confident that we had solid foundations in place, we started to sell master franchises outside the UK.
In some respects, the global appeal of Little Kickers shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The beautiful game enjoys a reach that extends far beyond any other sport. “The popularity of football as a sport is growing dramatically in a large number of markets around the world,” says Stanschus. “China tops the table with over 26 million active participants [and] countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and South Africa have higher levels of participation than the UK.”
Little Kickers now has a presence in China but Stanschus says targeting the country as its first international outpost would have been unwise. “There is a whole host of countries like China where football is massive but where the business infrastructure and franchising model isn’t really particularly well known – or where the laws around franchising are less than robust,” she explains.
Instead, Little Kickers set its sights on English-speaking countries first, starting with South Africa. This served as a good test of its applicability in other countries, while giving it the necessary confidence that it could succeed in more exotic climes. “It enabled us to dip our toe into the water in countries where we could keep the website, the business system and everything else in the same language,” says Stanschus. “[And] it also enabled us to progressively evolve what we did so that it would work in other countries.”
Suffice to say, finding the right person to come on board as a master franchisee is crucial to the success of any Little Kickers outlet overseas. “In addition to having the drive and enthusiasm to set up the programme in a new country, it’s also very important that they want to take on the franchise for the right reasons, and understand and identify with our ethos,” says Stanschus. “Our master contracts last for ten years so it’s important that the people we select are a good fit.”
While selling master franchises might mean ceding a little bit of control, placing each master franchisee on a six-month pilot scheme helps gives Stanschus the peace of mind that the person in question is capable of making things work in their respective territory. “Once we have worked with our master franchises to ensure the franchise is viable and replicable in their country, they can start to sell franchises on to third parties,” she says. “We recognise that we must work with our master franchisees to tweak our existing model based on their recommendations, as they have a much better understanding of their local market and its requirements than we do.”
With 193 franchisees running 239 franchise territories worldwide, Little Kickers has certainly come a long way from its Wandsworth Common roots. It’s also led to some big changes in Stanschus’s life: she moved to Toronto six and a half years ago with her two children and husband Frank, who took on the master franchise for Canada. The couple saw it as the ideal place for their children to grow up but the move was also motivated by business. “We’re in a different time zone to the UK and this enables us to extend the window of support we are able to offer to our franchisees, which has become increasingly important as the business has expanded into new markets,” she says. “It also gives the business a more international feel; we’re an international company expanding into new markets rather than a UK company expanding overseas.”
Portugal is the next port of call for Little Kickers’ international adventure and Stanschus also feels there are significant opportunities for the franchise across the rest of Europe, the Middle East and India.
With football’s global popularity only going in one direction, it’s little wonder Stanschus has high hopes for the future. “In many of the countries where Little Kickers operates, football is the most played sport and this trend seems to be escalating,” she says. “As such, we expect international interest in our franchise programme to continue to flourish.”