Today, I interview Gabrielle Lixton and Caroline Sparks, the two co-founders of Turtle Tots, an innovative and unique swimming programme, which begins during pregnancy, and continues once the baby is born.
Hi ladies, thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Gaby - We’re doing really well thanks. We’ve both just got back from family holidays and are feeling even more energised and motivated than usual!
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
Gaby – I live in North Somerset with my husband and we have two daughters and a son. Olivia and Nuala are 9 and 7 years old and Henry is just 5 months old!
Caroline – I also live in North Somerset and live with my husband and two children – Alice who’s 9 and Ollie who’s 6. Gaby and I have known each other for around ten years and we have lots of mutual friends.
Tell me about how you got into business?
Gaby - After University I joined M&S on a graduate trading scheme and spent eight years in various business roles. Having had my two daughters, and seeking a change of career, I became one of the first franchisees for a well known baby swimming company and ran the Oxfordshire and Berkshire franchises for four years, teaching over 1000 babies a week with a team of ten teachers and two administrators. In 2008 I sold the franchises for 15 times what I’d paid for them, and moved back to Bristol with my young family. However, I quickly found I missed running my own business and teaching swimming, so I launched Turtle Tots.
Caroline - I worked for Virgin Media in various marketing and communications roles for 12 years, and then moved to become the marketing manager for an AIS-listed software company in Bath. After having my second child, and faced with huge nursery bills, I decided I wanted a more flexible job and started an exhibition business called Little Monster. For five years I organised baby and toddler exhibitions across the South West. Each exhibition attracted around 60 exhibitors and over 1000 visitors but last year I decided I needed a new challenge and having been approached by Gaby about launching Turtle Tots Ltd, I was fortunate to sell Little Monster business quickly, and the sale completed in the Autumn.
How did the idea for Turtle Tots Ltd come about?
Gaby - During my years of teaching I observed new mums struggle when they came swimming with their newborn the first time, because they lacked confidence in and around the pool with their precious new baby. Having young children myself I also knew the importance of a healthy lifestyle and pre and post-natal exercise…..but how it can be a struggle for new mums to find the time to exercise.
Using my knowledge and experience I wrote the innovative Turtle Tots programme, which starts with Turtle Tums – for mums-to-be. The Turtle Tums course is an aqua yoga course that provides a relaxing and supportive method of exercise during pregnancy, and also teaches the mums-to-be safe holds and methods to use in the pool with their baby once he or she is born.
The programme continues with Turtle Tots baby and toddler swimming classes. First and foremost the classes are to introduce babies and toddlers to swimming in a fun and safe way, but I also wrote the class plans so that every movement mum makes in the water, also contributes to her post-natal fitness. A personal trainer has endorsed the lesson plans and mums (and dads!) can burn up to 250 calories in a 30-minute class.
Having launched Turtle Tots as a sole trader in Bristol, my classes quickly grew and after a year I was teaching 100 babies a week. At this point I realised what a lucrative and flexible business model Turtle Tots was – I was teaching 6 hours a week and my net income was £24,000 a year. I decided I wanted to offer others the opportunity to run a Turtle Tots business, but without using a restrictive and expensive franchise model. At this point I approached Caroline about launching Turtle Tots as a licensing business. Caroline could see the huge potential and together we formed Turtle Tots Ltd and started work on rolling out our business plan.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Caroline - Thankfully, I don’t think there was anything that either of us would consider hard. The most difficult thing was having too much excitement and too many ideas (and this remains a problem) and having to prioritise what to spend our time and money on.
What is Turtle Tots Ltd and what are you trying to solve?
Gaby - Turtle Tots is an innovative and unique swimming programme, which begins during pregnancy, and continues once the baby is born. Not only does it focus on teaching babies and young children to swim, it also promotes pre-natal and post-natal fitness and provides an excellent toning workout for mums. Of course the programme is open to dads as well, who also love to come to the classes!
We are licensing the programme because running a Turtle Tots business in family-friendly, fun and very lucrative. The majority of our licensees are mums who have a passion for swimming, and want a career that is flexible – therefore avoiding the need for expensive childcare.
How have you been able to fund it?
Caroline - We were lucky that we both had sold previous businesses and therefore had some savings we could invest. What we couldn’t cover straight away we put on credit cards.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Caroline - We are always excited about our business, and I don’t think that will ever diminish. We are passionate about providing an amazing quality of service to our licensees and very proud of our achievements to date.
What’s your business model?
Gaby - Each licensee pays a one-off license fee and then a monthly small percentage of their revenue. The license gives them the exclusive rights to a mapped and post-coded territory and the rights to use the Turtle Tots brand. They can then choose to build their business and be as big or as small as they want – it’s also an asset that will grow in value as their business becomes established, and they can sell if they wish to do so.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Caroline – It may sound dull, but I think it’s crucial to have processes and a plan in place, and think strategically. We have a monthly management meeting with an agenda to ensure we discuss financial issues and also any other subject that needs agreeing between us. Information sharing is key for us, as we are a partnership.
What should be expecting from yourself and Turtle Tots Ltd for 2012
Gaby - We are expecting to launch our first overseas licensee, and to grow the number of UK licensees by 150%. Already we have had a tremendous year – we have been runners up in the Bristol Evening Post Business Awards and Mums Club awards, and listed in the Start Ups 100 – a prestigious list of the top 100 new businesses in the UK.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. It’s very easy to think about things and not do them. So “just do it”!
2. Cash flow is the life and death of a business. Constantly review your finances and review your business plan. Remember they are dynamic documents that will help your business grow.
3. Be careful what you prioritise. Always consider your core business, and what really brings money in to the business, and concentrate on those revenue earners. And put a value on your own time – it’s far better to outsource some tasks and spend your own time on the tasks that you excel at.