They say necessity is the mother of invention. Mother of two, Christine Stanchus – now Christine Kelly, created Little Kickers to provide toddlers with soccer programs. Kelly founded her business when she couldn’t find sports activities for her then pre-school aged son, Lukas.
However, the decision to become an entrepreneur almost came as a surprise to Kelly, despite her business acumen. It was while working for the illustrious firm of JP Morgan, that she found the work-life balance challenging after having her son.
“Basically, I’ve been working for J.P. Morgan for about seven years; It was quite a stressful environment to work in, quite long hours. I was married to Frank, and he was working away a lot of the time. He was a consultant and was away on projects.
“It just got to a point where I would see Lukas on weekends. I’d think, “oh my goodness, I hardly know my child.” When I would get home during the week, he’d already be in bed. It was a really difficult time. I just thought, “I can’t really carry on with this kind of life. I would like to participate in bringing up my own child.”
Kelly decided to take some time out. Just before giving birth to her second child, she spent a lot of time with her son, Lukas in the park.
“He just loved football – or soccer, as you call it over here. And women of my generation in England didn’t get really get soccer at school, it just wasn’t really a thing. And so, I didn’t really know how to play soccer, myself. I thought it would be really good to set up some classes for Lukas. He really loved that sport, and the only classes that were really available in London at the time were music, and dancing. Lukas wasn’t really interested in those kinds of things.”
It was a stroke of luck when Kelly met a qualified soccer coach named Hector in the park, playing with child. She approached him with a proposal to start a pilot program, to test the viability of this program. Kelly set it up in Lukas’ nursery school. She had an expert, she has a venue…now, how to find out if the program would work?
“I asked my friends not to sign up for it – I didn’t want lots of people signing up just because they felt sorry for me, I wanted to see if it was a viable business idea. It was still over-subscribed by about 400%. That’s when I realized, there’s actually a demand for this.”
With the rising concern of childhood obesity, Kelly was surprised that there weren’t more competing sports-related programs. Her first entrepreneurial responsibility involved finding ways to fix her spot in the field of toddler-friendly sports.
“It became a question of setting up classes in the areas of London where I thought it would work, where I thought it would be most likely that someone was going to set up competition. At that point, we didn’t have much in the way of intellectual property or branding or anything. It was at that point I realized quite quickly I had to invest very heavily in developing the brand and programs and make sure that I had a proper product.”
“It would have been very easy for someone to just copy what we were doing and set up a local pre-school football program in their local park.”
Little Kickers started as a bootstrap operation with the help of a few business partners. One was a friend named Mel, whose artistic background created the logo; her cousin helped with branding. Another business partner was very involved in the operation aspects of the business.
“We didn’t really get around registering the trademark until after we’d set up 35 classes at the end of the first year. And then we decided it may make sense to franchise it, but up until then, we didn’t really think about it.”
Once the program had a brand and a structure, all that left was to work out the day-to-day operations and plan for Little Kickers’ future. One of the challenges the fledgling business faced was finding reputable coaches. Kelly admits in any business, finding good people is “hard,” but the real challenge lies in managing cash flow.
“The business was really bootstrapped, so any revenue that we had generated were ploughed back into the business, to spend on things like branding. Basically, increasing our intellectual property. That was really hard.
“It’s a challenge for anyone setting up a business for the first time…you don’t know what you don’t know, so you just bumble about a bit in the dark, hoping that everything is okay.”
Making contact with other entrepreneurs and getting input from different people helped answer a lot of Kelly’s questions. By getting input from a variety of sources, Little Kickers was able to get through its first year swimmingly. At the time, she wasn’t part of any official network, being more focused on keeping her 35 classes running. However, knowing the value of cooperative learning, Kelly later joined EO.
“The main reason I joined was because I invest quite heavily in my team. And I haven’t done any training myself for years. And I found out about EO and it’s a really nice combination of learning events, where you are with a range of businesses that are similar in size, at EO; things that are really relevant to fast-growing businesses. As a part of EO, I joined a Forum at EO, and we meet up once a month.
“We have just really open discussions about business, personal life, family life, and everything else, because obviously, as an entrepreneur, it all melds into one, to a degree.”
One resource that Kelly found particularly useful was the EOS – the Entrepreneurs Operating System, an operating model for fast growing entrepreneurial businesses.
“The EOS is run by an external facilitator, and it’s basically a program that helps you take a look at your business and work out when you will hit your ceiling. The theory behind it is that “Every business at some point will hit various ceilings at various points which are barriers to their growth. It helps define what your three year plan, your ten year plan is, so everyone in the organization is very clear about where we working, where we’re moving towards.”
“EOS encourages you to do is to work out what those barriers are, before you run into them. It make sure you have a team in place that know what they are accountable for.”
Little Kickers is expanding fast, after taking EO’s program to heart. Kelly recently hired a business development manager, in charge of signing up new franchisees around the world. Kelly laughs, “Up until that point, I’ve just been doing it… signing up new franchisees from different countries on the side of my desk. I think we’ve taken on someone fantastic.”
“I expect to be in about 30 countries by the end of the year. By mid year last year, we looked at the economies that were forecast to be the largest by the year 2026.”
“We’ve also started to work on focusing on specific countries. For now, we’ve been operating in China for two years. Chinese regulations around franchising say that you have to run a pilot for two years before you can sell franchises. So, literally, this month, they are allowed to sell franchises. We think that China is going to be a huge market for us.”
Little Kickers recently set up an office in Delhi, India, where they are selling franchises directly in the Indian market. Kelly believes that going to be a huge market for them, and looks forward to their expansion with excitement. Other plans involve Mexico, which they are currently managing out of their Toronto office.
“There’s lots of international growth. We are investing very heavily on our niche, which is preschool classes from 18 months to their 7th birthday, and try to push it out as much as we can around the world.
“There are a few areas We’re constantly trying to improve, to enhance what we have going. Marketing is a huge focus for us, as it is for any franchise business, and we’re looking for innovative approaches to marketing. We want to be the first ones out there with new techniques, and really trailblaze in that way.
Kelly advice to new and upcoming entrepreneurs is summed up in one word: Tenacity.
“I found there’s lots of times where you think ‘is this definitely going to work?’ You don’t really know for the first six to twelve months. The temptation is always there, to go back to what you were doing before. Or, go back to paid employment and just be safe.”
“Just keeping going, when you’re faced with that, when you’re faced with situations that are quite challenging to deal with.”
“I think the turning point for me was when I had a bunch of trademark issues. A competing business was challenging our right to use the name “Little Kickers.” We didn’t want to rebrand, we’d already started franchising. At that point I thought, “if we’re encountering these problems, everyone else who comes into this area will, too.”
“If we’re the ones who say, ‘we’re not going to give up, we’re just going to keep doing this. [We’ll] Just overcome the problems as they arise. We view problems as a barrier for other businesses, rather than something that makes us not want to continue.’ For me, that was a big turning point.”
Kelly advises start-ups to test the market either prior to launching or just as it’s taking off. “If it’s well received and you have a proper business model and the financial model works, then you can go for it and you don’t give up,” she adds.
“I think that’s the main advice that I would have, is that you will have some really tough times, but keep going.”
“I didn’t really start taking a salary until the second or third year. By then, it was just getting my childcare paid for. So really, it was only until year three or four that I started to get a proper salary for my business. Up until then, I didn’t really want to take on any debt.
“Every penny I made went back into things like building an IT system, registering trademarks, sorting out branding, and developing the program. There were a lot of expenses, so we’d bootstrap the business. We’d use the money that we’d generated to pay for those expenses.”
The lean living and careful planning paid off: In the first year, 300 people signed up. Little Kickers now boasts about 50, 000 subscribers, worldwide.