When we first started French Fry Heaven, shop we were fortunate enough to meet a key franchisee of a good sized chicken wing joint who was possibly a bit more forthcoming about the state of their franchise system then maybe they should have been. As a general rule of thumb I have two thoughts about people who reveal the dirty secrets about their own brands. First, is that I am interested in learning from the inside dirt. Second, I never want that kind of person to join my company. To that aside, I was interviewing for a personal assistant once. I narrowed the pool to six candidates and separately asked them the same final question, “Tell me one secret a former boss had you keep for him?” I stopped them if they started to tell me. I hired the one who said to me, “It’s a secret, I can’t tell.” Good trustworthy people can be sometimes a bit harder to come by, but they are worth their weight in gold. The worst feeling in the world is having people on your team you know are going to bash you behind your back. I’d 100% rather hear it to my face. I feel like, as a franchise operation or an entrepreneur, you should be honest and upfront with your people, even if that honesty means that at times you tell them, “I’m not sharing that information with you.” In the case of a franchiser, the honesty between the parties is laid out in the FDD and for an entrepreneur, your contracts.
Going back to the chick joint, when they rolled out, the owner was a real good time Charlie. He sold the first series of franchises to his drinking buddies and signed their agreements over beer and fishing. The FDD was a loosely written doc done by a local lawyer and it was designed to allow his buddies the maximum freedom to run their own stores without bothering the founder. One of the stores actually won awards for the best chicken wings in the state. Unfortunately, another won recognition for having the worst wings in town. Another was credited with being in the police blotter more than any restaurant. The stores all looked completely different and had different character. The complaint often heard was how a family, who loved their local store, went to another and found a biker bar instead. It was pure chaos. Now we agree that when you first start a company, as long as people are aware that it is new, that all but the worst people will work with you and be patient, especially if they have experience in the business, but they need to see you working tirelessly towards your mutual goals.
Worse still for our bird appendage owner, the founder made the terrible mistake of thinking that his FDD was written in crayon and could be changed for any request that made sense at the time. He faced a couple of lawsuits and was surprise when he discovered that franchisees talked among themselves about the changes that they got made and it showed that his FDD was worth less than a lineless coloring book He got hammered several times in a row and decided that it was time to get tough. Incidentally, any teacher knows that the time to get tough is when you first start. You can always get nicer, but you will never be taken seriously getting meaner. The founder had created a classroom full of kids that never had to follow any rules; and nothing he was going to say or do was going to change that. It took an outside firm nearly 10 years to work through all the present franchisees and get things back on track. Incidentally, after starting slow, they are flourishing now.
At French Fry Heaven we tried to avoid this terrible mistake, sometimes maybe to the extreme. We worked with the top firms in franchising to establish a tight FDD. We worked with a separate firm on our operations manual. We created a step by step store opening plan and held all but one franchisee to it exactly. We learned enough from the one trying to do their own thing, to last us a life time. We have a tight design bible, with specific sizes, colors, etc., so franchisees know what we are expecting. We built a system for nearly everything, but at the end of the day, the single most important piece was our FDD. It is our contract with our franchisees and their contract with us. While no one will ever be perfect, we make every effort to live up to our end of the agreement honorably and we have enjoyed high integrity franchisees doing the same. I am strong believer in integrity and accountability. Do what you say. If you can’t or screw up, admit to it and make it right. Saying you’re sorry is not enough, you need to get back into integrity through actions. Any new franchiser or entrepreneurial business is susceptible to improvement and unless an initial franchisee is deluded or just plain silly, they will work alongside a franchiser towards mutual achievement. Our strong suggestion is only start with folks with multi-unit or specific experience in your industry. A rookie to your industry will expect perfection from day one, no matter what you tell them. A rookie will have ridiculous expectations and won’t have the intestinal fortitude to make it through the challenging first year. As a franchiser you cannot possibly learn everything running your own stores. It’s not until you watch others run your model that you’re able to move towards perfection. However, at the end of the day, that contract allows you have a common base with your franchisee and protection all around.