Matt Lane, co-founder of SafeSplash Swim School, knows that some dip toes into the water while others plunge in. But when it comes to international expansion, only one approach works. "If you are going to go for it," says Lane, "you have to go for it at scale."
Lane, a former competitive swimmer, launched SafeSplash in 2005 in Denver when he couldn't find a good program for his kids. By 2015, the business had about 60 U.S. locations. Given the right situation, it was ready to go global.
Lane had run a worldwide organization for Hewlett-Packard, and knew it took substantial blocking and tackling to operate abroad. He calculated he'd need 20 SafeSplashes per territory to justify what he'd have to invest to manage local franchise laws, regulations, trademarks, and currency conversion, among other things. He sought a master franchisee--a subfranchiser that provides services to franchisees within a specified territory--that could operate dozens of schools and would invest time and resources to localize planning and marketing. When Sports World, a Mexican fitness chain with dozens of locations, came knocking, SafeSplash answered.
SafeSplash handled its own Spanish translation of the software platform used by its franchisees to run their businesses. But it collaborated with Sports World to introduce the brand and its values to Mexican families. The company feared the impact of its marketing might not survive translation. ("Learning to swim is a formative experience," says Lane. "Often it is the first activity where kids demonstrate to parents they can accomplish something on their own.") His team and Sports World worked closely to see that a key company message--reassuring customers that they are good parents--was communicated.
When the first Mexican schools opened in March 2016, Lane and other SafeSplash leaders joined Sports World for presentations to parents at roughly 15 sites around Mexico City. "We wanted them to know that the executive team are personally invested," says Lane. To ensure that his U.S. employees were invested too, he shot video of mothers' reactions and distributed clips companywide.
Today, SafeSplash revenue exceeds $25 million, with 5 to 10 percent coming from Mexico. It seeks master franchisees elsewhere, including Canada, South America, the Middle East, and China. Because of that country's size, SafeSplash is breaking it into six territories and hiring a local broker to find master franchisees, as each territory must support 20 units out of the gate.
Recently, SafeSplash acquired another U.S. swim school that had a single franchisee in Turkey. Bringing operations in that region up to at least 20 units is on Lane's front burner. "When you go in onesies and twosies," he says, "it's too slow."