Finding pre-school activities for your children can be a tricky business. With pressure on parents to kickstart their kiddies’ learning early, you can feel like you’re letting the side down if you’re not signing up your toddler for classes in conversational french or buying them a My Little Monet set. We seem ever more committed to driving our children toward achievement at the expense of supporting their natural inquisitiveness and creativity. Desiring to buck this trend, Music Bugs is a franchise putting the fun back into pre-school learning.
Like all great businesses, the idea behind Music Bugs first sprouted when founder Claire Bennett spotted a gap in the market. “I was particularly keen to develop a pre-school business that focused on informal play rather than some of the stricter options I had personally encountered when my own children were of pre-school age and which I’d found fairly limiting,” she explains. Finding that it wasn’t an approach that had been attempted elsewhere, she ran the concept past family and friends and this helped her see just how strong a demand there was for a pre-school enterprise that encouraged play through music.
Bennett launched the first classes in her hometown of Swindon, sure that the sessions’ original approach would win over parents and toddlers alike. “I was confident that Music Bugs could offer something quite different in terms of its approach to play-based and interactive development,” she says. To say her confidence was well-founded would be an understatement. “The response was incredible, far beyond my expectations.”
This doesn’t mean she allowed herself to get complacent; Bennett wanted to ensure every inch of her model had been tested. “I was careful to use those first few years wisely before pursuing a franchise model for the business,” she explains. Testing and working through every element of the enterprise, she began developing the branding, business structure and the content of the classes, putting her every decision to the litmus test by taking on board the opinions of her customers. “Feedback from parents in those early days was crucial and I was spurred on by their positive feedback and input.”
During this period, the entrepreneur bootstrapped her business, meaning she didn’t have to rely on debt funding from the banks. Smart use of the enterprise’s income also helped it secure healthy growth. As Bennett comments: “We reinvested most of our profit back into the business in the early days to drive both our expansion plans and ensure we had the best operational infrastructure in place to support the growth of the business.”
Whilst she’d always been considering franchising to help spread the Music Bugs name, when it came down to it, it was one of her customers that finally encouraged her to take the plunge.
“A mum who attended our classes had to relocate due to her husband’s work commitments and asked whether there were any Music Bugs classes in other areas of the UK,” Bennett recalls. “I had been thinking about franchising as a route to market for some time and attended a seminar with the British Franchise Association to assess whether this was the right direction to take my business.” The time she’d put in she’d put in working through the model evidently paid off, as Music Bugs took to franchising like a duck to water and has gone on to build up a network of 25 franchisees around the country.
But what is it that has helped Music Bugs become such a hit with its young customers? In part, it’s down to the huge benefits its classes and activities can have for developing minds. “Recent research by the University of West London concluded that music may improve behaviour in young children,” explains Bennett “And there has been widespread research over the years that has explored the positive impact music brings across all areas of learning development in young children.”
However, it’s not solely the combo of children and tunes that has made Music Bugs unique. Instead, that comes down to its insistence on play-based learning, free from the restrictions of a classroom-style environment.
“Music Bugs were one of the first pre-school music franchises to move away from this structure towards a format that encourages children to learn through play,” Bennett explains. “Our ethos has always been ‘letting kids be kids’ and parents have responded to this very positively with several of them taking up a Music Bugs franchise of their own, which, for any business, is about the best endorsement you can get.”
Obviously there is a huge difference between a toddler that has just found its feet and a child just a few months from that first exciting step through the school gate, so Music Bugs has a range of classes to suit. “Our classes are aimed at children from birth to five years of age, so we have divided classes into three different age ranges which means we can adapt classes to the developmental stage of the children,” says Bennett. And not only can parents attend a class one-on-one with their child but there are also ‘Family Bugs’ classes that cater to mixed age groups.
You might imagine it would be hard to choose franchisees that you know will have the skills and charms to capture the attention of a room of small children but Music Bugs is able to work with people from a huge range of backgrounds.
“Our application process, which includes attending a Discovery Day and meeting existing franchisees, gives us the opportunity to assess the suitability of prospective candidates and conversely, for them to assess us,” explains Bennett. “Once we have assessed a prospective franchisee, we can then tailor an individual package of training and mentoring for them.”
Music Bugs hasn’t just proved a hit with the wee ones, parents and franchisees. It has also garnered some well-deserved accolades, netting nominations for both Best Training & Support and Best Mid-size Franchisor categories at the Best Franchise Awards in 2012. “We were shortlisted against larger and more established franchise brands and although we didn’t win, it was a nod of recognition from our industry peers for our achievement,” says Bennett. They experienced an increased franchise uptake following the awards, increasing their target by 25%, and have once again received a nomination for Best Training & Support this year.
There is definitely a mellifluous future for Music Bugs. Not only is it experiencing high demand for its classes and promising numbers of enquiries from potential franchisees, but they are also about to engage on an ambitious project this November – the launch of National Nursery Week, the first event in the UK to celebrate the role nursery rhymes play in children’s development.
“It’s an initiative that we feel very passionate about and over 2,500 primary schools, parents, early years settings, libraries and childminders have signed up to participate,” says Bennett. “We are expecting over 50,000 children to take part in the event, which for our inaugural year is a truly incredible response.”
Given Music Bugs was built around a premise of freeform learning and individuality, it’s clear that marching to the beat of its own drum has allowed it to change the way we approach pre-school learning.