I Started A Business With A Baby – Karen Sherr of Musical Minis

Today Karen Sherr of Musical Minis (music groups for babies and toddlers) tells us how she started her business. Karen started Musical Minis when her son Matthew was 1 year old – Matthew is now 21 and has a brother Alexander age 19 and sister Emily,16. She also shares some of her experience of franchising…

What inspired you to set up Musical Minis?

I took Matthew to an exercise group where they sang a song at the beginning and the end of each session. This was Matthews’ favourite part. I tried to find a local music group that I could take him to but with no luck. The few I did find were very musical and very strict – the parents had to ensure their children listened to a mixture of music for ½ hour each day. I was looking for a ‘fun’ music group that would not put children off music but would not necessarily teach them rhythm and beat etc.

When Matthew was one year old, I was beginning to miss being surrounded by a ward full of children and being at home with just one. This mixed in with my inability to find a suitable music group to attend (and knowing some of my friends were also interested in finding a music group) led to the launch of Musical Minis.

What is your background?

After school, I did a psychology degree at Warwick University. Then I was employed as a Play Specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, on the cardiac unit. Being a Play Specialist involved caring for the emotional, not medical, care of the children – telling them about their operations, why it was necessary, what would happen to them and also emotionally supporting the child’s parents and siblings. I had intended to return to Great Ormond Street after having Matthew but I didn’t like the idea of being with other peoples children whilst leaving my own. Also now being a Mum, I’m not sure I would have coped supporting parents of very ill children.

How did you go about setting the company up?

Musical Minis was based on what I wanted as a Mum for my child. At first, it was a group I could attend with Matthew. A few of my friends came with their children. I devised the programme, bought the equipment, hired the hall, took out insurance etc. We had one session (3/4 hour) a week. Patricia Elson, a leader at the exercise group I took Matthew to, came on board as my partner – if she took the class, Matthew and I could fully benefit from participating in the class.

When Musical Minis was established, I had no idea that so many parents would wish their children to join. It soon became apparent that we had a proper business.

How did you finance the initial company?

We financed it ourselves out of our savings. We ploughed all the money we made from the classes back into the business for a number of years.

Did you do all the work yourself?

Locally the business took off very quickly. The number of children attending grew rapidly. Our first franchise was in September 1997. This was 7 years after we set up locally. The delay was due to the fact that we wanted to set up everything legally before we offered the franchise for sale. We had to register our trademark – we became embroiled in a dispute which we won, but the process took a long time. Our music needed to be cleared – we hired a recording studio with a male and female singer, so we own the recordings. We then had to create the lesson tapes, apply for a licence to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), duplicate the tapes and pay the required Royalties.

We wanted to make sure everything was correct before setting up franchises. We liaised with lawyers to create a franchise agreement, wrote Operating and Training Manuals which we made sure could be understood and easily used. We ran (and still do) our own sessions so any problem or guidance our franchisees have or need we can offer first hand experience.

How did you manage in terms of childcare in the beginning?

The nature of Musical Minis has allowed me to take the children with me, so childcare wasn’t an issue. Matthew loved attending Musical Minis. The preparation before each class was something he could be part of and it just became a normal part of his life. As the weeks went on, we ran more sessions in more venues and he could always come along and be part of it.

After a few months I became pregnant. I worked throughout my pregnancy but took on an additional member of staff so I could have a few weeks off after the baby was born. Alex and Emily both were born into a life involving Musical Minis. The children did not see me as a businesswoman as to them, I was doing the same as all other Mums. As they have got older they realised this wasn’t the case.

You offer Musical Minis as a franchise opportunity for other Mums – was that always the long-term aim of the business? How did you know it was time to franchise?

No. It was originally started as a small local group where I could take Matthew. As the demand became apparent the business grew. We started to consider franchising when we were approached by mums who attended our classes and then moved out of the area.

How did you go about setting up all the legal/documentation side of the franchise?

The Franchise Agreement was written by a law firm whilst we used a specialist trade mark company to register the name and logo of Musical Minis. We were lucky enough to be introduced to a music publisher who helped us with matters of music clearance, My husband Rob acted as our representative on these matters. He also wrote the Operating Manual whilst myself and Pat Elson wrote the Training Manual with the support of Pat’s husband Roy who is a personnel specialist.

Did you have legal/professional help?

We continue to use professional help as required. Unfortunately we have had to call on lawyers to help with trade mark infringement and other legal disputes. Our accountants have also been helpful, providing advice as we have grown.

What has been the best bit of free PR/Marketing you've had?

One of our franchisees had an article printed about her in Red magazine.

What has been the biggest hurdle you've had to overcome with the business?

At first the financial outlay and time involved seemed as though possibly we had taken on too much. Now, 20 years on, we are starting to be able to take money out of the business and not have to reinvest it. I know we could have grown much quicker and have many more franchisees but we have kept the business growth small to fit in with the family. Also we wanted to be able to fully support each franchisee. I can’t think of any other job I’d rather be doing and I’m not the type to stay at home all day

How do you fit running the business around family life now?

As the children have got older it is easier to fit in running the business around family life, even though the business is growing. Trying to get the right balance was the hardest challenge. I was keen to ensure that I fit Musical Minis around my children and not the children around Musical Minis. By way of example it was important for me that I finish Musical Minis a week before the end of my children’s Nursery term at Christmas, in order that I would be able to go to their Christmas shows.

What is the biggest benefit for your family with you being self-employed?

There was not a day when I could not take the children to school and be there to collect them. I am sure they benefited from the fact that I felt entirely fulfilled through the combination of being a full time Mum and running my own business. I have in recent years been able to take a reasonable sum out of the business and my three teenagers are certainly making sure they benefit from this!

Next Monday 7th June, Karen will be sharing her top ten tips for starting a business as a mum. Why not sign up for updates to Business Plus Baby  (by email or RSS) to make sure you don't miss it?

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