From Business Consultant To Owning A $1.2M/Year Franchise Portal

Published: March 14th, 2022
Sean McGarry
Founder, Franchise Direct
Franchise Direct
from Dublin, Ireland
started January 1998
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Ben Wrafter and I’m the CEO of Franchise Direct.

The company was founded in 1998 and is among the pioneers of internet lead generation for the franchise industry. With over 20 years of online marketing experience, we have grown to become the world's leading portal for franchise and business opportunities.

Our website network consists of 15 multilingual sites targeting markets across North America, Europe, Latin America, MENA, Australia, New Zealand, Asia/SEA. Through this extensive network, Franchise Direct allows franchisors to connect with prospective franchisees worldwide. No other franchisor portal offers the same global reach.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been fortunate to be still in such a strong position. We have around one thousand clients spread out across our 15 multilingual sites and a combined monthly average of 675,000 visitors, 525,000 of which are unique. Our websites achieve almost two million combined page views per month. We currently have over 500,000 active subscribers in our email database, which is a 17% increase from this time last year. I think that in itself speaks volumes on just how popular we have remained despite the global crisis.

Sean McGarry - Found, Owner and MD of Franchise Direct

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I set up and operated a large engineering company, Impulse Engineering Ltd, which I turned into an international trading supplier before selling it in 2000 after deciding to focus my efforts as a consultant. Since then I have been involved in several start-up companies and have acted as a consultant and mentor for a large number of clients in diverse industries in a B2B capacity. A large part of my roles revolved around securing partnership agreements and implementing new strategies to help the company focus on a specific direction.

That is how I came to be the CEO of Franchise Direct. I consulted for Franchise Direct in business planning and business development from 2009 until 2018 when I became the CEO permanently. It was a natural fit for me as the company was starting to come into its own and was open to my ideas and valued my expertise. My role nowadays is vastly different from the one I had when I first started consulting with the company. Initially, I was just a sounding board for ideas focusing on marketing and business development. Over time, I gradually took on more responsibility to the point I was eventually offered the role of CEO when the previous CEO stepped down.

Could you elaborate on your value proposition?

First and foremost, Franchise Direct is a franchise portal. What we do is promote franchise opportunities on behalf of clients and acquire leads for them from potential franchisees who are looking to invest in their business. While it sounds like a simple business model, a lot of work goes into it and maintaining a high standard of success.

A lot of the time, the clients approach us first to have their business listed on one of our portals. In terms of sourcing new clients, email marketing and remarketing, attending franchise expos and referrals are our biggest tools when it comes to promoting ourselves to potential new customers. We generally have a high success rate, even during the Covid-19 pandemic so we also find that word of mouth helps us acquire the attention of other businesses looking to franchise themselves.

We have several different methods to promote these franchise opportunities to potentially interested parties such as email marketing, social media, and paid search among several other tools at our disposal. We also have been successful in acquiring a high number of leads through organic search, thanks in large part to our wonderful in-house SEO experts.

It is hard to say what the most popular franchises are because it changes frequently. For example, in South Africa before the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw that Coffee, Education, and Food/Restaurant franchises were among the most sought after. However, as soon as the pandemic kicked into full swing, we saw Courier, Cleaning, and Home-Based franchises increase in popularity. It all depends on the economic climate and ongoing issues in the world.

The same can be said for the type of people looking to open a franchise. Before the pandemic, we found that a lot of people making inquiries were either nearing retirement age and weren’t ready to quit working or people who had additional capital they wanted to invest. This completely changed during the pandemic and we saw a massive increase in the number of stay-at-home parents and people who had been left unemployed because of Covid-19 looking to open a franchise to help tie them over financially.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Franchise Direct was launched in 1998. Seeing how it was before the millennium, you can imagine how basic a website it was. However, over the years we adapted to the rise and improvement of technology and have added more and more portals to increase our reach across the globe. Our South African website was launched in 2012 and has been in operation ever since.

Unfortunately, a website doesn’t become a hit overnight, especially in the franchise industry. Between SEO and traffic issues, it can sometimes take 12-18 months before we start to see a steady stream of leads. We were fortunate with our South African site that it was popular from the getgo and didn’t take as long to hit the ground running. However, each portal is different. Some can take months while others can take years to become successful in terms of traffic and lead conversion.

The Capel Building, Dublin - Headquarters of Franchise Direct

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The two things which have probably worked best for us over the years to attract and retain clients have been constantly upgrading and relentless testing.

We’ve always prided ourselves on maintaining and updating our systems on an almost daily basis. While most franchise portals try to upgrade their software as frequently as possible, we find that the majority seem to do it on a weekly or bi-monthly basis. For us to learn more about our clients’ needs and wants, we make adjustments to our systems daily. This comes in many different shapes and forms such as A/B testing, homepage tweaks, redesigning banners, and readjusting filters on our lead form, to name but just a few. We have found that these daily changes have led to our clients receiving better quality leads that they can turn into franchisees. In our experience, a happy client will always return for second helpings.

We also utilize several other methods to try and attract and retain clients. Social media and email marketing are two of the biggest weapons in our arsenal that we use to great effect. Our social media team are some of the best and brightest minds in the industry. They are constantly researching new ways to acquire high-quality leads for our clients and gather brand exposure both for them and for us as well. We find social media is something we are far ahead of the competition purely because we commit the time and resources to it. In fact, our Franchise Direct South Africa Facebook page is in the Top 3 of our social media channels when it comes to acquiring leads for clients. We regularly pull in 100-150 leads per month through it alone.

A number of Franchise Direct South Africa clients

As for email marketing, we have a database containing almost 600k email addresses from active subscribers. Last year, this number was closer to 1 million but we decided it was in the best interest to purge the email addresses of those who hadn’t opened or engaged with any campaign we had sent in the previous six months. This is something we do twice a year to make sure our database is filled only with active users who are willing to engage with client content.

Finally, we’ve found that constant internal communication is probably one of the best tools we have when it comes to achieving the best results possible for our clients. Our sales, social media, and marketing teams are always in regular contact to discuss what they find is working and what isn’t to make the necessary adjustments to client campaigns. This system has proved effective over the years as rarely does a major problem present itself as it is headed off before it can turn into something bigger.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Like the majority of businesses, ours was also affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and we were forced to adapt to meet the challenge. We were fortunate that the majority of our operations are online so once our employees have a computer and an internet connection, they can work remotely from anywhere on the planet. Largely because of this, we are in relatively good shape compared to a lot of our competitors who, unfortunately, weren’t as prepared for such a situation.

The pandemic has forced us to look further into the future than we usually would to try and predict where the franchise industry is heading and what other problems it may encounter in the future. While we have always looked at new ways to reach our audience and find better quality leads for clients, the past year has accelerated our research into these areas exponentially.

As was the case with the financial crisis of 2007-2008, we discovered the franchise industry to be somewhat resilient to the situation as people were looking for new career opportunities to try and secure their financial future. This presented us with ample opportunities to increase our marketing efforts which in turn helped us ride through the pandemic far more comfortably than we would have previously anticipated.

As for what the future holds are anybody’s guess. We have several targets we’d love to be able to hit both in the coming year and over the next five years. Over the past two years, we launched franchise portals in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia as well as in the Middle East and North Africa. A lot of our short and long-term planning will revolve around them. At present, they are only starting to take off and come into their own. However, we’d love to be able to have them at the same level as our leading portals in the US, UK, and Europe by 2025. And sure if we decide to go for full global coverage, we might even create a franchise portal for Antarctica haha. Aside from improving our portals, we also want to develop and implement new and (hopefully) improved methods of email marketing focusing on automation and autoresponder tools.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have learned that the fundamentals of all successful companies are the same. Good ideas, good people, and hard work. We’ve been fortunate to have all three.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but the most important thing is to learn from them.

Not every idea we’ve had has been a good one but luckily for us, the majority have been. We’ve been able to turn decent ideas into great ones thanks to the hard work of our excellent team. Sometimes that is enough. If hard work and maximum effort are given to every project then it can become more than anybody possibly expected it to be.

One of Franchise Direct’s greatest strengths is our fantastic team. There are upwards of 40 people working for the company, each with their own unique skill set. Our team has backgrounds in PR, marketing, website development, social media, journalism, finance, and content creation to name but a few. I could easily go on. When you have such a diversified staff, it really makes life as a CEO much easier.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use dozens of tools on a daily basis to help us meet both our and our clients’ goals. These tools include ActiveCampaign for email marketing, Sociality for social media management, the Brightspot CRM to maintain our 15 franchise portals across the globe, Frase for researching and writing blogs, and Biteable for video creation. We also use a variety of other tools such as Google Adwords, Google Analytics and Moz for advertising and SEO purposes. Not to mention Aircall and Zoom for calls and meetings to maintain contact with one another.

While all play a significant part in what we do, there are some like ActiveCampaign which stand out above the others. It allows us to showcase the franchise opportunities we have on offer to a larger audience than we otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage with.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Most books, podcasts, and articles are transient. The business world changes rapidly and this is true for all sectors be it software, engineering, internet, etc. The most important element is always the market, how it is progressing, transforming, etc. and the way to stay on top of this is to constantly listen to and talk to clients and other market players.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The first 5 years are the toughest and you will always have to work hard and smart. When you feel you are at the bottom it just means things will get better.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but the most important thing is to learn from them. To quote Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Trying and failing is a part of life, not just business. Just make sure that you learn something from each failure that will eventually help you turn it into a success.

Where can we go to learn more?

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