Go­ing Global

SafeS­plash Swim School has grand am­bi­tions. How does its strat­egy stack up?

Inc. (USA) - - DEPARTMENTS - —LEIGH BUCHANAN

A swim school dives into in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion

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 mar- ket­ing 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.”

IN THE SWIM

SafeS­plash is bet­ting big on an ag­gres­sive in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion—which looks like a suc­cess.

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