Franchise Spotlight: Tutu School

Author:
 
Genevieve Weeks in her office.

Photo credit: Andrew Weeks

Location3 is the marketing agency for franchises. Our CEO, Alex Porter, sat down with one of our newest franchise partners, Genevieve Weeks, to learn more about the success of her franchise, Tutu School. Genevieve tells her story – from the inspiration that got her started dancing, to navigating the complexities of building a franchise. She also shares her approach to marketing and valuable advice for business owners seeking a start in franchising. 

[AP] Let’s start at the beginning. Every superhero has an origin story – tell us more about your brand and how you got started: 

[GW] The brand is Tutu School, and we are a collection of boutique ballet schools, franchised across the country and coming soon in Canada! 

We were founded in the bay area in San Francisco thirteen years ago, while I was still dancing professionally. That’s my background – I was a professional ballet dancer. And so, the origin of Tutu School is also my origin story. As a kid, I was always dancing around the house. There was always music on in the living room, and you could find me there dancing, just losing myself in it. That was my happy place – the music was on, and I found creativity and joy in it. 

When I started teaching, I noticed there was a lack of spaces like that. The focus wasn’t on providing that foundational place where you can fall in love with music and movement. That didn’t exist. There were more traditional dance schools, but they weren’t welcoming to very young dancers. There wasn’t thought and care put into what the curriculum would be, or how you would train teachers to work with that specific age group in a developmentally appropriate way.  

I was teaching mostly older dancers. And then, at one of the schools where I taught, they put me in charge of the preschool division. That was when I realized how much I love teaching this age group. It’s magical! It’s what I believe-in most about ballet. Again, it’s that sense of discovery, creativity and joy you can find when you’re just getting to move to music. I saw it could have a transformative power for any of the kids who had the chance to experience that, whether they wanted to dance professionally or not. 

From a business perspective, I noticed there was tons of interest for this age group. People really wanted to sign their kids up for that milestone moment of their first ballet lesson. The entrepreneurial side of my brain was seeing that these classes have waiting lists. These are the classes that parents are trying to get their kids into.  

And then, in terms of the spaces themselves – the typical dance studios are these pretty cavernous, warehouse spaces. Dingy and uninviting. Nothing that was warm, welcoming and nurturing.  

I asked, why don’t we have a space that’s focused solely on serving the unique needs of these kids and their families? 

While still dancing professionally, I decided to make my own and fill that need. Tutu School was born! 

[AP] When you were starting out, did you always think of this as a franchise? Did you always envision multiple locations?  

[GW] It’s weird – if we were to go back, and you said that Tutu School was going to grow beyond a single studio – I wouldn’t have been too surprised. I always had that in the back of my mind, that this could really be something. But my initial intention was truly to start just this one school, and I hadn’t thought much beyond me in this one room in San Francisco. When we opened, it grew so quickly in San Francisco that within about a year and a half, we opened a second location across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, which also did very well. We were still in the midst of the recession. It was really enlightening that these could do well, even in a down economy, in different communities. But it also opened my eyes to the realities of what it meant to run two studios. So, I had both the realization that wow, Tutu School could thrive with multiple locations, but also, I don’t think I could ever open them all myself!  

As luck would have it, one of my best friends had very successfully franchised her business, a bridesmaid’s dress boutique called Bella Bridesmaid. I don’t know that the idea to scale my company that way truly would have occurred to me if it weren’t for her. I was so lucky because she was able to mentor me through the initial stages of getting it set up. 

[AP] Describe those first couple of years in franchising, after realizing the franchise potential but also understanding you couldn’t open all those locations across the country by yourself. What were the biggest challenges and how did you tackle them? 

[GW] The first challenge was to find the first owner. There were a couple of people that we were excited about, but they didn’t want to be that first person. I think it felt intimidating, from their perspective, to be the first ever franchise of this new concept. And then, there were a couple of people who were ready, but we didn’t find them to be a good fit. It felt very daunting to find that first. I would say up through the first few owners, it was challenging because it felt like they were really going to be the avatars that would be modeled thereafter. New owners would forever look to them to understand what it means to be a Tutu School owner. I think it was demanding for all of us, really. And it took a while! But once we got the first two owners in the system, things just started rolling very organically. I joke with our first and second franchisees that they’re like my first child. At the beginning, just like a new mom, I felt like we had to do everything by the book. And I was much harder on myself and the first owners. Those first franchisees really had to go through the growing pains of establishing the brand with me. With new business owners weighing in, I had to ask myself – just because I’ve always operated or represented the brand in a certain way – were those decisions intentional? Is that because it needs to be that way? Is there room to explore new ideas? Now, that’s one of my favorite things about being a franchise system: we’re so much stronger and we have so many more layers to our offerings because of what our owners bring to the system, ideas they’ve helped us explore, directions they’ve pushed us in. But in the beginning that felt terrifying to me. It was scary enough to share my brand, my baby, with these people. The idea that they might want to do something differently than I had done – it felt really scary. Figuring out the balance – what was the consistency that we needed for the brand? What were the things that were non-negotiable, and what were areas where we should be open to exploring new ideas? I feel grateful that I had good partners in those early owners for working through those parts. 

[AP] Do you have a franchise council or anything like that in place that you use to help with planning or to bounce off ideas? Or do franchisees have any kind of power of approval on any marketing things? 

[GW] We don’t yet, but we’re just getting to the size where I think it’s something we’re ready to explore. It is something that we have talked about with the owners. But we’ve also been really lucky to have good relationships with all the owners. Especially emerging from the pandemic – it feels like there’s a tighter relationship between the administration and the owners than ever before. It’s one of my main goals to take care of that and really nurture it. Having some sort of council or leadership organization could be a really good way to do that. It’s on our roadmap for the coming year! 

[AP] How many locations do you currently have? 

[GW] We have 54 locations that are open or in the process of opening. A few locations got back-logged pre-pandemic that were sold but hadn’t opened yet. Some of those are still in the pipeline. We also have some locations that we sold more recently, as we’ve been emerging from the pandemic, that are still in the process of opening. And we have already reserved a number of different territories for development! 

[AP] Do you have an ideal location count in mind? Is there a big picture goal of how many locations this could be? 

[GW] I don’t. That’s the honest answer. I don’t think there’s a ceiling! We found that they do well in any community where there are families. And it comes down to how you best serve that community. Our territory radius basically ends up being whatever distance people are willing to drive their 3-year-old weekly to ballet – which, as it turns out, isn’t super far! So, you can have quite a few locations without overlap. Some of the questions that we are continuing to try and ask ourselves and answer on a yearly basis are –  

  • How many locations can we support in the way we want to be supporting them right now – both in terms of the experience we’re providing for families and the experience we’re providing for our owners? 
  • What’s the next rung on the ladder? Where can we grow from here? 
  • How do we build the infrastructure to support that growth? 
Genevieve Weeks holds a corkboard map of the USA with locations pinned.

Photo Credit: Andrew Weeks

I’m hoping in the next few years we’ll have a better sense of the reach goal for what the ultimate number of locations could be. Our growth so far has been so fast that I don’t feel like I know that yet! 

[AP] Any location in Denver? 

[GW] Not yet! Pre-pandemic we had a wish list of national locations in Austin and Denver. And we have our first national location in Austin coming in the fall – so Denver’s next! 

[AP] How are you getting these candidates for new locations currently? Is it referral, word of mouth? People hear about it and they want to be a part?  

[GW] It’s been really organic. Because we’re not a traditional franchise concept, some of the more traditional avenues for franchise development – trade shows, broker associations – don’t really seem to be the places where people find us. That might change as Tutu School becomes something that is more on people’s radar, but so far, the growth has been organic. We’ve had past families move to Salt Lake City from the Bay Area and say, “There’s no Tutu School here. I should open one!” People found us through social media because they knew someone who attended, someone who owned one, or someone who worked there. Sometimes, it’s been a past teacher! We’ve also experienced a ton of growth from owners opening multiple locations. Most of our owners own multiple locations. While we are at 54 locations, our number of owners is still in the twenties, just because so many own more than one! 

[AP] As Tutu School grows and evolves, I’m sure you have plans to hire a number of specialized roles in the organization. For someone that’s going from one to 50, do you have any advice for how or when to make the decision to bring-on someone that is operationally focused, finance-focused, etc?  

[GW] The biggest thing I learned from franchising is – and this is something I tell all small business owners – it’s always good to plan to scale. Whether you do or not – I tell entrepreneurs to make a plan, to go through the steps needed to franchise, in terms of systemization, operations, and things of that nature. You will never regret doing that. One approach is to map out the seats that you want to have in your ideal office. Don’t necessarily worry about how many seats there are. But what are the roles you want to have? What are the departments? What are the areas in the organization that you want to make sure are being taken care of? Then, the part you can adjust as you grow is the number of seats in that department. Is it one desk or is it many? And who is filling that role? I think planning from the beginning – not that we’ve always done that – is a lot easier than going back and having to divide up a bunch of roles that are just sort of miscellaneous catch-all categories.  

[AP] Location3 is a marketing company – we’re interested in your viewpoint on the general world of marketing these days. As things continue to grow and change, and from where you sit as the central nexus of the Tutu School franchise – what do you think about trends in marketing? Anything that’s interesting to you when it comes to marketing your locations? 

[GW] I was just saying to the team last week – it really feels like the only paid marketing that makes sense for us is digital marketing. I think we’re lucky that at the location level a lot of our marketing can be grassroots. It’s developed from relationships with mothers’ groups, schools, parents, hosting events, and sponsoring things in the community. It’s a lot of connecting with the parent network of a community, so that your business does become very referral based. And those are things that don’t cost money but do take time and energy.  

As far as marketing dollars, at this point, it really does feel like the only place it makes sense for us to spend is in digital marketing – that’s where we’re able to find our families, the parents who are looking for these experiences for their kids – when they’re scrolling Facebook or Instagram, or when they’ve searched online for something like Tutu School. Maybe they don’t know who we are yet, but they are looking for the type of experience we offer for their kids. Being able to optimize that, especially on a local level and with knowledge – not just throwing stuff out there and hoping it sticks – feels really important. Just over the past 13 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen a lot of the other more traditional forms of marketing just fall by the wayside. You can spend there, and maybe you’ll get some sort of brand awareness out of it, but it doesn’t seem to track in terms of conversions. We’re focused on both some of the most old-fashioned forms of marketing, in terms of grassroots efforts and networking, and digital, the new way to market. 

[AP] That makes sense! With the artistic element behind your offering, I see a great opportunity for some amazing creative and video for localized digital advertising. So, that’s great to hear!  

What kind of person is an ideal franchisee? Do you have to be able to dance ballet? Is that a prerequisite? 

If someone out there is reading this and is interested in finding out more – go to TutuSchool.com. There’s a franchising tab with a link to reach out to us! 

[AP] It’s an amazing concept! What’s on the horizon for the next 12 months? 

[GW] We are in such a stage of growth that we have to be, by necessity, focused on growing. We’re making sure to build that infrastructure both to support the new locations that are coming online and to continue to support existing locations in the way they know and love. The feeling I get from talking to all our owners is after having come through the experience of the last year and a half, we feel ready to take on almost anything. I think the sense among families, too, is that everyone is so ready to get back to in-person experiences for their children. They’re valued more now than ever. If anything, the value, the role we play in families’ lives has been reinforced by the pandemic. This spring our locations were seeing record enrollment numbers. Everyone has this renewed sense of commitment to the mission. We heard from so many of our families, too, that we were something that got them through the pandemic. We were a constant in their lives, even when they had to attend online for a little while, or they first came back to us as an outdoor class. We were so committed to being a part of their lives that we reinforced and strengthened the bonds with the clients that we have. And as a franchise system, all the owners feel even more bonded to the brand and are looking toward expansion. They’re looking ahead to growing and new things. It feels exciting!  

Though none of us would have chosen to go through this past year for all the obvious reasons, we also wouldn’t choose to go back to the leaders, the owners we were prior to the pandemic. And that’s a real gift – to come out of all this with new versions of ourselves that are ready to tackle anything. 

[AP] Tell me more about your students – what ages typically attend Tutu School? 

[GW] We start at 18 months old – so a year and a half old. Very, very young! Caregivers participate until age three – so they’re not in there by themselves! We go up to 8 years old. And that’s about the age at which, if you wanted to study ballet more seriously, you would start more formal training. They do get somewhat of a technical foundation with us up until then, but we are mostly focused on enrichment and making sure it’s a truly magical introduction to the arts for all the kids who come through our doors. 

[AP] Once they’re 8 they graduate to more formal schools – is there a Tutu High School that might come out of this at some point? 

[GW] Never say never! At this point we don’t have any plans for that. The bulk of our student demographic is between 2-5, and that’s typically when kids are trying many new activities.  Around the time that they go into elementary school, they start to focus more on a few specific activities.   

I’m also a big believer in doing one thing and doing it really well. Our one thing is to provide this magical introduction to ballet for very young children. And we’re happy to support them and cheer them on from there if they want to continue studying more seriously. 

[AP] In 13 years, do you have any success stories of people that have gone through your program and are now dancing out in the world professionally? 

[GW] With our timeline, we’re just getting there. Our first students are now teenagers at conservatories if they continued their studies. So, we’ll see in the coming years who might graduate into professional ranks and join companies! That first generation is just getting ready to come of age. Our primary goal of Tutu School is to provide this experience for all children knowing that most of them won’t dance professionally. But for some of them, this could be that spark that ignites a future career in professional ballet – and that’s incredibly exciting! 

[AP] Do you have an alumni network that you keep in touch with? 

[GW] Right now, it’s just been keeping in touch via social media. This summer, at one of the corporate locations, two 14-year-olds got back in touch with us. They had started at Tutu School, were still dancing, and they wanted to know if they could come back and help at camp. Now, they’re both camp assistants this summer at Tutu Camp, which is so fun!  

Now, you’ve got me thinking – maybe we need something more formal to track these kids! 

[AP] They could become teachers too, as they progress! 

[GW] Yeah – full circle! 

[AP] Regarding your professional ballet career, what was your favorite role as a professional dancer? 

[GW] This is a tricky one to answer! I was trained in the Balanchine technique, and so Balanchine ballets tend to be my favorite. Often, they don’t have stories – they’re just music and movement. As far as story ballets go, I would have to say Cinderella was a favorite! I danced a version of Cinderella that was choreographed for me with the Madison Ballet in the Midwest. It was one that I danced several times! The role I retired with was Dewdrop in the Nutcracker, and that was also a favorite. I love Tchaikovsky. I love the music! And with the Dewdrop roll, you get to go out there and fly through the air! You flit onstage, run off and then come back! It’s just like those living room moments, but on stage.  

[AP] Are there any YouTube videos out there that the savvy searcher might find? 

[GW] You know, there might be a couple, although my career just predated YouTube. But my husband is a photographer, so there are a lot of photos! 

[AP] What a great story! Thanks for sharing it with us. Congrats on where you are now and the success you’ve achieved.