Teaching kids to swim is no easy feat. Teaching kids to swim and calming the nerves of anxious parents? Nearly impossible. Which is why, when husband-and-wife duo Chris and Jenny McCuiston set out to build a family-friendly swim school, they spent two years traveling the country, researching the industry and its many safety regulations, and meeting other swim instructors for inspiration as they developed their own model. In 2006, the newlyweds and former college athletes (Jenny is a two-time qualifier for the Olympic trials in swimming) opened the doors to the Goldfish Swim School in Birmingham, Mich. Eleven years later, that location is still open, the McCuistons have four kids of their own and Goldfish boasts more than 40 franchise locations, serving 70,000 students across the country, with a goal of 200 locations by 2024.
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Creating a swim school for kids seems risky, to say the least. Why do it?
Chris Mccuiston: This was the sport that Jenny and I could both literally dive into. We saw people swimming at YMCAs and health clubs with limited time, in cold pools, sharing the water with lap swimmers and other kids. We set out to build a controlled environment, a learn-to-swim school that people had never experienced before, with bright colors and a warm, Caribbean beach-house feel.
Was franchising always part of the plan?
We wanted to open four schools in Michigan, all corporate owned. Two years in, we were approached by friends who loved the model and wanted to franchise. It was exciting to think about reaching more families. The original franchise plan was 50 schools in five years — which we didn’t hit. But it was a blessing: We had slower growth up front, which allowed us to build a great team and the right systems, and to partner with the right vendors. We could make mistakes with fewer people so we didn’t have those mistakes magnified with that many more locations.
Now you have more than 40 locations. How do you maintain safety standards across all your schools?
Every staff member is first-aid, AED and CPR certified, and anybody who’s working in the pool environment also has a lifeguarding certification, which they recertify every year. We have a monthly meeting around safety exercises at every location. Our corporate staff have weekly calls with each franchisee, reinforcing safety procedures. Those teams also go to individual locations at least four times a year to coach, retrain and make sure we’re providing the safest environment around.
How would you advise other businesses that require special regulations to approach franchising?
Document your processes. Have auditing companies help determine whether what you’re doing is appropriate and has been tested, and that you’re training properly and continually. Hire so that as you grow, you have the proper ratios for your staff to support your franchises. There needs to be constant communication and accountability.
Documented procedures aside, how do you help kids (and parents) feel safe?
We’ve created a curriculum for kids 4 months to 12 years old; at every level, kids understand what we’re communicating. They look to their instructor as a buddy. It’s about reinforcing that we won’t do anything that’s uncomfortable for you. We communicate verbally and with hand gestures, and whatever we say we’re going to do, we’ll do it. It’s about accountability and consistency, so they’re coming back to something that’s familiar.