Success in Franchising
More Than Just Football

Franchising is a business model that is not always thought about when looking at expanding a business domestically and internationally.  According to Forbes, over 35,000 franchises are sold each year, representing $27 billion dollars in investment capital.  Franchises are available in growing sectors including food, hotels, sports, education, health, retail, and many more.  Do you ever wonder if franchising is right for you?  We spoke with Christine Kelly, founder of the hugely successful Little Kickers franchise that now has over 300 franchises in 32 countries to find out more about how franchising has worked for her.

What is Little Kickers?

Little Kickers is the largest provider of pre-school football (soccer) classes in the world for children 18 months to 7 years. This fun programme helps children develop high quality football skills, combined with important pre-school learning concepts such as colour and number recognition, sharing, following instructions and using imagination.
Over 70,000 kids participate in the programs every week.

How did the idea for your business come about?

Little Kickers started in the UK in 2002. I was living in London at the time and working for a large corporate firm where I had to work very long working hours.  I was struggling to find a good work/life balance and barely saw my son who was 2 at the time.  I decided to take a career break to spend time with him who wanted to play football every day.  During my break, I spotted a gap in the market when trying to find pre-school football classes for my son. Child obesity was becoming a hot topic and I couldn’t believe there weren’t pre-school classes to get young children involved in and enjoying sport, so I decided to do it myself.    

How did you test your concept?

I did pilot for a group of 12 children ages 2-4 years and got overbooked by 400%.  I charged everyone to come to the pilot class and everyone was happy to pay.  After the class, I asked if everyone would be happy to continue for 12 weeks and everyone said yes. This is how it all started.

What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur?

I have always wanted freedom and wanted to organise my day based on my priorities. Traditional 12 hours working days were satisfying and I wanted to be in control of my own life.  Working in corporate, I realised that I did not want to be disposable and wanted to control my own destiny.

When did you think it was time to franchise your business?

By the end of first year I had set up 35 weekly classes in the London area and knew I had to work differently as I was doing everything on my own.  I stumbled into franchising in 2002 as the market was starting to develop in the UK.  My first candidates were women like me who wanted to be out of the corporate world.  My first franchisee helped me to structure the franchise and she is still with us today. Today our franchisees consist of 50% men and 50% women across the network.  90% of our franchisees come from organic growth having experienced the brand themselves.

Why did you decide to franchise vs. opening more corporate locations?

The main reason is to maintain quality.

How did you come up with the name for your company?

It was an ex-business partner’s husband who suggested it during a brainstorm session.

How did you raise funding for your development?

I self financed £300 to launch the pilot and I reinvested everything I earned.  It quickly became self sustainable.  

How did you build a successful customer base?

Grassroots as basic as it gets.  Going around chatting with people on the street and giving them a flyer, putting up flyers in shops, chatting to people.  

How have you included sustainability in your company?

This is a great question as we are currently working on what we call the road to become eco-friendly.  Many aspects of the Little Kickers business are already very environmentally-friendly: we rent venues by the hour (so only utilise space to run classes when needed), the entire administrative team work from home and our locally-run classes ensure that venues are in areas that are easy for local communities to access. The whole business will be paperless by 2021.  In 2021 we would like to go further with our thinking and play our part in producing our football strips (uniforms) in recycled polyester.  As you may have heard, the football industry has flown under the environmental radar as most strips are produced in polyester that isn’t biodegradable. As a guardian of football for new generations, Little Kickers is making a stand – our franchisees and customers are demanding change and we are currently looking for a sponsor to partner with to make this project possible!  We have already identified a supplier who can produce great quality football jerseys from yarn which is made out of plastic water bottles which have been harvested from the ocean and which are packaged in biodegradable bags.  

Little Kickers have been actively sending volunteer coaches, kit and equipment to the Sparkle Pre-School in Malawi for the past few years.  With our new programme, once our Little Kickers have outgrown their strips, we will take them in, wash them and send them to one of 6 kids’ centres in South Africa.  The strips will be hand-delivered by Little Kickers volunteer coaches, who will also deliver coaching equipment and materials to help establish new Little Kickers classes in Africa. They will train up local teachers to deliver the Little Kickers programme.  The children who participate in our Little Kickers classes will be able to track the strips which have been donated online through our social channels which will follow our volunteers on every step of their journey.  The children will also receive a biodegradable wristband as a thank you for recycling their jersey.

How do you market your business, and which tactics have been most successful? 

By far grassroots initiative and digital marketing. 

Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur? 

I’m not sure about a pattern but the following characteristics are needed in order to be a successful entrepreneur:
1. Be very optimistic and looking on the bright side of things.
2. Entrepreneurs are very determined and don’t give up in spite of the roller coasters they experience on a daily basis.
3. Carry on with your vision.
4. Be passionate about what you do.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Last October we had our first global conference which was held at Manchester United in a meeting room overlooking the pitch and we visited the stadium as a franchise network.  This was very emotional, but really lovely.  It was an emotional experience as I felt we final made it as a company.  

What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last few months?

For a while, we ventured out into rugby, dance and multi-sports programs.  We were unsure if we should stick to football or diversify into other sports.  Our conclusion was that we should focus on our core niche – football – which has always been better received that any other products we’ve attempted to develop.

What piece of advice would you give to college graduates who want to become entrepreneurs?

Get a job at a company first, learn as many skills as you can and then start your own business.

What entrepreneurial tricks have you discovered to keep you focused and productive in your day-to-day busy schedule?

For the first 12 years, I was working really long hours and spoke to people at midnight if that was convenient for them.  At some point I realised that I couldn’t continue to operate this way.  It’s important to take time out for yourself and schedule it, take time off with your family and do things that are fun as only working will lead to burnout.  I also participate in entrepreneur’s business forums where I can share struggles and ideas with other entrepreneurs – it’s very helpful to have a sounding board.

What habits helped make you successful?

I don’t like to let people down so I always get back to people, produce quality services, and I can see both sides of an argument (empathy, communication skills).

What are some tips you can share to distinguish yourself from your competitors?

  1. Do your best and regularly update your services based on market needs.
  2. Ensure that franchisees understand the importance of providing good quality classes, administration and that they respect brand values.
  3. Regular communications with franchisees to see what is happening their local market place.
  4. Feedback on what customers are asking for.
  5. Understanding the trends in the different countries so that you can be ahead of the game in terms of innovation.    
  6. Looking at other industries for inspiration.
  7. Be comfortable with change, happy to be innovative and move business forward.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

I’ve had a lot of great mentors throughout my entrepreneurial journey. For the moment, my daughter is my biggest inspiration.  She has gone from being a young child to moving to the US during Covid on her own.  She’s 17 and determined which makes me proud.  She earned a Beach Volleyball scholarship, is getting on with it. I have a lot of admiration for that.

What business-related book / podcast has inspired you the most?

John Warrillow’s Built to Sell Radio podcast.  Also, his book The Automatic Customer was the inspiration for our business adapting to a monthly recurring revenue model, which saved our business during the lockdown.

If you could rule the world, what is something you would change?

Most people’s lives and opportunities are pretty much pre-determined based on the family they are born into and the country where they are born, and this means there are huge discrepancies in the opportunities children have.  Eventually, I would love to start a non-profit with the objective of ensuring that all kids are given a fair start in life, irrespective of the circumstances they are born into. 


Little Kickers have received multiple awards both from a content and business perspective:
🏅Global Franchise Champion 2020
🏅 Global Franchise Awards Category Winner 2020 – Best Children’s & Education Franchise
🏅 Christine awarded Honorary Doctor of Business Administration by Aston University, Birmingham in 2020
🏅 Winner British Franchise Association Franchisor of the Year Award for International Development 2017
🏅 Ranked in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top Global Franchises 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
🏅 Franchise India Franchise Awards “Early Years Learning Award” 2018
🏅 PROFIT Magazine Top 500 business 2016, 2017
🏅 Canadian (CFA) Franchisor of the Year Grand Prize Winner 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018
🏅 Christine recognised as one of Canada’s top female entrepreneurs by Chatelaine / PROFIT magazine
🏅 Finalist British (BFA) Franchisor of the Year awards 2009, 2011, 2015
🏅 Finalist UK Best Franchise 2013 and 5-star award winner
🏅 Ranked in top 10 UK small businesses – SMARTA 100 Awards 2011
🏅 Finalist “HSBC Start-Up Stars” 2004


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