Thoughts on Entrepreneurship
A veteran franchisor reflects on how entrepreneurship and franchising
are a rewarding combination.
By Eileen Huntington
I’ve celebrated two momentous events in the past year. The first was the 40th anniversary of co-founding Huntington Learning Center with my husband Ray in 1977. The second was being named 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year by the International Franchise Association. For these events to happen in close succession is truly remarkable and humbling. It’s also prompted me to reflect on what it means to be a successful entrepreneur.
An Idea … and a Deep Breath
Entrepreneurship starts with an idea, generally an idea that solves a problem. Growing up as a child of immigrants, my mother instilled in me the importance of getting a good education. As a teacher in New York and New Jersey, I witnessed struggling students first-hand. I saw the need for tutoring to help them develop the basic skills they needed to succeed academically and in life. That was the inspiration for developing Huntington Learning Center.
My husband, Ray, and I opened our first learning center in Oradell, N.J., in 1977. We were successful immediately due to the strong demand. As a result, I quit my job as a tenured teacher. My friends and family thought I was crazy, especially my parents who had lived through the Great Depression. It took a healthy dose of self-confidence and a deep breath to “go for it” in spite of all that.
By the end of 1978, my husband was able to quit his job as a business analyst and join me full-time in the business. We were willing to risk it all for our dream. Today, we are so thankful we took that leap! We’ve been able to help millions of students achieve their potential. We’ve also been able to help other entrepreneurs – our franchisees — achieve their lifestyle, financial and personal goals.
Turning your great idea into a successful, profitable franchise enterprise entails developing a system that is reliable, repeatable, and scalable. At Huntington, we developed our four-step, diagnostic prescriptive approach that produces outstanding student results. We also developed curricula, training programs, technology and operational guidelines. From 1977 to 1985, my husband Ray and I opened 18 more corporate centers out of cash flow, and in 1985, decided to expand nationwide through franchising.
Today, we have 300 tutoring and test prep centers in 41 states and we generate 46 percent more revenue than our closest competitor. Our thriving franchisees come from many walks of life but all have one thing in common: They follow our proven system.
Evolve Through the Ups and Downs
Successful entrepreneurs also have to have the guts to take calculated risks and the tenacity and persistence to keep going even when there are bumps in the road. You also need to be resourceful and a problem-solver, so you are not sidelined when a curve ball comes your way.
One “curve ball” that actually inspired positive change for Huntington was the economic recession of the late 2000s. Like most companies, Huntington was faced with challenges. Unlike many companies, we used this disruption as the impetus to refocus our energies and look for areas of opportunity.
We reevaluated our business model to reduce startup costs and minimize ongoing costs. We made it more flexible, with part-time staffing options, phased-in hours as franchisees are building their businesses, phased-in marketing costs, a lower square-footage requirement and more non-retail location choices for centers. Today, the flexibility of this business model gets our franchisees off to a faster economic start and gives substantially greater room for improved financial margins. The lesson here is that you can make lemonade out of any lemons that come your way and you need to evolve to face challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.
Follow Your Passion and Your Mission
My advice to anyone looking to start a business is to first pursue an idea that means something to you and that you feel passionate about. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to develop a successful business, and if you’re not doing something that you care passionately about, you may give up too easily.
Have a clear vision and a mission. At Huntington, our mission since 1977 has been to give every student the best education possible. We instill in all of our employees and our franchisees that when you focus on the student, everything else will fall into place. As you grow, hire individuals who support your mission and embody your corporate values. Mentor and empower them so they become the best they can be. At Huntington, I am so proud of our mission-driven, passionate team of professionals, and I would not have reached this 40-year milestone of success or been named IFA Entrepreneur of the Year without them.
Eileen Huntington is the co-founder and CEO of Huntington Learning Center.