From Pain to Gain: Shane Evans' Back Problem Led to a Successful Brand

From Pain to Gain: Shane Evans' Back Problem Led to a Successful Brand

How do you cure years of debilitating, recurring back pain? For Shane Evans, it was therapeutic She liked the results so much that she started a franchise to offer that same experience to others. "I haven't had a back problem since I started Massage Heights," says Evans who co-founded the company with her husband Wayne in 2004.

When they opened their first unit in San Antonio and found customers clamoring for more--as well as asking about how they could open one themselves--they knew they were on to something. After 3 years of perfecting the model, they began expanding nationally through franchising. Today they have 140 open and are looking to hit the 300 mark by the end of 2018.

Their success--and appeal--has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, she appeared on "Undercover Boss," wearing glasses and a red, big-hair wig straight out of 1962. Viewers responded positively: in the first week it aired, 3,500 people submitted job applications. "In our industry, our product is our people. We can't supply those services without them," she says.

The experience gave her a newfound respect for the therapists. "It seems like every boss that goes undercover says 'I gained a new perspective,' but I really did! They are skilled professionals, and until you've tried performing a massage on someone, you really don't get it."

After meeting and learning about the backstories of the therapists she met, she was genuinely awed by how they are able put aside their often serious problems and provide a comfortable, healing experience for customers. "You never know what people are dealing with, yet they have to let go and serve the customer," she says. "Our therapists do so much for our guests and members. I began thinking, 'What would it be like to help them?'"

Her answer was to create the Heights Family Fund, a non-profit that helps employees in crisis situations by providing emergency relief. It's funded by corporate employee contributions and voluntary contributions from team members the company matches. Recipients do not have to contribute to benefit.

If you'd like to know more about what she learned--and the changes she made afterward--the show is available online.

Name: Shane Evans
Title: Co-founder, president
Company: Massage Heights
System-wide revenue: $86 million
No. of units: 140
International units: 12
Growth plans: 2016, 175 units open and operating; 2017, 235; 2018, 300
Public or private? Private
Year company founded: 2004
Year started franchising: 2007
Your years in franchising: 9

Getting Started

What inspired you to start your business?
Because of my own experiences, I recognized the need for affordable, convenient, and professional massage services. When I was 18 and nearly every year after, my back would "go out" and I would end up lying flat on the floor with my feet up on a chair for a solid week, barely able to move. When I first had this issue, I would see a chiropractor and it would just make it worse. After several years of this, I finally went to a massage therapist instead and gained mobility almost immediately. I knew that if I were able to get regular massage therapy it would help prevent these instances in the future, but regular massage therapy did not seem attainable because of cost, time, and inconsistencies in the therapists' environments. I am happy to say that since we started Massage Heights almost 12 years ago, I have not had this issue again.

What is your background? How did it prepare you for starting your business?
I've been in sales and marketing since I was 16. When you are selling something, you must be a consultant to people. Listening to their concerns and asking questions to help them find their own answer and plan is the key to getting commitment. Learning to ask questions and listen is key in our business.

What's the best and worst advice you got when starting out?
Best: To have solid franchise documents from the get-go. We've never had to worry about inconsistencies or strength in our franchise documents. Our franchise agreements have not only protected the franchising entity, but also the franchisees who have invested in the brand. The worst advice I got was from a team of sales people who tried to convince us that "selling"--and the keyword is "selling"--franchises was the key to growth. The true key to creating sustainable growth is awarding the right franchise opportunity to the right franchise partners who are well-aligned with the company values.

Why did you choose franchising?
To expand our brand faster. We knew we had something really special based on the inquiries we were getting and wanted to ensure that we claimed our space in the membership-based massage therapy vertical. We also liked the idea of business partners with a capital interest because of the operational commitment from a franchisee versus an employee.

How did you get started in franchising?
When we opened our first location in San Antonio, people were coming from all over the city. They really saw the value proposition in the business model, which inspired many to ask about additional, more convenient locations and how they might get involved in investing. We knew then that we had a really viable concept that we needed to grow fairly fast. We opened our second location within a year and started getting members, friends, and family involved through franchising not long after. We were a regional company, but then we were approached by a development company to help take our brand national.

Did you have a partner/co-founder when you started? Why? How important was that in building your company?
My husband was and still is my partner in the business. In about 2008, we offered equity to my brother. He had sacrificed a lot financially to help us streamline our operations to begin nationwide franchising, and then continued to help us grow the brand through franchise development. We have backgrounds and qualities that work really well together, and I believe that without all three of us we would not have the success story that we do.

How did you fund your company at the beginning? As you grew?
Initially, on our savings, 401(k), stock, and kids' plans, along with the proceeds from of our operating locations. We were a bit short on cash when developing our second location and borrowed money from a friend. We were able to pay that back as soon as we received our tenant improvement allowance. Our franchise company is 100 percent debt-free and always has been. My husband and I recently took on debt to open more of our own locations and worked with Benetrends for financing. We are using one of our businesses as collateral to secure the for the additional locations.

What were the keys to funding your brand?
The keys to funding individual locations are good, solid pro formas that aren't too aggressive, and then meeting the sales and profitability goals. We've done that over and over again, as have our franchisees. It's an attractive model to lenders because it's a subscription-based model. The franchise company is the same. The banks recognize that you have a stream of royalties coming in every single month and are willing to lend based on securing those.

Building The Business

What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: Knowing that I have the ability, along with my team, to create a guest experience for customers that we can be proud of; that our vision comes to life and people benefit from that! The best part of being a franchisor is having the ability to help other entrepreneurial people realize their own dreams of business ownership. I love that! Worst: The highs and lows that we can experience from the roller coaster ride we are on every day. The highs are great, but the lows are tough. The best advice I have for that is to join a peer group. I am a member of the Young Presidents' Organization and the Entrepreneurs' Organization and my forum mates are like my own personal board of advisors.

How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
Franchisee-franchisor relationships can be difficult if you don't know what you're doing from the beginning. Franchisees are entrepreneurial or they wouldn't take the risk in investing in any business. Therefore we need to recognize them as a great vested resource. In my view, the relationship should be respected and treated like a partnership, collaborating with one another to strengthen the relationship and the system.

How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
We initially grew our brand regionally in the San Antonio and Austin markets. It grew organically through friends, family, and guests and members of our founding location in San Antonio because of the excitement about what my husband and I were doing with Massage Heights. Customers were coming in from all areas of the city for their massages and asking when we were going to build a location on their side of town. They loved what we were doing and wanted to get involved somehow. After a few months of this, we knew we had something special and needed to build more. We built our second San Antonio location within 9 months of the flagship, and not long after started exploring regional expansion through partnerships and franchising. Our first franchisees were friends, family, and customers. Today we offer and large development opportunities in select markets and support the development strategy through print, digital media, and franchise-specific shows like the Multi-Unit Franchising Conference.

How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
Running a service operation is much different than leading a franchise company. It's necessary to still have a pulse on the day-to-day operations of the retail outlets, what the franchisee, employee, and customer experiences at the retail level are, because that is your brand. However, a very deliberate transition to leading a team of people you don't have day-to-day influence or control over is critical. Getting involved in the IFA, attending conferences such as Franchise Media Update's Leadership & Development Conference, along with others, is key is understanding how to be a leader to franchisee partners, how to drive the business when someone else is really in control at the local level. The franchise company leadership team must be skilled in franchise relationship management and know how to drive their perspective business areas. Continued devolvement and education is key.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Serious but fun. Collaborative. Driven. Passionate.

What in your opinion, is the key to your company's success?
Our people. We have great franchise partners and team members!

Being Female

Was being female an advantage or disadvantage for you in building your company? How?
With our brand I feel it is an advantage. Our customer skews high female and so do our franchise candidates. Being a woman of a primarily female brand resonates well with consumers and franchise candidates alike.

Have you found specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman business owner?
The advantages I have experienced come from the support of other women and entrepreneurs. I believe much of that advantage is based on our ability to empathize with our teams and our customers. Women play an important role and have become more powerful in entrepreneurial roles in the past 20 years. The only disadvantages from my perspective are the pressures and expectations I put on myself. Trying to be a diligent, successful business owner and attentive wife and mother does not balance well sometimes.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Refining my leadership style to be reflective of who I am as a woman, but still being seen as strong. I think women who are diligent and passionate can sometime be seen as aggressive and bossy. I want to be recognized as strong, but compassionate and as someone who makes things happen through diligence and motivation, not bossiness. Being authentic to yourself in business can be challenging, but I've found that authenticity in all relationships is more beneficial than putting up a front and trying to be someone you are not. People will generally love you for it.

Why do you think there are fewer start-ups with female founders than male ones?
Men generally take more risks than women. My thought is it has something to do with the way girls of a certain generation were raised versus boys. Boys in general seem to have the parental support and drive to go out and own or run something, so that's the expectation.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women can be perceived differently than men when being assertive. It's unfortunate that assertiveness can be perceived as anything more than drive, passion, and being results-oriented.

From a woman's perspective, what notable changes have you seen for women in franchising since starting your brand?
I see so many more women franchisors; at least that's my perception. I love it because these women are open to mentoring one another, helping and lifting each other up.

Which female leaders do you admire? Why?
No one specific, but I really admire women who are strong, smart, gutsy, authentic to who they are, and who possess humility.

Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? How?
I have several women in my life professionally and personally who make me think differently about things, become more clear in my path, remind me that I am still a girl at heart, and lift me up and encourage me. I love women who support one another!

Are you involved in any female entrepreneur organizations?
The Young Presidents' Organization's Young Women's Group.


What does your typical day look like?
A light with my husband and our youngest daughter. Cycling or walking. Planning. Coaching. Email. Board/committee meetings/staff meetings. Travel. Reading.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My husband and my children are the driving force in creating balance in my life. If it weren't for them I would work all the time. I love what I do and who I get to do it with!

What are your top 5 favorite things to do?
1) I love visiting with team members throughout the country, recognizing them for their efforts and helping them feel more connected to our brand. 2) I love seeing our franchisees' dreams come to life. Helping people get in business for themselves is just too cool! 3) I love spending time with my family. I have three daughters and a great husband who somehow lives with us! 4) Spending time outdoors, camping, hiking, running, and biking and am inspired when it's cool outside or there's great scenery. 5) Self-development through professional organizations and reading. 6) Traveling and exploring new places.

What are 3 key words to describe yourself?
Passionate. Diligent. Authentic.


What's the most important lesson you've learned so
far? Learn to collaborate with franchise partners. You do not have to make every decision on your own.

If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
Bring in capital partners with executive-level franchise experience.

What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Be authentic and tell lots of stories.

What advice would you give to other women considering starting their own franchise brand?
Just do it. It won't always be easy, but it will be worth it!

What's Next

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
500 units.

What's coming up that you're excited about?
Our 7th Annual Massage Heights International Franchise Convention. We are hosting it in San Diego this year. It's always wonderful to get everyone together. We have fun challenging ourselves to create an elevated experience every year.

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