Mary Carol McDaniel and her husband Frank own three (soon to be four) Pump It Up franchises in Alabama and Tennessee. But unlike most multiple unit franchisees, they didn't do a lot of research or planning or interviewing of franchisors to decide on a concept. It walked up to them.
She is a public relations specialist by trade. "For the first three or four years we were married I worked for Progressive Farmer magazine," owned by a subsidiary of Time Inc., and based in Birmingham, Ala. "Then we moved to Knoxville and started a family, so I stayed home for the first ten years."
Her husband sold manufacturing equipment in east Tennessee for a family-owned business-still technically his employer.
McDaniel had not stayed idle while she was bringing up her kids. She had done volunteer work in schools, including the school newsletter, which meant she had to learn how to use computers.
"Then I decided I'd like to be paid for some of this," she says, laughing, "but thought I'd like a part-time job." Then came the serendipity part. They had some good friends who were in turn friends of the founder of Pump It Up, and had bought the Knoxville franchise.
Pump It Up, with its home office in Pleasanton, Calif., has private party facilities with interactive inflatables. Franchisees create parties for children and their parents, providing organization, child supervision, party set-up, and clean-up. It now has proprietary and branded inflatables designed for Pump It Up use within an indoor facility. "Pump It Up does a good job working with the inflatable manufacturers," says McDaniel. "All of them are really colorful and eye appealing, and they've all been tested at the Pleasanton locations."
Becoming involved was, McDaniel admits, "a real fluke thing. I was interested in working part-time, but we weren't looking for a franchise. These friends already had a franchise, and they became our partners at the beginning." Working part-time at the location turned into full-time, and then into their own franchise after they moved back to the Birmingham area.
Then her husband got interested, and after Birmingham came another in Huntsville, Ala., another in Pelham-near Birmingham. "He took a leave last January," she says, "and he's still on a leave. But it's been great with getting our third location." The leave may turn into a permanent one, since Frank owns part of the family business and his parents are thinking about buying him out.
"We weren't thinking about all these locations," says Mary Carol, "but we're excited about it."
They were, in fact, early franchisees for Pump It Up three years ago. "Our Pelham location was just the 7th, and that was just two years ago, now our third location is the 50th. It's getting to be a stronger and stronger brand, and it's so exciting to be in on the start."
Although the locations aren't that close together, the McDaniels are directly involved in all of them (except Knoxville). "It's a juggling act with so many locations," she says. "One of us is at either Birmingham facility at least Monday through Friday. We usually have something going on every single day." Huntsville is a bit far from the two locations near Birmingham, so they'll be hiring a full-time manager there.
They are hands-on owners, and that helps them control costs. "We're available to be at each facility," she says. "We outsource payroll-you save money because we were spending so much money going to the accountant all the time. When we first opened Pelham we went without a cleaning crew for six months-and it was 11,000 square feet, all carpeted."
Part-time managers are the key. She depends on younger people, although more college age than high school, she says. "College kids need to earn money for school. The high school kids who aren't really serious weed themselves out. But now some of my assistant managers who've been with us for almost the whole time can train the new staff."
And McDaniel has found a way to bring in workers as she needs them. "There's a college near us called Montebello, and the counselor there has sent us a lot of good kids," she says. "Once you find them, I ask them to bring me some more kids."
The average party has two attendants, a manager out front, and a floater who sets up the party room and helps out if the attendant needs help.
"It takes a special kid to work there," McDaniel says, "but once you find them, you get unbelievable tips. Just this past Monday morning we had a party from 10 to 12, and two kids shared the party. One guy was out front. Usually the party arrives at once, but on this one people were straggling in. I was dashing back and forth getting stuff arranged, and a lady came back and said, 'Your bathroom is overflowing,' and I get that mopped up, and then the pizza arrived. Then I dumped the mop bucket on the carpeted area, so I had another mess to clean up, so I felt harried. When the party was over, the moms said, 'You all are so calm and organized. You make it look effortless and easy.' And they left Steven [the attendant] a $60 tip."
McDaniel has not forgotten her public relations skills, either. Her first move was to advertise in local parenting magazines.
"That was our best marketing idea," she says. "After that, word of mouth. The word of mouth once you have a party is really great." Then came more luck; she had a party for the kids of one of the local talk shows, and that started the hosts talking about Pump It Up. "I have a lot of people say, 'I hear Rick and Bubba talking about you all the time.'"
Parents are encouraged to play and enjoy the party right along with their kids. "It's fun dealing with parents and kids; they're excited to be there," she says. "It's a really special event for them. You do your darndest to make that their best birthday party ever. A few weeks ago a dad and a son shared a birthday party, and the mom wrote a really nice note. I enjoy talking to customers on the phone and telling about what we do."
McDaniel doesn't know how large they'll grow, but she's happy with the serendipity so far. "I am really glad we got into franchising. I feel so blessed that we found it and it found us; it's been a really neat experience."
So far, the family supports itself with just one location, putting money back into the business for the others. The schedule allows her to be with her kids in the afternoons when they come home from school. But, she says, "If you're just a mom who wants to start her own business, my advice would be to have good support from a partner or spouse. There's a lot more to Pump It Up than it looks when you walk in the door. People think it's simple. I take it as a compliment because we make it look easy."
And as the business grows, the efficiency-and staff-grows. "Right now it's a treat to be at home and relax because we've been so busy getting the new location open. When we first opened there were five people on staff and now there are maybe 40," she says.