Opening a business is always a risk. However, buying an existing franchise can be particularly risky. Why exactly does the owner want to sell?
As the old saying goes: Success leaves clues. So does failure. You need to know how to spot the signs that point to problem opportunities so you can steer clear of them, and find better opportunities without wasting too much time.
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1. Unit counts
This is the simplest test of all. Find out if the franchise company’s number of operating units is growing, staying constant or declining.
If the number of existing units is declining (regardless of any explanation you might receive), this is a huge red flag suggesting increased risk to joining the franchise.
2. Litigation experience
You need to determine if there has been an increase in litigation between the franchisor and franchisees during the last couple of years.
When franchisees are struggling or failing, you almost always see an increase in litigation because many people blame others whenever something doesn’t work out.
If you see a pattern of significant or increasing litigation (again, regardless of any explanation offered), this is a franchise you probably want to avoid.
3. Franchisor financials
There are two things you want to learn from a franchisor’s financial situation, and you can get the answers very quickly.
First, you want to know if the franchisor is financially stable and has the resources to survive for the long run.
Look for a financial statement indicating that the operation is profitable, that cash flow is positive and that capital reserves are strong.
Second, you want to make sure the franchise company does not have a rapidly increasing balance in the accounts receivable entry of the balance sheet.
For most franchise companies, their largest accounts receivable are payments from their franchisees, so a rapidly increasing balance would indicate that franchisees are struggling to pay their bills, and that’s never a good sign.
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4. Same-store sales trends
What you want to ask is, ‘Have the same-store sales figures for your system gone up, down or stayed the same over the past couple of years?’
As you can imagine, most systems make every effort to increase the average performance of their units year over year, because this provides a direct benefit to both the franchisee and the franchisor.
If the sales trend for a company’s units is flat or down in spite of these efforts, it is a clear indicator that the business volume is susceptible to economic downturns.
That might not be an automatic disqualifier, but it is a clear warning sign that you should carefully investigate prior to moving forward.
5. Existing franchisee calls
You can get a very fast read on the attitude of the existing franchisees by randomly selecting a few for some quick preliminary calls.
Later in the process of investigation, you’ll want to spend quite a bit of time actually visiting franchisees, but at this early stage in your research you just want to make a few short calls to take the general temperature of the franchisee base.
You’ll only need to ask two to three basic questions — How do you feel about the business? How have the past couple of years been? Knowing what you know now, would you do it again? — to get an impression of how things are going.
Usually you’ll see a clear pattern in the input after only a few of these calls. If your gut feeling is queasy or troubled, this is not the right franchise opportunity to pursue.