Consumer Guide to Buying a Franchise
Franchising can give you instant recognition of your business and the ability to obtain ongoing support from your franchiser, but be careful: Purchasing a franchise does not guarantee success.
Before you decide to become a franchisee, read this guide to become an expert on what your business will entail. The guide covers the following topics:
The decision to purchase a franchise involves many factors. To help you explore if franchising is right for you, we've provided a list of important questions to answer.
Do you know how much you can invest?
Buying a franchise requires capital. Determine how much you can realistically afford.
- How much money do you have to invest?
- How much money can you afford to lose?
- Will you purchase the franchise by yourself or with partners?
- Will you need financing and, if so, where can you obtain it?
- Do you have a favorable credit rating?
- Do you have savings or additional income to live on while starting your franchise?
What are your abilities?
Consider the skills you will need for the franchise you are interested in.
- Does the franchise require technical experience or relevant education, such as auto repair, home and office decorating, or tax preparation?
- What skills do you have? Do you have computer, bookkeeping, or other technical skills?
- What specialized knowledge or talents can you bring to a business?
- Have you ever owned or managed a business?
What are your goals?
Think about the purpose of franchising and what you want out of this business experience.
- What are your goals?
- Do you require a specific level of annual income?
- Are you interested in pursuing a particular field?
- Are you interested in retail sales or performing a service?
- How many hours are you willing to work?
- Do you want to operate the business yourself or hire a manager?
- Will franchise ownership be your primary source of income or will it supplement your current income?
- Would you be happy operating the business for the next 20 years?
- Would you like to own several outlets or only one?
Once you know how much you are willing to invest in your franchise, and your interests and capabilities, you're ready to explore what type of franchise is suitable for you. Don't just select the first franchise that fits your needs. This is an important decision that is life changing, so shop around. Here is just a brief list of the ways you can explore opportunities that are available.
Shop at a Franchise Exposition
Attending a franchise exposition allows you to view and compare a variety of franchise possibilities. Keep in mind that exhibitors at the exposition primarily want to sell their franchise systems. Be cautious of salespersons who are interested in selling a franchise that you are not interested in. When talking to franchise exhibitors, ask the following questions:
- How long has the franchiser been in business?
- How many franchised outlets currently exist?
- Where are they located?
- How much is the initial franchise fee and what are the additional startup costs? Are there any continuing royalty payments, and if yes, how much are they?
- What management, technical, and ongoing assistance does the franchiser offer?
- What controls does the franchiser impose?
Get the Facts about the Franchise
If you have a franchise in mind, do your homework by researching the business and what is involved.
- Get a written substantiation of any income projections, or income or profit claims. This is required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) when a franchisor tells you can earn from investing in their franchise. If they do not have one or refuse to provide you with this information, they may have made a false claim.
- Take notes and get contact information from the franchisor so you can contact them at a later date with more questions.
- If there are any offers from the franchiser, investigate the franchise first. Ask previous/current investors about their experiences. Remember that an attorney needs to review the offer, and a disclosure document must be provided. You will learn more about what the disclosure document tells you in the next section.
Before investing in any franchise system, be sure to get a copy of the franchiser's disclosure document, also known as the Franchise Offering Circular. Under the FTC's Franchise Rule, you must receive the document at least 10 business days before you are asked to sign any contract or pay any money to the franchiser. You should read the entire disclosure document and make sure you understand all of the provisions. The following topics will help you to understand key provisions of a typical disclosure document as well as to ask questions about the disclosure. Get a clarification or answers to your concerns before you invest.
The disclosure document identifies the executives of the franchise system and describes their prior experience. Consider not only their general business background, but their experience in managing a franchise system. Also consider how long they have been with the company. Investing with an inexperienced franchiser may be riskier than investing with an experienced one.
The disclosure document helps you assess the background of the franchiser and its executives by requiring the disclosure of prior litigation. The disclosure document tells you if the franchiser or any of its executive officers:
- Have been convicted of felonies, for example, fraud
- Have been convicted of any violation of franchise law
- Have been convicted of unfair or deceptive law practices
- Are subject to any state or federal injunctions involving similar misconduct
It also will tell you if the franchiser or any of its executives have been held liable or settled a civil action involving the franchise relationship.
A number of claims against the franchiser may indicate that the company has not performed according to its agreements, or, at the very least, that franchisees have been dissatisfied with the franchiser's performance. Be aware that some franchisers may try to conceal an executive's litigation history by removing the individual's name from their disclosure documents.
The disclosure document tells you if the franchiser or any of its executives have recently been involved in a bankruptcy. This will help you to assess the franchiser's financial stability and general business acumen as well as predict if the company is financially capable of delivering promised support services.
The disclosure document tells you the costs involved to start one of the company's franchises. It will describe any initial deposit or franchise fee, which may be nonrefundable, and costs for initial inventory, signs, equipment, leases or rentals. Be aware that there may be other undisclosed costs. Use the following checklist to help inquire about potential costs to you as a franchisee.
- Continuing royalty payments
- Advertising payments, both to local and national advertising funds
- Grand opening or other initial business promotions
- Business or operating licenses
- Product or service supply costs
- Real estate and leasehold improvements
- Discretionary equipment such as a computer system or business alarm system
- Legal fees
- Financial and accounting advice
- Compliance with local ordinances, such as zoning, waste removal, and fire and other safety codes
- Health insurance
- Employee salaries and benefits
It may take several months or longer to get your business started. Consider in your total cost estimate for operating expenses for the first year and personal living expenses for up to two years. Compare your estimates with what other franchisees and competing franchise systems have paid. Perhaps you can get a better deal with another franchiser. An accountant can help you to evaluate this information.
Your franchiser may restrict how you operate your outlet. The disclosure document tells you if the franchiser limits:
- The supplier(s) of goods that you may purchase from
- The goods or services you may offer for sale
- The customers to whom you can offer goods or services
- The territory in which you can sell goods or services
Understand that restrictions may limit the way you want to do your business.
The disclosure document tells you the conditions under which the franchiser may terminate your franchise and your obligations to the franchiser after termination. It also tells you the conditions under which you can renew, sell or assign your franchise to other parties.
Training and Other Assistance
The disclosure document will explain the franchiser's training and assistance program. Make sure you understand the level of training offered. The following checklist will help you ask the right questions.
- How many employees are eligible for training?
- Can new employees receive training and, if so, is there any additional costs?
- How long are the training sessions?
- How much time is spent on technical, business management and marketing training?
- Who teaches the training courses and what are their qualifications?
- What type of ongoing training does the company offer and at what cost?
- Whom can you speak to if problems arise?
- How many support personnel are assigned to your area?
- How many franchisees will the support personnel service?
- Will someone be available to come to your franchised outlet to provide more individual assistance?
The level of training you need depends on your own business experience and knowledge of the franchiser's goods and services. Keep in mind that a primary reason for investing in the franchise, as opposed to starting your own business, is training and assistance. If you have doubts that the training might be insufficient to teach you how to handle day-to-day business operations, consider another franchise opportunity more suited to your background.
You often must contribute a percentage of your income to an advertising fund even if you disagree with how these funds are used. The disclosure document provides information on advertising costs. The checklist below will help you assess whether the franchiser's advertising will benefit you.
- How much of the advertising fund is spent on administrative costs?
- Are there other expenses paid from the advertising fund?
- Do franchisees have any control over how the advertising dollars are spent?
- What advertising promotions has the company engaged in?
- What advertising developments are expected in the near future?
- How much of the fund is spent on national advertising?
- How much of the fund is spent on advertising in your area?
- How much of the fund is spent on selling more franchises?
- Do all franchisees contribute equally to the advertising fund?
- Do you need the franchiser's consent to conduct your own advertising?
- Are there rebates or advertising contribution discounts if you conduct your own advertising?
- Does the franchiser receive any commissions or rebates when it places advertisements?
- Do franchisees benefit from such commissions or rebates, or does the franchiser profit from them?
Current and Former Franchisees
The disclosure document provides important information about current and former franchisees.
- Determine how many franchises are currently operating (a large number of franchisees in your area may mean increased competition)
- Pay attention to the number of terminated franchisees (a large number of terminated, canceled, or non-renewed franchises may indicate problems)
Be aware that some companies may try to conceal the number of failed franchisees by repurchasing failed outlets and then listing them as company-owned outlets. If you buy an existing outlet, ask the franchiser how many owners operated that outlet and over what period of time.
Having a number of different owners over a short period of time may indicate that the location is not a profitable one or that the franchiser has not supported that outlet with promised services.
Use the following questions to help you ask current and former franchisees for valuable information.
- How long has the franchisee operated the franchise?
- Where is the franchise located?
- What was their total investment?
- Were there any hidden or unexpected costs?
- How long did it take them to cover operating costs and earn a reasonable income?
- Are they satisfied with the cost, delivery, and quality of the goods or services sold?
- What were their backgrounds prior to becoming a franchisee?
- Was the franchiser's training adequate?
- What ongoing assistance does the franchiser provide?
- Are they satisfied with the franchiser's advertising program?
- Does the franchiser fulfill its contractual obligations?
- Would the franchisee invest in another outlet?
- Would the franchisee recommend the investment to someone with your goals, income requirements, and background?
Be aware that some franchisers may give you a separate reference list of selected franchisees to contact. Be careful. Those on the list may be individuals who are paid by the franchiser to give a good opinion of the company.
You will want to know how much money you can make if you invest in a particular franchise system. Be careful; earnings projections can be misleading. Insist upon written substantiation for any earnings projections or suggestions about your potential income or sales.
Franchisers are not required to make earnings claims, but if they do, the FTC's Franchise Rule requires franchisers to have a reasonable basis for these claims and to provide you with a document that substantiates them. This substantiation includes the bases and assumptions upon which these claims are made. Make sure you get and review the earnings claims document. Consider the following when reviewing any earnings claims.
- Sample Size. A franchiser may claim that franchisees in its system earned, for example, $50,000 last year. This claim may be deceptive, however, if only a few franchisees earned that income and it does not represent the typical earnings of franchisees. Ask how many franchisees were included in the number.
- Average Incomes. A franchiser may claim that the franchisees in its system earn an average income of, for example, $75,000 a year. Average figures like this tell you very little about how each individual franchisee performs. Remember, a few very successful franchisees can inflate the average. An average figure may make the overall franchise system look more successful than it actually is.
- Gross Sales. Some franchisers provide figures for the gross sales revenues of their franchisees. These figures, however, do not tell you anything about the franchisees' actual costs or profits. An outlet with a high gross sales revenue on paper actually may be losing money because of high overhead, rent and other expenses.
- Net Profits. Franchisers often do not have data on the net profits of their franchisees. If you do receive net profit statements, ask whether they provide information about company-owned outlets. Company-owned outlets might have lower costs because they can buy equipment, inventory and other items in larger quantities, or may own, rather than lease, their property.
- Geographic Relevance. Earnings may vary in different parts of the country. An ice cream store franchise in a southern state, such as Florida, may expect to earn more income than a similar franchise in a northern state, such as Minnesota. If you hear that a franchisee earned a particular income, ask where that franchisee is located.
- Franchisee's Background. Keep in mind that franchisees have varying levels of skills and educational backgrounds. Franchisees with advanced technical or business backgrounds can succeed in instances where more typical franchisees cannot. The success of some franchisees is no guarantee that you will be equally successful.
The disclosure document provides you with important information about the company's financial status, including audited financial statements. Be aware that investing in a financially unstable franchiser is a significant risk; the company may go out of business or into bankruptcy after you have invested your money.
Hire a lawyer or an accountant to review the franchiser's financial statements. Do not attempt to extract this important information from the disclosure document unless you have considerable background in these matters. Your lawyer or accountant can help you understand the following.
- Does the franchiser have steady growth?
- Does the franchiser have a growth plan?
- Does the franchiser make most of its income from the sale of franchises or from continuing royalties?
- Does the franchiser devote sufficient funds to support its franchise system?
You can also find more advice on how to avoid costly pitfalls before buying a franchise at the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Guide to Buying a Franchise.