Sign up to BQ Breakfast to receive daily news:
Claire O’Connor

Getting serious about fun

Wednesday 1 June 2011 9:00

A new way of getting little girls into ballet has proved more successful than its founder could ever have imagined, Claire O’Connor tells Peter Baber.

All little girls like to learn ballet, don’t they, just as all little girls have dreams that one day they might just be a ballerina. But of course training to become such a thing in real life takes many, many hours, days and weeks of exhausting and often painful bar work. And, what happens to those little girls who don’t quite make it? If Claire O’Connor has anything to do with it, they go to Babyballet, and will probably have more of a fun time anyway. O’Connor founded her dance school for mainly pre-school children in Halifax six years ago.

It wasn’t necessarily for ballet school rejects, but for anyone who wanted their little girl – or boy – to take initial steps in learning to dance without feeling they are in some sort of competition where they are always being judged. She was clearly onto something, because in May this year Babyballet signed up its 30th franchisee in Mansfield. And there is clearly an appetite for more – O’Connor says she is currently getting around five enquiries from would-be franchisees every single day.

She came up with the idea because of her own experience as a girl. “My mum had a very traditional ballet school in Huddersfield,” she says, “so I grew up in the world of dance. I went until I was 14, but the way it was taught didn’t particularly suit my outgoing personality. I went to the classes but didn’t really respond to them. I suppose it was my personality and the discipline, but it was always based on the thinnest and the best. I had a lot of confidence knocked out of me. That kind of teaching still happens today.” The Babyballet approach is different. Children are allowed to progress under their own terms, and they aren’t necessarily taught strict ballet from the start.

Most of all, a sense of fun is brought into the whole business and that’s something you immediately notice as soon as you come into Babyballet’s headquarters in a converted mill next to the Eureka! Museum in Halifax. You go from a dreary grey and heavily-gated exterior into one that is full of pink, cartoon characters and fluffy furniture. O’Connor says she now loves ballet, but it just wasn’t the right fit for someone who was always the clown in class at school.

“Ballet is all focused on the best,” she says. “The ballet industry is still fantastic, but I felt there was something missing – the huge fun element. When you get down to it, little daughters just want to have fun.” But Babyballet isn’t one of those places that actively encourages young children not to be competitive. Far from it.

Although O’Connor has devised her own syllabus for all the children who come to the classes – and in Halifax alone there are more than 800 children every week – the classes are designed to blend with other programmes so that children have something to move on to by the time they become too old to carry on with Babyballet.

“We have grown our reputation through standards we are achieving,” she says. “Feeding into other schools is benefiting the ballet world. I read somewhere that the numbers entering the Royal Academy of Dance are down. Well, ours are up. We had 80 children in one exam set, all between five and seven, but we are still feeding them in with this attitude that ballet is great fun.” Nor is it just the children who are benefiting from the experience; O’Connor says the franchised business is ideally suited for working mothers – and she should know, being a mother of two herself. There are actually 34 franchisees now, because five franchises are a partnership. But of those 34, 27 are mothers.

“It generally suits the lifestyle of women who are very career-minded,” she says. “Quite a few of our working mums have come from very corporate backgrounds. They still wanted to do something for themselves, but wanted to be more of an at-home mum.” Such women are also often very good networkers at mothers’ groups and similar events. The office O’Connor works in at the Halifax branch has a large map on the wall showing where the current franchisees are located. It’s certainly testimony to the power of word-of-mouth recommendation, as there are three clear clusters around the country, where one franchisee has set up, and others have followed suit nearby. There’s obviously quite a few around West Yorkshire, then a bunch in the southern Home Counties, and a few in central Scotland.

“Livingston, our first franchise in Scotland, was someone I met through a contact,” says O’Connor. “She then met someone else in Edinburgh who carried it on. My initial franchisee down south was someone I met at a baby show. We could be creating another cluster now, because we recently got a franchisee in Nottingham who was the result of an email enquiry. Where you get one they spread, so from Nottingham we now have Mansfield.” Women who want to become franchisees can choose to do so either as an owner-operator, where they run the business and run classes, or as business managers, where they employ teachers themselves. Either way, every potential franchisee first has to come to Halifax for a vetting, and to see how the business is run. Although five enquiries a day might sound a lot, O’Connor says it’s only a “low percentage” of those enquiries who actually get taken on.

“We do have very tight contracts focused on brand standards,” she says. “This business is my baby that has now grown, and I want to keep it that way. The franchisees run their own business and we want to give them support, but I want to keep it that way.” Initially each franchise cost £10,000 for three years, although now that the first batch of franchise contracts has run through O’Connor has introduced new ones costing £4,500 for a much smaller area. So far it’s only the Halifax branch itself that has its own permanent site. O’Connor says the business is structured in such a way that the franchisees – even the best of whom are usually handling nearer to 400 children a week rather than the 800 at Halifax – can make do with church halls and community centres to keep the costs down. They usually don’t have to bother too much with advertising either – her franchisees are the perfect age group and background to make use of social networks like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.

Babyballet’s success is all the more inspiring when you discover that O’Connor, who is now 37, gave up business studies A-Level at school after just two weeks because she found it too difficult. Events that happened after that have moulded her path.

“I went to university to do Spanish and Media at Leeds,” she says. “But I got pregnant in my final year and I left with a baby, but not a degree. On top of that I got post-natal depression. I was a single parent, and initially I couldn’t get a job.” Even when she did get a job with a local estate agent, she found that no matter how hard she worked and how successful she was, the company would only ever put her on a temporary contract because she was a mother.

“So even though I quite enjoyed the job, I got disheartened because of that,” she says. “Eventually my mum said, ‘I’m fed up with you putting everything in and getting nothing back. Why don’t you come and help me manage my school? We’ll pay you by the month, and I’ll look after the baby.’” It was when she went back to work with her mum that she realised that she did love ballet, even though the strict regime was largely the same.

And as she also went to more mothers’ and toddlers’ groups, slowly an idea began to germinate of producing a range of ballet classes that was a cross between the two. She began the classes – which were initially just anoffshoot of what her mother was doing – at a local pub which also featured a play area. The toddlers could have their dance class, and then go and play afterwards.

“We were full within weeks,” she says. Shortly after she got married in 2005 and had her second child her mother threw down the gauntlet. She told her that she was happy for her to take on full responsibility for running these new classes, but here was the big challenge – she was no longer going to pay her for anything.

“So I did some more research, remortgaged the house, and sold the car,” says O’Connor. And Babyballet was born – with a little bit of financial help from mum as well. Although her husband, a fireman, has been supportive, he has not become involved in the business. There has, however, been another man working in the background, one with a relation to O’Connor that is fraught with the usual kind of tensions that apply when husbands and wives go into business together. O’Connor’s brother Matt Peters is a professional business adviser with a string of successes under his belt. Having initially worked for Ernst & Young and Barclays Bank, he went on to be finance director of Daisy Communications, overseeing 15 acquisitions during his time there and also helping Daisy to win the inaugural Bank of Scotland’s Entrepeneur Challenge in 2007.

That netted the company £5m in interest-free funding for three years. (How times have changed.) He is currently a partner at Max AIM, a small group of business advisers headquartered in Wakefield. O’Connor says he also advises her on the business. Given that other people the practice advises include listed company Fenner, you can probably see how valuable such advice is.

“Matt looks after all the finance side,” she says. “I know I can trust him, and we don’t clash with each other, because our skill set is completely different. It’s not like being a husband and wife. I respect him, and he respects me. It’s probably unique.” As it happens, the family must be particularly business-minded, because O’Connor’s other brother runs a successful vegetarian café in Hull. But that is one thing she has found since the business took off, that being a successful entrepreneur and going out to put yourself forward is nowhere near as scary as she thought it was going to be.

“When I started out I was scared to death of networking,” she says, “I didn’t have any experience, and I saw it as being in Leeds, with everyone suited and booted. Matt was very much in the corporate world, but it was never my place to be. Now I have realised it is not like that at all. Everyone is fantastic, and I had really underestimated who I was. I am not just talking about women’s networking either. The network I go to in Halifax is all men in suits, and I get on with them absolutely brilliantly.” It’s not surprising that, on the back of that, O’Connor has made several TV appearances, and is now mentoring a young woman also in Halifax – perhaps at the stage she was at five years ago – who wants to set up a baby sign language and massage business. But what of the future for Babyballet? International expansion is one thing. It seems hard to believe, but there is allegedly no similar franchise network anywhere else in the world – not even the US, where you might have thought they would lap up this sort of thing.

“Australia will probably be our first choice,” she says, “but we are also getting strong interest from the US and Spain. Clearly we would have to use a master franchisee.” Then there are the other sides to the business as well. Along with the dance classes, Babyballet does birthday parties, and a line in products. There are ballet costumes and little boys’ costumes and special Babyballet characters which O’Connor says are “Disneyesque, but to our own design”. They are sold largely through the shop, although also via mail order, with franchisees getting a cut if someone orders who goes to their class. And they currently make up around 10% of turnover, but O’Connor wants to expand this.

“We are looking into books and animation,” she says. “We have in fact been approached by a producer in Hollywood, one of Matt’s friends, to do something animated. But we have to be careful what goes out, because someone could grab it and do something like this out there, so we are just going through all the trademark issues.” Whatever happens, however, she is clear about one thing.

“Despite how quick it goes, I don’t want any of my original ideas to be diluted. There is a serious side to what it’s all about.” That serious side just happens to be about kids having fun.