Tina Tower, CEO of Begin Bright, talking, franchising and building a successful business.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Tina Tower the founder and CEO of Begin Bright and the Telstra Australian Young Business Woman of the Year in 2014. Not your ordinary Gen-Y female, Tina started her first business at the age of 20 and by the time she hit 30 had built and sold 2 businesses, completed a degree, got married, had two children and started in the challenging world of franchising. Tina was the 2012 winner of the My Business Awards for Women in Business and Begin Bright won the National Overall Winner for Commitment to Excellence. In 2013 Begin Bright took out the Australian Small Business Champion Awards for Educational Services.
In this episode, we delve into:
- How it’s has taken Tina 10 years to create an overnight success
- Building a national franchise network
- Tina winning the Telstra Australian Young Business Woman of the Year award in 2014
- Tina’s shares with us her biggest lessons in business
- Tina is the master of leveraging PR, she share her top tips with us about securing PR for your business
- Tina’s tips for anyone struggling in business
- Balancing growing a national franchise business and family life
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Read the Interview
Caroline Kennedy: Welcome. And today my guest is Tina Tower, the founder and CEO of Begin Bright. Not your ordinary Gen Y female, Tina started her first business at the age of 20, and by the time she hit 30 had built and sold two businesses, completed a degree, got married, had two children and started in the challenging world of building a national franchise network. Tina was the 2012 winner of the My Business Award for Women in Business and Begin Bright won the National Overall Winner for Commitment to Excellence. In 2013, Begin Bright took out the National took out the National Australian Small Business Champion Awards for Educational Services, and Tina was the Telstra Australian Young Businesswoman of the Year in 2014. Congratulations, Tina, on your amazing achievements to date.
Tina Tower: Thanks, Caroline. Hi, everyone.
Caroline: Now – Wow, I can't believe you've done such a lot from such a young age, and I know that there are lots of up and downs in business...
Tina: Of course, of course.
Caroline: ...it'll be great talking to you about that today. So tell us, what is Begin Bright all about?
Tina: So Begin Bright--I started Begin Bright a long time ago now—had very humble beginnings. So it was started mainly because I was training to be a primary school teacher and thought I would do some tutoring and I would have children come in—primary school age—that were really having a lot of trouble in class at school. And they'd come in and their confidence was so down and they'd cry and do the 'I'm dumb ', 'I'm stupid' , 'I can't do it', and we'd get child after child with the same reaction. I had the bright idea to go—cause to me, a lot of that is around—our ability to learn is around attitude—so I thought if we could get to them young before they formed those negative attitudes, then we could fill them with that positivity so that when they started school, and they got to the stage where they couldn't do a problem, they had the attitude that they were good learners and that they could solve it anyway. So that's when I started School Readiness, which wasn't done in Australia at all, and then it grew from there. So we're School Readiness and Primary Tutoring.
Caroline: Now--and I absolutely agree with you, and I think a lot of parents don't realize that fact until they actually send their kids to school. And it's something that I'm experiencing because my little one has just gone to school for the first time, and he's 6.
Tina: Ah, lovely!
Caroline: We actually kept him back a year as well, just because boys tend to need that little bit longer, but what I've now realized is that kids that perhaps went to an early learning centre that are in the same class are a little bit more advanced. And he's actually aware of that, which I couldn't believe.
Tina: Yeah, yeah. And listen, that's a lot of the common attitude held is they're just children, they get along with it, but it doesn't really affect their self-esteem. Which even—I talk to parents of the children that come into our centres now, and they will even say 'you know my child's a bad speller, but so am I, and I could never do it in Primary School so that's probably where they get it from', and think that that's sort of the...
Caroline: That's where it stems from.
Tina: They've carried that around with them for the last forty years. So those attitudes do stay, and the standard is a lot higher now than it used to be. Children, when they started school, you could spend a whole week learning the letter sound 'A', whereas now it moves much quicker and the expectations on children are much higher. So they do need some preparation so that when they start school it doesn't bombard them too much but it's more of an easing process.
Caroline: Yeah, well we're just about the end of term two and I can say he's starting to settle now but it's taking quite a while. And he's settling because he has come a long way. He can actually read now, whereas prior to going to school he couldn't. And it is that development, so it's great that your Begin Bright alleviates all of that and heads that off from an early age.
Tina: Yeah, that's right.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah. Now I've heard you talk about how it's taken you ten years to create an overnight success.
Caroline: As you and I know, there is no overnight success, there is a lot of hard work on the journey to building a successful business. So tell us about Begin Bright and how it all began.
Tina: Well, I mean, my first connection to all this—Begin Bright really happened—I was 20 when I started my first tutoring centre. So that was private tutoring, and we had an educational toy store and a birthday party centre all combined. And it wasn't until 2008 that I officially started Begin Bright when I fell pregnant with my second child, when my first son was only 6 months old. So that was a little bit of a “Whoops!”. And we kind of had to figure out how I was going to do that, because the way I had set up my first business was to be solely reliant upon me. It was a seven day a week business, you had a lot of staff going through there, and I knew I couldn't handle that same pace and be the mother that I wanted to be as well. So that's when I started creating Begin Bright as a curriculum and then we started licensing that to teachers around Australia. We did that for a couple of years. Then a couple of years later, there's a lot of kind of limitations to licensing, in that a lot of people wanted the business to go with it, not just the programme, and wanted the ability to use the Begin Bright brand. So that's when I started looking at the option of franchising, and the first franchise opened in 2011. So just under five years ago I started.
Caroline: Yep. And that prompted you, I suppose, to start the franchise business, because you knew that you could add additional value. You could actually teach people how to build strong businesses.
Tina: Yeah, that's right. And I mean, our business is twofold, being a franchise, so for me, my main reason for wanting to scale Begin Bright was there's only so many children that I could teach personally. I wanted them to get it to thousands of children all around the country. And even if we had company-owned centres, you can't keep that level—because it's a service based business. The relationship between a teacher and a child and their parents is quite a close one, and we have to make sure that's top-notch quality. So the more company-owned centres we had, the more we knew that that level of service was going to become diluted. That's why franchising was a really good option because every one of those franchisees have personally invested their hard-earned money into starting that business. And it's their business, so they have that same love and care and attention to detail as what I would have. So it was a way to scale that to reach as many children as possible, and then also give women mainly--because we're naturally a business that's favoured by women—the opportunity to have their own financial independence, and have their lifestyle, and be able to combine having a family with owning and running a business as well.
Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. And I can tell that you're very passionate about being as broad as you can and reaching as many kids as you can...
Caroline: ...and having a positive influence. So that's great.
Caroline: And that's generally what drives successful businesses well, because you are passionate about what you do.
Tina: Without a doubt. Otherwise, if you didn't have the passion, I mean, you'd give up. Long ago. Long ago, you'd give up. [laughter] You need to have the passion to get you through those dark stages.
Caroline: Absolutely. And I've heard your story, and certainly it's one of perseverance and determination because there were many times where you could have given up when it was hard, but your passion pushed you through. So, can you tell me, when you decided to go into franchising, how did you go about that? Because you really didn't have that background, did you?
Tina: No, no. I had no idea what I was doing at the start, none at all. So that's where—I mean the first franchising book I read was Franchising for Dummies, which sounds really funny, but it's—I read every franchising book printed in Australia and that was the best one. So they are quite thorough, the For Dummies range, and you can get a lot of different business books in them. I read and researched a lot, I spoke to—franchising is quite a small industry, in that there's under 2000 franchise systems in Australia. So franchisors are quite generous with their time, and I was able to call a lot of people that had founded franchise companies and just ask if I could sit down with them and nobody said no. So I went to about 30 different franchisors and sat down with them and asked them every single question that I possibly could about franchising so that I could try and define what sort of model I wanted to use. Because there's many different variables in franchising that you can kind of choose, so I wanted to work out what was going to work best. And then I spoke to a whole heap of franchisees in different systems to find out what they liked about their franchise, what they didn't like about their franchise, how they felt about their franchise, all of those sorts of things so that I could be as educated as possible in the start, and really implement that best practise right from word go. And our systems, the way we do everything, our manuals, our training, our support, everything like that—I've looked at systems that quadruple the size of ours and they've got nothing on Begin Bright.
Caroline: Great. You know, listening to you, and one of my philosophies in life is if I want to achieve success in whatever field I'm looking at, or business model I'm looking at, I've always believed in emulating people that have done it. Go and ask them, go and talk to them, find out the insights. Don't fumble your way through it. Actually go and chat to people who've done it before and have been successful, and learn from them. It's the quickest way to get to that end game or to build that business model that you want to do, which is exactly what you did. And what I find interesting as well, Tina, is the fact that you went and talked to not just franchisors but franchisees, because that is so important. And having worked in the franchise sector, I've always believed that there are two client bases. There are the franchisees – they're the clients of the franchisor as well as the customers and the consumer.
Tina: Yeah, exactly. Yes.
Caroline: And that is so important to remember, because at the end of the day, everyone's in this together, and everyone wants the best outcome for the customer.
Tina: Yeah, exactly.
Caroline: Yeah. Now, trying to build a business while bringing up children can be very challenging, so tell us about that and how you juggle everything.
Tina: Good question. In all honesty, now it's an absolute piece of cake. My kids are 8 years old and 6, and my husband's been a stay at home dad for the last three years. So that makes my life so much easier, and enables me to do absolutely everything that I want to do business-wise. And it means that I get to do the fun stuff. I work pretty much nine or ten hours a day, so my morning is just to wake up, I get cuddles in bed, I get breakfast made for me...
Tina: ...and then I play a game of cards with the kids, or do their home readers or their bank books or whatever it is that morning and then I go to work about 7:30. And then I come home and I get the fun stuff again, so I get to play with them or read with them, I do their bath time, that sort of thing. I don't cook, I don't clean, I don't have any of those chores to do, so it makes it a hell of a lot easier. And it means that when I do get to see my children every night that I get to spend that quality time rather than having—so many I speak to, and this was my role in the early days—was you'd work all day, you'd go home and then you'd start your next job, kind of thing. It makes it much easier now, but for the first few years it was horrible. [laughter] Horrible, really, I mean, when my youngest was 2 years old, I went—there's a behavioural expert called Dr. John D. Martini and he runs a programme called The Breakthrough Experience. And I actually went there, and there's all these people that have been through these massively horrible experiences, people dying, rape, all these incredibly horrific things, and I felt like such an idiot. Because I was there and it got to my turn on why I wanted to do this 4-day breakthrough experience and mine was mother guilt. And I felt so incredibly pathetic. But for me, I'd spent three years feeling completely inadequate, so I felt like I couldn't be a good mother, I couldn't be a good business owner, because when I was at work all I wanted to do was be with my children and then when I was with my children, all I was doing was thinking about work and staring there on my laptop. That was incredibly difficult for me and I had to really get over that to enable myself to just get over it; just work when I'm at work, be with my children when I'm with my children, and be okay with everything not being perfect, and fitting in as much as I possibly could and living life my way rather than the projections that we get placed on us, that what we're supposed to do.
Caroline: And that is such good advice for people that are struggling with that, because I think as women, we tend to—and a lot of women, and particularly businesswomen who are trying to balance everything—really struggle with that guilt. I know I have. And the judgements also that are placed upon you as well, in regards to 'Oh, you're working long hours, what about the child?' and...
Tina: And I think a lot of that's on yourself, too. I mean there's a lot of – you know the attitude of 'It shouldn't be this hard', kind of thing? But I think that the moment that I realised – you know what, it's hard, and it's okay that it's hard! Of course it's going to be hard! I'm trying to run a growing business, and I'm trying to raise these gorgeous children – that's going to be challenging. And in the meantime, you've got to remember to do the things like 'Be nice to your husband', 'Have enough sex', all of that sort of thing there.
Tina: You're going to drop some balls along the way, so it's important to just go – yeah, it's a hard stage of life. And you've got children that are there – they don't care if you have an important call coming up. If they're hungry, they're going to scream. There was once that I had my kids in the room and I was just chucking in snacks while I was holding the door shut, because I was on an important call, going 'This is not your shining moment, Tina!' [laughter] But you've just got to do what you've got to do to get through the best way you can. And I mean, I talk to my boys now very openly. Every night I tell them everything that went along in the business. And when I have big decisions, I say 'You know guys, this is what's going on, what do you think I should do?' And they're really into it and really open to it and really knowledgeable. And I'll ask them - 'Do you miss me when I go away? Are you all right with me doing this?' And they think I'm awesome.
Caroline: ...yeah, absolutely. And I think going back to your comment earlier about spending time with your kids when you're at home and focus on your work at work, that really comes back to being present in the moment which is so challenging to do. But if you can master it, it can make life a lot easier.
Tina: Yeah, you've got to have the discipline to turn the phone off.
Caroline: Yeah. That's right, that's hard to do, especially when you've got franchisees that need your advice.
Tina: Yeah. Not on a Sunday, though. Not on a Sunday.
Caroline: No. No. Now you won the Telstra Australian Young Businesswoman of the Year in 2014. Congratulations.
Tina: Yeah. Long ago, now.
Caroline: Well, it's not that long ago. Two years, year and a half. What did that award mean to you?
Tina: Oh, it was absolutely fantastic. So for me, because I have always sought out mentors throughout my business journey, so I've been following the Telstra Awards since I was about 21, and ringing the winners every year and talking to them and getting their advice – not on the awards, but just on business and life in general. And it was such a programme that I admired, and such a group of people, that once you're in that group, it's just such a cool nerdy club to be a part of. [laughter] So for me, I had no expectation of doing well in the awards. It was supposed to be my practice run, so that I could figure out how it all works and then a couple of years later...
Caroline: Wow. What a practice run.
Tina: Nail it. It was very surprising and an absolutely fantastic experience to be recognized in that way. And I think it will go down as a massive highlight of my life.
Caroline: Yeah. Absolutely. And you weren't just the state winner; you were the overall winner as well.
Caroline: How did that process—because it is quite a lengthy process.
Tina: Yeah. It's pretty thorough.
Caroline: Yeah, especially with the application.
Caroline: Well, how did you find that process?
Tina: Well, it was good. I mean, I'm quite—you know, I hear a lot of people say it's good to sit down and recognize how far you've come and what you've done. But for me, I do that very frequently anyway, so every year--I have what I call my book of inspiration, where I reflect on the previous year, what my greatest challenges were, who are the people I have to be grateful for and need to thank, and all of that sort of thing – what my best achievements were and then what's my plan for the next twelve months and what's my plan for the next five years. I have always done that, for the last ten years, so in the reflective stage, that wasn't that much of a challenge for me because I am quite reflective. And we have such a culture at Begin Brighter as well of celebrating our wins and...
Tina: …successes that—yeah, we do toot our own horns enough. [laughter]
Caroline: But I love that. It's so important to celebrate success.
Tina: Yeah. So that part, you know—wasn't that difficult to get all of that down because I had all of that there, but for me – I mean, going into the interview process, with three judges sitting there and grilling you and not really giving you any feedback on anything was so incredibly nerve-wracking. And of course the night when you get called up and have to give the speech in front of this room full of business superstars that you've admired your whole life is incredibly intimidating and exciting and I mean, you'll see me if you look at the YouTube clip, I could barely keep it together. I was walking up and you know the Andrea Dower who presented the award held me and went 'Are you all right?' So I just felt myself crying, I'm going 'Don't cry, I can't stand out there and go boo-hoo-hoo!' [laughter] But it was a very overwhelming, beautiful moment.
Caroline: Yeah, well, you've gone through a lot to get where you are today, you know?
Tina: Yeah. And that's the thing in business, too, you know. You've got—I always say, your sports stars, they get to train and play their game and they win or they lose and they get that feedback, whereas as a business owner, you're constantly training and then as soon as you hit your goals, you raise the bar up again...
Caroline: Of course.
Tina: ...and you just keep getting bigger and bigger and better and better. Which is fantastic, because, I mean, that's the point of life, really, but at the same time, there is no real finish line to go 'I completed that and I won'. So it's nice to really have something that you can go - you know, other people have observed what I've done and they thought that that was worthy of that, which is a beautiful recognition that you did actually set out to achieve. I read an interview the other day and the question was – would your 18-year-old self be proud of what you've done now? And I think you forget a lot of the time to go, you know, these are my dreams now, but everyone that I know is always striving for more. But if you think back to ten years ago, and go - if ten years ago we could see what we're doing today, how would we feel? I'd be so proud at 22 to see myself now at 32, that that's a nice thing to reflect upon.
Caroline: That's very true and I've never thought about it that way. And as you were talking about that, I was thinking about myself. And I got goose bumps thinking 'Wow!'.
Tina: Yeah! Give yourself a bit of a high five and get used to it, mate!
Caroline: Yeah! And there's still lots more to do but sometimes you forget to stop and think about how far you've actually come.
Tina: Yeah, yeah. Because it is challenging. I mean, there's many people that give up. I mean, just you look at the small business failure rates. It's huge and there's a reason that they're huge. It's because it is extremely challenging to build a sustainable business. There's a reason so many people fail doing it. And the people that can hang on and be that tied to their vision and their purpose and get through it – you know, you do need to give yourself a bit of a round of applause.
Caroline: Yeah, we've broken through something, you know, because—and it's about that perseverance and determination. And keep on going when you get knocked down and you just get back up again and think 'Ahh, I can do this!', you know, 'I want this!'. [laughter]
Tina: Yes, exactly.
Caroline: Now, you are like the master of leveraging PR opportunities.[laughter] So can you share with us your top three tips for securing PR?
Tina: Sure. I think for me it was out of necessity. You know, when you have a non-existent marketing budget, you have to get very resourceful. But again, like most things in business, it's just effort. So, a lot of people will say to me 'How do you get PR?'. I just ask for it. So whenever we do anything noteworthy, I will write a press release for it, I will email it out to journalists. I'm always on the lookout so at Awards nights, at networking things, I will talk to the journalists, I'll become friends with them. And a lot of the time, they're looking for stories. They have quota that they have to fill, and if you can give them something really well written, that's actually appealing, then they're going to want to run it. The hard part for business owners is to not do it in a promotional way. So you've got to think. They don't want to just promote you, they want a story. So you have to do things that are story worthy. And then when you do that, write about it and shout it out from the absolute rooftops. Because the more that you get, the more you will then get. So it was only when we started getting local publications that I was able to get state-wide publications, and then national publications and then TV publications. But I wouldn't have got that if I hadn't got the ones before. So it kind of feeds off each other.
Caroline: Yeah, it's a perpetual cycle, really, isn't it? It tends to grow and gain momentum. And I think the key there, Tina, is to ask. There are so many people that just don't take that step. And yes, you might get some no’s, but along the way, you're going to get some yesses as well. So take the risk and ask, just ask the question.
Tina: Yeah. And it's being okay with promoting yourself as well. I mean, a lot of people that I talk to go 'Gosh, you really love the self-promotion', and it's definitely not that. I mean, I love nothing more than sitting behind my computer being left alone all day and just working, but humans like humans, so you're the only way--especially in the early days, until you get a brand that's absolutely bigger than you as a person—you need to be the face of that business and you need to drive it and get it out there and be okay with kind of being out of your comfort zone. Which means that you're then open and susceptible to a hell of a lot of criticism as well, when you put yourself out there, but you've got to take the good with the bad and just believe in what you do and believe in yourself and do the best you can.
Caroline: Absolutely. And I think what I've noted many years ago for myself was I associated a lot with that tall poppy syndrome that exists...
Tina: Yeah, yeah.
Caroline: ...and I felt like if I was talking about myself or anything that I'd achieved, that there was negativity around that, like I had an ego, or—but it's not that, it's about--the self-promotion is so important because it helps you leverage the opportunities that are out there. And it also is inspiring to people when they hear those stories as well. Can you imagine if you didn't share your story with the upcoming women, or the next generation of women in business? They've got to look to somebody to aspire to be and think 'Well, if they can do it, I can do it!'.
Tina: Exactly. And I know how much I love reading business magazines and people's stories, so you've got to all participate in it and help each other up, too.
Caroline: Yeah, exactly! And a key to that, too, is about mentoring. And throughout my career, I've tried to mentor individuals, just because I've wanted to contribute something back to people, and give back to people. Because I've had so many mentors in my life that I wouldn't be here without them. And without them dedicating that time too, so it comes back to that. Now what were the biggest three lessons you've learned in business? And I'm sure you've learned many.
Tina: Oh, yeah. My biggest three lessons – work hard, be nice to people, and don't give up on your dream. That's probably—it's a very simplistic view, but that really is—that probably is the key for me, I think, being willing to work harder and longer than anybody else is. Don't give up on your dream--if your dream is good enough to start—I mean, a lot of the people that I know that are successful got there purely because they stayed dedicated and they didn't give up when other people would have, and they just hung on.
Caroline: Yeah, that's that perseverance and dedication again.
Tina: And you've got to be nice to people. Too many people are assholes in this world; we have to be kind to one another.
Caroline: I know! And be respectful towards people. I just don't understand it. Do the right thing. I talk about that all the time.
Tina: Yeah. Which not only makes your life happier, but people naturally want to do business with people that they like. So, if you can just be a genuinely kind, considerate person, you will do better.
Tina: Contrary to the popular belief of the autocratic asshole management nature. I don't think it works.
Caroline: No, it doesn't. Not in the long term, anyway. And it certainly doesn't have people respecting you. And it's about that community as well, of helping each other and doing it together, because one man alone is nothing compared to a whole tribe, you know?
Tina: Yeah. Yeah.
Caroline: Yeah. And what advice do you have for anyone struggling in business?
Tina: Surround yourself with really good people to lift you out because it can be very lonely when you're running a business and you think you're the only one having problems. So the more that you can reach out to other people that are in similar situations to you or that have been through similar situations to you, the more guidance it gives you. I mean, we've been through so many tough times through our journey and the first thing I do—it's okay to have a little pity party for yourself every once in a while, you know, drink some wine, have a good cry and then—but then, you know, put on your big lady pants and get on with it because nobody else is going to do that for you. If you want success for yourself, you really have to figure out how to do it and rely on yourself to get there. Oh, and take on – like you said before – take on the advice of people that have already done it before, because most of them have been helped up by other people and want nothing more than to help somebody else to get up there as well. So you've really got to tap into your networks and tell your story and let them do their thing and lift you back up.
Caroline: Yeah. And the key as well is – we're all the masters of our own destiny and...
Caroline: ...I've said that for many, many years. I'm responsible for where I am, and where I need to go and nobody else is.
Tina: Yeah. There's never anybody else to blame. All you can do is just learn from things that didn't go well, and get on with it.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah. And finally, what does the future look like for you?
Tina: Oh, Gosh! I don't know! That's kind of the fun in life, isn't it? Who knows what's around the corner? I mean, obviously, I've got goals and plans. We want to build Begin Bright to be the best school readiness and primary tutoring programme right here in Australia and then once we've done that, go international. So that's something that we're very focused on, and planning on. You know, there's—hopefully I've got another fifty years of business left in me, so who knows what fun will be round the corner.
Caroline: Yeah, but you've grown quite rapidly, though, over the last couple of years, compared to the franchising industry standard.
Caroline: So tell me a little bit about that.
Tina: Yeah. So we've—I've always wanted to go as hard and fast as I possibly could. So the key to that has been putting the right team in place, and we implemented a Board to make sure that we didn't kill ourselves by growing too fast and not having the right infrastructure in place. So we've got all the systems and processes set up to be able to handle that and a lot more rapid growth. The hardest part is finding such awesome individuals to be franchisees. And once we do find them, they absolutely smash it and provide an excellent service for families, but we have a very particular sort of person that makes a good franchisee, so it's not right for everybody. Which is the biggest challenge for us, in growing as rapidly as we want to grow, but the biggest benefit has been the team that we've created and the people that have helped us get there. And now we're about to do a lot of things in the remainder of the year that will lift Begin Brighter off even better and faster, which is exciting.
Caroline: Oh, it is exciting; I look forward to seeing that. And just before we wrap up, for anyone listening who potentially thinks that they might like to be involved in Begin Brighter, who is that person, and how do they make contact?
Tina: Yes! As a franchisee, you just go to our website, beginbrighter.com.au. You can find me very easily, so anyone wanting any franchising advice, if you're looking to start your own franchise business, you can give me a call whenever you like, you just—I'm very easy to find because of all of the pimping out of myself that I have done in previous years. But for us, for a franchisee, you have to have an education background; you have to be an extremely passionate, all round awesome person, because we have that nature of a person that we want people to gravitate to and want to be part of your local community and want to build up families and help them around that area. So that's what we look for.
Caroline: Yeah. It's getting that right fit for the organization.
Caroline: And that's so integral to the success.
Caroline: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Tina, I really appreciate it and for being such an inspiration to many business owners, to many business women out there.