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Small business, big numbers

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  • | 11:58 a.m. June 4, 2010
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Any parent who has helped a child set up a lemonade stand will appreciate what Ralph Williams is trying to do.

The Fort Myers entrepreneur and father of four children started FranChild in 2007, a company that helps kids launch their own business. He provides them with marketing support via the Web for an annual fee and sells them top-quality goods such as organic coffee and spices at wholesale prices to resell at a profit.

What could really drive his company's growth is a deal with Junior Achievement, a nonprofit organization that recruits business executives to teach entrepreneurship to school children. Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida is currently conducting a pilot project for FranChild's Classroom Biz in a Box, an $80 kit that volunteer instructors can use to help children learn to start a business over a six-week period.

The potential is huge. Junior Achievement volunteers teach in 300,000 classrooms every year. “If I was in 1,000 of those, I'd sell $80,000 worth of kits,” says Williams, 40.

So far, a pilot program to test FranChild's product at eight schools in Lee and Collier counties has been a success. Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida Program Director Cecilia St. Arnold plans to recommend to her board that they use the program in 400 classrooms across the region. The Southwest Florida arm of the organization reaches 10,000 students locally.

But it's not easy creating a program that complies with all Junior Achievement requirements. Plus, there are state and federal education guidelines to meet. St. Arnold says she first had to obtain a variance from Junior Achievement Worldwide, the governing body for the curriculum. “It had to be set up to meet our guidelines,” she says.

Among other requirements, the FranChild program has to be taught over a six-week period, be appropriate for elementary school children and it has to tie in to what students are learning in school. For example, it has to meet state math requirements that students solve problems with fractions, decimals and percentages.

The benefit of introducing children to FranChild's concept through Junior Achievement is that they might continue the program on their own after the six-week program is over. For a subscription fee that ranges from $25 to $75 a year, children can design the marketing and other materials they need to run a successful small business, including business cards and their own Web page.

In addition, children can buy coffee, candles, spices, soaps, apparel and jewelry at wholesale prices via the Web site. To get a good business started, Williams estimates it costs about $200, or $50 for the Web site access and $150 in inventory.

Williams records bigger profit margins on the Web site, not the inventory that he sells to the children. That's because he wants the kids to make healthy profits by reselling the goods at wholesale or retail.

For example, he sells a half-pound bag of organic fair-trade coffee for $5.25 because he buys the beans and contracts for the roasting himself. The kids can then resell the bags for $8 at retail or slightly less at wholesale. “Our profit margin is very front-loaded,” Williams says. “I'm hoping for volume on the back end.”

So far, FranChild has 200 customers and Williams hopes to boost that number to 5,000 by 2011. Some investors have approached Williams about growing the company faster, but he's reluctant to give up a majority interest in the business. “I've not really sought this,” he says.

Williams, who also has a full-time job in sales for a marketing company, has invested “tens of thousands of dollars” in life savings into FranChild. So far, he's been able to fund the growth internally. “I can cover everything today, even very large orders,” he says.

Junior Achievement could change that.


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