With so many franchise opportunities available throughout the world, it can be quite a daunting task for a person seeking a franchise opportunity to narrow down to the one that fits their interest and expertise. I had the opportunity to speak with Ron McArthur, President of WSI Internet, and get the scoop on the WSI franchise opportunity. As the fastest growing Internet franchise, this company has been building an impressive infrastructure around the world of Internet Consultants (aka, WSI franchisees) that provide Internet solutions to small and medium size businesses. WSI represents an interesting opportunity for anyone seeking to start a franchise business that focuses on the Internet. Oh, and don't worry if you have little or no technical knowledge or skills; WSI will help you to learn all you need to know once you come aboard. Even Ron McArthur didn't have great technical knowledge when he started as President of the company 18 months ago.
PR.com (Jason Manheim): WSI has been growing very fast. You're in your 10th year of business, you have over 1,000 franchisees, and you're in 87 countries. These are impressive stats. What is WSI doing to enable this growth?
WSI Franchise (Ron McArthur): Well, that's a good question, because at the end of the day if we look at our end objective, our target, our end customer is the small and medium size business. That's who our franchisees are selling our products and services to. So, when we look at the small and medium size market and every country we deal with, it's the fastest growing part of any economy. So, it's growing and booming. At the end of the day, our base market, our target market is growing, and growing well. And if we look at what we're providing, "Internet Solutions," well just the word "Internet," knowledge of the Internet is growing exponentially every single day. Business owners around the world are starting to see what the Internet can do for them and their business, and it's exciting. Whether it is taking the Internet and using it and apply it to its revenue and bring in more customers and bringing more informed customers so they convert into revenue faster, or whether its to take a look at the Internet at how it can cut the small and medium size business owner's expenses, there's ways on the Internet to do that. So, one hand the marketplace is growing, and the other side, the knowledge of the Internet and how a business owner can utilize the Internet in its business to make more profits and get a better return on investment. It's kind of happening all together. We're fortunate at WSI to be riding that wave of growth.
PR.com: That makes sense. Of course, every day there are technologies that come out that enable companies to take advantage of what they can do more simply and yield greater utility to technical projects that they are developing.
WSI: Jason, I couldn't have said it any better. That's absolutely true. It is almost on a daily basis that new products and services are being introduced into the Internet world to allow it to take advantage of it.
PR.com: You had come from a company before WSI that was also a large franchise company. Was that Internet based also?
WSI: No, it was not. It was in the distribution, manufacturing and the coffee side of the business. I kind of grew up with that business, was there for 25 years; the last 18 as President, and the last 3 looking to expand its focus ... on growth of the company from the acquisition point of view all across North America. We had Canadian and US based operations, and the US operations were primarily a franchise system.
PR.com: Did you have franchises in Canada also?
WSI: No, just in the US. The business was primarily company owned in Canada, and partially company owned, but primarily owned through a franchise system in the US.
PR.com: Have you found similarities between working at that company and trying to build that company with what you are now doing at WSI?
WSI: Sure. Because I did not have any knowledge of technology when I came into the company, but having been an experienced business guy, the premise is to build trust: building trust with customers, employees, franchisees; building relationships, communicating effectively, showing direction and strong leadership and executing on the plans and the things you're saying. I think that goes cross industry, cross all avenues, and whether you're selling widgets or whether you're selling technology, I think that the basics of business are pretty similar. People want to deal with people they trust. We've done a lot of focus groups here at WSI with our end customer. The two things that they say that they want our franchisees to display is a sense of trust and to build a relationship with them so they can partner going forward, kinda hand in hand.
PR.com: I agree. The same business sense that it takes to make one business grow and operate successfully ... it's the same no matter what business you're in.
WSI: Yeah. Focus on the customer, focus on your employees and then building your business and grow it accordingly.
PR.com: Now, back to WSI. One of the things I love about the Internet and I always find to be quite funny is the language and the terms that are used. Like, "Internet Solutions": I have heard this phrase mean so many different things to so many different people (we both laugh). What exactly is "Internet Solutions" as far as WSI is concerned, and what is it specifically that WSI does?
WSI: I guess the phrase, "Internet Solutions" ... because at the end of the day, our franchisees are trained to sit and listen to their small and medium size customer to understand their needs. What does that customer need to help them run their business, and we develop a solution. And what's a solution? We have over 350 products and services in our solutions tool belt, so to speak, and for the most part, our franchisees, which we call "Internet Consultants" or "IC's," really look at the small and medium size website, understand it, understand if it's meeting the needs of the business owner, if it's giving him an increased revenue. What our Internet Consultants are able to do is to start with their base website, look at enhancing it, looking at increasing traffic through various search engine programs to drive more traffic to that individual owner's website, to drive up revenue.
And, that's where the trust starts to come in, if a WSI Internet Consultant comes in, brings on and assumes the existing client's website and enhances it a little bit to drive revenue, that's where the trust and relationship start. Then, they can start looking at and understanding the further needs of that end customer to say "ok, you've got your basic website, now how do we look internally into that site to ensure that all pages of that are being utilized." But, then let's expand ourselves and say, "Are you interested in doing an email marketing program? Does it make sense for you to market effectively using the Internet?" And, we've got a number of solutions/products and services to address that. "Do you have a training program either internally for your staff or externally for your salespeople, or maybe you have multi-offices." So we have global learning systems that are all designed to train the staff of the independent business guy or to allow him to utilize training more effectively in his business. Then, we have ecommerce sites. So maybe that small or medium size business owner wants to sell his products over the Internet, we can then develop a shopping cart or an ecommerce system that allows his customers to buy directly from him utilizing the Internet.
Then we go into econference solutions where maybe he's got salespeople 100 miles or more, or 50 miles from his office, and he wants to connect with them every day or two to get a feeling of bonding where he doesn't want to have them drive in and waste their time. It just goes on and on. At the end of the day, it's about products and services that create increased revenues and reduce expenses.
PR.com: So you try to hit all the various layers that are potentially necessary for any type of business to take advantage of these technologies.
PR.com: Is what you've just described what you call your "Internet Solutions Lifecycle System?"
WSI: Yeah. Our Lifecycle is the System of WSI. It really talks and teaches our franchisees through what we call our IBA, our Internet Business Analysis. That's really the beginning of the Lifecycle. Our IC's sit in front of the customers to understand their needs. Then we take and understand those needs and apply it to our products and services, and then go through the various elements of our Lifecycle, which is the functional design stage to be able to build a solution through the whole process, test it, launch it on the Internet, and then manage results. Those are the six components of our Lifecycle. To say you not only understand the needs, you provide the needs, and then you meet with the client on a monthly basis to ensure the products and services you've provided meet their needs. You adjust as you go on a monthly basis, as you're building that relationship with the end customer.
PR.com: I've read on your website that this Internet Solutions Lifecycle System is patent pending. What is it specifically about the system that is patent pending that makes it special and different enough that it can obtain a patent? And, how does this translate into enabling WSI to serve its clients differently from others?
WSI: What we've done is bundle the whole cycle together, and that's why we've applied for a patent on it. It's taking all of the various components of the process, bundled under the adage of the name "WSI Lifecycle," which is a whole separate offering for our franchisees who then present it to their end customers.
PR.com: That makes sense. You've mentioned that you have over 350 products and services. One that I'd like to focus on a bit is eLearning. Again, this is one of those "Internet" terms that can mean so many different things to so many different people. What does eLearning actually mean for the WSI Franchise?
WSI: It starts as soon as one of our franchisees has been awarded a franchise, because then they go into our eLearning system. Think of a virtual teacher. Our franchisee goes through a four or five week eLearning system to understand all of the various components of what they have to do to become a WSI franchisee. It talks to them from the very basics of registering their business name. Over the Internet, virtually, it goes through a whole teaching process, an eLearning process, where they're sitting in front of their computer, they log in with their name, the teacher says hello, and then they go into, basically, "this module is designed to make you familiar with the ecommerce products of WSI," or explains to them how to work through our catalogue of products. They go through the learning, they read, take some tests at the end of every module, and then move on to the next one. It's a virtual classroom. They go through these modules, and they become familiar with the very basics that they need to do to be a successful franchisee. They then come into a classroom for a week which enhances the eLearning that they've done. So, think of a virtual teacher, a virtual classroom, that rather than have our franchisees come in for two weeks of training, they're able to spend the first four weeks at home in familiar surroundings, without the cost of travel to learn the very basics of the system.
PR.com: So, to become a WSI franchisee, you don't really need technical knowledge or experience. Is this the reason why, because this helps them to understand what they need to do and how they need to operate as a WSI franchise?
WSI: That's a part of it. The training process is certainly designed to get them started with the knowledge and information that they're going to require to handle the technical side of the business. One of the things we talk about to our franchisees in training is, "Welcome to the rest of your life of learning." Because, as you know, as you said earlier, there are so many changes, it never ends. You're going to have to read, you're going to have to be up to date, you're going to have to be on the Internet, understanding all of the various components of the products you're selling. Just like if you're selling a confectionary line, you'd have to learn the ingredients of all of your products. It's the same thing. Also, our production centers play a role in the learning of the technical side of the business. In fact, some of our productions centers offer to our new IC's (Internet Consultants), that they'll project manage the IC's first few projects with them to provide that technical service to them.
PR.com: This is something that long-term, they'll be doing on their own?
WSI: Absolutely. Probably, when you started with Excel or Word Perfect you had an Excel or Word Perfect for dummies book beside you. Six months into it, you can do it with your eyes closed. That's similar to what our IC's are able to do with our products. So much of our production centers have modules that they've done before with the thousands of websites that they've built, that they can just pick and choose and help the IC's to understand the needs of their customers.
PR.com: When the franchisees speak with their clients, they're actually determining with the client how they can go about improving their business, their website, and the other services you mentioned. Is that their direct role?
WSI: That's their direct role. In that first interview, their role is to understand what the business owner's needs are. Whether they want more revenue using the Internet, to run an email campaign, go into an eLearning system right off the bat, etc. So, it's to determine what the needs of the customer are, so our IC's can match it with our products and services.
PR.com: You mention eLearning again. It sounds like your eLearning services are not just for your consultants, but also is a service you provide to your clients.
WSI: All of our products and services are sold through our consultants, through our franchisees, to our end customers. Some of our consultants do nothing other than provide eLearning systems. They will not do website design; they will not do email marketing campaigns. They found their niche, whether it's their background, their experience, or their life, ... is to sell eLearning systems to businesses.
PR.com: Do you find that different franchisees offer completely different solutions to their clients?
WSI: Absolutely. That's one of the things that our system allows them to do. The mainstream course is website Internet solutions to the small and medium size customers. But surely, some of our IC's just do eLearning systems, some exclusively focus on search engine optimization, and so they're able to specialize. Some just do larger ecommerce sites where they want to bring a whole ecommerce package to a customer because that's where they're most comfortable.
PR.com: I think that's great. It gives a potential franchisee an ability, if they want, to utilize their experiences and expertise, use WSI tools to take advantage of this and serve their clients in the areas that they feel most comfortable.
WSI: It allows our franchisees to offer the very best products and services to the small and media size customer, to say "hey, I've got an expert here who understands it." A lot of our franchisees work together with other local WSI franchisees in the neighborhood, getting together on a monthly basis, so they can share information. For example, if one is focusing on eLearning, and the other has an eLearning opportunity, they may partner together to offer that solution to the end client under the umbrella of the WSI group of franchises. It's a bigger, broader offering to the ultimate customer.
PR.com: The real force that does the technical work comes from your global production center?
WSI: Yes Jason, exactly. We've got about 14 of them spread strategically throughout the world providing services to our Internet consultants.
PR.com: You had mentioned something about existing modules. It sounds like you have a large production center. Does this provide a considerable advantage in completing technical projects in an extremely timely manner? One of the aspects of technical projects that I find to be very important is having the ability to use existing code or modules to save time in developing relevant aspects of a project rather than reinventing the wheel over and over.
WSI: If someone wants a fairly standard solution, then yes, that is absolutely true. Our Internet consultants certainly have the ability to offer a solution to an end customer who wants a fairly basic one, and do so with a fairly quick production cycle. But, then also, again with this broad range that we offer, if our end customer - and we're finding it more and more - want something very specific, very custom focused, our production centers have an ability to use the basic, which they've got modularly done before, and then be able to customize it to the individual customer's needs.
PR.com: With your growth, I assume your production center is growing as the rest of WSI grows. How big is it now?
WSI: Each of our 14 production centers are owned individually by partners in our marketplace. So, WSI does not own the production centers. They're license agreements with individuals who are working in our marketplace to take advantage of the opportunities there. I'll give you a typical example of a production center: probably made up of 18 to 20 people, which would be made up of the owner, developers, programmers, customer service people, project managers, graphic designers. Each of them operates as their own independent business, offering their production services to our fleet of franchisees, independent Internet consultants. This makes our WSI marketplace a very true entrepreneurial marketplace, because our franchisees can go to a number of productions centers to ensure they get the best value for their customer at the best price as well.
PR.com: Is that something they determine on a per project basis?
WSI: Yup. Certainly. One production center may specialize in a certain type of solution. But often, what you'll find is that the franchisee becomes very comfortable with one production center and does most of the work with them.
PR.com: Is there any communication between the production center and the client, or is it strictly the consultant and the client?
WSI: Through the consultant and the client.
PR.com: Here's an interesting point. It's probably good, in a way, that consultants may start out with little technical knowledge. It can be quite difficult, at times, to carry a technical conversation where one of the parties does not have technical knowledge or understanding of some of the concepts or language used.
WSI: We stress and teach our Internet consultants to not talk "techie talk." All the focus groups that we've done with customers tell us that when a consultant gets in front of them to offer them an Internet solution, and starts talking HTML code, they don't understand it. When they don't understand, they get nervous, a little bit afraid, and they don't trust. What we teach our consultants is don't talk any of that techie talk whether you know it or not, and to understand the needs of the customer, talk their language, talk about customers, talk about revenues, talk about return on investment, which is near and dear to every business owner's bottom line.
PR.com: Language they can understand.
WSI: You betcha.
PR.com: I've heard a few times that WSI says that websites don't work.
PR.com: You even have a website called WebsitesDontWork.com.
PR.com: I think that's very interesting, because it is a very true statement. And, it seems this is the focus of what WSI does, which is to help websites that don't work to become websites that do work.
WSI: Sure. That's an interesting topic. We just came back from Las Vegas at one of our ... we call it an "excellence in innovation session." We get together with our franchises around the world four times in different areas. One of the presenters, one of our IC's from London, England, did a presentation to all of the over 170 IC's in the room, saying "here's my presentation of why websites don't work that I give various seminars on a monthly basis, and I tell them why they don't work. Because for the most part, they're just brochure ware." They're just really taking a brochure and putting it on the Internet. There's no interactivity, no information for the client to interact with the end customer, no ability to buy products from the customer. We give the end customer the knowledge that what we're all about is increasing their revenue, reducing expenses and getting a return on investment. That's kind of, our going in marketing pitch, that our Internet consultants are taught so that they bring benefit to that small and medium size owner.
PR.com: Speaking of franchises and new potential franchisees, what is it specifically about the WSI franchise opportunity that is enticing over other franchise opportunities?
WSI: Well, we like to call it a "freedom franchise." Like any franchise, you have your system. We teach our system as understanding our various processes and working with our production centers. But, what we offer is the ability for an individual who for the most part is coming out of the corporate world, has been working with a boss, to be able to be their own business owner, be their own person, and determine how hard they want to work and who they want to work with as to their customers. We allow them this opportunity, and say ok, here is the basic system that allows you to offer these Internet solutions. However, if you want to, as you get more experience, go into an avenue that maybe you come with an educational background and eLearning is very important to you, you just focus on that side of the business and do what you love to do, teach people, take companies into the teaching and training part of it. So, we offer a broad range. Over 80% of our franchisees work at home. They're able to work in their own home environment, to network and be very much part of their community. We like to say that WSI has the global reach with our 1,000 IC's in 87 countries, but very much the local touch. And, we talk to our franchisees about getting involved in their community, being the Internet consultant in their area ...to really be able to add value to the business community.
PR.com: Those are certainly very enticing aspects to the WSI franchise opportunity.
WSI: Yeah. As our growth has shown.
PR.com: As a franchisee, what are the ongoing costs, not the upfront costs, but as an ongoing business, what types of costs would an average WSI franchise face?
WSI: As I said, it depends on that franchisee. But, for the most part, the franchisees have very minimal costs. As I said, over 80% work from home. So, they don't have to go out and rent a location, rent billboards and that type of thing. What they basically need is a vehicle, so you've got the cost of your vehicle going around to visit with your customers. You'll have some marketing costs, but we like to think of ourselves as guerilla marketers at a fairly low cost. One of the gurus of marketing just gave a presentation to our franchisees and talked to them about guerilla marketing for consultants; how you can effectively market your products and services and yourself to your customers, on a very low budget. So, certainly marketing is a cost, but it's a minimal cost. The other cost is your cost of goods that you'll have when you buy the products from our production centers; and, it's like any cost of goods that you're dealing with from a manufacturer. After the cost of goods, the cost of the franchise is fairly minimal. Now, if they want to expand and hire salespeople, project managers and other people to help them grow the business and take advantage of the opportunity, they're certainly entitled to do that, and that brings a different cost structure.
PR.com: They really have the option. They can grow if they want, or they can stay as a one person operation.
WSI: Yeah. They can do all of that. It depends on what they want. That's why we like to call it a freedom franchise, because it depends on what they want to do. If they have managed a group of employees and don't want to do it any more, then they can be a sole proprietor. But, if they also see the vision and opportunity in the marketplace, they can grow their business substantially.
PR.com: How difficult is it for a person to become a WSI franchisee?
WSI: We have a fairly sophisticated selection process, Jason. When a franchisee applies to be awarded a WSI franchise, they go through a fairly lengthy process, to ensure ... that we get the right applicant, they understand the process, they understand what they're going to need to do, they're going to understand what the system is, they're going to understand what the opportunity is. Then we've got to make sure that they're aligned with the type of applicants that we're looking for, because we want, obviously, to come out of the gate, so they're able to make a success of the opportunity.
PR.com: Have you ever had any issues where you had to take away franchise rights because something just wasn't happening the way you wanted?
WSI: Well, no, we've never that I'm aware of - I've been here 18 months - taken a franchise away from anybody. Like any franchisor, there is compliance that we ask of our franchisees, and we've had numerous discussions with some to ensure that the compliance is enforced. But, we like to work on a, you know, more can be attracted with sugar than with vinegar, and work with those franchisees to ensure that they are working within the system and they are complying and taking advantage of the opportunity.
PR.com: And to help them benefit as much as they can.
WSI: That's a good way to put it.
PR.com: What are the goals for WSI as far as the products and services you provide? Are there specific products or services, in the near or long term, that you are working on or that you would like to offer your clients that you are currently not offering?
WSI: Well, I guess I'd ask the question "what's coming down the pike tomorrow?" Because, as you said earlier, the Internet is changing and offering, and ... our obligation and what we're doing is constantly looking at leading edge technology. So, not only are we looking to ensure that our IC's are armed with those products and services that the business owner requires, we want to make sure we're always on top of what's coming down the pike. We meet on a quarterly basis at a board level, to ensure that the strategy that we set forth on an annual basis is still the correct strategy, and determine whether there's anything we need to change. At WSI, we like to say that change is wonderful; we will be better tomorrow than we are today. There's a whole culture of change and being able to ensure that we understand the market that we're in, and to certainly continue to offer our services to our franchisees and their customer, but always with an eye to what's out there. We're helped tremendously with that by having a lot of different communications systems within the company to listen to our IC's and to allow them feedback directly into our senior management team on a regular basis so that we're totally aware of the new trends happening in the industry.
PR.com: So you have many different resources that add to your determination as to where you want to go.
WSI: Internal with our own staff. But, our franchisees are our best source because they're spread all around the globe. So, we kinda got the whole place covered as to what the next opportunity could be.
PR.com: You're really building a unique infrastructure.
WSI: Absolutely. It's kinda fun. We're having a good time.
PR.com: Where do you personally want to see WSI going as a company as far as its development 5 or 10 years down the line? Do you want to be the Microsoft of Internet Services? What is it that you're shooting for?
WSI: Well, any vertical market that you work in today, there's always a leader. If you look at the car industry, maybe Budget comes to mind; the refreshment industry, Coca-Cola comes to mind; the hotel industry, Hilton or Ramada. We believe that WSI is strategically placed and far ahead of any of our competitors to take advantage of being the Internet solution provider to the business owners around the world. And, I think that we've got the foundation. I like to say that we're just starting the very foundation of a cathedral that we can build into the sky to be able to be the vertical market leader in this sector.
PR.com: It sounds like that's where you're headed.
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