BIRMINGHAM, Mich. (AP) — If ever there was proof that a completely new invention or technology isn't needed to be a successful entrepreneur, it's Goldfish Swim School.
Goldfish was launched in 2006 as a mom-and-pop operation in Birmingham by Chris and Jenny McCuiston.
Today — thanks in part to a marketing boost from online mommy bloggers — it's a growing franchise network, with five schools in Michigan and 10 more under development in locations as far afield as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Chicago.
Investors are coughing up $1 million or more, per location, for a Goldfish franchise — in a still-sluggish economy. And Goldfish's reason for existence is as simple as can be.
To teach kids to swim.
Not exactly a novel idea, right?
YMCAs have been giving swim lessons for more than 100 years. Fitness centers and municipal pools do it, too. Was this an unfilled need?
Not so much an unfilled need, but rather an opportunity to improve the experience, as Andrew McCuiston and Katie Lee explained said during a visit to the Goldfish school in Rochester, which opened in March.
Think about it. What were the worst things about learning to swim for you?
Shivering in cold water and on the pool deck? Not at Goldfish, where the water temperature is kept at 90 degrees.
Fear of drowning, plunging into deep water and never coming back up? No deep water at Goldfish, where the pool is purpose-built for teaching kids ages 4 months to 12 years, never more than 4 1/2 feet deep.
Mass classes of kids splashing and kicking and squealing? Goldfish classes are designed with a student-teacher ratio of 4-1, and — for a premium — semiprivate or solo lessons are available.
The instruction model was devised mainly by Jenny McCuiston, 32, a competitive swimmer at Birmingham Seaholm High School and the University of Arizona. After returning home to Michigan from college, Jenny was teaching early childhood development and moonlighting as a swim coach at Seaholm and giving private swim lessons.
"Jenny found that she was booked for private lessons all the time; there was really a demand," said her husband and fellow Seaholm grad Chris, 32, who played baseball at Michigan State, where he was a finance major.
The couple spent two years researching swim schools, and with loans from family members, opened the Birmingham location in March 2006. The school employs about 50 people, mostly part-time, college-age instructors.
The notion of franchising took root when friends Brian and Hope Bayer offered to invest in a second Goldfish school in Farmington Hills. That was followed by a school in Ann Arbor, then the Rochester location.
Katie Lee, a former high school swimmer and friend of Jenny McCuiston, along with attorney Hank Wineman are now co-owners with the Bayers of Goldfish schools in Rochester, Farmington Hills and another set to open next year in Macomb County.
Andrew McCuiston, a University of Denver grad in finance, left a job in California to join his brother Chris in 2008 as Goldfish vice president, with a focus on franchise expansion.
The $1 million investment in a franchise covers a building tear-down, construction of a pool, pump room, dressing rooms and the rest of the brightly decorated facility. There are also $40,000 in franchise fees for Goldfish curriculum and, once in operation, 8 percent of gross sales for royalties and marketing.
Word of mouth is the best marketing of all, the McCuiston brothers say, and the proliferation of so-called mommy bloggers has been a boon to Goldfish.
"It's been a huge movement for us; we really noticed in Grand Rapids. If mom loves the place and blogs about it, we sometimes do a trade-for-service with complimentary swim lessons," said Chris McCuiston.
Aside from the YMCA and general fitness centers, Goldfish faces competition around the country from other child-focused swim schools such as AquaTots and Kids First, but Andrew McCuiston said such schools are more prevalent on the coasts than in the Midwest.
Goldfish charges $78 per month, which works out to $18 a class for 30-minute lessons, and offers discounts for multiple children. The revenues for an operator mount as volume starts to build.
The original Birmingham location serves 2,000 kids a week; Rochester is at 1,000 per week after six months of operation, Andrew McCuiston said.
On Saturdays, he said, Goldfish has as many as 11 instructors in the pool at once with small groups.
That's a lot of parents shelling out lots of dough in what are still trying economic times.
"They view swim lessons not as a luxury, but a necessity," said Andrew McCuiston.
"We see this as life skills," said Lee, "and for that, parents will spend the money on their kids, no matter what the financials."