Wild Birds Franchise Owner Sarah Smith poses in front of birdhouses.
November/December 2023Previous IssuesWomen in FranchisingWomen in Franchising Article

A ‘Wild’ Franchise Adventure

Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee Sarah Smith shares her journey from a part-time position to a full-time business venture with a brand that feels like family

by Stefanie Ucci

As the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. And as some—perhaps many—franchise owners can attest, business ownership may not have originally been on the list of future career plans. That’s the story for Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee Sarah Smith, who started working part-time in the retail franchise and ended up becoming its primary owner. It was quite the fateful career move for her in what she calls a “lucky” turn of events that led to a wonderful payoff.

Smith’s business ownership journey began a handful of years ago when she was hired as a part-time employee at a local Wild Birds Unlimited store—hawking bird food, feeders, and other hardware for bird fanatics, nature lovers, and hobbyists alike—which she balanced with post-secondary school. Eventually, she grew into the assistant manager role and then store manager role, getting to know the business inside and out. So, when it came time for the previous owners to find someone to purchase their franchise and continue the business, Smith was the perfect fit.

Today, Smith’s store is 32 years old, and she continues leading its legacy throughout her Guelph, Ontario community.

“I honestly didn’t plan this life of retail that I’ve led for so many years,” says Smith. “I worked here just as a part-time position over the years, but my previous boss was very generous and made it difficult to leave! It was a great franchise with great staff, and it was a situation that kind of fell into my lap but worked out really well. I was lucky!”

An im-peck-able opportunity

Smith took ownership of her Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in April 2022, purchasing it with the support of her partner and parents, but she acts as the primary owner.

For Smith, it was a “night-and-day difference” between working part-time at the store and running the business on her own.

“In terms of my learning from last April to now, I feel like I understand more. I might’ve been more naive, but there were some challenges and things I didn’t do as a manager,” she explains. “I definitely had to learn and rely on my support system.”

Smith adds, “I had all these lofty goals that were great, but realistically getting through the first year was all I did and I did it well. We had a good year but some of those additional goals, I’m now working on this year. So, you have to be realistic with your business goals.”

As for the biggest lesson she’s learned, delegation is number one. “One thing that really helped me was training and giving staff the power to make some of those day-to-day decisions so that it can free up more of my time. In short, delegation is always easier said than done.”

With six staff members on board and hiring for more part-time positions underway, Smith points to staffing as one of the challenges of being a seasonal business. A small staff may make a business owner feel like they’re obligated to be everywhere and do everything, but being able to delegate and alleviate the burden of some tasks is the wisest way to conserve both energy and time.

“I’m very blessed that I have a mix of staff who’ve worked at my store for a variety of years, some longer than I’ve worked there, and a mix with newer additions as well,” says Smith. “I appreciate the fact that they’re flexible, so some of the part-time staff don’t require a set amount of hours and I can change it depending on the season.”

A franchise to rave-n about

The highlights in Smith’s average day include interacting with her customers by helping them connect with nature in their own backyard. That’s really what the Wild Birds Unlimited brand is all about.

“The hobby is such a fulfilling and fun thing to get into, so it’s great to get on that same level with customers,” she says. “It’s something I know my staff also do really well and thoroughly enjoy, so we have fun.”

When it comes to what she loves most about being a franchisee, it’s all about the brand’s blueprint—based on a business plan that’s been proven to work. As Smith notes, it’s allowed her to become a business owner with “less risk.”

“Sure, there’s a cost to being part of a franchise, but all of the resources and support are worth it to me. You’re never alone, and you always have somebody you can call on for help.”

For Smith, the support system that the brand offers is unmatched, with abundant education opportunities and knowledge shared every step of the way. Franchisees get trained in everything from the products and food to the birds and upcoming nature events to marketing and store set-up. New owners partner with a business coach to provide weekly calls and updates about the business.

She also points out the fact that the franchise is putting time and energy into the future of the business with product testing and new development with core vendors. She adds that founder and CEO Jim Carpenter has his own bold ideas for innovation, including creating an online store that fulfills customer’s orders at the store level, an idea implemented years ago that proves the brand keeps pace as the world changes.

Spread your wings

If Smith’s passion for the Wild Birds Unlimited brand has ‘beaked’ your interest in getting into the bird feeding and nature industry, she offers valuable advice for those interested in joining the brand.

“Reaching out and getting in contact is the first step,” she notes. “There’s an amazing discovery process that you go through and it’s a step-by-step situation with one thing to do at a time. A lot of it is just learning about the franchise and making sure it’s a good fit for you and for the company—ensuring there’s alignment on both sides.”

Ultimately, it’s the family feeling that kept Smith around and made her franchise venture even more rewarding. “You truly have this sense of family within the system, whether it’s the franchise support staff or other store owners. There’s a lot of honest and helpful conversations with other owners, as well as workshops and training that the brand organizes for us, which is great as well.”

So, what advice does Smith have for budding franchisees? “Utilize your support. Make goals but don’t get discouraged if you don’t meet them right away. Value your team—a happy team helps you go far. Find a franchise you can connect with and believe in. And call as many people as you can to make sure it’s something that you’re truly interested in.”

Above all, says Smith, try not to let business ownership take over your life. “There’s a never-ending list of things to do in a day, so you have to make time for interests outside of your professional life. It really does help you stay sane!”

At the end of the day, this has been a joyful franchise adventure for Smith. “A big part of Wild Birds Unlimited is sharing joy, and I’m a very positive person…So working with this brand allows me to share that joy with my community. I really believe in the mission, vision, and values of Wild Birds Unlimited.”

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