Turning and Growing your passion into a thriving business with Brothers – Co-Founder and President Chris McCuiston and VP Andrew McCuiston of Goldfish Swim School and Goldfish Swim School Franchising, LLC.
Andrew McCuiston went to college at the University of Denver where he was a business major and played division 1 lacrosse for the Pioneers. After graduating from Denver, he moved to southern California and worked for the largest privately owned water bottle manufacturing company in the United States for two years before moving home to Detroit to help start the Goldfish Swim School Franchising company with his brother Chris.
*E – explicit language may be used in this podcast.
Read the transcript
Jon Dwoskin: Hey everybody. I’m Jon Dwoskin, an Executive Advisor and Business Coach. I work with successful business people who are stuck and want to take their company to the next level. Today, though, get ready to grow your business big. Very big.
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Hey, everybody. Welcome back and thanks for taking the time to listen to the Think Big Movement podcast. I appreciate it. I’m really excited to have my guests on today. Chris McCuiston and his brother Andrew. They are part of Goldfish Swim School. Chris, and his wife Jenny, founded the school. Then, Andrew came on board and they started the franchise arm of the business.
It’s an incredible concept, teaching over 70,000 people a week – kids – to swim. They’ve got 46 schools, currently, around the country, and they’ll have 60 by the end of the year. My kids both learned how to swim at Goldfish and it’s an incredible concept. They’re gonna tell you all about it today. Where the idea came from and how it has continued to grow throughout the country.
They are great people, with a great concept, and great business tips that they’re going to share with you today. Chris and Andrew, thanks for being on the show. I really appreciate it. How you guys doing?
Chris McCuiston: We are well. Thanks for inviting us.
Jon Dwoskin: Yeah, of course. Can you fill in the gaps and tell us more about your story?
Chris McCuiston: Sure. Yeah, so Goldfish was founded back in 2006. Really, it was the idea of my wife. She’s one of the visionaries of our company. She swam her entire life, growing up. Ended up taking her swimming out to the University of Arizona. Very successful. Won several national championships. Went through Olympic trials twice. Really, why this came about was, when we had come back from school, got married, she was teaching lessons, on the side, and saw a need. Because she had lessons back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back all summer long. But yet, there wasn’t really a dedicated facility for these types of swim lessons.
They were at outdoor pools, they were at indoor health clubs, but nothing was dedicated. So she had heard about this concept, in California, and we spent two years investigating it, starting about 2004, as to what this concept was, and how we could take it to another level. So we decided to create this model, my wife working on developing the curriculum. We wanted to create a décor like a Hawaiian beach house. So, when kids came in, they felt extremely comfortable with the environment.
We have shallow pools, at four feet in depth. We have 90 degree water and very, very warm air, at 92 degrees. So we thought, you know what, we’re going to take a risk. We always wanted to be an entrepreneur of some sort. I had played baseball, growing up, so kind of combining our prior athleticism and just love for sports. Why not turn it into something that really had not been seen, or provided, in the state of Michigan, at that time.
So we spent two years. We were fortunate to have some family support and local bank support as well. We opened up teaching kids how to swim, back in March of 2006.
Jon Dwoskin: You know, I’d like you to talk a little bit more, Chris, if you could, about the risk. Because I think, a lot of times, people have ideas, and Jenny had an idea and then turned it, with you, into this concept. But a lot of times, people don’t take that extra step. They’re not jumping in, and following their gut, and their entrepreneurial instincts, to create a business. So now that you continue to grow, aggressively, as you are, take me back to the roots, as far as what that first year was like, and the risks that you took.
Chris McCuiston: Sure. Yeah, I think one of the big things, that we had as our advantage, that a lot of people don’t oftentimes, is that we were both young, we didn’t have children, we didn’t have a lot to lose, and we knew that we could just jump in, and if it didn’t work out, we could change course, and get into a career that was maybe more stable. Obviously, anybody that jumps into something like this and becomes an entrepreneur, there is that level of risk associated with it. But we felt very strongly that after the two years of research, traveling the country, learning, and finding out what everybody else did, that the model that we created, the business plan, was something that would support a sustainable business.
It was not a fad. Teaching kids how to swim is not a fad business. We weren’t concerned about losing it to manufacturing overseas. It wasn’t going to be sold on the internet. So we knew that if we developed a program, with the curriculum that worked, and put it in communities that really desired for their kids. You know, we looked at it as a little bit more higher education type learn-to-swim, that they would come.
So yes, it was an absolute risk, but it was more calculated, and we were going to develop something that wasn’t necessarily a fad. So we were fortunate in that, because we felt comfortable in that, you know what, if it didn’t work out, we tried it, and we’d go in a different direction if that was the case.
Jon Dwoskin: How quickly did it take off?
Chris McCuiston: We were fortunate to open our doors with over 500 kids enrolled in the program.
Jon Dwoskin: Wow.
Chris McCuiston: That just spoke to the need that we served in this market, and the fact that parents wanted their children to go to a program that really cared, with meticulous detail behind the curriculum, the steps 1-2-3, just the process behind it. Parents like that. They want what’s best for their kids, and so I felt like we developed what was best for the kids in our community.
Jon Dwoskin: That’s great. I mean, it sounds like you really focused on who your ideal client was, and how to give them the ultimate experience. Thanks for sharing that story. So now, you continue to grow.
Chris McCuiston: You’re welcome.
Jon Dwoskin: So now, enter in the franchise model, and working now, the two of you with your brother. So tell us how that kind of sprouted and ultimately took off.
Chris McCuiston: Sure. We had a couple, that grew up with my wife, swimming for a different club, but they knew each other in the swimming ranks. They had approached us about a year-and-a-half into Goldfish, and said, “Hey listen, we’re interested in the concept. We’re selling out of our family business, we need to redeploy that capital. Would you be interested in partnering with us?” We went through a couple rounds of conversations, but ended up deciding to develop a franchise agreement.
So what could happen is, all the systems, and the brand that we created, franchisees could come on board, become independent owners of the brand, and utilize our systems to grow their own businesses. So we decided to do that. Got legal. In the meantime, we were talking with my brother Andrew, knowing that he was in California at the time. Thought that it would be ideal to bring him back, work with family, which obviously poses some challenges, but you have complete trust factor there.
Decided to bring Andrew back, and have him be partners with us, to start the franchise arm, which opened up our first franchise location, in Farmington Hills, in 2009.
Jon Dwoskin: Nice. I know, Andrew, you’re on the call. You want to share your thoughts as far as to come back to Michigan, and hop into a family business?
Chris McCuiston: Yeah, definitely. When I was in California, and Chris and Jenny approached me about the idea, I don’t think any of us realized the challenges that were ahead. From the growing a concept, that had it necessarily been totally proven out yet, needing to refine a lot of the business practices and systems that we had in place, to achieving just the family aspect of the business, working with my brother Chris, and sister-in-law Jenny. But we quickly learned all that stuff, when I took the risk.
I met with Chris and Jenny on a Saturday afternoon, in Detroit. I was on a business trip, in New York, and stopped home on the way, met with them, talked about the opportunity, flew back on Sunday, to California, and I immediately quit my job that Monday. So within 48 hours, I quit my job. I called Chris, and I said, “Hey, I’m coming home in four weeks.”
He’s like, “What?” So it was one of those things, where a little bit of that being young and naïve and not understanding the impact of everything going on, as far as that decision in my life, was kind of a blessing at the same time. Because I really, truly believed in Chris and Jenny and what they had built. I think that’s one of the biggest things, when you’re starting any business, is you have to believe that what you’re putting out there is the best product, and you’re going to get the best people behind it.
You have to be able to see the future, because you’re going to stumble, and have many failures, and you can’t let that keep you down, and you can’t let it deter you from where you’re going, and where you really think that you can be. because I think that’s the biggest thing is, you have to keep trying. Because you’re going to get knocked down, and if you let those things that knock you down deter you from being successful, that will happen to you.
I mean, that’s the biggest thing for all of us, is that we had a lot of stumbling blocks, in the beginning, but we were determined to make this thing successful. We’re blessed to be where we’re at today – 45 schools, or 46 schools – and we continue to keep opening locations, as we move forward.
Jon Dwoskin: That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you learned thus far, in the game?
AndrewMcCuiston: I think the biggest lesson for us, and for me maybe, and Chris can touch on it afterwards, is not letting some of these small failures deter you from what you really believe can make you successful. When you’re starting a franchise company, it’s really difficult. Because we had one location, one corporate location, here in Birmingham, and then opening additional schools, and you’re getting somebody to try to buy into this idea that they can invest a million and a half, or two million dollars, into this business, and be successful.
Well, they say, “Well, prove it to me. Show me what you’ve done.” When you only have one school to go off of, it’s really hard to get people to believe the same vision that you have. So there was a lot of getting people to understand what this was all about. We went through a lot of stumbling blocks, getting people to see our vision. Now that we have more schools, that has become a less difficult process. But nonetheless, it’s still there, when you’re trying to get somebody to invest, usually, their life savings into this business.
Jon Dwoskin: Yeah.
Chris McCuiston: Yeah. I would touch on that a little bit, Jon, just to say the biggest lesson that I think Andrew and I learned is, believing in a consulting company that painted this picture of 50 locations open in the next 5 years. When Jenny and I built the plan for the Birmingham location, we spent two years on it, we were pretty dead-on with the projections.
But with the franchise company, we had this consultant help us, and were a little bit naïve to the thought of … You know, we’re not a pizza chain, or a food chain, with a lower investment, and those types of concepts that are proven. You know, this learn-to-swim franchise model had really not been proven. We have, really, one competitor, in the market space. So we thought, great, five years, we’ll have 50 locations, and we’ll just kind of blossom from there.
We still don’t have 50 locations and we’re 10 years into the business. Now, granted, we have 139 signed franchise agreements, and we’re still growing from there, so we’re getting some nice movement and momentum going now. But I think it was just kind of believing something that really wasn’t a reality, because we hadn’t proved what this concept was yet.
Jon Dwoskin: You know, it’s interesting, what you’re talking about, because part of every business is the importance of forecasting and projecting. That’s the science of the game, but the art is the instincts as to what is really realistic. Which, if you go back, or at least the way I hear it, if you go back to how the idea was sprouted, it was sprouted on instincts, and beta testing, and really kind of preparing, and taking the ample time, to make sure that it was, not only done, but done the way you wanted it to be done.
So, I think, a good lesson there that I think listeners will get is the importance of forecasting and projecting. But also never forgetting your intuition, the intuitive nature of your gut, of what you know is realistic.
Chris McCuiston: Sure.
AndrewMcCuiston: That’s right.
Chris McCuiston: Absolutely.
Jon Dwoskin: Let’s talk about, for a second, that you’re teaching 70,000 kids a week, around the country, how to swim. I mean, that’s an incredible number. But also, it’s an amazing thing to do. I mean, I can tell you firsthand, both my kids learned how to swim at a Goldfish school, in Birmingham, Michigan. The freedom that it gave them, to learn how to swim, and the freedom it gives a parent, and the confidence that it does for children, is just huge.
Can you talk about that because that’s got to be a very fulfilling thing to do day in and day out, and watch, and experience?
Chris McCuiston: Oh absolutely. You know, we have parent evaluations frequently throughout the course of the year. We use software that gives us almost as real time as possible feedback when parents come to the program. Even after the first several lessons, our feedback, overwhelmingly, is that number one is safety: My kids are safer in the pool because of what you guys do. But two, I see my children more confident.
We get countless emails, and stories, from families, that my child jumped off the dock. I wasn’t ready for it, freaked out, but they were able to get back to the steps. Or they fell in, accidentally, and they were able to kind of roll over, and grab a breath, before turning back, and swimming to the steps. That the most fulfilling thing: we’re, not only saving lives, but I think we’re building more confident children.
Those confident children are better at school, and other sports, and interacting with their friends. You can just tell, you know, certain kids will come in with their head down, and over time, they’ll come in more confident. They’ll say, “Hi.” They’ll look you in the eye. That’s really fulfilling for us.
We recently got a story, from a mom on the East Coast, who sent a letter to the owners of one of our schools, in Massachusetts. It said, “This is not only helping my child, but it’s helping me. I have severe post-partum depression. But I tell you what, the drive to and from swim lessons, and the time in the pool with my child, that was one of the times a week, that I did not have that depression. I was just so happy and it was more therapeutic for me.”
So the changing of lives, in multiple ways, has been the most fulfilling for us.
Jon Dwoskin: That’s beautiful. I mean, and you do, you change lives in a positive way. You make the world a better place, because of it. I’m proud to have had my children learn how to swim from your school, because it was an incredible experience for them. Myself, my wife, the grandparents, the aunts and the uncles, that all showed up, all felt the same way.
As we spend this last minute or two together, is there a piece of advice or wisdom that you want to share? I also wanted you to share, like, what’s next for Goldfish? Where are you guys going?
Chris McCuiston: Sure. Yeah, so my advice, and I’ll let Andrew share, is … I think, over time, the two things that are critical, for us and our company is, one, is networking. It’s surrounding yourself with good people. It’s having people that you trust to help you develop your brand, because everybody has different experiences, and you’re going to need to get over certain hurdles, and push through a tough employee issue.
So I think the networking piece is critical because you need that support group to help you grow. I also think, what’s important, is to build the right team. If you don’t have the right team in place, you’re going to constantly wear every hat, you’re going to second guess judgment calls and decisions. If you don’t have a healthy culture, and healthy group of people that surround you, and support the brand, it’s going to be extremely difficult to grow.
Andrew and I both know that we can’t do everything. We need to trust our executives to make decisions and do the right thing. So I think, the more that you network, and surround yourself, and educate yourself, on your specific industry and business, and build a healthy team, that’s critical. You know, kind of, I’ll let Andrew touch on that a little bit, and we’ll talk a little bit about where Goldfish is going.
AndrewMcCuiston: Yeah, I think the one piece of advice, that I would have, would be similar to Chris’ networking: Surround yourself with great people, because if you’re going at it alone you can tend to start to think that you’re going a little bit crazy. Because if you have failure after failure, and you’re the only person going at it, you can just drive yourself nuts. So Chris and I are fortunate to, over the past couple years, surround ourselves with a great Board of Advisors, opposite of just great mentors that we have in the business world. But a group we meet with on a quarterly basis, and we just bring our real business issues to the table.
These are guys that have been around different industries, some in franchising, some in just big business for a long time, and they’re people that we trust to give us honest feedback. When we’re doing things that they’re not in agreement with, they tell us. I think that’s the biggest thing too, is surrounding yourself with people that can be that level of honest with you. Because, again, people you surround yourself with, that tell you what you want to hear, is not going to help you grow your business.
Jon Dwoskin: Well said.
AndrewMcCuiston: That would be one of them.
Jon Dwoskin: Good. Well said, both of you. That is great advice. Chris?
Chris McCuiston: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to talk a little bit about where we’re headed. You know, like we had mentioned early on, we have 46 locations open, and we’ll be at 60 by the end of the year. We have a 139 locations signed out. We’re entering Canada, so we’re going the international route. Here, we have an eight school development deal signed, but our ultimate goal is to be the country’s, if not North America’s largest learn-to-swim provider.
Our focus is on the learn-to-swim. We’re trying not to dilute our brand with all of these different product offerings and things that businesses can do. it’s purely folks that will learn-to-swim. We’re hoping to be able to do that better and save more lives along the way.
Jon Dwoskin: That’s as great as you can get. Andrew, any thoughts? Any closing thoughts?
AndrewMcCuiston: Yeah, no, the same thing. We’re blessed to be where we’re at. We’re really excited for the growth. We have fantastic franchisees, that truly believe in what we’re doing. I think, talking about differentiators for us, is that there are a lot of people taking some lessons out there, but with that the mother with the postpartum depression after having her child, is that we truly are transforming – not only the children who are swimming in our schools, but the parents who are watching the lessons take place, the teachers who are teaching the lessons, and the owners that are being a part of it as well.
We’re impacting these communities, that were in, which is what we get really excited about. So when we continue to grow the business, that’s what really gets us excited to get up every day and do the work we’re doing.
Jon Dwoskin: You know, what you display in discipline, and perseverance, and hard work, is admirable. I know it’s going to infuse a lot of change in the people who are listening to this podcast today. So I really appreciate your story. I appreciate you sharing it. Tell people where they can get ahold of you and I really am appreciative that you guys were my guests today.
Chris McCuiston: Sure. If anybody wants to get ahold of us, or any one of our locations, you can just visit goldfishswimschool.com. It has our corporate contact information there, but it also has individual locations, if people are interested in signing up their children, or grandchildren, for some lessons.
Jon Dwoskin: Okay. Great. Andrew, anything else?
AndrewMcCuiston: Nope, that’s it.
Jon Dwoskin: Chris, Andrew, I can’t thank you enough. I appreciate it and thanks for taking the idea of Goldfish, and creating something that’s just outstanding, and changing a lot of people’s lives. Thanks guys.
Chris McCuiston: Well, we appreciate you, Jon, and thank you for the invite.
Jon Dwoskin: Of course. All right have a great day.
AndrewMcCuiston: Thanks, Jon.
Chris McCuiston: All right.
Jon Dwoskin: Thanks again, guys.
Chris McCuiston: Thanks. Take care.
Jon Dwoskin: Bye. Thank you for listening to the Think Big Movement podcast. For show notes, and links, to anything we talked about, please visit jondwoskin.com. For additional best business practices, you may enjoy my latest book, The Think Big Movement. Grow your business big, very big.
Lastly, if you want to talk to me about advising and coaching your business, please email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Text, or call me, at 248-535-7796. Have an amazing day, and an amazing week, and as always, think big.