Little Kickers

What inspired you to develop Little Kickers?

Little Kickers started in the UK in 2002. I was living in London at the time and spotted a gap in the market when trying to find pre-school football classes for my son. Child obesity was becoming a hot topic and I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t find any classes to get young children involved in and enjoying sport, so I decided to do it myself.

With a successful career in investment banking, rather than football coaching, it was clear I needed to play to my strengths in business and find football and developmental experts who could help me shape the classes.

I focused on building a brand around “fun first”, making sure I worked with experts in child development as well as FA qualified football coaches. Together we created programmes that would deliver high quality football skills, combined with the development of important early learning concepts such as colour and number recognition, sharing, following instructions and using imagination.

What were the main reasons you chose to go international?

When I set up Little Kickers my objective was to provide as many children as possible with a positive introduction to sport, not just children in the UK, so setting up the business overseas just seemed a logical next step once we’d refined our programme and franchise offering in the UK market.

How have you adapted the Little Kickers model to work around the world?

By having a core infrastructure that we had used multiple times within the UK, we felt confident in our model to go overseas. When we enter a new country we ensure that the franchisee runs a (minimum) six month pilot to identify the cultural and social differences that may have an impact on what we do and we tweak our programme to ensure it works really well in that country.

About 5 years ago, we had an Operations Director who was working in Sydney for one of our larger Australian franchisees, and who wanted to move back to Brazil and take the master franchisee position out there, so we sat down and had discussions on how it would work. We felt that a British company teaching football to Brazilians was going to be quite a challenging proposition, so we found a gap in the market in the form of teaching football and English together.

We sent our training manager on a CELTA course – a special technique developed at Cambridge University which is aimed specifically at teaching young kids English - and when he came back he created the “Little Kickers English Language Programme” which enables kids to learn English while they have fun developing their football skills. We piloted the language programme in Toronto teaching French and we found that the girls were fantastic at listening to instructions and learning new words right from the start of the class, but that many of the boys were less so and seemed distracted when we sat down at the beginning of the session and talked them through the words we’d be learning during the class. They found it more of a challenge to focus and concentrate in that environment. As soon as the kids started playing games though, and they needed to understand certain words in order to achieve the objectives of the games they were playing, the boys started to pay far more attention. This made us realise that preschool boys seem to have an easier time learning languages through playing games and getting involved in physical activity. We launched Little Kickers in Brazil a few years ago and now we now only run our English Language Programme there. It’s proven very popular – the English language component has provided an excellent USP and the master franchisee has seen high levels of demand for franchises.

What problems have you had to face along the way?

Little Kickers has grown dramatically over the past 15 years, and continues to do so. Managing continued growth is challenging both from an operational and cultural / communications perspective. We recognised in early 2016 that we needed to establish a very solid operating framework to ensure that every component of the business was working in harmony towards very clear, defined objectives and that our employees and infrastructure were in place and equipped to manage the substantial growth we had planned. So we introduced EOS – the Entrepreneurial Operating System.

EOS is a framework which defines accountability, vision, core focus, 1, 3 and 10 year objectives and provides a series of tools to ensure that we’re all working towards the same objectives and know exactly what we need to do in order to achieve those objectives. We’ve now rolled it out to everyone in the network and have weekly meetings to ensure we continue to be clear about our objectives, and find out early on if we need to reallocate resources to different areas of the business in order to achieve them.

How do you ensure that the Little Kickers ethos stays strong around the globe?

We are very selective about the people we take on. As part of the EOS process we defined our 6 core values and we only take on franchisees who demonstrate these. In turn, they only recruit coaches and employees who demonstrate the values, too.

With the exception of one member, our Head Office (Franchisor) team is made up of ex-franchisees, so everyone has an excellent understanding of the challenges our franchisees face, and can empathise and provide experience-based advice.

Communication is also critical to keeping the Little Kickers ethos strong. We hold monthly forums around marketing, coaching and IT and invite franchisees to participate (the franchisees are switched out every 6 months so everyone who wants to has chance to participate). We hold quarterly updates to outline the head office team’s projects / priorities and we hold annual conferences in the countries where we operate, as well as a master franchisee conference once a year, all of which are very well-attended.

We use these interactions with our franchisees to gather information and ideas and work out the best way to move the business forward. We’ve found that involving the franchisees in this process results in a positive atmosphere (they can see their ideas being implemented) and collaboration results in buy-in from the network.

Are they any key pieces of advice you would give to people looking to go international?

Relationships are key. It’s critical to take on franchisees whose values correspond with your brand’s and who you feel confident that you will be happy to work with for a long period of time, sometimes at obscure times of the day / night!

Seek as many opportunities as possible to gain insight / ideas / suggestions from your network of franchisees. Including them in the future direction of the business and adopting their ideas helps get buy-in from them which will propel the business forward.

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