As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Debenham.
Michael Debenham is the CEO of Zee Sprout, a franchise development group that focuses on pairing aspiring entrepreneurs with the perfect franchise brands to help them achieve their dreams of business ownership. Michael owns multiple of his own franchise locations, and outside of work enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, training for and participating in triathlons, and exploring the great outdoors.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I would say I’m a franchising success story. I came out of college as an engineering major and worked in the field for awhile but I really always have had a strong desire to work for myself. Around the dot com bubble burst I found myself unemployed, and that felt like my opportunity to finally jump in. I learned about franchising with Liberty Tax, and that felt like the smartest move since I didn’t have much of a business background and they provide you with a business model to follow. I did find another corporate job as well, so I was working on them both for awhile, but eventually I started making more money from franchising with Liberty than I was in my corporate job. It was a really good day when I realized I didn’t have to have a W2 job anymore.
Looking back, it’s actually pretty crazy. I definitely had some shock when I realized how hard it was going to be franchising, and I wanted so badly to take it all back. The first year I didn’t make any money. The second year, I broke even. The third year, I finally made a little bit of a profit. Then every year following, I kept growing and growing and blowing the previous year’s income out of the water. To me, each year felt like I was making so much money just because of the growth I was experiencing until one day I realized I was making so much more than I ever was as an engineer. The potential is just absolutely limitless in franchising and entrepreneurship as long as you really stick with it and stick out those first few years where you’re just starting to build up some traction.
Later in 2012, I started my first franchise called American Title. We sold really well for about a year before a lot of federal regulations were put into place that made selling really difficult. It was a difficult couple of years navigating through these changes, and a few years later in 2015, I decided to start looking for a new opportunity. I partnered with Michael Blair, who was running an eyelash extension company and was ready to start scaling and franchising. Today, Deka Lash is doing exceptionally well and is currently operating across the United States as well as internationally within Canada. A couple of years later, I partnered with Rob Scott, who was running a boxing gym called Legends Boxing and we started franchising that as well. They’ve grown and scaled successfully across the United States since we began working together just a couple of years ago. More recently, I partnered with Michael Blair along with a few others to create LookGood Brands, which merged both Deka Lash and Legends into one company. I am the CEO of Zee Sprout, which is the franchise development arm of LookGood Brands. We manage franchise development for Deka Lash, Legends Boxing and Lunchbox Wax and are continuing to grow and expand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I bought my Liberty Tax franchise, and I was at the end of my first year or early into my second year. Now remember, I didn’t make any money my first year with Liberty. I walked into the bank and I had three accounts– a couple of business accounts and a personal account. All three accounts were at zero. And actually, they all had credits on them so technically they were negative. So here I am, a new franchisee living the dream, no money, and I’m needing to ask for money to get me through the summer.
I remember though, walking up to this banker, partially feeling excited about my new lifestyle and partially a little bit nervous because all of my accounts are at 0. I’ll never forget, he told me to keep on going because he often saw that turning point around year three for new business owners. Sure enough, it was year three that I started to make a profit and that has stuck with me ever since. It really taught me to be patient and remember that this stuff just takes some time, but it’s so rewarding once it starts paying off.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The one book I’ve read recently that I really liked is called Never Split the Difference. It’s about the art of negotiation but I found it to be a good personal development book. It taught me to be a good listener and to really pay attention in order to demonstrate that you understand what the other person is feeling and thinking about. You should be able to not just nod in agreement but also to re-articulate back to them what they said to show your understanding.
Given the current circumstances, I think it’s also worth noting the book the Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. It helps you to remember to surrender to what is in life and to remember that you can’t control everything but you can still make the most and adapt to everything that comes your way. It really is powerful with everything going on with corona virus.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Zee Sprout is really driven by changing the lives of other people. Franchising changed my life– I never imagined being able to live the lifestyle I do while making as much money as I do. I participate in multiple triathlons a year, I can spend time with my family, I don’t have to plan around the three weeks of vacation time a year that a traditional employer offers. I can’t imagine not helping other people see that this kind of life is also possible for them.
I’m on both sides of it. I’m a franchisee, I still manage and run my own franchise locations. Then additionally now on the franchisor side, I get to help those brands continue to grow while also helping other people get into this lifestyle if that’s what they want, too. Franchising is a shortcut into self employment because the brand and the business model are already there for you, all you have to do is step in and then the sky’s the limit. I don’t think I ever could’ve started working for myself without the franchising model, it has really taught me a lot about running and managing a business.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
As a team, our number one principle is to commit to each other like family and have each other’s backs– always. We have such an incredible bond with one another that makes it feel like a safe place to raise your voice if you have a different perspective on a situation and we respect each other on such a deep level because of that.
As a CEO though, the number value I live by is to always have a vision for the company and a plan. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be the right plan, my job is to have a plan and to get everyone on board with it so that we all have a sense of where we are going. Everyone on the team will always look to me for the vision, and sometimes the plan isn’t right. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But then it comes back to revisiting the vision, coming up with a new plan and getting everyone on board so that we can keep going and make it through whatever it is that we’re going through, even if it takes a few tries.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
On the family side, it has definitely been an adjustment to homeschooling my oldest in addition to me working out of our home in the basement. It’s weird trying to balance our whole life– me working, my daughter doing her schoolwork, us trying to just live– all in the boundaries of our house. It’s easy to say it’s been great having us all here and together, which it has, but it’s also difficult and takes a lot of work trying to keep boundaries.
Additionally, my wife and I are trying to manage our anxiety because we are aware that it gets passed on to our kids so we are trying to help them process what they are feeling and help them try to adapt with the changes that are happening.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’ve had the absolute worst case scenario happen– we went from 93 open units to 0 open units. Our revenue is based on the operation of these units so that’s a huge challenge. Not to mention supporting our franchisees, showing them as much empathy as we can, and in the meantime trying to help offer as much guidance and assistance as we can for them during this period of time.
Additionally, on the franchiser side, we don’t have any revenue coming in either, so we have to navigate furloughs and pay cuts. The hardest part is knowing that all of these decisions impact real people. Business would be easy if you could take out the personal aspect– but you can’t. These are real people. But it comes back to what I was saying earlier about as a leader, it’s my job to create a vision and a plan to help us get through this.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I have tried to not minimize their anxieties. I try to follow Brené Brown’s guidance of just being there with them and feeling it with them. I can’t fix or change what’s going on. Nothing I can say will make all of this go away. But I can be supportive and empathize with them and try to feel what they are feeling with them.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
This pandemic has really given a huge opportunity for us on the franchiser side to build up trust and demonstrate our leadership with our franchisees. We’ve been in close communication with our franchisees and have continued guiding them with our plan and vision which has really helped to nurture a lot of optimism about making it out of all of this as strong as possible.
Another thing I see coming up are mergers and acquisitions. The reality is unfortunately that not everyone will survive this– which means that business owners will be looking at non-traditional ways like this to gain more market share.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I fully envision that we will have a much more opportunity to implement touchless transactions in different forms. I can see companies starting to implement more time away from face-to-face interactions. Fortunately, our team has already been extremely successful working remotely from different parts of the country. Our goal was always to bring on the best people, and it just so happened that those people live in different cities and states.
I think for a while people are going to be more open and accepting of online conferences and summits as opposed to wanting to travel and be around large groups. I think that we will also see more personal connections as well. People are going to want to go into business with people or companies that they like and trust. So while these big conventions might decline a bit, close relationships are going to become so much more important. It’s definitely a new way of prospecting. When you’re working out of your home it’s more about building something meaningful and developing trust because the size of your booth at a convention is going to be completely irrelevant. You won’t be able to claim superiority just because you have the biggest booth or display in the entire convention center.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There’s no question revenue will be down so we’re going to have to tighten our belt a little bit. I see that though as being open to looking at deciding what is considered a necessity as opposed to what is just nice to have, as well as considering how we can restructure to put more time and effort into what’s really important. We don’t really necessarily even need to scale back– instead of cutting every department by 50% for example, maybe we take and put people into departments that are valuable and critical for the business so that we can eliminate the departments that aren’t.
We are additionally going to aggressively go out and look for merger and acquisition opportunities. This is the time to make a big sized move in the marketplace and gain market share. We also have plans to make sure our franchisees come out of this successfully, too. We want their business to come back up. We want them to feel supported and we’ve been putting together plans for them to help them rebound to the best of our ability.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Make a plan, and get everyone involved. Even if it’s not the right plan, getting everyone together and working toward a common vision will get you so much further than choosing not to have a plan at all. In addition, remembering to come back to empathy. Everyone is struggling in this in a different way. Emotions are high, insecurities are high, so just remind yourself of that with every interaction that you have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. People want to be a part of something and feel like they are part of a tribe. Everyone has to work– that’s just reality. It’s so much more exciting when you have a passion and a path that helps you to move forward.
I don’t care how simple it is. Most of the time what we’re working on isn’t sexy. I’ve been in it myself, tax returns aren’t sexy. No one says how much they love their tax guy. But we had passion– we put our 100% into focusing on our customer experience. We started ranked 500 something in the company and eventually our passion is what led us to being number one. We set a goal, a huge dream, and we went after it. It took relentlessness and persistence– it took us 8 years to get to that point! And that’s just a tax store, we aren’t changing the world. But we set a goal and then we set out to achieve it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am on LinkedIn quite a bit! You can connect with me personally, Michael Debenham, or follow our company page, Zee Sprout. That’s probably where I’m the most responsive.