Last week I returned home from what can only be described as the most information-packed 96 hours of my adult life. I attended my franchisor's Franchise University and adopted a greater appreciation for what med school students must go through during finals week. Franchise University is the week-long training that the franchisor conducts at its support center to teach operational best practices and brand standards to new franchise owners who are only a few weeks from their grand opening. It's much like a great philharmonic. Each instrument on its own is significant, much like a marketing plan or hiring strategy, but only when all the individual notes and harmonies finally come together is the real genius of the greater sound fully realized.

The days are jam-packed. And as if traveling headaches, back-to-back classroom instruction and an exhaustive wall-to-wall schedule weren't enough, we also had several high-intensity interval training classes interspersed throughout the week since we are a fitness franchise. Add to that a two-hour flight delay, 90 minutes waiting on the runway (thanks, Denver weather) and a rental car pick-up that commenced at 3:30 a.m. leading to my having no hotel room for the first night, and my energy levels were as low as a triathlete's resting heart rate.

The importance of this training cannot be understated, and I am consistently grateful for the resources and instruction that my franchisor provides and continues to improve upon. What follows is my list of the five most important takeaways from the week.

1. Hire followers. That may sound negative, but follow my logic here. It's no secret that hiring the right employees can make or break your business. Franchising, however, takes this concept to a much more detailed level in that the right employees need to be comfortable with a well-defined and structured environment. The key to franchising is standardization and repetition, and an employee who understands that will fit in perfectly. Unlike an independent business, franchises have uniform guidelines that make the whole nationwide system identical. The framework doesn't reward individualism as much as it does consistency. Service offerings in Montana should mirror those in Pennsylvania. Hiring employees who fail to understand this underlying principle will have you turning over staff faster than a Soul Cycle instructor on speed.

2. Marketing overload. Franchise University spends more time on marketing and sales than any other operation topic. Individually, it's all great stuff. Taken together, it's a massive overload of elevator speeches, brand identity, sales ratios and demographic information all rolled up into a plan that feels impossible to implement. You quickly learn that of all the instruction that you will receive during training, the marketing plan will take priority. You will be assisted by high-energy marketing pros that will come out to your location to help train staff and guide you through the six-week pre-open period. But on the flight home, you will realize that you are already behind, and your goals and target pre-opening sales numbers feel as attainable as world peace or a sub two-hour marathon.

3. Learn from existing locations. Oftentimes throughout training, the franchise support team would reference existing franchisees. The great thing about having access to such a vast network of business owners is that at anytime someone is in some stage of the pre-sales, grand opening or mature studio process, which means that I can analyze their successes or failures to further inform my own roll out plan. For example, a franchisee in Norfolk is having great success networking with his Chamber of Commerce, offering gift boxes for local businesses and integrating presale office activities—initiatives that I have now incorporated into my existing marketing plan. There is a financial benefit as well. Mature locations will be able to 'loan' you expensive presale marketing materials they no longer need. Additionally, they can help you learn how to staff and prepare for off-site marketing events such as races, sporting events and fitness expos so that you design the right marketing message, landing pages and information-gathering tools while saving precious start-up dollars in the process. Franchise University incorporates all of this real-world knowledge into the training so that you don't make the same mistakes.

4. Technology just makes everything easier. Just as in everyday life, technology and automation have taken over the franchise world. Some of the technological tools that are in use throughout my franchise system include mobile apps, call tracking, accounting integration software, landing pages for lead generation and a shared network portal. Each tool is a formidable and somewhat daunting resource to learn and utilize. And from first-hand experience I can tell you that this facet of the business is a huge investment made on the part of the franchisor during the past few years. I worked for this company back in 2010, and few if any of these resources were in play at that time.

5. Hire split personalities. Hiring is such an important concept that it merits a second billing on my top five list. If Franchise University champions any one overall operational edict, it is this: there is a lot of work to be done during the next three to six months. I previously stressed the importance of finding people who could follow the system. On par with that is finding those special employees who are willing to do anything for the business. It's a unique skill set. When you are just starting out in a business that prioritizes standardization and routine, everyone must wear multiple hats. It's a valuable candidate who can both follow the operations guidebook to a tee and be able to go off the page when the circumstances require it. Find that person and treat them well because there aren't too many of them out there.

BIO

Matthew Cicci is a freelance fitness writer and small business owner in the Chicago area. With more than 15 years experience in the health and fitness industry, Cicci has operated businesses in the not-for-profit, commercial, private, franchise and residential fitness markets in the New York City. Cicci has held several industry-wide certifications, has a bachelor's of science degree in management and studied under the master's program for exercise science at Syracuse University. He can be reached at: mcicci22@gmail.com.