Q&A with New Wild Birds Unlimited Franchisees: Vikki and Mike Bartholomae of Winter Garden, Florida

Please share a little background with us… What was your career path before you bought a Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU) franchise? What was the turning point in your life or career that led you to franchising?

I’ve been in real estate for the past 20 years, of which the last 10 were at the executive level. I was the president of EXP Realty and most recently, served as a chief customer success officer for a technology start-up in San Francisco. My husband, Mike, was most recently a new home inspector for an engineering company. He’s the details guy.

The turning point for me was that my husband and I had become empty nesters last spring (2019). We decided to move to Florida. At that point, we were tired of traveling on the road and feeling the stress of building someone else’s business. We had met working together and we were looking for an opportunity to work together again. 

We weren’t serious about it until COVID hit. We realized it was time to take a step back and re-evaluate what we wanted to do. Retirement is not in our vocabulary. He’s having fun and loving it, too. We are shooting for a soft opening for our store in Orlando in late November, the Monday after Thanksgiving. We plan to do a full grand opening in January 2021.

Could you tell us a little bit about your franchise research process and what you did to identify Wild Birds Unlimited as a franchise opportunity you were interested in?

We started out thinking we’d join one of the franchises we enjoyed going to as customers. Most were food-related. We looked into those and found out there’s a lot of work and liability with food—and that was more than we were willing to take on at this point in our lives. We started researching the Financial Disclosure Documents of some of those franchises, and also quickly realized that the monetary payoff for that much work was not there either. 

What are the most important items in the Franchise Disclosure Document that you need to pay attention to?

As we were doing our online research, we kept seeing Franchise Business Review pop up, so we looked into the lists and the satisfaction surveys posted on the site. We read about this company, Wild Birds Unlimited, which always appeared in the Top 5. We started looking into it a bit more, realized what it was, and the minute we reached out to the Wild Birds team, it became very apparent that they were a great franchise. 

See why Wild Birds Unlimited made our Top 200 Franchises list.

To me, it makes sense to purchase a franchise versus starting a business on your own. You are buying into tried and tested systems. It was interesting to go down the path of contacting different franchises, where sometimes you’d have to wait days or even weeks for someone to call you back. And sometimes, a package would show up in the mail as a result of your inquiry, with no follow-up. The minute we contacted Wild Birds Unlimited, it was clear that we were part of a system. They sent us emails and bits of information after that. That was a big selling point for us.  

Any time you start an entrepreneurial business, there is enough heavy lifting to do, and you want a franchise to help you with that. I opened my first business right out of college—a coffee house. I had no idea what I was doing. I then worked for a franchise called Cookie Bouquet. Starting a bakery myself was so much harder than launching Cookie Bouquet, where they told me how to order and how to set up a store. From that, I understood the value of a franchise. Working in real estate, I was part of the Keller Williams system. I was running an office for the owner of the franchise—one of several different offices in the Keller system. We were tied into the mother ship, so I understood both the value of a franchise and also what to be looking for, and where the value lies to make sure I was choosing the right franchise.

Did you look at other brands when you were looking through Franchise Business Review’s information or did you only look at Wild Birds Unlimited? 

We looked at some service-related franchises. One of my dear friends is in charge of Mister Rooter. But after looking at some of the service-related franchises, we felt out of our depth because didn’t have that skill set ourselves. We also looked at some other franchises that offered photography and opportunities that were not bricks and mortar —but we didn’t find the financial payoff we were looking for.

The funny part is, one of the questions Wild Birds asks you in the process is to describe your passion for birds. Mike and I looked at each other—we did not initially consider ourselves to be passionate about birds. Then I noticed we had binoculars and three birding books on our table. Our measuring cups have birds on them. We also have tables with birds that make up the base. Still, we would never have identified ourselves that way. Come to find out, we were more passionate about birds than we had thought. At the same time, we recognize that we have a big learning curve as far as that goes—which is why it’s important to have a franchise that supports you.

Also, we thought about working day in and day out interacting with Wild Birds customers, and we can’t picture an angry bird lover. They are nice, gentle people.

The beauty of franchising is that every franchisee brings a different experience to the table. You have this network with a depth of knowledge that you just couldn’t get by starting your own business. What I really know is how to grow businesses—I am all about marketing and lead generation. Do I know a lot about retail and how to stock shelves? No, I don’t. But I have a wonderful support system in the other franchisees who have deep backgrounds in those areas.

How did you find Franchise Business Review? 

I found Franchise Business Review online. I Googled “Best Franchise Opportunities,” and it came up. When I was digging in I needed a way to review franchises, and I kept coming back to FBR as a first litmus test.

Was franchisee satisfaction data something that you were intentionally seeking to help in your decision-making process? What role did it ultimately play in your decision to buy a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise? 

Absolutely, it did! Having worked in a franchise system, I know there is always some level of dissatisfaction about something. Ultimately, you learn a lot from satisfaction surveys. They help you read between lines and see the challenges. What I was most looking for was information about the franchisee/franchisor relationship and if it was generally a good relationship. Do they feel like the franchisor is always fighting franchisees? Are they rowing in the same direction and do they feel like a valuable part of the team? (Looking at survey data), it was clear that there were ones probably fighting franchisees more than others.

Did having Wild Birds Unlimited’s franchisee satisfaction report help you in the validation process (i.e., did it assist you in knowing what questions to ask when talking with existing franchisees)? 

As I read the satisfaction surveys, one recurring theme that kept coming up here and there was that the franchisor was making changes. As a rule, nobody likes change. During the validation process with franchisees, I was able to ask about what changes the franchisor had made and how that had affected their business. That allowed me to see that the changes that had been made were about bringing systems up to a certain standard and implementing best practices. 

Download Wild Birds Unlimited’s Franchise Satisfaction Report

What advice do you have for someone considering investing in a franchise?

Keep your mind open and remember that when you are buying a franchise, you are buying a system. It’s easy to think about franchising as focused on the product you are selling or the store you personally like to shop in. Ultimately, you are paying money for a franchise and what you are paying for is your systems. They should have a system for everything—from store build-out to purchasing to marketing and profitability.

Their support system should be able to tell you who to go to for what and how to get that done. Their vendor system should tell you who to contact for certain things the franchise doesn’t provide.

My coach, Liz, has a spreadsheet for everything. There is nothing Wild Birds doesn’t have a system for. I am so entrepreneurial, it’s natural for me to immediately start doing things myself. I have to remember to ask first because I bet they already have a system for this!

Specifically, for other women would-be entrepreneurs… What advice would you give other women who are considering buying a franchise? 

I don’t know that I have any specific advice for women, except that as women, we are more prone to trying to do everything ourselves. One of the pitfalls that women in business experience across the board is that we are not good about seeking help from advisors, those people who can help us make our paths easier. We as women are also not always the best at negotiation—we need to learn to negotiate and advocate for themselves. We have a harder time asking for things for ourselves versus our male counterparts. 

You shared a lot of great information. What did we miss? What else should we know about you, your business, or your franchise organization? 

I am a raving fan of Wild Birds Unlimited. I am thrilled every day that we chose this franchise. It’s a well-oiled machine; a class act. They are straightforward and the support is incredible. When they told me that we had access to a coaching program for the life of our franchise and that it was free, that was different from any other franchise system. If you want extra support, there’s usually a fee. But there is none of that with Wild Birds. 

We do have an advantage coming in that we don’t know how the store ran before COVID-19. One of the things we plan on doing right away is free, local delivery. We expect to make Zoom shopping appointments available to customers. That way, they can virtually walk through the store, choose their items, order their items, and get them delivered to their doors—and experience a truly touchless shopping experience. 

Because of their ability to think outside the box, Most Wild Birds stores have experienced record years this year.  

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