School of Rock franchisee review: Steve McFarland, Carmel, IN
Indiana consultant unexpectedly finds his passion while flipping through a magazine
It had never entered Steve McFarland’s mind to go into franchising. As a successful consultant, McFarland wasn’t even looking for another business. But when he happened across an ad for a School of Rock franchise in Inc. magazine, he just thought: “Cool.” Five years later, he and his daughter and General Manager, Elyse Causey, run one school in Carmel, IN, and another in Fishers, IN. “I thought it was a great idea that I wished had been around when I was young because I would have loved it,” says McFarland, who admits he has zero musical background. Like so many of us, though, McFarland has always loved music. And as a savvy businessman, he saw School of Rock as a great investment. Read more about his journey in this School of Rock franchisee review:
What drew you to School of Rock?
It was totally out of the blue. I didn’t really have an interest in being part of a franchise. I saw this ad in Inc. magazine and I just thought it was a cool idea. I got in touch, we met with the executives and other franchise owners. Ultimately, I bought a School of Rock because of the impact we have on these kids’ lives. We just had our five-year anniversary in Carmel, and we just opened the Fishers location in 2016. It’s still growing, and we’ll be looking for other opportunities with School of Rock as well.
What’s your musical background?
None. Unless you count air guitar. I grew up with classic rock ‘n’ roll. My profile says I played with Van Halen, KISS, Aerosmith and Rush. I’ve been playing air guitar.
So why did this brand resonate so much?
What we’re focused on is the mission of School of Rock, which is inspiring kids to rock on stage and in life. We live that pretty seriously. Whenever I get together with people running my schools or get together with my teachers, we always start by asking ourselves how we are inspiring the kids. Are the kids leaving inspired to learn more, practice more and play other genres? Most of the kids who come to School of Rock are just drifting through school, they’re not plugged in anywhere. Their parents are frustrated. They’ve tried band, they’ve tried soccer — nothing sticks. They feel like failures. They send their kids to School of Rock and now they’re plugged in, they’ve got a network of friends, they’ve got mentors in our teachers, they’re performing on stage, they’re confident. Their parents are over the moon.
One mom came up to me and said, “I don’t think my daughter could have made it through another year of high school without School of Rock.” She didn’t have any friends and she just wasn’t plugged in. There were tears in this woman’s eyes. Now her daughter is confident and she has friends and she is plugged in. She’s found her passion.
How does School of Rock help you build a better business?
One way they help is through the marketing program and getting leads as people are looking for a place to go. The second is our annual franchise convention. The biggest value you get from being a part of a system like the School of Rock franchise is connecting with other franchise owners and seeing what they do and how they do it. It may not exactly fit for us, because Indiana is a little different from Seattle or New York or Nashville. It’s not a Subway where you make a chicken sandwich the same way at every place. The kids are different, the schools are different. There is some formula to what they do, but there’s a lot of latitude.
What’s your process for hiring the right kind of instructors?
We do an initial phone interview. We have them come to the school while show rehearsals are going on, and we see how they react in our space. It’s high energy. Awesome. Incredible. If they don’t have a reaction, we don’t go any further. If they don’t say, “Wow, I loved that those kids are awesome,” then they’re not right for us. I want their energy and love for music to be contagious. That’s what I’m looking for; that’s what our kids are looking for. They want to learn from a touring musician who loves music like they do. You can’t get that on YouTube.
I love the fact that we have creative people and you can be part of a franchise that allows you to be entrepreneurial and creative at the same time.
What makes School of Rock unique?
Here’s an example. We now do Demo Days, an idea we “stole” from another franchisee. We had one last Saturday and 17 people showed up. We signed up 10 of them. Why it works is we advertise — bring your kid in and in 10 minutes we’ll have them playing in a band. We give them a quick lesson on an AC/DC song like TNT, which is just three simple chords. The parents cannot believe it. They’ve got their phones are out, their jaws are open, they’re watching this 11-year-old who’s never played guitar performing a song with a group of kids.
We give them the real band experience, playing on stage. When we can take beginners and do that, it’s an incredible marketing tool. We’ve done three Demo Days. We signed up eight at the first one, four at the second and 10 at our last one. That’s 22 kids in nine total hours.
Who is your competition?
Our competition is not other music schools. Somebody who’s not into what we’re doing, I’ll send them down the street to one of those more traditional schools. I refer them all the time, if that’s what someone wants to do. If they want to never have to tell their kid to practice ever again, they come to School of Rock.
We compete with football and marching band and drama. And everything else the parents want their kids to get involved in.
What do you like most about being involved in a music-related franchise?
The music’s awesome; these kids are freaking good. The bigger thing is when you look around the room and you see the parents and relatives and friends beaming and crazy at one of our shows. A standing ovation is not uncommon. That’s how I know we’re having a good show. They’re hanging around other parents who are showing them, “Here’s my son playing at the RCA Dome (former home of the Indianapolis Colts) and here’s my daughter at the state championship.” Now they have their own brag book. Here’s their kid playing Pink Floyd’s The Wall at the Deluxe Room at Old National Centre (a live music venue in Indianapolis).
Since you’ve kept your day job and your daughter is handling the day-to-day as General Manager, how much time do you spend in the businesses?
I’m at both schools at least one day a week. We have a leadership team meeting where we talk about what’s going on that week, and once a month I get together and do a strategic meeting. I also have a meeting with the teachers once a season, and I personally interview every teacher. That teacher is my brand; they’ve got to get it right.
How many teachers do you have?
About 20 to 22 in Carmel, and 10 to 12 in Fishers. Carmel has about 180 students right now, and Fishers has almost 100 students. We’re not open on Fridays and Sundays, so we still have some opportunities to grow.
What has been your School of Rock ownership experience?
I think the way School of Rock is set up today, there’s a loose foundation around what we do. There’s a structure but also lots of flexibility to do what works for your market and your school. That allows you to have more of an entrepreneurial spirit with what you do. You can talk to some other owners and try some the things they’re doing and see what works.
The best idea is sometimes a stolen idea. We do not have to invent everything ourselves. You have room to be creative. The leadership is there to help you.
I heard from an owner who had owned other franchises. He was expecting a big three-ring binder with everything he needed to do — why, when, what songs to pick, how to book a venue. He was expecting a full formula. He got a structure, but not an exact formula. I wouldn’t want that.
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