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For 17 years, Carol Maier ran the Victoria Bug Zoo, a small, storefront attraction in the West Coast city showcasing exotic insects. She sold it in 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
For 17 years, Carol Maier ran the Victoria Bug Zoo, a small, storefront attraction in the West Coast city showcasing exotic insects. She sold it in 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE

Bug zoo – a franchise idea with legs Add to ...

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Among the most interesting traits of the insect world, some species can self-clone. Then there’s Carol Maier, hoping that her trademarked “bug zoo” concept will self-clone into a franchise operation.

For 17 years, Ms. Maier ran the Victoria Bug Zoo, a small, storefront attraction in the West Coast city showcasing exotic insects. She sold it in 2014.

She was happy with the sale at the time. She had put her heart into creating and running the part-educational, part-entertainment attraction. Attendance was good, but after 17 years, she wanted a change. “It was an opportunity for me to let go,” she said.

Yet she regrets one thing: She sold the venue under a limited licensing agreement, not as a franchise.

The new owners have the right to use the Bug Zoo name in Victoria. Ms. Meier kept the right to use it anywhere else. Yet because she sold the Victoria venue outright, she gets no residual payments, and she has no connection with the Victoria Bug Zoo. She has only the trademarked name and is the owner of International Bug Zoos Inc.

“It hurts,” she now says. “That was a mistake on my part.”

So now she wants to do it all over again, “bigger and better,” she said. She is looking for a business partner to open a new bug zoo in Vancouver. Then she hopes to set up franchises in other cities.

“I’m really, really trying to find the right business partner. Somebody who is young enough and can bring cash, and lots of sweat equity and run the business day to day,” she said.

The original bug zoo concept came to her in the 1990s. Having studied entomology (insects) and apiology (honeybees) at the University of Guelph, she was sitting at a traffic light in Victoria years later and realized that she wanted to use her science degree in a business.

Careers for insect specialists, though, are often in pest eradication. She didn’t want to kill bugs. Why not create a venue to showcase them? Why not a bug zoo? She financed her creation with a few thousand dollars from her retirement savings and money from friends.

Within three days, local media was on her doorstep. Word got out, attendance rose and within a year, she was making enough of a profit to pay back her $30,000 in student loans.

Adding to the collection of live bugs over the years allowed her to travel the world. She acquired a skill for getting around the red tape governing the transportation of insects internationally, which is of course highly regulated.

Consisting of two rooms, the Victoria Bug Zoo takes about an hour to tour thoroughly. Holding a tarantula or a scorpion is an obvious attraction. Other highlights include an ant farm showing the workings of a colony of leafcutter ants.

Ms. Maier has come a long way from the attitude her family had on the sugar beet farm where she grew up in southern Alberta. Back then, the only good bug was a dead bug.

The Challenge: How can Ms. Maier successfully turn a small, storefront attraction into a franchise business?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Grant Bullington, franchise specialist, FranNet Western Canada, Vancouver

She is going to need to test her concept this second time around, taking everything she knows about how to start and run this business and redo it. The benefit of redoing it is that she now has the opportunity of systematizing every last detail.

The benefit of systematizing and documenting it is that things are going to be captured extremely freshly. Building up her system with notes and procedures is probably going to be a fairly substantial body of knowledge that can be the backbone of a franchise system.

She also needs to resist the urge to take over. She might have to tie her hands behind her back. The rollout of the second location will be a very valuable testing ground for the depth of her system as she proves the concept as a franchise.

Heather Briggs, business consultant, Radiate Real Academy, Toronto

She has prototyped the concept, which is a great starting point. She’s not actually starting from zero. I think it’s quite niche and focused.

I think of it as an alternative to going to a museum or Ripley’s aquarium, a mix between education and entertainment. I could see really leveraging the birthday-party aspect. Bug Zoo franchises could be rented out for special functions, such as part-entertainment, part-educational birthday parties, school groups or special events for insect or nature enthusiasts.

Rosslyn Shipp, managing director of the Vancouver Police Museum, a small, offbeat local attraction, Vancouver

A lot of our visitors are people looking up unique things to do. We get a lot of publicity through blogs and local “what to do in the city” websites.

Because we’re a small organization, we don’t do a lot of big media promotion. Ms. Maier should get listed on local, free listings sites such as The Georgia Straight, Scoop magazine, those types of things. A little bit more on the indie side. She should also brand herself and her business using social media.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO

Systematize every detail

Every step in creating the Vancouver Bug Zoo should be carefully recorded and systematized, to be replicated in new locations when franchised.

Consider allowing special events to rent the space

To extend its market, Bug Zoo franchises could be rented out for birthday parties and other special functions.

Capitalize on website listings, social media and local outreach

A bug zoo isn’t the first thing that pops into mind of things to do. Web listings and a strong social-media presence are musts.

Follow Report on Small Business on Twitter at @globesmallbiz.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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