Michael Browning: Founder & CEO of Unleashed Brands

Episode 546

Michael Browning, Founder and CEO of Unleashed Brands, shares his entrepreneurial journey and the growth of his platform of companies which houses the world's best franchise brands to help kids learn, play, and grow. Michael shares his experience as the Founder and CEO of Urban Air Adventure Park, the world's preeminent family indoor adventure park and how that led to the platform he is currently running focused on youth enrichment and education with companies including Snapology, The Little Gym, Premier Martial Arts, Class 101, XP League, and Sylvan Learning Centers. Browning discusses the importance of in-person experiences, the resilience of the youth enrichment industry and the potential for franchising in various sectors. Have pen and paper ready! You don’t want to miss a minute of this great episode with so much to learn and be inspired by. Now on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Kara Goldin show super, super excited to have our next incredible guest. Michael Browning is a visionary entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of a platform called Unleashed Brands. And with over 13 years of expertise in the youth enrichment, entertainment industry, Michael has now launched this platform and scaled several successful businesses. He’s definitely an operator and 2021 he founded Unleashed Brands. But before that, he had started his journey with a company that you may be familiar with, maybe you’ve jumped on a few of those trampolines, possibly with your kids, or maybe just with a friend, and it’s called Urban Air Adventure Park. And they are so much fun, transforming it into the world’s leading family indoor Adventure Park, and it’s now serving over 20 million kids annually. I guess his platform is serving over 20 million kids annually. And we’ll get a lot more into that. But so, so amazing to have you on Michael, I’m obsessed as I mentioned this to you before I hit record, I’m obsessed with the franchise industry. And I never really knew that much about it. And I mean, you obviously have just dug in, in addition to starting your own company from scratch, so really, really excited to have you on.

Michael Browning 2:13
Well, thanks for having me if there’s anything to be obsessed with franchising is a good thing. Yes. And yeah, best business model in the world. So,

Kara Goldin 2:20
so cool. So what is your backstory? Where did you? Where did this all began? I’m sure you probably jumped on a few trampolines as a kid. But But what were you doing even before you started that company, it

Michael Browning 2:35
kind of depends on who you ask, if you ask my parents, an entrepreneurial spirit was was in me at birth. When I when I was young, I hustled with my sisters, they would make beaded bracelets and I would sell them door to door. Or as I got a little older, I got into baseball cards, my dad. And so we would go to various conferences and trade and sell baseball cards. And then as I got into high school, the Internet was coming around, and I started building websites. And then when I moved into went into college, I really had a love for data and analytics and understanding the customer. And I had some success in college really getting into that field early. And and it was in my journeys in the data and analytics space that I saw one of the first trampoline parks in the world. And so I don’t take credit for inventing the trampoline park, I do take credit for inventing the Adventure Park. But I ran at this trampoline park model through my data and analytics platform that I had created. And I saw two things at the time, I saw that it was very, very innovative for its time. And it was also very scalable, which as an entrepreneur, always two things that I look for in businesses is in high innovation and high scalability. I always tell people, if you’re too much on the innovation side, you can be the best kept secret that never was. And if you’re on too much on the scale side without the innovation, then you’re you’re just lipstick Yeah. And there’s just another shade. And so you really want to be up into the right where you’re high innovation. And you’re in it’s very scalable. And that’s what I saw in trampoline parks and I met met the guys who started it. They were just doing it as a hobby. I was like you guys want to partner up. They’re like, not really. We’re just doing this as a hobby. And I said, Well, I’d love to learn about the business. I’d love to buy a beer. I think I can scale this thing. And I was off to the races after that. So

Kara Goldin 4:35
how many locations did you have for Urban Air Adventure Park? So

Michael Browning 4:40
as a trampoline park, we got to we got to about 36. And then what happened was is I saw on one of my mentors Roland Hanson, he was with Microsoft. He was the Chief Marketing Officer globally. He was a mentor of mine. He said you know where there are profits, there will be great competition and he said you need to you need to always be innovating and disrupting and I I was seeing in this trampoline park business model that the lack of of variation in the attractions was causing people to come less frequently after the first year. And when they did come, they would spend less money because they were buying time. And so I said, I need to create a multifaceted family entertainment center, where it’s not just all trampolines because when you study the guest, they would say, well, whether I’m, I’m doing a slam dunk, or I’m playing dodgeball, or I’m jumping into a foam pit, I’m still jumping. So it’s the same physical sensation. They wanted different physical sensations in their experience. And so I ripped out 80% of my trampolines, I invented attractions, got patents, I secured attractions from around the world that were exclusive to us. And in 2000, Feb 2017 February launched the world’s first adventure park. And since then never opened another trampoline, Park converted all of our trampoline parks to adventure parks. And now we’re up at around 200 locations in the country.

Kara Goldin 6:06
That’s incredible. So you’ve kept it all to the US, you have not gone outside of the US with those.

Michael Browning 6:12
So we tested a park in the US pre COVID. But it was right leading into COVID. And we haven’t gotten back internationally yet because there’s so much white space here. And really instead of going internationally with Urban Air, that’s really I pivoted into unleash brands. And so Unleashed Brands, we started bringing in companies into the family and expanding our footprint into youth enrichment in the US. And that’s been our focus since 2020.

Kara Goldin 6:42
That’s so interesting. So before going into unleash brands or or developing unleash brands, how’d you use the franchise model with Urban Air Adventure Park?

Michael Browning 6:54
Yeah, it’s a great question. So I never I never intended on franchising. And so I’ve learned franchising. There’s the school of hard knocks, like I’m not classically trained in franchising. So we had four locations here in Dallas Fort Worth, they were just family out run by Mike, we ran them as a family, we operate them. And people would come in to our locations from out of town on Christmas, spring break, and summer. And then what would happen is I would get these phone calls from people and they would be like, Hey, will you open one in Wichita, Kansas? And I was like, I don’t even know where that is, right? Like I failed World Geography like I don’t want to I don’t know, no, I’m not going to do that. And I kept getting all of these questions like that, well, you open one, you know, in Hackensack, New Jersey, we open and finally, somebody called me and it was the guy from Wichita, Kansas, and he said, We franchise it to me. And I said, other than seeing that movie on McDonald’s, called the founder I have, I don’t even know what franchising is. So I called up some mentors of mine as like, I need to meet some people in franchising, I need to learn this, to decide if I want to do it or not. And so I studied fuzzies tacos, which was started by a guy here in Dallas, Fort Worth, who’s a TCU guy, which I’m from TCU, as well. And I said, I think this is a great way to scale a business to bless people with with being able to be an entrepreneur with a business owner, while also scaling the footprint using other people’s capital. And it I call back, the guy who is his John Becker, who was bugging me about coming to Wichita, Kansas said, I’ll franchise it to you. And he looked at me just dead in the eye. And he say, said, I’m gonna run this as if I was you. And he goes, and I’m going to treat these customers the way you treated me when I came with my family and visited. And the rest was history. So, you know, we we opened 54 franchise locations in 52 weeks and 2019

Kara Goldin 8:47
Oh, my gosh, crazy was a wild, wild year,

Michael Browning 8:51
and we just we’ve never looked back.

Kara Goldin 8:52
Crazy. And so what year was that? That was 2019. Wow, amazing. And then of course, you know, the pandemic hits and that sort of varied state by state, but it was, but you’ve been able to, everybody’s been able to stay afloat through the entire thing, too.

Michael Browning 9:12
Yeah, we had no closures during COVID, which I’m very proud of. We, we personally worked with every franchisee, to lower their op X, renegotiate their leases, and turn off recurring expenses that they weren’t they weren’t using because they weren’t open. And we made it through. We also learn that the we knew the customer was going to be a little different coming out. So we focus heavily on our digital experience because people didn’t want to touch kiosks or use cash. We implemented new staffing models and online booking processes. So we came out stronger and then all the while I told my franchisees I told my team I said, I don’t believe we’ve come this far to just come this far. Where there is turmoil, there will be opportunity. And it was during COVID When When we started to be Will it come out of COVID? That I was sitting on the couch with my wife and three kids? And we’re like, what? What are we going to do with our kids? Like, it was like a hard reset, you know, like you hadn’t done anything for months. And so we were literally on our phones like Googling, like, Okay, we have a kid who wants who’s more of a theater, fine arts kid, we have a sports kid, then we have this new baby like we had started overlaying now, what do we do this guy? And it was in that moment, I said, this is too hard. And it just hit me. Like, where there is fragmentation. There’s the opportunity for consolidation. And I said, I need to make it easier on parents to know what’s around them make it easy to sign up and know how, what’s next for their kids in this journey. And that’s where the unleash brands was born. That’s

Kara Goldin 10:46
amazing. Well, I love that you mentioned this, when you first started speaking about it that you were you know very much about analytics and digital. And so it totally makes sense that you felt like you had this audience of people that had relied on you, and especially in the kids entertainment, space. So So what seems like a natural pivot, maybe extension is a better word for where you were going with this. So what was the first company then that you looked at? Purchasing? And you know, kind of how did that all come about? Sure.

Michael Browning 11:25
So the the first company that we looked at purchasing and we did purchase was a stem company. So science, technology, engineering and math company called Snap ology. And I had met the founder of SNAP ology at a conference during COVID, a digital company. And it was so funny, because my daughter had actually done a camp here locally. And my this, my daughter, who did this camp is not is not a stem kit. But she wanted to do it. And then and then fell in love with it, because she was able to create a motion sensor alarm that would a siren would sound and a light would spin when her sister crossed the threshold of the door into her room. And so my child who doesn’t like homework and likes, you know, Taylor, swift and fine arts and these types of things, spent hours building this robot this with coding and hardware. And I was like, if you can get that kid to sit down and focus and spend all this time to build this, that is something I want to be a part of. And so I reached out to Laura, and I said, Hey, like, here’s what we’re doing. We’d love to see if you want to be a part of it. And she was like, I do like that. That sounds amazing. That’s so that’s that was that was the first one. And how,

Kara Goldin 12:41
like, how many locations did they have at that time?

Michael Browning 12:44
They were they were over 100 locations at that time. And we’ve been growing them steadily ever since. That’s

Kara Goldin 12:52
great. And do you actually have a model where they’re kind of housed in the same place? Or how do you view real estate?

Michael Browning 13:01
Absolutely, we believe in synergy between real estate. So we do we have, we have locations where our snap ology brick and mortar location is coupled up with it, little gym location, where it’s one front door, shared lobby, shared bathrooms shared, like greeter desk, and then you can break out into the little gem on the right snap ology on the left, so you get economies of scale there. Also, when you think about the average family in our database, going back to my day to days, it has 2.23 kids. And so when you think about it, they’re typically spread out with between two and a half, three years apart. You can have a kid over in the little gym, and you can have a kid their brother, their sister over and snap ology at the same exact time. So there’s synergy and programming as well, so that we can be that benefit to the family.

Kara Goldin 13:51
That’s so interesting. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, I founded a beverage company called hint. And we always say that, you know, there’s, there’s more typically than just one person in a household. And when there is, people have different tastes. And they’re not all drinking the same thing, or have sort of the same taste profile. Some people like bubbles, and people like steal. So I can imagine. And I also have four kids, and I can attest to that they’re thankfully they all get along with each other, but they all have really different interests. So I think it’s brilliant, what you’ve done so and it’s really solving a problem for a consumer and it’s, it’s really great. So do you want to talk about your other brands that you’ve grown this platform into? Yeah,

Michael Browning 14:35
sure. So the next brand that we acquired was the little gym, and it’s the largest kind of early childhood gymnastics company, it’s also franchise, and I reached out to the owners of the little gym, because of the impact that the little gym had on my wife as a first time mom, and my first kid, and it was a it was where we built community. We made friends with other first time families. Where kids made their first friend, it’s where they learn to listen and, and, and take turns and develop fine motor skills. So I reached out to them and, and they’re like, well, we’re not for sale as like, well my dad taught me that everything’s for sale if for the right price. And, and so yeah, we, we were able to work a deal out there and brought the little gem into the family. And then from there, we acquired the largest martial arts franchise Premier Martial Arts, which has been wonderful. They teach Krav Maga. So like everything that we do at unleash brands, we say like, we’re not selling classes, camps, one time events, celebrations or leagues, we’re selling courage, we’re selling helping kids find their identity to help them learn values of not quitting loving others that don’t look and sound like them, like giving their best like all the values that we as successful entrepreneurs were taught and what got us to where we are. And so it just resonates with parents, but we’re not selling that your kids going to break a board or be a black belt. We’re we’re selling self control, respecting authority, you know, competence. And so that’s what we got with Korean martial arts. And then from there, we acquired class 101, which is college planning. And it’s fabulous. Because there’s SATs and AC T prep out there, which whether AC T S T prep is on or off, right? If kids are taking the test or not, it doesn’t matter to us because we’re really helping kids match up with the right college based on what they want to be when they grow up based on their financial abilities based on you sports fraternity sorority, like all the things a very well rounded approach. So that was the next one. And then from there, it was XP League, which is the world’s first Esports League. And what I loved about is you’ve got these kids who they’re going to gain, and we can’t stop them playing video games, what we can do is harness the power and the love that they have for those video games, and put them in an environment that is very similar to traditional sports, where we can teach them to be a part of a team to have a coach and be coachable to be accountable to their teammates, to have good sportsmanship, all in a controlled environment, where it’s safe for them to be playing these games. And then I think, finally, that our most recent acquisition about 90 days ago was Sylvan Learning Centers, which is we has the best technology based tutoring platform. It’s the third the third largest footprint. And what we heard from our consumers is because we have so much a brand affinity in the prior six brands that I had just described, they were our consumers are saying, hey, where should we go for after school tutoring? My kid got behind in COVID and reading and in math, and where should I go? And we didn’t have that in our platform. And so we we had the opportunity to acquire Sylvan and we jumped all over it. And so they’re the most recent acquisition with over 550 locations across the United States. So that puts us up to over 2200 locations $1.1 billion of revenue annually. And it’s it’s fun to come to

Kara Goldin 18:10
work every day. Yeah, no, it’s it’s incredible. So Well, first of all, what do you look for when you’re acquiring these brands? And is there it seems like you’re not as much into product like you’re, you’re more into services? Is that fair?

Michael Browning 18:25
Right now, I would say that’s very fair. Our investment thesis and everything they do is very simple. It’s we help kids learn the basics of science, technology, engineering, and math, grow and identify their skills and their hobbies that they’ve been given. And play, just escape, celebrate and connect with other kids. So we buy companies that help kids learn, play, and grow. And so right now, we haven’t necessarily ventured into products. And we haven’t ventured into even services like hair, kids haircuts, or things like that outside of learn playgro We’re just we’re very focused in and helping parents steward the next generation. And we believe that we’re doing that through learning, playing and growing. It’s so

Kara Goldin 19:15
interesting. So what trends do you see emerging and kind of the youth enrichment? World? I guess it’s youth enrichment, entertainment, but it’s also education. It seems like the last few you’ve really gotten into kind of the education side, which I think is there’s a huge need, and I think it’s also a consistent need. So there’s obviously you talked about, you know, the college market and also tutoring, but being able to go to somebody with that has consistency, I think is something especially as parents are moving from one location or one city to another and, you know, it’s just happening more and more. I think that It’s it’s really great to find a brand that has a consistent setup for sure. But would you say that that’s like, how have you thought about these areas overall? And what growth do you see happening?

Michael Browning 20:14
Yeah, first and foremost, like, we love in person experiences. And so we pre COVID, the family that we were serving was already 14% more likely to want to go in and you spend their money on experiences. And now you’ve now you lock everybody up there and COVID for a year, and they started to realize that the things they were buying online, and the stuff they were watching, and streaming isn’t as fulfilling as human relationships and in person experiences. So they came out of COVID. And, and in our consumer, our parents, our millennial parents, were just gung ho to get back out there and get their kids around other kids. And then you couple that desire with the learning gap that happened. So teach your class sizes are so much larger in public schools, and kids just aren’t getting the attention that they need. They got behind in reading and math. And it just was the perfect opportunity to step up and say, Hey, we can help we’ve got a huge footprint we’ve got with in our offerings. And so it’s, I love this youth enrichment, because when you think about all of the discretionary spending that’s out there, although you could say we are discretionary, we are definitely the last thing on the list, a parent wants to pull away from their kids, they Well, sorry, honey, times are tough, we can’t keep working towards that black belt, or we can’t keep going to gymnastics parents are going to pull from a lot of different areas, they’ll trade down in food, they’ll trade down in groceries, they’ll trade down and eating out to make up the money they need to continue their services with us because we serve and steward the most important asset in the family. It’s kids homes, cars, and we’ve got the number one and so although we’re not recession proof, we’re definitely recession resistant. And we’ve, we have been successful through all those cycles. Now.

Kara Goldin 22:16
It’s it’s so great. I, when I hear you talk about this, I think you’re such a great example. I always say that the best entrepreneurs, it’s never a straight line, right? It’s zigzagging around you started this incredible company, it was a great idea you saw traction happening, and then all of a sudden, you’re in the business of franchises. And you know, you just sort of went with it and are just killing it. Did you ever imagine that? That’s where you would be?

Michael Browning 22:47
No, no, no, it’s, it’s no, like people always ask me like, what’s the, you know, the testament to success? I was like, Well, I go, um, there’s a lot of people smarter than me out there. And I try to surround myself with those people. Like as an entrepreneur, as I grow, I’m always trying to like fire myself from roles and responsibilities where I can hire a subject matter expert, and I can lead them so now I’m over vision, capital and people. But when you think of so I’ve hired some great people that have gotten us through each stage. But for me, it’s not quitting. It’s being it’s being comfortable with failing and figuring out like, what what was my learning experience from that. And I believe that we should be failing all the time, because we should be A B testing, what worked against a new way to get better and just naturally in an A B test, there’s a winner and a failure. And so getting comfortable with those reps and those failures and learning from them and always getting better on my when I tell people it’s like I never quit, I’m on the constant pursuit of perfection to which I will never achieve. We just get up every day and we just keep grinding I

Kara Goldin 23:59
and I say exactly that all the time that I’m constantly I just get up and and figure out you know what’s in front of me. Right? And and like trying to figure out exactly how to grow that. And it’s it’s really pretty, pretty simple more than anything when you think about obstacles along the way. Whether it’s with with Unleashed Brands or with Urban Air Adventure Park, what would you say was like the biggest obstacle that you were like, Okay, I think this this is not going to work anymore. And we may be not becoming the EY Entrepreneur of the Year. After everybody hears about this what would you say was like one of your biggest that you obviously live to tell but it was a lot.

Michael Browning 24:48
Yeah, I think COVID Obviously everyone would say COVID I think that I say like the problems that we experience on our journeys are just mile mark. occurs, and that everyone’s going to have to cross their mile markers to reach their destiny. And sometimes there’s mile markers we have to cross that are the same, like when we’re carpooling and COVID was one of those. But you know, I think that for me, there’s been stat staffing issues were big coming out of COVID. And even in these recent couple of years, like finding, we employ over 25,000 people through our franchise locations, and they’re all, you know, hourly, typically. And so, you know, it was a scary time trying to figure out like, how are we going to navigate this shift from hourly workers to people wanting to move into gig economy? And how are we going to find the talent that we need to serve these these kids? That was one, obviously, when interest rates go up, it makes it more expensive for for people to own a business and want to start a business. But it’s for me, I tell the team, like we have to play with the cards were dealt. And I always believe that you have the best diverse team around you that they take the cards and go well, like, here’s the hand that we should play right now. And we’re never too set in our ways that we can’t pivot. And so man, I keep a running list. Like someday for my grandkids. I’m like, write a book of like, prob, this problem. And what I thought and how we got around it, because there’s been so many I mean, it’s just, it’s a, that’s what I do is I say, I’m either a cheerleader, I am a problem solver, or tiebreaker on any given day with my team. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 26:33
no, I think that that’s such a great way to describe it for sure. So when you think about the future for unleash brands, what gets you most excited?

Michael Browning 26:45
It’s so bright, because, right? There’s, there’s, there’s millions and millions of kids out there that that need, what we do need the services that our franchisees offer. And also, there are so many amazing entrepreneurs out there that are starting concepts. And they, they I wish I had something like this to plug into when I was just getting started. It’s it’s an incubator and innovator, it’s a platform. And so we are I’m so excited about the entrepreneurs that I have been meeting that I will meet and the businesses that they’re developing, and how we’re going to be able to bring those in to help them but also impact the next generation.

Kara Goldin 27:29
Yeah, which is, which is super, super cool. Is there a I guess Never say never. But is there a category that you think cannot be franchised?

Michael Browning 27:37
You know, there’s, there’s some things that we have looked at. That can be I think, in general, no, I, there’s always outliers, right? In my day to day, I think the outliers are things that require big government contracts, or it’s super, super complex to manage that it just the infrastructure required if can’t be built for just one unit. But by and large, almost everything and anything could be franchise, which is why there’s like 821,000 franchise units in the US and it makes up like 5.3% of the GDP. Well, I mean, it’s a huge, huge industry. And it really empowers people to live the American dream.

Kara Goldin 28:26
I totally agree. And I think the fascination for me is there are some people that, you know, either they can’t come up with the capital, start their own business, or they, you know, sort of fear the branding side. They don’t even really, maybe they don’t view themselves as that creative. I don’t know, like, whatever it is, but I think that franchising is such an amazing opportunity for people. And it’s interesting, like, I can’t really, I’m sure they’re out there. But I haven’t really found somebody who has been a franchise owner that then says, Now I’m going to start my own brand and start my own company. I think it’s I’ve definitely seen the reverse. But it’s like, there are people who end up owning these franchises that buy multiple franchises across the country. And then that’s what their business model is, which I think is just so interesting. So

Michael Browning 29:22
61% of our franchisees own more than one unit in our system, and it’s a testament to the franchise model, but also the economics of the businesses that we have in the platform that those franchisees want to use their profits and reinvest in another unit. And that’s that is that happens all the time in franchising, because you can get that scale right. I always tell people franchising is like having kids. Your first kid when you have your first kid everybody remembers like that seal cough in the middle of the night. You’re like what? Yeah, that you know, and then when you hear that seal cough with your second kid, you’ll Like, Oh, you know, no big deal, right and you get to your third kid you don’t even get out of bed. It just gets easier right to have kids to open more franchise because you’ll learn the model the first time. Now you may parent a little differently with each kid, and you’re gonna run your franchise business a little differently in each market, maybe. But by enlarge the frame the franchise framework, the franchise model is consistent. Yeah, and it just works.

Kara Goldin 30:26
No, I love it. So well, Michael Browning, thank you so much. You’re so inspiring so much to learn from you. We’ll have all the info for you in the show notes. But definitely you are an entrepreneur and they definitely a brand a platform to watch. And we’ll have like I said, all the info in the show notes for sure. So thank you so much.

Michael Browning 30:49
Thank you very much.

Kara Goldin 30:50
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. I would love to hear from you too, so feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for listening and good bye for now.