- CorpGov interviewed Michael O. Browning, Jr., Founder and CEO of Unleashed Brands
- Unleashed operates six brands focused on helping kids learn, play and grow
- Brands include Urban Air,Snapology, The Little Gym, XP League, Class 101 and Premier Martial Arts
- Brands all benefit from cross-pollination and dedicated family customers with multiple kids
- Locations designed for kids as young as infancy all the way up to 18-years-old
- Browning began with one Urban Air location in 2011, now oversees portfolio of 800 various under the 6 Unleashed brands
- Plans at least 630 new locations, with the franchise model continuing to drive growth
- Recent capital raise from Seidler Equity Partners to support further expansion
Twelve years ago, Texas native Michael O. Browning, Jr. saw an opportunity to shake up the world of children’s entertainment – known for countless video games, trampoline parks and ball pits – and create a venue for kids not only to have fun, but find real enrichment in a setting where they reach, climb, leap, swing, soar and score. He launched the first location for Urban Air, an indoor adventure park where kids of all ages can explore attractions, challenge their body and mind – and have a great time along the way.
Fast forward to today and Mr. Browning oversees Unleashed Brands, an operator of six complementary brands that boast over 800 locations with many more to come. In an interview with CorpGov, Mr. Browning discusses the inspiration for the company, its franchise model, the potential to go public and much more. The full interview is below:
CorpGov: Tell us how you got interested in this in this sector. Did you recognize an industry that needed a new challenger or disruption?
Mr. Browning: I’m the founder of Urban Air Adventure Parks, a company I started in 2011. We opened our first location in Southlake, Texas and we quickly noticed success because people were traveling into the Dallas-Fort Worth market for occasions like Christmas, summer, spring break or Thanksgiving break – and they would bring their families from out of town to our locations. We had three family-owned locations in Southlake, Frisco and Mansfield.
I realized the opportunity to grow because when people went back home from their trips, I would get requests on my website and phone calls saying, “will you open up in Kansas or New Jersey?”
Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But our very first franchisee, John Becker, kept bugging me. He said “If you don’t want to open one with your family in another state, franchise it to me. I’ll be your first franchisee, I’ll own and operate, and I will represent you as if you’re running it here.”
And I said, “That’s really interesting. I don’t know what franchising is like.” I had seen that McDonald’s movie called The Founder, but that was the extent of my franchise knowledge, back then.
CorpGov: So, you were new to the franchising game, but clearly got the hang of it fast. How did you learn and execute so quickly?
Mr. Browning: Well, I reached out to some mentors. I asked for advice from my general counsel, who was my attorney in a private practice back then, and I just started learning franchising. We had a ton of success, starting with John Becker with our first franchise in Kansas. For the next 10 years we got up every single day just building systems, processes, procedures, and the team to put our Urban Air franchisees in a position to deliver the best customer service possible. We became the largest family entertainment center company in the country, bigger than Dave & Buster’s and bigger than Main Event.
CorpGov: It sounds like a great success story, but how did you navigate Covid?
Mr. Browning: On March 17, 2020, we had to shut down the business. I told the team, “Let’s go back and inspect every area of the business that we have built over the last 10 years, and let’s break it down into its smallest components. Then, let’s build it back up so that when we come out of Covid, we’re going to be better, more efficient, faster and have better data.” So, the team all went back into their respective divisions to study what they’d built.
When we reconvened, we realized that we had actually built a platform that knows how to sell franchises, design, instruct, open, operate and market.
At Urban Air, we had over 20 million visits a year from families. The average family had 2.3 kids in our database, and we were serving kids in the five to 14 year-old range.
I remember sitting on the couch asking my wife what we should do with the kids as Covid was ending – and we have three kids with different sets of interests. It was at that moment of just being a parent when I realized how fragmented the youth enrichment industry was. So, I set out on a mission to make it easier for parents to enroll their kids and develop their kids and the rest was history.
CorpGov: How are your concepts different from things like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s?
Mr. Browning: What I was trying to create with Urban Air is a place with purposeful, active fun to help kids celebrate special moments, connect socially and escape the everyday struggles that they deal with – and where they could just be a kid. Our purpose, our mission is to help kids learn, play and grow. That means helping them learn the basics of science, technology, engineering and math while they express their gifts and talents.
CorpGov: Great. Shifting gears, you announced a new investor this year in February – Seidler Equity Partners. Tell us about that.
Mr. Browning: There are five core areas that we’re focusing on with the investment from Seidler Equity Partners. We’re investing first in people with the capital infusion and this year will be increasing our staff by roughly 13%.
Number two is point of sale – and really thinking about the customer experience. So, we’ve got to create the quickest path to purchase for our customers. And we’re doing that through our Command Center technology stack, or point of sale. We’ll have about 75% of our locations on that platform by the end of the year.
The third is empowering franchisees to have better relationships with their customers. And we do this through technology with a best in class CRM and a guest loyalty team.
The fourth is data analytics, which is my background. We want to build a cockpit for the franchisees so that they can understand their businesses. I always use this metaphor: “If you were going to get on a commercial airliner and you walked through the door, and you looked left into the cockpit, and all you saw were 2 steering wheels, would you still go?”
Fifth and finally, it’s training. We’ve got to help our franchisees hire and retain their talent because we’re in the people business. We help millions and millions of kids learn, play and grow every year. It takes a lot of amazing staff members to do that so we’re investing heavily in training.
CorpGov: Can you tell us about how the six brands complement each other?
Mr. Browning: Absolutely. Cross-pollination is very powerful. Within our platform, we talk about the Candyland board of life for a kid. No matter a kid’s age or gender or interests, we’ve got to be able to drop them on the Candyland board and help them navigate toward winning.
Every year, there are over 3.6 million babies born and they’re all different. So, we’ve got to make sure that we have that broad offering available for families.
CorpGov: You’ve run a successful private company for 11 years. What are your thoughts on an IPO?
Mr. Browning: We believe we’d be a great public company. It’s definitely something that we’re studying. Obviously, we haven’t made that decision. And we want to have a lot of optionality. But I do think that we have an amazing opportunity through the public market route to tell our story, to impact more kids by helping them learn, play and grow. And so, it’s something that we’re definitely looking at.
CorpGov: With all of these children involved, you must need to make sure your franchisees are held to a super high standard. How do you do that?
Mr. Browning: Yeah, you’re exactly right. The role of a franchisee is extremely important in any franchise model. And we believe it’s even more important when you’re dealing with kids.
What I always tell people is that we’re serving the most important and the most valuable asset in the family – the children. There’s nothing more valuable.
So that’s our job – to canvas the market and make sure everybody is taking care of these kids and delivering exceptional service. The role of a franchisee is so important because they’ve got to be a brand ambassador, and we have a lot of franchisees who own more than one brand in our portfolio. We call them MUMBOs – short for multi-unit multi-brand operators. We always say there is a lighthouse shining in the local community representing our brands.
CorpGov: Can you tell us how you win new customers?
Mr. Browning: That’s a great question. So, with Urban Air, our starting age range was 5 to 14. But now, we can take a child as young as four months and enroll them in The Little Gym. They can stay in our platform and our ecosystem until they exit out at 18-years-old, when we’ve helped them find the right college through our Class 101 college planning program.
That’s why we take our mission so seriously. We are stewarding the kids of today who are going to be tomorrow’s leaders, and they absolutely cross between brands. No matter where they drop on the Candyland board, we’ve been able to prove that they’ll move from one brand to another through our cross-pollination marketing strategy.
The earlier we get a kid enrolled in our platform, the longer they stay. So, the longer we’re around the broader that demo gets. When we build trust with the consumer through any one of our six brands, and a family has their second child or their third child, they start them earlier in the ecosystem. So maybe someone started with us at Urban Air when they got invited to a birthday party at eight-years-old. Then the family learned about The Little Gym, and we’ll get the next kid to join at a much younger age.
CorpGov: How resilient is demand from your customers when times are tough? Do you hold up better than pure entertainment options like the ones we have discussed?
Mr. Browning: We believe kids do need to play. But consumers don’t view us as a platform competing with Dave & Busters. We provide enrichment services. So that’s why our business is much more recession- or inflation-resistant. The last thing parents want to take away is enrichment of their kids. They are absolutely going to continue to invest in their kids to get the next belt in martial arts or get the college planning they need.
CorpGov: What can you tell us about what’s in the company’s future?
Mr. Browning: I think the future is bright for Unleashed Brands. At the end of the day, our job is to get up every day and think about how we can put our franchisees in a position to win. We want happy and profitable franchisees who are having success in their businesses and loving what they do. And we’re going to continue to invest in those systems, those processes and the team to put our franchisees in a position to win. I believe we’re going to look back again in a few years and be amazed with the success we’ve had.