Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Angie Coates, founder of Monkey Music

ANGIE COATES plays the oboe and piano and wanted her children to share her love of music. When her daughter Millie was still only three months old, Coates started looking for music classes.

“There were some, but they tended to be quite formal,” she said. “They didn’t use music in an interactive way or have in-depth personal experience.”

Coates knew she could do better. In 1993 she founded Monkey Music in London, offering music classes for infants and pre-school toddlers. “I wanted to bottle my experience and see if my daughter could become part of the magic of music at a young age.”

The classes proved so popular that Coates was soon struggling to teach 500 children a week. In 1998 she decided to offer franchises. “I’d spent an enormous amount of time developing my curriculum, which became very popular,” she said. “The natural progression was to share it for the benefit of others.”

Today the business has seven staff at its headquarters in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. It reported sales of £3.6m and £292,000 profits in the year to March. The most successful franchises turn over more than £170,000 a year and make £70,000 profits. Monkey Music now has 100 teachers in 50 franchises running classes in more than 300 venues across Britain. About 20,000 children took part last year.

“We take children through a very specific curriculum using dancing and percussion instruments that support each stage of development,” said Coates.

Her programme is divided into four stages tailored to specific age groups. The first, called “rock’n’roll”, involves “gentle songs and fascinating sounds” and is designed for babies from three months old. The final stage — “ding-dong” — introduces three and four-year-olds to the skills of reading and writing music.

“We start them very young so development is emotional as well as physical and linguistic,” she said.

Coates, 48, has five daughters and a wealth of experience when it comes to juggling business and motherhood.

“Every time I’ve had another daughter I’ve added new teaching or products to the business,” she said. “Creativity is the most exciting part of Monkey Music.”

She is careful not to overcomplicate her offering. “Our strategy is to avoid diluting what we offer. The main challenge has been to remain focused without panicking and diversifying.”

Coates no longer teaches regularly, spending much of her time developing the Monkey Music brand. Website visitors can buy soft toys, T-shirts and recordings of some of the classes’ 500 original songs.

“My job is to get our franchisees as excited as we are about all developments, from marketing to the curriculum,” said Coates, who is chief executive.

Franchising has been a huge success. Many of the franchises run up to nine classes a day at a single venue, with some offering more than 50 classes a week. Monkey Music operates under the standard franchising model, taking a percentage of franchisee income.

“We have a huge network of franchisees who are all business owners in their own right,” she said. “They are inspiring people to work with and it is very rewarding to see them progress.”

With class sizes of up to 15 children and fees averaging £8 an hour (rising to about £11 in big cities), it’s a money-spinning vocation. One-third of Monkey Music’s franchises have remained under the same ownership for more than 10 years.

It has not always been easy. “We have expanded our training and become more disciplined,” said Coates. “As a business owner you need to be absolutely ruthless to make things better.”

Coates grew up in Harpenden. Her mother is a teacher and her father owns a small engineering firm. At the age of 12 she won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where she spent Saturdays training to be an oboist and pianist. She enrolled at the school full time at the age of 18 and graduated with a music degree in 1988.

She was appointed head of music at the Thomas’s London Day Schools group in 1989. There she discovered a “natural ability” to teach that helped to inspire her new venture.

Coates left the prep schools in 1994, a year after she had started to run weekly Monkey Music classes in her local church hall in Dulwich, southeast London, when her daughter was just a few months old. “I didn’t want to get up at 6am and leave her all day. I was a young mum with a chance to change my lifestyle completely.”

Running the business on her own soon became hard work. “But I was 27 and I didn’t have an awful lot to lose,” she said. “I had to be brave and make decisions wearing 50 different hats.”

It was Coates’s younger brother Tim Underhill, then a lawyer, who advised her to franchise the business. He is now a non-executive director. “It was at that moment I realised I was running a business,” said Coates. “I had taken a very creative route to get there and so I had a lot to learn.”

In September 2004, Monkey Music became one of the first 500 companies to join the British Franchise Association.

Coates lives in Harpenden with her husband, Duncan Coates, a Bafta-winning executive at Wall to Wall television, part of Warner Bros. Their five girls are Millie, 21, Georgia, 18, Sophia, 16, Darcey, 10, and Gracie May, 8.

Her advice to entrepreneurs is: “Be very sure you have something unique that can’t be replicated easily. Then ensure you are realistic about the amount of time it will take to become financially viable.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Angie Coates of Monkey Music

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