When Susie Matheson and Christy Ford launched the 10th edition of The Scout Guide Charlottesville this July, they did so as the leaders of a company that’s grown, in about a decade, from a simple blog to a small publishing empire with 23 local employees and 60 franchisees around the country. The Scout Guide is a printed adbook for high-end shopping and services, but originally it was a blog that Matheson wrote to highlight her favorite small local businesses.
After she recruited Ford—a photographer and co-owner of And George—to help produce the first print guide, the two began hearing from people in other cities who wanted to create their own Scout Guides. Now there are versions, each with its own local editor, in cities from Dallas to Cincinnati. Franchisees pay a $50,000 fee, take charge of photography and get their free guides designed and produced by the team at Charlottesville headquarters. We sat down with Ford and Matheson to find out more about their journey.
C-BIZ: When you started the blog, were you thinking there would be eventually be a print product?
Susie Matheson: No, it was a labor of love. It wasn’t a business. I was in Scarpa one day and a woman was trying on a pair of shoes, but she said she was going to buy them on Zappos. I thought, what is going to happen when these local businesses are gone? I don’t think they’re good at promoting themselves. So I started the blog, and after a while people started asking for ads. Christy and I came up with a way to put small business owners on a pedestal—to capture their face and not their logo. When we did the first book, we didn’t think about a franchise plan.
Christy Ford: We knew we could make a beautiful book, but we didn’t know beyond that.
How did the first franchise come about?
SM: Everyone who approached us had touched Charlottesville somehow—they had a student here, or they were visiting and picked up TSG Charlottesville.
CF: Charleston was the first licensing agreement; I had a high school friend there who had done advertising in New York, and she did a beautiful book. Then people wanted to do it elsewhere.
SM: Our lawyers advised us to become a franchise and protect the investment. How ironic, right? We’re the anti-franchise. But it made sense for our structure. We didn’t want to go to, say, Sarasota and hire a sales force; we wanted someone local. So we’ve loved franchising.
What was the moment when you knew you had a winning formula?
CF: When people would call And George and say, “I brought the book home to Houston, and I need a wedding gift sent to New York.” They were using it to shop from afar. And then people would grab the book [from the store] and say, “We need one of these. How do we get one?”
SM: For me it was when I went home and said, “People are writing us checks!” We said yes to everybody at first.
What’s the most important piece of advice you give your editors?
CF: It’s so important that you’re living the life already. Our editors don’t walk in as Suzy Salesgirl; they’ve used this business before.
SM: We say you’re in business for yourself, but not by yourself. We’ll take care of you. It’s been great for women—they want to go back into the work force after having kids, and they need flexibility. There are some women who become editors just after finishing school and others who are empty-nesters. We do these editor conferences and bring everybody together. They are a strong community in themselves.
CF: Our mission is the same, supporting small businesses, but our passion has become supporting women.