How this Sonoma County entrepreneur followed her passion, opening a Marin County music school
Heather Riley wasn’t expecting to find her life’s passion when she took a temporary gig to help a local music business get up and running.
But after contributing her administrative expertise to help a pair of new franchisees open the School of Rock in Santa Rosa, it was game on.
Today, Riley is the franchise owner and general manager of the School of Rock in San Rafael, which opened in May, marking the third store in the North Bay. The other is in Vacaville.
“I have been a business owner before, but that was in insurance,” said Riley, a Petaluma resident. “For a decade I was an insurance agent, but nobody leaps out of bed in the morning and goes, ‘Yay, insurance today!’”
The music business
The Philadelphia-headquartered School of Rock, which launched in 1998 with a single school, is now an international franchise with 310 locations and growing, said Chief Development Officer Anthony Padulo, who is based in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Of those 310 stores, 247 are in the United States, of which 44 are company owned. Riley’s franchise store is No. 306.
While traditional music stores teach students how to play their instrument of choice, the School of Rock combines private music lessons with group rehearsals and live performances for both children and adults.
The company’s growth strategy is to open more stores in the future, but at a measured pace, Padulo said.
“We’re a medium-sized company, so we're not looking to grow 100 schools a year,” he said. “Our philosophy is to grow 35 to 50 new schools a year domestically.” Over his 44-year career in franchise development, Padulo has overseen franchise expansions in a variety of industries, including Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, BP Oil, BrightStar Care and Re/Max.
School of Rock has stores in most major U.S. markets, Padulo said, including in the San Francisco and Southern California markets, though he sees more room to grow within the state.
Passion and determination
Riley, 59, certainly had the business chops to take on an industry that was new to her. Over the span of her 40-plus years in the business world, in addition to the insurance sector, she worked in sales and distribution, marketing, human resources and apartment-community management.
Now she works in a former restaurant building visible from the 101 freeway. She opened her franchise with 90 students — including herself, a bass guitar player — and has ambitions to raise that number to 500.
The School of Rock offers a free trial lesson for interested students with the goal of converting them into clients, who pay a one-time sign-up fee of $99, Riley said. Monthly costs range from $149 to $449, depending on the level of instruction, rehearsals and performances. The students perform live shows three times a year, she said.
Riley’s passion and determination as a business owner is palpable as she speaks about her School of Rock journey.
“I did not know how important music is to me personally until I started working at School of Rock and started seeing everything in action,” she said. “And that's when I understood it's really, really important to me.” Riley had prior singing experience but started learning to play bass guitar shortly after the Santa Rosa store opened.
All about the timing
After helping open the Santa Rosa store in early 2019, Riley hired on full time, then soon after learned about a new franchise opportunity in San Rafael. She paid the $49,500 franchise fee and left the Santa Rosa shop in mid-2020.
"I was trying to find funding during the height of the first year of the pandemic, so that was a bit rough,” said Riley, a U.K. native who became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. “I had no idea how it was going to go.”
Riley reached out to the nearby Small Business Development Center to help secure a $539,000 SBA loan, she said.
“And I put in well over $100,000 of my own money. That's where my retirement and savings have gone — into this,” Riley said. “Fortunately, I hit 59½ as well earlier this year, so when I needed more, I was able to access it without getting dinged” with government penalties for early withdrawal.
The total cost to open the school amounted to about $750,000, Riley said, of which $80,000 went into installing sprinklers. The cost to retrofit the building, including permit fees and signage, totaled $465,395, she said. The building passed inspection by the city of San Rafael on April 20 and opened May 2.
Because Riley’s business was unfolding at the height of the pandemic, she knew it wouldn’t be easy to find investors for her venture.