How this Sonoma County entrepreneur followed her passion by opening a music school in Marin County

Heather Riley never expected to find the passion of her life when she took on a temporary job helping a local music business get started and running.

But after bringing his administrative expertise to help two new franchisees open the School of Rock in Santa Rosa, it was on.

Today, Riley is franchise owner and general manager of the School of Rock in San Rafael, which opened in May, marking North Bay’s third store. The other is in Vacaville.

“I’ve owned a business before, but that was in insurance,” said Petaluma resident Riley. “For a decade I was an insurance agent, but nobody jumps out of bed in the morning and says, ‘Yay, insurance today! “”

The music business

The Philadelphia-headquartered School of Rock, which launched in 1998 with just one school, is now an international franchise with 310 locations and growing, said Anthony Padulo, director of development, based in Glen Ellyn, in Illinois. Of these 310 stores, 247 are in the United States, 44 of which are company-owned. Riley’s franchise store is #306.

While traditional music stores teach students how to play their instrument of choice, the School of Rock combines private music lessons with band rehearsals and live performances for kids 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 develop 35 to 50 new schools per year at the national level.” During his 44-year franchise development career, Padulo has overseen franchise expansion in various 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 markets in San Francisco and Southern California, though he sees more room to expand within the state. .

Passion and determination

Riley, 59, certainly had the business skills to tackle an industry that was new to her. In her more than 40 years in the business world, in addition to the insurance industry, she has worked in sales and distribution, marketing, human resources and community apartment management.

She now works in an old restaurant building visible from the 101 freeway. She opened her franchise with 90 students – including herself, a bassist – and has ambitions to grow that number to 500.

The School of Rock is offering a free trial lesson to interested students in an effort to convert them into customers, who pay a one-time $99 enrollment fee, Riley said. Monthly costs range from $149 to $449, depending on 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 when she talks about her journey through the school of rock.

“I didn’t realize how important music was to me personally until I started working at School of Rock and started seeing it all in action,” she said. “And that’s when I realized it was really, really important to me.” Riley had previous singing experience but began learning to play bass guitar shortly after the Santa Rosa store opened.

Everything at the moment

After helping open the Santa Rosa store in early 2019, Riley hired full-time, then soon learned of a new franchise opportunity in San Rafael. She paid the $49,500 franchise fee and left the Santa Rosa boutique in mid-2020.

“I was trying to find funding during the height of the first year of the pandemic, so it was a little difficult,” said Riley, a British native who became a US citizen 10 years ago. “I had no idea how it was going to go.”

Riley contacted the nearby Small Business Development Center to help secure a $539,000 SBA loan, she said.

“And I invested over $100,000 of my own money. That’s where my retirement and savings went — in there,” Riley said. “Fortunately, I also hit 59½ earlier this year, so when I needed more I was able to get there without getting banged up” with government penalties for early withdrawal.

The total cost of opening the school was about $750,000, Riley said, of which $80,000 was spent installing sprinklers. The cost of renovating the building, including permit fees and signage, was $465,395, she said. The building passed the City of San Rafael inspection on April 20 and opened on May 2.

Because Riley’s business was unfolding during the height of the pandemic, she knew finding investors for her business wouldn’t be easy.