Sona MedSpas: An unhappy franchise owner.

Ron Berglund, a Sona medspa owner, left this comment on one of the most widely read articles on this site: What's wrong with medical spa franchises? The article Ron refers to is referenced here: Medspa boom is a bust for some.

"You may want to check out the November 21 issue of the Wall Street Journal. There is a very informative article about mdeical spas (primarily the Sona MedSpa and Radiance franchises).

Having been a franchisee (St. Paul, MN) for almost three years and now facing personal bankruptcy and financial ruin, I can vouch for the accuracy of the article. I have personal knowledge that perhaps 33% (and maybe over 50%) of the Sona franchisees have either already failed or are struggling. The Sona business model-- and I am guessing most of the franchised medspa models-- are replete with flaws, problems and booby traps.

For starters, any business that tells you to spend 25% of gross revenues on marketing and advertising is giving you a recipe for financial disaster down the road. Relying almost entirely on inflated revenues from prepaid multi-treatment packages (allowing you to take in - and spend-- thousands of dollars today without making any provision for the steadily growing future service liabilities) are also a trap for the undercapitalized and unsophisticated. Finally, Sona encouraged us to commit the mortal sin of cosmetic practice-- they coached us to overpromise results to the point of commiting fraud with thousands of clients. When the Sona-required lasers failed enable us to deliver these impossible results we were literally murdered with demands for additional treatments.

I predict a huge "shakeout" in 2007 as other medspa franchisees hit the courthouses with litigation and financial nightmares. The profitable delivery of esthetic medical services is a tricky and demanding challenge for anyone. I believe it takes a unique combination of business and marketing acumen together with great medical skill and emotional intelligence to navigate these tumultuous waters without drowning."

Ron Berglund 

The article Ron refers to is referenced here: Medspa boom is a bust for some.

From the same thread.

JustCurious asks: How does a medspa franchisee handle closing its doors? Aren't there agreements (in years) that must be signed with the franchisor and wouldn't there be penalties for closing shop? I've notice several medspa franchises closing or selling their business within 2 years of opening their doors and I'm wondering (a) what motivates them to close or sell so quickly and (b) what the penalties of closing/selling could be. Also, if a franchisee sells their medspa in this "billion dollar industry" so quickly, is that usually an indication of a failing business?

Dear Just Curious: Thanks for the response to my recent comment. You are asking two additional questions which are very important with regard to the subject at hand. First, you are asking how does a medspa legally close its doors. Closing shop would be no problem if all transactions were handled on a "pay as you go" basis. Unfortunately, most med spas sell primarily multi-treatment "packages". The Sona model encouraged us to do that almost exclusively. We typically sold five-treatment packages for laser hair removal, and often offered BOGO promotions wherein the client would purchase -- and pay cash up front for --five treatments at the "regular" price (full bikini @ $975 for example) and then would receive five FREE treatments for the underarms area. I had an excellent first year of operations since I was taking in thousands of dollars each month for treatments to be performed in the future. After signing up an average of 100 clients per month and pushing the future service obligation forward, you end up "painting yourself into a corner" and facing an insurmountable liability for performing treatments already paid for. Jeff Nebot had the same problem in St. Louis, except that his numbers were typically about triple my numbers. As this isn't enough of a problem, just imaging what happens when you try to sell or close the business!! You have several thousand clients who have prepaid and are legally entitled to the treatments they have already paid you for-- but you cannot afford to keep the Pnonzi scheme going! Believe me-- this makes any medspa almost impossible to sell because any prospective purchaser is scared to death to walk into this huge liability. That is the primary reason Jeff Nebot and I ended giving away our centers for free. Our buildout, furniture and equipment in St. Paul had cost us almost a million dollars and Jeff Nebot's investment was probably twice as much. I know first hand of several former Sona franchisees losing more than a million dollars on the whole mess-- in addition to a million headaches. There was a story posted on the Internet about the former Salt Lake City Sona franchisee closing her doors and failing to provide hundreds of clients with their pre-paid treatments. The article stated that Utah authorities chased the owners down in Texas and instituted some type of legal proceedings against them. I never heard how the matter was resolved, but I heard that the state was trying to impose some stiff penalties against the (Sona) owners.

Your second question asked how can it be that all these problems are occuring when this "med spa boom" is supposed to be happening all around us. The answer-- in my opinion-- is that the so-called med spa "boom" is to a large extent hype. I predict that the majority of the marginal operations will fall by the wayside during the next twelve month and the survivors will be the operatoins that are well funded and operated on sound business principles. Sona and many of the other franchised systems were attempting to offer a "get rich quick" scheme and also a model which-- for the most part-- utilized the physician as essentialy a mere figurehead. My personal belief is that the only truly successful med spa model requires three key components: 1. The physician is the key to the business-- similar to the dentist in the traditional dental office model; 2. The physician needs to be "on site" for a number of reasons-- business, professional and regulatory; and 3. The model requires superb marketing including a ton of cross-promotion and "guerrilla" marketing. Due to competition. typical profit margins and a number of other factors, med spas simply cnnot afford to allow advertising and marketing expenses to exceed over 10% of gross revenues. Whereas most physicians already have from 5000 to 15,000 patients in their data base who can serve as a "warm" client base for a med spa, all of the franchised med spa models start with zero and need to "buy" each client they recruit. Believe me--these outrageous advertising expenses eventually catch up with you! There is a reason the typical fast food franchises absolutely require that advertising expenses remain in the neighborhood of 7% of gross revenues. In order to survive in the low margin marketplace, there is no other way.

Ron Berglund