Paul Thompson – Water Babies
Written by Kate Williams
Images courtesy of Water Babies
Having been a journalist for over 20 years, I have interviewed an enormous amount of business people, but none as driven and enthusiastic as Paul Thompson who founded the now global network of baby swimming schools, Water Babies. The super-growth of this company is because of these special traits, although Rob insists he could not have done it without the Water Babies ‘family’
Self-confessed workaholic Paul Thompson has created and guided his brainchild baby swim school from nothing to a global franchise phenomenon in a mere 16 years. With its HQ based in Honiton, East Devon, Water Babies operates all over the world in UK, Ireland, Canada, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and China; has 50,000 children currently learning and has saved the lives of at least a dozen youngsters by teaching them skills in the water from an early age.
And all this was born from a snap decision and a crazy idea.
“It all started on the back of a split-infinitive!” laughed Paul. “In my previous career, I was a surveyor, a development director working in a housing association in Brighton, a very high-powered job. I was one of the directors and, if I’m honest, had quite a nice yuppy lifestyle in those days. Married, had a flat over-looking the sea, read the papers on a Sunday morning… and then my daughter, Imani, came along and my life changed, as it does – no more reading the paper on a Sunday morning!”
“Imani was a couple of months old and I was at a board meeting late one evening and, like lots of dads, I wasn’t seeing her. It was about eight o’clock and I’d done a board report on some sexy project and one of the committee members looked down at my report and said, ‘Oh, Paul, there’s a split-infinitive in your report.’ “I thought, really? And I thought, I just don’t want to do this anymore.”
“I’m not driven by money, so I’ve always lived my life not being scared to throw all the cards up in the air and, in the very short time it took me to walk home, I decided I was going to hand my notice in.”
Handing in his notice was a life-changing decision at that time for Paul with a two-month-old baby and a wife, Jess, on maternity leave. A decision had to be made on his next step.
“I’d done a lot of things – played serious rugby, backpacker, scuba diver. We thought, what shall we do now? Randomly, I said I fancy being a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean! So, we went off to Dominica, a beautiful island in the Caribbean, very remote. We had a little shack on stilts with the beach in front of us, palm trees – it was just like you see in the movies”.
“So, I’d go off and teach scuba diving, meanwhile Jess was back at home with no facilities, fed up with it. Then we got side-swiped by a hurricane. I almost died twice in that 24 hours.”
They decided to come home after that, and Paul said he would be a stay-at-home dad.
“After a week, I thought, what have I done? It took about three weeks to break into the mums’ circle,” he smiled. At that time, they were living in London, and Paul engaged in lots of activities with Imani, one of which was baby swimming classes.
“It was quite hard to find lessons, and they were quite amateurish looking back but it was the best thing we did all week. I saw her [Imani] confidence accelerate, it was lovely. I was really intrigued by it, because of my scuba diving background, and I was always in the ear of the instructor. And he said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a teacher?’. And I literally went, ‘Yeah, alright then.’”
“So, I was trained… I say ‘trained’, it was nothing like how we train people now. Then I had to go and teach my first lesson. I was so nervous – if you’d known me before my daughter was born, if someone had handed me a baby, I wouldn’t have known which way up to hold it! So, I taught four lessons back-to-back and, this sounds very ‘Hollywood’, but it was a complete life-changing moment. I was born to do it.
“At Water Babies we call it ‘the thing’. I just had a natural empathy for the parents and the babies. I was so shocked.”
“I knew I wanted to run my own business one day – and I knew this was it.”
The family then moved to Ilkley in Yorkshire into a house that they could “see daylight through the roof” and it was at the kitchen table in this house in 2002 that Water Babies was born.
“We had no plans to become a big company,” said Paul. “We had £5,000 to start it. I am completely driven by being the best you can be in anything you do. I’m not interested in short cuts or cheapness or anything like that. If you’re going to do it, do it properly. We went out on the streets on Ilkley giving out leaflets. And our builders at the house helped. On the third day, one of them came running down the stairs when I walked in with a piece of A4 paper with 16 phone numbers on it. He’d had people on the phone all morning – he was our first assistant!. It just went nuts in those first weeks – before we had even taught a lesson!”
The company had started in June 2002 and, by Christmas, it had started franchising. Paul pondered,
“We were never going to take on the world. I think you make your own luck in the world but, also, sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Franchising started through Jess’s sister and some old college friends of mine, they both wanted a franchise – it suited everyone. We went from zero to four in a short time, the from four to 14 in one year, we’ve never advertised, people have always come to us.”
The family then moved to Devon and now own the current building in High Street, Honiton, although the search is on for a site in Exeter.
In 2007, Paul and Jess went to the World Aquatic Baby Conference in New Zealand, where the great and the good of the baby swimming industry congregate. “We were quite nervous, we’d never benchmarked ourselves against the industry,” explained Paul.
It was here that they realised they were the biggest baby swim school in the world. Water Babies went international; first in Ireland, then in Toronto, Amsterdam, Berlin, Wellington, Auckland and, this year, they will launch in Melbourne, Australia.
But the big one in all of that is China, where they have built a number of aquatic centres. The objective is roll out eighty centre across China in the next ten years.
“That has completely changed the company because we hire swimming pools but now our way forward is to build aquatic centres everywhere we operate in the UK. By September, we will open an aquatic centre in Stirling in Scotland and two centres in Germany. And our aim is to roll them out.”
Water Babies has seen extraordinary growth in its sixteen years. Paul reflected,
“It’s a long way from that kitchen table, I’m very proud of all of that but that’s not what the company is about. I spent the whole of my working life watching people being told what they couldn’t do. I truly believe that if you give people the right environment with the opportunity to put their hands up and have a go, then people do amazing things. And, on the back of that, you might get a successful company and, on the back of that, you might make some money. But, money is third on that list.”
With over 500 teachers now, the company is starting a rebrand with those teachers at the forefront as they are the people who parents give their most precious possession – their tiny baby – to allow them to put them under the water.
“We can teach anyone to be a Water Babies teacher but what we can’t teach them is what we call ‘the thing’. We get the right people, train them to be the best and anything after that is a bonus!” Paul stated.
There are many highs, according to Paul, to running Water Babies, like winning Britain’s Best Franchise business in 2016, against firms like McDonald’s. And never having had a franchise fail.
There are some lows too, Paul explained,
“The personal toll it takes. Jess and I split, not just because of the business but working together does shine a torch on everything. You do make sacrifices when you run your own business. But I have been able to spend more time around my children. I’m a complete workaholic and I find it hard to take time off, but I am getting better! It is work but I love it. It’s my passion.”
The success of Water Babies, according to Paul is its mix of ‘special DNA’. He summarised,
“We are genuinely passionate about what we do. We have saved at least twelve children’s lives when they’ve fallen into water, and everyone feels that it is really a special environment. We’ve been very fortunate that all of those things have come together. And we know that children who go swimming will develop faster both mentally and physiologically.”
“So, fast-forward, say, ten years, someone has a baby and they can take it to a bespoke aquatic centre which is dedicated to the health and well-being of their child. That’s not been done before – that’s bloody amazing! And, if you leave a legacy like that, that’s something to be proud of. But you have to take a few risks to get there.”
The kitchen table at which Water Babies was first created sits proudly at the front of the Honiton offices; a testament to how small ideas can turn into world-changing realities.