Smoothie King Franchisee Overcomes Tragedy, Rejection to Reach His Dream

    The 31-year-old entrepreneur is getting ready to open his second store.

    Franchising | March 15, 2021 | Danny Klein
    Smoothie King franchisee and CEO Wan Kim.
    Smoothie King
    Skyler Blacknall (left) and Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim remain close today.

    It’s always been personal for Skyler Blacknall. Growing up, his father was an entrepreneur, drawn to side hustles over the 9–5. But this lifestyle often found him grabbing quick, not-so-healthy food.

    And then tragedy struck. Blacknall lost his mother, brother, and cousin to health-related issues.

    The combination of these experiences led Blacknall to Smoothie King. He worked as a manager at multiple stores while plotting a way to eventually own one. Blacknall and his wife, studying to get her law degree at the time, lived well below their means as they saved up. Yet even when Blacknall secured enough to get a loan and apply for a franchise, Smoothie King turned him down at discovery day as he failed to meet financial requirements.

    Blacknall’s big break, however, soon arrived. Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim went behind the line on an episode of “Undercover Boss,” and surprised Blacknall with a franchise. The two remain close today, grabbing lunch whenever they can. Now, Blacknall is on the verge of opening his second location.

    Blacknall, 31, shared the decade-long journey with QSR, where he’s headed, and how his background affects his leadership style as a franchisee.

    Take us through your journey. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of personal hardship. How did it shape you as a person, and business owner?

    My journey started well over 10 years ago. I always knew I wanted to own my own franchise, so when I got my first job only making maybe $7.75 an hour, I started saving for my goal.

    One of the main things that sparked this journey was I got to meet with a successful franchisee at another company, and I had the opportunity to ask about what it takes to be a successful one. He told me the things to do, and I took notes, and it reaffirmed my ambition and goals that one day I will be a franchisee. Looking back, it was an even bigger blessing than I realized at the time because that conversation is a huge part in getting me to where I am today.

    I encountered a lot of hardships throughout my journey, but that is just another part of the process—it’s just life. For me, though, I try to view everything as a learning experience. In this way, I am better prepared to face my next obstacle and I also ensure I never make the same mistake twice. For me, remaining positive really helped me never lose sight of my goal. If there’s ever a negative or hardship, I’m always looking for that positive thing where I can come out better on the other side. Overall, that has shaped and grown me to become a very successful franchisee.

    What was the lowest point, and how did you get through it?

    One of my lowest points was losing both my mom and my brother a few years ago. They passed away maybe 6–7 months apart, and I was just heartbroken. Words could never adequately describe the hole in my heart after experiencing that loss. But I guess it’s like the old saying, “what doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger.” Now I wake up every morning feeling blessed, because I know that tomorrow is not promised. If anything, it was motivation to go even harder because I always told my mom that I was going to be a franchisee, and she always told me she couldn’t wait to see it, so it was my job to stick it out and become a successful franchisee.

    When you started working at Smoothie King, was the goal always to become a franchisee?

    Yes, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to own a business. I was inspired by my father’s entrepreneurial spirit, and I remember he would often get food from specific restaurants and give me some, but I always wanted my own, which sparked my interest in the quick-service industry. I started as a GM (General Manger) and then transitioned into a Multi-Unit Manager role, but my goal of course was to become a franchisee.

    What did you learn as a manager that’s helping you today?

    The most important takeaway was learning how to operate the store. Just learning what made us different and how to run a very busy and profitable store as efficiently as possible. I also trained the new incoming franchisees and I would ask them all about their path to ownership, and these conversations also fostered a lot of insight for me as well. In addition, the extensive training they put you through and the number of constant obstacles that you have to overcome every day as a manager, it better prepares you for the transition to franchisee. I tip my hat to Smoothie King and the excellent job its team did preparing me for this journey.

    Going back to your first discovery day, where you were turned down for a franchise, did you think that was the end of the road? How did you handle that moment?

    If you want to talk about a lot of emotions … wow. That was a crazy time. Just to even get to that point was so hard. I had to be approved by Smoothie King to attend Discovery Day. Leading up to that point, I had already been approved for my SBA loan, and I had already worked out the material components of the contract from the franchisee that I ended up eventually purchasing the store from, so I thought everything was set up for a successful day, so I thought it was a done deal.

    I remember that day very well, and I remember somebody pulling me aside asking “why are you smiling so much?” I told him because of how happy I was to be there. There were a lot of smart people in the room. There were a lot of experienced franchisees for other companies, people in real estate and people in general just trying to diversify their portfolio, and here I am as a multi-unit manager looking to become a first-time owner. It was a cool day.

    So, of course, it was a complete shock to me when I learned that Smoothie King had actually denied the transition. It was crushing, but I remember I literally told Smoothie King, “I’ll be back.” No matter how many times they would tell me no, I was going to find a way to become a franchisee. I didn’t care if it took me 100 different attempts, I wasn’t going to give up because I was that determined. 

    How much of a surprise was it when Wan Kim awarded you the franchise? Take us through that day.

    That was also day I will never forget. It’s funny because we ended up filming Undercover Boss literally the next day after I was turned down, and I didn’t know that’s why there were cameras around, so that alone was crazy. Just that whole experience with [CEO] Wan Kim telling me later on I was going to be approved to be a franchisee, I was in such shock I don’t remember too much of what happened after that. Once I got around to watching the episode, I remember turning to my wife and going “I don’t even remember saying that” after seeing and hearing myself on the show.

    I remember after we finished filming, they introduced me to [Chief Development Officer] Kevin King—I told both Kevin and Wan this before—and all I remember is Kevin shaking my hand and him giving me his card, but I don’t remember anything he told me. So that goes to show the amount of emotion and excitement I was experiencing at that time.

    "No matter how many times they would tell me no, I was going to find a way to become a franchisee."

    What is your relationship with Wan like these days?

    Wan is one of the nicest and most generous individuals I’ve ever met. He’s a great human being, and he’s always willing to offer advice to me. I think it helps a lot that he was once in my shoes as a franchisee, so it’s easy to relate to one-another in that aspect, but overall, we have a great relationship. Even just outside of Smoothie King, I learn a lot from him just about life when we’re chatting about our families, lunch dates, so on and so forth. He genuinely cares about people and their lives, and I’m lucky to work with him. I’m so comfortable around him that I almost forget his title, and that’s a great thing.

    What are some lessons you’ve learned from running a franchise? What’s met your expectations? What’s surprised you?

    With running a franchise, you learn to always expect something. Never get too comfortable because the second you do, something happens. The job has made me more responsible and aware than ever. 

    The biggest shock for me was realizing the amount of bills and taxes I have to pay. People from the outside think it’s just a glamorous way to make money–which don’t get me wrong, it’s a great business, and I love every second of my job, but it is something most of us are not privy to when we begin operating our store. You have a lot of revenue coming in, but also a lot of the revenue goes right back out the door.

    For example, the winter storm we recently experienced in Texas. No one was expecting or prepared for that event, but it reminded me to always be prepared for anything. We were also subject to a water boil notice, which means you have to boil your water prior to using it because the winter storm had caused the water plant to freeze. After the restriction was lifted, any store impacted by the water boil notice was required to clean and change out our water filters and our ice machines. At the time my store didn’t have any new water filters, so I was running around with my head cut off trying to find water filters just to open back up. Thankfully, another franchisee in the area was able to look out for me. Again, it just highlights to always expect the unexpected, but most importantly to learn from it.

    How have you navigated COVID-19?

    It was very challenging in the beginning just getting adjusted and transitioning out day-to-day practices. My biggest focal point was creating a safe environment for both my staff and the customers. My store does not have a drive thru, so it was a struggle initially. Since then, sales have been up about 15–16 percent every month. Some reasons for that include making everyone in the city aware of new ownership, increasing our social media presence, and building off my predecessor’s success by increasing brand awareness around town.

    It looks like you have plans to open a second store. Is that just the beginning?

    Yes, it is only the beginning. In the short-term I want to get the second store open by winter of 2021. Opening up a new store is very different from acquiring an existing store. My ultimate goal is to open and operate 25 different stores, including some outside of Dallas—perhaps in other Metropolitan areas in Texas. I’m very confident that’s going to happen over time.