Alumnus Andrew McCuiston is making a splash with Goldfish Swim School Franchising

As you pass the vibrant front desk, friendly staff greet you by name and present a small toy to your child. It’s a fish named Bubbles and it’s “wearing” seasonal attire. You saunter past the palm trees and continue to the waterfront, soaking up the humidity on your skin. 

The water is 90 degrees. Your child jumps right in, shouting “It’s not even cold!” You stake out a chair on the climate-controlled deck and settle in to browse Instagram. This is not a beach vacation at a luxury resort in the tropics. It’s your neighborhood indoor, year-round swim school. With more than 100 locations in nearly 30 U.S. states and Canada, and a projected 260 schools by 2024, Goldfish Swim School is redefining swim lessons for 150,000 children each week.

Andrew McCuiston (BSBA 2006) is the co-owner, president and integrator of Goldfish—named one of Inc.’s 5000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America for five consecutive years. 

McCuiston’s brother, Chris, and sister-in-law, Jenny—a two-time U.S. Olympic Trial qualifying swimmer—are the co-founders. The three partners of the Detroit-headquartered Goldfish Swim School Franchising were all Division I collegiate athletes (McCuiston played men’s lacrosse for DU).

After majoring in finance and marketing with a minor in economics at Daniels, McCuiston completed the management training program at a bottling company in southern California. 

When Chris and Jenny opened the first Goldfish location in the McCuistons’ hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, enough strangers asked how they could get involved that Chris worked out the legalities to franchise the business. Then he called his brother.

“He said, ‘We’re going to start a franchise company. We’d love you to come back if you want to take part in it,’” McCuiston said. 

“I literally thought about it for 24 hours and I quit my job within 48 hours.”

McCuiston moved home in September 2008 and Goldfish Swim School opened its first franchise in 2009. Though the road to franchising was a bit choppy, they’re now opening 25 to 35 new schools each year. With over 5,000 people employed by Goldfish Swim School franchisees, Goldfish has an internal marketing agency and sales, real estate, construction, finance and operations support teams.

“These are all things we didn’t have when we first started. It was literally just me and my brother working on everything together, and it was crazy madness,” McCuiston said. “When we didn’t know how to do something, we would pick up the phone and call people. We leaned on people for advice.”

Now, Chris casts the vision and McCuiston brings it to life, managing operations, internal communications, technology implementation and national brand awareness.

“As we are growing the business into these larger metropolitan areas, we believe we’re the market leader, so we want to position ourselves as such,” McCuiston said.

Goldfish Swim School’s mission boils down to teaching children how to be safer in and around water. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of injury-related death for children under 5 in the U.S. McCuiston emphasizes that swim lessons are serious, but since children learn best through play, Goldfish developed a proprietary, research-based curriculum called the Science of SwimPlay® to maximize their students’ results.

“Playing for children is what makes things exciting and draws them back to want to be there,” the father of two explained. “We don’t want swimming to be this whole scary, dark dungeon, archaic feel.”

At each location, there’s one instructor for every four children and a pool deck manager ensuring that all instructors adhere to the curriculum. An Ellis water safety-certified lifeguard also watches over the pool so parents can enjoy what McCuiston calls a “guilt-free half-hour” in the parent viewing area.

“We want to be the Four Seasons of swim lessons,” McCuiston said. “There are certain expectations that come along with the Goldfish experience that we hope will always supersede our competitors’. All those basic things that every swim school can do, we strive to do one notch better.” 

That includes a commitment to giving back to the community. Goldfish raised $160,000 during Water Safety Month in May 2019 for USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative to bring swim lessons, water safety presentations and water experiences to families that otherwise could not afford them.

“It’s super fun and I attribute a lot of my success in what we do today from my prior experiences,” he said. “The Daniels College of Business is a part of that and Denver lacrosse is a part of that.”

McCuiston said that Daniels’ small class sizes, emphasis on values and ethics, and the individualized attention he experienced from faculty influenced the Goldfish model. “We really think that the relationships we have, and how ingrained our schools are in the local community, is one of those things that sets us apart, so it’s not this franchise-type feel.”

As for his DU lacrosse experience? “There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with traveling the country representing the University,” McCuiston said. “And as a business owner, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with being successful so that your employees can sustain a family, kids and lifestyle. Those deep-rooted values have really made the business what it is today.”

Editor’s note: We reached out to Andrew McCuiston to inquire about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Goldfish Swim School Franchising. As of March 30, 2020, he said the company’s 103 locations are all closed. Goldfish had to lay off 40% of its corporate staff. McCuiston said the company closed all of its franchise locations to meet social demand more than out of civic pressure. “It’s hard, but it was the right thing to do,” he said. He’s focused on the silver linings. The company is embracing a mentality of “we are all in this together,” connecting franchisees weekly via Zoom and Google Hangouts. Though he said Goldfish will not earn a profit for the next 90 days, McCuiston hopes that by leveraging funding through the Small Business Association and Chase Bank, and by increasing sanitizing processes and complying with social distancing protocols when it is deemed safe for facilities to re-open, Goldfish hopefully will be able to re-hire its 24 lost employees while safely getting 145,000 children back into swim lessons.