Interview with Franchise Partners Julia Santos and Marko Pavlovic of Mid South, Tennessee

When coworkers Julia Santos and Marko Pavlovic started thinking through options for pursuing a business endeavor together, they kept coming back to Special Strong. It’s a model they believe so strongly in that they became the first multi-unit franchisees, with locations in East and West Memphis.

Tell me a bit about yourselves – what do your backgrounds look like?

Julia: We’re teachers who work together at a school for children with dyslexia. I started teaching there four years ago, and that’s how Marko and I met. I stumbled into a conversation with him about what he was doing at the time – pursuing a doctorate – and one of my first Special Strong interactions was when I shared a LinkedIn video with Marko, thinking that it would be of interest to him based on his studies and work. In my mind, it was quite applicable to what he was studying at the time.

Marko: In 2019 I started a doctorate in special education and at the time I had totally different plans. I was hoping and dreaming of becoming a university professor, which would give me some freedom to travel back home in the summers.

How did you end up here? Why did you pick Special Strong?

Julia: What drew me into Daniel and Special Strong is that I have a son who has Down Syndrome. He’s 15. Along with his siblings, our whole family is pretty active. I was just looking on the internet for different things that he could be involved in and that’s how I came across Daniel and Special Strong.

Marko and I really wanted to invest in something and be a part of something that was transformational for the students that we work with. My son is at Madonna Learning Center, and being exposed to those students as well made me want to have an impact on that community, too.

Marko: I was made an offer to teach at a university and I was looking to move my entire family to do so. They gave me exceptional conditions to accept a position with them, including a job for my wife and preschool for my daughter. But, Julia and I had been in conversation for a while about reaching individuals with exceptionalities in the Memphis area and beyond. I didn’t want to leave Memphis. Julia and I put this opportunity with Special Strong into much prayer and mutually decided to pursue Special Strong. It took a lot of prayer and surrender of what I independently wanted to do with my Doctorate in Special Education, but ultimately you can’t go against God’s will and provision. I’m so grateful and thankful that Julia and I are able to partner in this opportunity and ultimately this mission.

What was the process like of becoming a franchisee?

Julia: I filled out the form on their website and I messaged Daniel on LinkedIn. We set up an appointment within a few days and that’s how it started. We had multiple conversations with Daniel over several months and really felt God’s leading to move forward, take a leap of faith and commit to Special Strong. We attended a Discovery Day in August and continued to see and experience God’s direction for us in this decision, especially after engaging with much of the staff and experiencing Special Strong live and in person. We went through training over the week of Thanksgiving and each time we’d walk away thinking it was so well done. God is woven into every aspect, which is really meaningful and powerful for both of us as Christians.

During the process, what did you learn from talking with other franchisees or the Special Strong team?

Julia: Each person we’ve talked to has shared unique parts of their journey throughout this process. There’s not a single person we’ve met that hasn’t gone above and beyond. They’re so supportive, really genuine, and down to earth. Everyone is so willing to be helpful and that is actually followed through on. That’s been a message from the beginning. Every step of the way has been clear and straightforward and we’re often speaking with Daniel directly. We’re teachers, not business people. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of business, but they’ve been so supportive, open and willing, and knowledgeable.

What would you tell someone else about the benefits of getting involved with Special Strong?

Julia: I have been involved in athletics all my life, but I definitely have not been a personal trainer or otherwise involved with fitness in a professional capacity. I really believe in the need for this – and that’s the most important thing for anyone looking to get involved. There’s such an absence of the physical aspect in the special needs community compared to the rest of the world. This lack of access really hinders them when physical training could be such a benefit. You see this over and over again in the testimonies from within the Special Strong community.

It’s hard for me to understand why there’s such a lack of these resources when the opportunity is so great. It seems skewed when there’s such a benefit for the people who are involved. Marko has been working at the Madonna Learning Center for a few hours a day, and he’s already said that the benefit it has for the kids is huge. It’s really something that could benefit so many communities.

What made Special Strong different from other opportunities you were looking into?

Julia: There’s another other organization that we looked into. It was a pretty significant investment and way more than we could really do. At our school, we see kids that are so sharp and have so much potential, but specifically with ADHD, they get really tripped up. This is what Marko was focused on in his doctoral work, so I came to him and asked what he thought of this other organization because his colleagues would be familiar with it. A few days later we had a pretty clear sense that that wasn’t the path forward and I called Daniel instead.

Once we started learning more about Special Strong, it was evident that it was so real. There are a lot of personal training programs that you can be a part of. There isn’t a lot that specifically works with the special needs community. This one stood out. It’s really authentic, really genuine, and not flashy.

Marko: Of course, there are all the visible benefits, but there were also some that were invisible but obvious after we spoke with Daniel and everybody else several times. There’s a greater force that stands behind this wonderful mission, vision, and values. We immediately identified with all of those, which was critical for us, and made it an easy decision.

What was your biggest fear about saying YES to Special Strong?

Marko: In my personal situation, it was one of those moments where you pick a road – not only where you go but where your family goes. I had just received an offer that I was aiming for and working toward for so long. Can you imagine working on something for so long and then in the blink of an eye you’re on another path? 

It took a lot of praying, a lot of talking, and a lot of reflection. After Julia and I considered this idea, the more I read about it, the more we talked to them, the more we learned about the Special Strong mission and vision – it was such an easy path. It was natural. It was a very difficult decision on my side, but I heard that inner voice that this is what I needed to be doing, and there was no arguing with that.

What made you overcome your fears and say YES to Special Strong?

Marko: In addition to all of the other benefits we’ve discussed, Special Strong has a phenomenal mission. Everybody we met throughout the process made it clear that it was a really, really excellent group of people. We’re humbled and blessed to be chosen to be a part of something like this.

Why did you make the decision to start out with two franchise locations instead of one?

Julia: Honestly, we really believed that if it was just in half of the area, it’s such an incredible program that someone else would bring it to the other half of the community before too long, and that might as well be us. We so believe in it. It’s a vital piece that’s missing in this community.

Marko: There’s such a great need. We wanted to have a hands-on opportunity to impact a large population. Because we’re professionals in this field, we see the need. We see the impact and the value it brings to the individual, the families, and the community. There are so many different layers and levels.

What are your future aspirations as franchise owners?

Julia: We really want to learn and grow and develop Special Strong. Ultimately our goal is to go beyond this area.

Marko: I was born and raised in Serbia, and I came to the United States on a soccer scholarship. Where I’m from, and in many other areas in the world, the need for something like this is tremendous. People with exceptionalities are marginalized in so many ways. We’re hoping and dreaming that one day in the very near future we’ll be able to take this and expand to these areas.

If you would like to learn more about owning a rewarding Special Strong franchise, we encourage you to reach out to us today for more information.