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How This Woman Owned a Small Business and Retired by 43 How This Woman Owned a Small Business and Retired by 43
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How This Woman Owned a Small Business and Retired by 43

Insights & Ideas Team •  July 11, 2016 | Business and Careers, Your Finances, Self Made Women

Twenty years ago, Kim Salls was a single mom, barely making ends meet as she worked long hours in customer service while trying to put herself through school. Two decades later, when she was just 43, she retired, stepping back from a business that she built and grew rapidly.

“Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for my life,” she said.

An Unlikely Path

Salls delayed college due to finances, entering community college in her early 20s, balancing classes with an infant daughter and work. Transferring to St. Louis University, she realized that her first chosen route, medical school, was not for her and switched to psychology. By senior year she was waitressing, worrying about paying off $90,000 in student loans and looking for a job in her field when she saw an ad searching for someone to work with autistic children. Although she had no formal training, answering the ad changed her life.

“I ended up falling in love with the job,” she said, although it was very intimidating at first. At the time, in the 1990s, Behavior Analysis was a relatively young and unregulated field, and licensure and certification didn’t exist in the state of Missouri. There was little to no formal training available, and parents often relied on trainers such as Salls to figure out on their own how to work with their child.

It was intimidating getting to know children who were nonverbal, had significant behavior problems and displayed a very limited ability to communicate with the outside world.

She started by working with just a few children but quickly found herself in demand. For a person who had grown up knowing she wanted to help others, the job was extremely gratifying: “It was neat to see the progress a lot of kids could make when they had one-on-one attention.”

A short time later, the St. Louis School District was looking to hire people for something known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and the district brought Salls on board right out of college because she was already using ABA with children she worked with. 

“I was super grateful just to have a job. It paid about $36,000 per year; but after working at the bank, it felt like I was a millionaire. I jumped on it.”

The district paid for extra training for Salls and others in ABA and eventually sent them through a master’s program at the University of Nevada–Reno.

“They flew instructors in every other weekend for three years straight, and we were required to sit in class for eight hours Saturday and eight hours Sunday. It was quite a commitment because we all worked full time, and some of us had children. It’s hard going through school and then adding in that you’re a single parent. I’m proud of what I did. ”

Salls leaned on family for help taking care of her daughter. “In particular, my father, who has since passed away, helped. He was an enormous support.”

The Decision to Go Solo

While working at the school district, Salls started picking up extra hours on nights and weekends through an outside vendor for autism services.

“I just became inundated with calls. I felt like I was getting calls almost every day from a new family. I worked all the time, and yet I was still turning people down weekly if not daily—and it’s just a sinking feeling. My heart went out to those families.”

Save Smarter: The Truth About Your 401(k)It was then that she realized that she could do more and decided to open her own ABA business.

“I always make decisions based on how it feels. I trust my instincts and stick with decisions come hell or high water. One day I had just turned down a family, and I started thinking about it and realized I could go out on my own and help all of these children and these families. With a day’s thought I walked into my boss’s office.”

Her boss and all of her friends and family told her it was a risky, if not foolish, decision. She would be leaving a secure school job for an absolute unknown. Yet she never doubted herself. “I just told everyone, ‘It’s something I feel like I have to do.’”

In 2004, while finishing up her master’s degree, she went against the advice of everyone she knew and struck out on her own as a one-woman operation in ABA. “Literally, within two months I had more families than I could manage once again.”

She asked another woman she knew and respected to join her. This meant figuring out how to create a company where she could pay her new employee and offer her health insurance.

“I called an accountant and asked all kinds of questions. Then I went online and did research on how to start a company; I filled out the paperwork and did everything you have to do.”

A few months later the two were so busy she added another employee and then another. The company grew by leaps and bounds. As a health care company, it was especially important to keep current on training and state regulations, but Salls was meticulous in attention to detail while also working to create an office atmosphere of respect.

“My most important job at many times was to make sure my key people loved their jobs and felt my gratitude for what they did and felt buy-in for the company.”

As her business grew, Salls became a Northwestern Mutual client, trusting her financial advisor to help guide her along the way.

Retiring at 43

In 2013, the opportunity to retire presented itself when Salls interviewed a woman for a job. She found the woman had a desire to help lead and guide the future of her company. Because the woman had run a similar company for 17 years, she came armed with a wealth of knowledge, and Salls knew her new employee would be able to run the company. Her instinct told her it was time to make another change.

“I honestly didn’t know how that would actually look or if I would like retirement, but it’s been really nice.”

Salls has come a long way from her time of struggling to make ends meet—when she would run her daughter to daycare first thing in the morning, hustle to the classes for a few hours, go to work, go back to school and study late into the night after putting her child to sleep.

“I knew I wanted my life to be different and better. I knew I would do anything that I had to do to make that happen, and I’m generally a risk taker. If someone tells me it’s risky but there’s a great reward, I’ll probably try it. I knew I was good at my job working with children with disabilities, and I was confident that I could make a living on my own even though everyone told me to play it safe.”

The future is wide open for Salls, and she’s not sure what might be next. Looking back, the most satisfying part of her entire journey is the help she has given to autistic children.

Her daughter is now grown up and studying finance at college.

Her advice to others? If you have an idea or a dream, just go for it.

“Any person can do it. I’m not a genius. The only difference between someone who does it and someone who just thinks it is action.”

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