When she was 13, Jennifer Phelps used colored pencils to draw a plan for a clinic she planned to build someday. She already knew that she wanted to help children with autism and developmental disabilities. Her nephew had special needs, and she saw first-hand the challenges of caring for him.
When she grew up and went to college, it wasn’t a difficult decision to get a psychology degree and then later provide applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy to children, teenagers, and adults. But, when ABA therapy was finally covered by insurance, she decided the time was right to put those childhood blueprints to work and start her own business. That’s how Engage Behavioral Health — a network of clinics that provide services to special needs clients right in their homes — began.
Since starting the business in 2008, it’s grown to service more than 400 clients at six clinics in six states. Here are some the lessons she learned while building her successful business.
GETTING PAST THE FEAR
Starting my company was scary. I needed a paycheck to cover my expenses, so at first, I got another full-time job to pay my bills. I decided that I wasn’t going to let paying my rent get in the way of following my passion.
While I was financially prepared for the challenges of starting my business, I quickly learned there was a lot I didn’t know.
One of my biggest challenges was the fact that I was starting an ABA treatment clinic and, at the time, there were none around. Not only was I a first-time entrepreneur, but I was also starting a company with nothing to model it on.
It was new to attorneys. It was new to accountants. It was new to every expert I could find to talk to. So, getting started required a lot of research — and some trial and error. Eventually, we got up and running, and people starting clinics now look at us for guidance.
“I don’t expect people to be perfect. We all make mistakes. I’m going to make them as well.”
My biggest challenge as a CEO has been this: I want everyone to be happy. It’s been hard to realize that I can’t make all my employees or clients happy all the time. In the beginning, I really took that to heart when I had to make a decision that wasn’t the outcome I knew someone wanted.
But I’ve come to realize that the hard choices I make are what’s best in the end. I think just knowing that it’s impossible to make everyone happy helps, as does realizing that my focus has to be on what’s best for everyone.
What I can do is build a culture of trust. The people I have surrounded myself with have truly been integral to my success. I’ve talked to a lot of small business owners who struggle letting things go and delegating because they’re afraid that their staff will screw things up. But I could never have done this by myself.
When I first started, I had a small team, but I invested time in mentoring them. What’s really helped build trust is very honest communication. I want my staff to tell me everything — even when they mess up.
I don’t expect people to be perfect. We all make mistakes. I’m going to make them as well. I’m very open with my team about the business and my own mistakes, and they are too. Being able to have faith in people and give them autonomy has been critical in helping us grow.
NURTURING THE COMPANY CULTURE
When I first started, I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I just saw myself as doing something that I loved with people who did it with me. We were hyper-focused on providing good services and inadvertently we built a great company culture. At first, when we started to grow, that company culture trickled down to the people and that was great.
But, after a while, we grew too quickly for that to happen organically. Our culture changed because I wasn’t being purposeful about how we were communicating it. We had to stop accepting new clients for about six months to reorganize our operations and to establish our culture. That included being intentional about how we communicate and how we interact with clients and each other.
That’s when I realized that it was important to put my vision down on paper. I think if I could go back to the very beginning I would create a plan for the first six months, one year, and two years. I also would have hired a business coach to help me with business planning and building a company culture.
Now that I’m a working mom with two young kids, I have to balance being an entrepreneur and a mom. It’s very challenging to try to meet all the expectations that we put on ourselves as women and as moms, but then also as a CEO.
A big part of being able to succeed in both arenas was having that great team. They support my vision for my family and my vision for my career. While it’s never perfect, I feel very lucky that most days I can say that I’m succeeding as a business owner and a parent.
Jennifer Phelps is a client of Northwestern Mutual and works with Wealth Management Advisor David S. Silver.