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People in the helping professions are far better known for their kindness and compassion than their business savvy. We were delighted to come across a most unusual speech-language pathologist, Sondra McMindes, M.S., who not only embodies all three of these qualities but has managed to leverage them into a highly successful small business.
“I think it’s always been my nature to try to help people,” says the empathic CEO and president of Children’s Therapy Place (CTP), a consortium of over 75 child-centric helping professionals based in Boise, Idaho. With annual revenues that have exceeded $2 million, CTP provides evaluation and therapy services for children who have a wide range of physical, emotional and developmental disabilities—children whose needs were largely unmet before CTP came on the scene.
Sondra McMindes started Children’s Therapy Place out of her home, as a newcomer to Idaho, in 2000. In 2012, she was named “Idaho Small Business Person of the Year.”
Doing good and also doing well were both ambitions manifested early on in Sondra’s journey. As a young child, she befriended her cognitively disabled next-door neighbor, a contemporary, casting herself in the role of his teacher, using blackboard and chalk to help him learn the alphabet. Her nascent altruism went hand-in-hand with a keen sense of personal ambition. “I was always very motivated to be a top seller in the school fundraising drives,” she admitted, when pressed. “I loved going door to door, selling the school candles, candy and so on, driven to win the big prize.”
After earning a master’s degree in speech pathology in her native Florida, Sondra started marketing her services as an independent contractor in the public schools. “As a new graduate, young and single, I was a workaholic. I put 100 percent of my time into work!” Capitalizing on the opportunities she saw to grow a business, she ended up with a few employees and several contracts. She built up her caseload, adding new therapists to her team as needed.
Marriage brought about a major change of venue when Sondra’s husband decided to accept an offer from Boise State University to enter their PhD program in geology. “I had lived in Florida all my life,” said Sondra, “and thought it would be fun to go someplace different.”
Her willingness to embrace change—as such willingness so often does—yielded unexpected dividends.
Find a need and then fill it
Idaho, Sondra quickly discovered, was suffering from a shortage of qualified professionals willing to provide pediatric therapy services in its far-flung rural communities. No one individual therapist, however energetic and committed, could possibly fill the void. What was needed was precisely the set of skills that Sondra McMindes had already begun to acquire while living in Florida: detailed expertise in the field, paired with the know-how to build and manage a diverse team of like-minded helping professionals.
This is the formula, validated again and again, by so many successful entrepreneurs: Find a need—then fill it!
With good business instincts but lacking a business degree, Sondra wisely sought the advice of mentors at the Small Business Development Center at Boise State University. Counselors there provided her with access to professors, as well as university students assigned to work on CTP projects.
Expanding her business to a full-service therapy agency entailed a dizzying array of challenges. Sondra had to figure out what federal or state reimbursement programs she could harness to help subsidize CTP’s services for low-income clients. She knew she had to pay her employees a competitive wage, if she hoped to retain them—even though government reimbursement rates for helping professionals are typically (some would say ridiculously) low. She needed to stay on top of ever-evolving regulatory requirements and somehow keep her business solvent on the road to profitability. “I made plenty of mistakes along the way,” she told Yahoo, “some of them very costly!”
Sondra may have made a lot of mistakes—but she has also been doing something very right. Since its founding in 2000, CTP has grown from its humble beginnings in the McMindes house in Boise to a beautiful 3,500 sq ft office building plus two satellite offices in Nampa and Meridian.
No magic, just hard work
There was nothing magic about this trajectory: it took a huge amount of labor and dedication. For several years, Sondra had to give up working personally with clients because of the demands on her time levied by the business. “I became a mom in 2002 and needed to cover my own maternity leave.” She helped her clients make the transition to new therapists. “It gave me the opportunity to put more effort into working on the business instead of in the business.”
An office assistant was Sondra’s first hire in Boise. She now employs a full-time staff to take care of the day-to-day details of running CTP.
But being a bit of a micro-manager—and thinking about one’s business 24/7—seem to be part of the small business success formula. “It’s really important to hire competent administrative staff,” Sondra advises aspiring entrepreneurs. “Important aspects of the job should be double-checked, because even the best employees make errors.”
As was the case for Sondra McMindes, there may be a less-than-obvious connection between the skills you already have and the business you want to create. Sondra told us, “My training as a speech therapist has been extremely valuable in the business environment. The profession of speech pathology is all about communication. My training helped me develop communication skills that are valuable for working both with employees and clients. The profession requires research, assessment, planning—and it’s also goal directed. I use all of these same strategies in business.
Sondra offered these four nuggets of advice for others who are trying to build a service-based business from scratch:
- Set goals and continually monitor your progress toward achieving them
- Stay flexible as you learn more about your business: make new plans, revising your goals if it makes sense to do so
- Always have a Plan B (and maybe a Plan C, too!)
- Keep up to date on market trends, researching and assessing on a regular basis
We asked Sondra how she went about assembling her mostly female professional team in Boise.
“CTP grew slowly over the years. Initially, I found other professional therapists through word of mouth. Agencies would tell me about someone looking for work or vice versa.”
There weren’t many therapy companies in Idaho when she started in 2000. “Pediatric therapists were limited to working for the schools or hospitals, or as independent contractors. CTP offered something different, with a very flexible schedule. I was fortunate to have professional therapists who weren’t necessarily looking for full-time employment. Often they were moms who just wanted to have a few hours or a couple days of work per week.” Sondra says she still employs one of the first therapists to come onboard at CTP. “She only works with one client, one time per week—and we love having her on our team!”
Flexibility has characterized the organization’s mission as well as the work environment promoted by Sondra. “As I identified more community needs related to pediatric therapy, I added new services. Sometimes, a professional in another service area would come to me, suggesting that we add a new service. I often ended up recruiting her to head up the new program.”
While Sondra oversees the larger business—and attends to her own clients personally—she respects and encourages the individual therapy styles of all the professionals who work for CTP. “The physical, occupational and speech therapy professions all have their own professional Code of Ethics,” she explained. “We expect therapists to review and follow the one specific to their discipline.”
CTP’s speech/language therapists do a nine-month clinical fellowship. “During that time, they have a supervisor who oversees their work and provides additional therapeutic instruction. This is a national standard in the speech therapy industry, not specific to my company.” Sondra and her administrative staff help new hires review the many rules related to Idaho’s State Medicaid program, train them to use the office computer system and deal with all the relevant paperwork.
The best thing for Sondra about having a system that works well is getting back to the work she’s loved since childhood. “Last year, I started seeing a handful of clients on a regular basis—and rediscovered my passion for the field of speech pathology.”
That passion is evident as Sondra McMindes talks about her business: you can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. If you look and listen closely, you can see the girl who wanted to win the prize for selling the most candles, perfectly melded with the pint-size therapist who helped the little boy next door master his ABCs. “Although I’m not directly providing services for all of the families we serve,” Sondra told Yahoo, “I love the fact that I can make a difference for so many families indirectly through Children’s Therapy Place.”