INTRODUCTION: The Heart of the Work
Not too long ago, I invited five professionals to my office to put my business to the test. I had met each of them in different situations, and I greatly respected their insights, perspectives, and business acumen.
At the time, I had owned my business for more than twenty years. I had loyal staff and plenty of clients, but I was uncertain my music therapy company was viable, let alone sustainable for another twenty years. We had low profit margins, and I continued to work many long hours just as I had done when I started the company. I carefully looked to these individuals for help in making a difficult decision: close our doors or move into the next phase of growth.
I presented every aspect of my company’s journey, using case studies and statistics to define our growth and show our financial status and forecast. During the last ten minutes of the presentation I showed a video that I often share with potential customers, about the people we serve and how our offerings have affected their lives. When I turned the lights back on, my guests were crying. Many times before, I had witnessed tears after describing the effects of our work, but I was caught off guard when these seasoned business leaders heard the facts and felt the emotions that went along with our work.
Because I was reflecting on the emotional impact of the video, I almost missed what the group was telling me: “Yes,” they said. At first, I was confused and then remembered that I had asked them a question at the beginning of the presentation—before I shared the mission statement and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, before the profit-and-loss statements and client testimonials. I had asked them if the way I was operating this business seemed sustainable to them, something that could continue in a similar way for many more years to come. “Yes,” they said and then they followed up with questions, to which I responded:
Are you in debt? No.
Do you pay your staff? Yes, we have contractors and staff on annual salary with modest benefits.
Do you pay yourself? Yes, I have been on salary for the past decade.
Are your customers happy with your services? Yes.
And finally: Are you still getting regular referrals? Yes, and we are seeing growth every year; in fact, we have been adding almost one new employee every year since the day we opened our doors.
For the first time in a long time, I heard my answers as validation of our company’s achievements and not as evidence of its weaknesses.
When family members or friends asked me similar questions earlier in my business development, my answers were quite different. Then, I knew the services we provided were making a difference in people’s lives, but I didn’t always pay myself the way I should and I didn’t feel I was always providing the best service to my customers, giving them the time and energy they deserved. My discomfort with these shortcomings troubled me a lot and helped me begin to change many of our actions and processes, which carried us into our current reality.
When we faced a new problem or a recurring one, I wanted to figure it out. I had a sense of what the right answers were and where we needed to be, but I still lacked all the skills I needed to get there. I rarely spoke about the “business” side of my company with others because I was worried it would somehow discredit the overarching good work we were doing. I didn’t want to share my failings with anyone for fear that my dream would stop before it really got going.
But on this day, I heard the answers differently and felt something shift inside myself.
This group heard the heart of the work and understood that my company was making a difference in the community it served. They also felt that, because of its consistent (albeit modest) positive cash flow, my company had become financially sustainable, even successful. They felt that with a few more tweaks, coupled with a significant shift in mindset on my part, I could carry on in a new way and make an even grander difference.
At this meeting, I learned that my lack of confidence wasn’t originating from what was happening but from the fear of what might happen: the fear that I could no longer serve the clients I wanted to serve, the fear that I would have to close my company’s doors, the fear that I would have to give up on my dream—and I equated that fear with reality.
To take the next step, I had to cast aside my notions of how my business “ought to be,” by other people’s standards. Instead, I needed to build my business as it was meant to be: one that would thrive through the rough patches, serve the community, and help clients reach their goals. I had to embrace a new perspective, a more optimistic learning state that would continue to open doors and allow me to feel a true sense of purpose. It was important that I continue to forge a new path for my values-driven business and myself, committing to the long haul. In many ways, this moment was a reckoning and a way of bringing me full circle—to my beginnings as a young music therapist in Calgary, Canada, searching for my first client.
Finding My Place
Early in my career, there were no music therapy jobs in the public healthcare sector. To access the clients I wanted to serve, I had to create a model to reach them, so I started a private, mobile, community-based business. the company would commute to where its customers were, learn their interests and goals, and treat them in their current environment (hospital, care home, agency). Over several years, as I hired staff, I began to embrace my expanding role of leading a team, developing systems, and learning the ins and outs of running a growing business.
Over time, I noticed a disparity of practice and language between the healthcare and education environments I served compared with what I was hearing at the business networking groups I had joined. I was learning from my clients, and the healthcare and education environments I was working in, that a different style of “doing business” was needed.
I have always identified with the word entrepreneur, but at times it seemed to describe someone who was more adventurous and riskier than I ever felt. Much later in my career, I heard the term social entrepreneur, referring to an individual who cares about, and finds solutions for, pressing social problems, needs, and challenges. I felt aligned with much of social entrepreneurship, and terms from this growing movement struck a chord with me: social impact, community impact, and social purpose business. However, working in a relatively new healthcare profession, one that I was passionate about and wanted to help spread throughout North America and the world, I felt the terminology of social entrepreneurship was still not quite on point for me.
“Whenever society is stuck or has an opportunity to seize a new opportunity, it needs an entrepreneur to see the opportunity and then to turn that vision into a realistic idea and then a reality and then, indeed, the new pattern all across society. We need such entrepreneurial leadership at least as much in education and human rights as we do in communications and hotels.” —Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public
Healthcare and wellness companies needed a new term that described our unique business model, which focused on health and wellness, serving clients in both public and private sectors.
I couldn’t find any resources to show me how an entrepreneur in the health and wellness field could build a sustainable business without compromising their organization’s patient-focused goals and mission. Many books helped me with starting up, closing sales, and advertising my services, but I always found that the language didn’t fit a health service business like mine. There were plenty of books on building businesses, sure; lots of resources for aspiring and current entrepreneurs; and even a growing field of information for the social entrepreneur. But nothing for a socially minded entrepreneur working in health care.
It took me over two decades to define how I saw myself within the business community, the healthcare community, the non-profit community, and the vast populations we served. I started to feel we are different. We are offering a new way of doing business: a health entrepreneur’s way.