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Taking the Leap from Solopreneur to Therapy Franchisee ft. Linda O’Keefe from Thriveworks

 

Linda O’Keefe had a successful career as a therapist, coach, and entrepreneur, and was ready to enjoy retirement. But some unexpected financial changes made her rethink her course, leading her to explore the world of franchising.

Hear about her journey from solopreneur to franchisee in this week’s episode, or read the transcript for her insights and advice for women considering a similar path.

Erin: Hey everyone, welcome back to another episode of the Franchise Rising Podcast. I am really excited today because we have a very special guest on. Her name is Linda O’Keefe.

Now, Linda and I go back a couple of years. I’ve known Linda – a wonderful, wonderful person. I’ve known her actually before the start of her franchise journey. What’s thrilling about this is now, fast forward a couple of years, here she is – a brand new franchisee.

So, this is different than some of the other guests that we’ve brought on who have been been in the game for a while, or might even be a year in. That’s one of the things I like to bring to you with the Franchise Rising Podcast. What I’m hearing from our listeners who are at all phases of their journey is: they’d like to hear different perspectives.

So here we are, Linda O’Keefe with the Thriveworks franchise. Linda, welcome to the show.

Linda: Thank you so much, Erin. It is a complete pleasure to be here and a complete pleasure to be with you again.

Erin: Likewise. So who would have thought a couple of years ago we would be sitting here doing an interview with you as a brand new franchisee?

Linda: I’m not sure. Certainly not me!

Erin: Hey, life takes us on amazing journeys, doesn’t it?

Linda: Yes, it definitely does.

Erin: All right. So speaking of journeys, would you please tell the audience about your journey before Thriveworks. What you were doing before, a little bit about yourself, and then we’ll move forward to where you are now.

Linda: Sure. Okay. So I have this very unique experience of knowing what I wanted to do with my life when I was a kid. As many people as I’ve talked to over the last 30 years, because I’ve been a therapist and a coach for 30 years, it’s not that often that I run into somebody who feels that way or has that sense. So I feel like that was just an incredible blessing for me.

I think it showed up pretty easily because I would just run around grocery stores and talk to strangers about their lives and ask them questions, and wanted to know why they did what they did, and why they felt the way they did. And I thought, “Yeah, this is definitely a therapist or a coach in the making.” 

So basically, I pursued that career against all other odds, like parents who didn’t want me to do it, didn’t understand, didn’t like it and blah, blah blah. But, I did go to school and get a bachelor’s degree in social work and then went ahead and got a master’s degree about seven years later and started my own practice, which was called Options for Growth.

I have been for 30 years, what you call a solopreneur, which is essentially, I’ve always had my own practice. Sometimes there have been other people involved, like when I was in Illinois where other practitioners came in and worked out of the space, that kind of thing. Sometimes it’s really just been me. But, I’ve been doing that kind of work for 30, I think I’m on my 31st year now.

Erin: Wow. Okay. Thank you for that broad background. This is great to hear because we’re hearing from someone who’s been an entrepreneur before. Doing your own thing, being your own boss, and now you’re making a very interesting transition.

Why? What many of the listeners might be thinking, why did all of a sudden decide at this point in your life, 30 years in running your own show, to actually join a franchise?

Linda: Yeah. There are numerous reasons, and I’m not going to go into the depths of the personal reasons, but let’s put it this way. I could do this work, the work I’d been doing as a solopreneur, as a therapist and a coach for the rest of my life, but at my age, frankly, I really would love to do other things, like relax, hang out with my grandchildren, travel, and sit on a beach for a while.

Linda O'Keefe Quotes

My husband and I had the incredible blessing of having enough money to retire and then had the experience many people had where a lot of that money went away. So we really don’t have the kind of funds I wanted for retirement. I had worked on a couple of different programs. I created a couple, one that you met me through and went through, A Radical Shift, which was a real baby of mine. I loved it. I started it at an age when, you know if I would have started at 20 years ago, I would have just plowed through everything to make that happen.

But at some point, I sort of realized that as much as I am an entrepreneur, when you’re a solopreneur, it’s not the same thing as building a business that could involve numerous other people to spin off some kind of possible passive income for the ability to step back instead of continuing to step in.

So, I was talking to somebody one day in California about how I wished I had some kind of structured way in back getting already built up. Like marketing in back of me, brand in back of me. Even if it’s not my own, something that could just birth me into the world of growing something and creating something.

But I wanted something I believed in. I didn’t really want to run a restaurant franchise, not that there’s anything wrong with them. Not at all. It’s just I would rather do something that really fit with what I knew. In this kind of franchise where it’s basically counseling, it’s basically a counseling and coaching practice, I know the codes and the different levels of practitioners. I know all that because that is what I’ve been involved in my whole life.

So basically, the main reasons are to build something instead of just continuing to work on a regular basis, to build something that I could believe in, that would be sustainable, that I had backup for in my years of wanting to start to slow down.

Erin: Yeah. And the idea of building that on your own, the brand, the people. All possible.

Linda: Absolutely. Again, 20 years ago, I probably would’ve just pounded it out for the amount of time it takes to do that. But, truthfully, I am a people person first and all the other sections of business (of which I’ve learned a lot more than I ever thought I would) don’t come super naturally to me.

Linda O'Keefe Quotes (1)

I don’t automatically think marketing or promotion. I think what’s going to help the client. There’s just things that I realized. I could learn it all, but a franchise is like having this great big force behind me that already has figured a lot of that stuff out.

Erin: Right. And it takes a lot of courage to admit that, in general, for all of us. And then, I imagine you understand now what it really takes to get something started and get it off the ground, and have a new appreciation.

Before having entered this space and starting the Franchise Rising Podcast, many years ago, I often wondered why would someone buy or join a franchise? Why would they pay all that money initially and on an ongoing basis when they could just do it themselves? Why take away that profit margin? Now I get it. I really do. Because really, to figure out a lot of that and to have the persistence and courage and financial resources to get it off the ground is really tremendous. I get it now.

Linda: Yeah, I do too. I think that what you said earlier about the courage, yes. It takes just honesty about the things that I’m good at and I’m drawn to, and the things that I’m not. I’m not drawn to accounting. God love you, all accountants out there that are listening right now. Without you, I’d be dead.

I’m not drawn to that. I’m not drawn to marketing and promotion. I can do it, but I’m not drawn to figuring out a whole plan of doing it, and those are the kinds of things that I think really stand in the way of me doing it on my own.

I can certainly continue to work with referrals the rest of my life. But to scale something that builds, something that then spins off more and more, that’s another whole level of knowledge about marketing and promotion and business.

Erin: Well, yeah. Then you have the other layer of dealing with HIPAA and compliance when you’re talking about therapy that I’m sure is a whole other ball of wax to figure out.

Linda: Yeah. And that is the stuff that I love about working with Thriveworks. They have figured so much of that. I said, “Here’s what you do – you hire somebody, you give them this form and that form and this form and that form, and then you let them know this and let them know that.” And I was like, “Wow. It’s just all right there!”

Erin: That’s awesome. Can we just go back to that conversation you had with someone during which you just wished you could walk into something and birth this idea with branding and support all behind you and get rolling. How did you encounter Thriveworks?

Linda: Somebody that I actually ran into at Hera Hub is somebody who is doing a similar thing. She’s trying to get that off the ground right now. She has some therapy practices in another state and she was thinking about franchising. She said, “Oh, this other place that has a franchise of therapy practices called me one day and asked me if I might want to…” I don’t know whether they asked if she wanted to join or what they asked. She said their name was Thriveworks.

And I thought, what an interesting thing to do, to actually have a franchise that’s a therapy practice. And then she talked to me about how it runs in hers and why she decided she might move forward in franchising.

I thought, wow. I mean once you get all those systems set up, it sounds like it pretty much just runs. It’s not like you don’t have to have your finger on it at all, but there’s grownups, there’s professionals at the space. There’s not people you have to chase around and get them to come to work and stuff like that.

So then later on, I just went online and I Googled them and I found their website. I was like, holy cow. Even before I looked at their setup, I just felt like 90% of what they stood for is what I stand for.

Erin: Instant alignment. The power of Google and the power of the websites, online presence really helps there. Okay, so you Googled them, their message resonated with you. Did you look at any other therapy franchises?

Linda: I did Google therapy franchises and I don’t remember, I think there were two that came up. I think it’s pretty new. I can’t tell you that for sure because maybe it’s not. Some people don’t have theirs under therapy franchises but they have it under counseling or they have it under coaching. But, I think Thriveworks is on the cutting edge of something that in the future is probably going to be a lot bigger than it is right now.

Linda O'Keefe Quotes (2)

Erin: Well, and especially culturally as we become more aware and accepting of adopting therapy into our lives. That’s fantastic. Okay, so you Googled them, you felt good about Thriveworks. Then what happened? How did you connect with Thriveworks and what did the next phase of the process look like for you?

Linda: So I just connected with the franchise consultant and I chatted with him for a while. Did some online forms, did some more investigating, and read reviews. You know, just moved into that process of really discovering everything I could about what they were about. And within that process there were a couple of things that I found out that were very hard for me to resist. I mean, they said that and I went, are you kidding me? That’s gold.

Erin: Can you talk about it?

Linda: Sure. What they’ve done, is they have set up a set of systems. They can’t tell a franchisee, you have to use all these systems, but here they are.

One of them, which they call the IP solutions, is literally an answering service that’s people answering the phone all the time for first time potential clients. A call comes in maybe from advertising in that area or or from somebody who knows their insurance is covered. They’re asking about Thriveworks or meeting with a therapist, and these people who sit in this room full of chairs and their headphones, talk to these people in a way that when I heard them in person was just the most wonderful thing imaginable. And so any potential client I would ever have or ever want, to talk to these people would be amazing. I mean, it almost brought tears to my eyes.

One of the reasons that’s the case is because the CEO, in a time of transition when he knew he needed to go to therapy, called 41 therapists and got 41 answering machines. So then when people started to get back to him, he said it was either days, sometimes it was weeks before they got back. They scheduled him out three months in advance. They only took private pay at a high, high rate. And he goes, “It just shouldn’t be this hard when you’re in trouble to get help. It just shouldn’t be this hard. I just wanted to talk to a human voice.”

So he’s very committed to have people answering the phone. I don’t know how to tell you how important I think that is, that anybody who is seeking therapy actually gets a real person on the line and can speak to them who’s calming and kind and says, “Yes, of course. We can get you in.” And his whole thing is we get everybody in within two weeks’ time. They never wait longer than two weeks time. If you don’t have enough therapists, hire more. Just don’t leave people waiting.

You make sure you take insurance. You make it easy for them to come in and get the help that they need. So they do that. And then they also do all the billing, insurance billing, they do all of that on their end.

And they do credentialing for therapists to get onto boards, which means a therapist who works at Thriveworks can come in, either meet with a client or check out their calendar to see if they have clients that have been put into their calendar because the answering service will literally just plunk people into their calendar, and they do their work with that client. They do their notes online for the session, and they go home. They don’t have to call insurance companies, they don’t have to verify benefits. It’s huge. If you’ve been in private practice, that takes 30 to 40% of your time doing all that other stuff.

Erin: I can see why that’s all very compelling. You know, I am really passionate about this idea, especially in 2018, of reducing these friction points that you talk about. And from what I hear the founder of Thriveworks has identified these friction points easy for the client, for the patients, for the therapist, and for the business owner.

Linda: Yup.

Erin: So if you’re looking at a franchise, I would absolutely be looking at that. These days, anything, whether it’s answering machines, phone trees, things that have to do with billing, just identify all of those things that create pain points for your customers. And if it’s hard, if someone else is doing it easier, unless they’re really passionate about the brand, they’re probably going to be going with the competition.

We’re busy. We’re getting a lot more comfortable with what can help us now. And gosh, if someone’s really in pain because they’re suffering from something and they need to talk to someone, that makes it even more important for it to be easy to find a therapist. That’s fantastic.

Linda: Yeah.

Erin: Okay. So you identified all of these really compelling advantages of Thriveworks. You talked to them. What happened next? How did you go from there to actually becoming a franchisee?

Linda: I just identified that it’s something I really wanted to do. Not just Thriveworks, but I really wanted to move forward with something that I could be a part of building, even if it wasn’t my own, for our future. And this presented me with every opportunity to do that.

Linda O'Keefe Quotes (3)

They’ve done something else that’s really valuable for a potential owner and that is: other than your franchise fee, the one you pay up front, there’s a nominal fee each month, but it’s tied to how much money you’re earning.

So it’s the upfront franchise fee and maybe the rent you’re going to pay before things get up and going. You know, you go and you put the office together. This is all the upfront investment, right?

Every single other thing that you pay is tied to income. So we don’t pay the answering service people unless they’re answering phones that relate to us getting clients. We don’t pay the billing people unless they’re billing sessions for our therapists. We don’t pay a small franchise fee monthly unless it’s tied to a gross amount of income we’re making.

Erin: So that really reduces the overhead. It sounds like more of the costs are variable than in other business models.

Linda: Yes, and that makes it way less scary because it’s not that much money. So it just makes it doable to get into the whole thing. Probably before you start earning money, even with the franchise fee, you may have output maybe $40,000-$45,000. That’s it, and that’s not a lot to start a business like this.

Erin: Right, right. I imagine it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. I mean, whenever we’re starting something new, we have some concerns and fears. What were some of your concerns going into this?

Linda: Well first of all, I’ve never employed people. And they suggested that we make impact, that actually, we’re employers. Meaning, their whole thing was we can’t tell you can’t do independent contractors. I’ve done that before. I’ve had people work with me where they’re independent contractors, I pay them and then they just go and do all their taxes and everything on their own. But they suggest employee status because they think it’s more team building.

There’s things that I didn’t even realize, like I can’t order a Thriveworks business card with their name on it because they’re not technically an employee anyway. So, the employee thing was something I worried about.

The two factors were: how am I going to find therapists and how am I going to navigate the having employees piece, which to me means Quickbooks, and taxes, and FICA, and social security, navigating all that territory, right? W-9s and whatnot. So yeah, that’s how much I know about it. Right? Those were difficult.

The how do I find therapists thing was answered the last day we were training, when when the trainer walked in with resumes from our area and said he had published an ad on Indeed for our area and I had 13 resumes in my hand.

Erin: Oh, okay.

Linda: And I hadn’t done anything yet. So actually four of those people, I just hired them. And then I put out another Indeed ad and I had a bunch of other resumes, but I think altogether I had 36 resumes within the first three weeks. So that was answered. That doesn’t seem to be too hard to do, finding people who want to do this.

The employee thing, you know, I just have my little book and I just follow it as much as I can step by step so I don’t miss a step around that. But those were the things that concerned me. My husband’s so hysterical because he’s like, “Okay, how are we going to get therapists and how are we going to get enough work? How are clients going to come?”

Erin: Those are good questions.

Linda: For whatever reason, I have not worried about that. It might be because we sat next to a guy who was a clinician at one of the other Thriveworks. I’m caveating by saying I don’t know that this is a normal experience, but he was a real honest guy and he just said, “I started in the first week of January 2018 and I had a complete full case load by February 15th.”

Erin: That’s encouraging. This was at Discovery Day?

Linda: Yeah. Well, this was the last day of training. He was going from clinician to manager because the woman who owns the franchise he got hired in is now opening a second and third franchise. So he’s getting the training now.

Erin: How long was training?

Linda: Two and a half days. We went to the discovery day and then we did the training afterwards. I think it was two and a half days.

Erin: Okay. And when did you actually sign? I don’t think we’ve established that, but your franchise is in Tucson, Arizona, correct?

Linda: It is.

Erin: Okay. How long has it taken between the time when you signed and where you are now? And then tell us where you are now.

Linda: Okay. We signed on July 19th. I got into Tucson on the 24th of July. I signed my lease for the space on August 27th. So it took a month. I hired four people last week. Because I signed the lease, it’s getting all the tenant improvements, so the buildout is happening right now. All of that’s going to be done by next Sunday. It’s moving really fast.

Erin: Holy smokes!

Linda: Yep. And then what’s happening right now is mostly, other than navigating the employee thing, I am busy, busy ordering furniture, ordering everything that’s needed for that space. All the art, all the brochures and cards, and everything else. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Erin: Wow. And have they been with you every step of the way from finding a location, negotiating the lease, ordering furniture, decor, design?

Linda: Yes. I have Mike, and he’s the head of franchise success. He is available, certainly not 24/7, but he’s available a lot so I can almost always get ahold of him, even with the three hour time difference. He always answers the questions. He gives me the next step. We’re opening October 1st, so like two and a half months to get the place, get it all set up. Almost the entire month of September is just setting up the space.

Erin: Wow. Well, thank you for taking some time out of your day to have this conversation with us. Really appreciate it.

Linda: Sure.

Erin: Wow. So how is your husband feeling now that he’s seen it, now that you have employees? And of course you haven’t opened yet, so you don’t have a patients coming in. Is he feeling better about it?

Linda: Yeah, he is. He was just here a little while ago and he got into the space and he’s feeling much better about the whole thing. I think in general it’s just a stretch. It’s a lot of work, but I will tell you that it’s the kind of work where I feel like not only am I accomplishing something, but I’m building something. I’m not doing work that I’m going to do next week and the next week, over and over again.

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As much as I love meeting with clients, this is building something to where eventually I’ll be able to step back and manage from afar.

Erin: I love that. It sounds like the perfect marriage between being a solo entrepreneur, and I don’t want to say working for someone else, but you’re building something that hopefully will be passive as you, as you envision it.

And Linda, I asked that question about your husband just because this is something that so many of our listeners need to navigate if they have a spouse or a partner in their life – bringing them on board, figuring it out, and making sure that they are that way because we have to have their support in order for it to be successful.

Do you have any advice for the women who are undergoing this journey about how to keep their spouse or partner engaged in it and onboard?

Linda: Find a way to make sure they’re part of every step of the process, even if they’re busy at work or doing whatever. You know, I keep my husband and updated. “I hired people today,” “I met with this great person today. I think they’re going to be awesome.” “I got the best bid ever on the paint for the space. It’s like half of what other people were bidding. I’m really excited,” “This part was frustrating, this part was good.” Even from the beginning I did my best to keep him with me in the loop. I think it may be different for some couples.

Maybe the spouse says, “Don’t even tell me about it. Just go do it.” I don’t know. But, I think a whole lot of it is buy in, which is why when we went to the Discovery Day, then signed and went through the training, my husband was with me through that entire thing. Now he knows the whole thing. He got to feel like the general because we were out their main office. He got to have the sense of what they do and how they do it and everything. And then that was buy in for him.

Erin: That’s some really good practical advice that a lot of us can take with us. So thank you. All right, so October 1st is the big day. Looking forward into the future, the opening day and the future. Do you have any specific goals in mind in the short term? Three months, six months out, one year? Where would you hope to be? And then we’re going to check back with you at that time.

Linda: Oh my goodness.

Erin: I’m kidding! Go ahead.

Linda: So I ended up with a bigger space than they normally suggest you have. They normally suggest you start with four or five office spaces, maybe 1100 square feet. I’m 1800 square feet, eight office spaces.

So I would like to have at least 12 employees to cover all the hours. They want us to open eight to eight Monday through Friday and eight to four on Saturday. So, you know, just to have therapists, some that can do part time, some that want to do evenings. So my goal would be to have that many therapists and to have the place buzzing. My prayer at that point, a year out, is 200 hours a week.

Erin: I like the specific goals!

Linda: Oh, I’ve got it. I was just writing all this down, what that means financially. So yeah, I have a very specific goal of having this practice have a gross amount of $800,000 a year.

Erin: Amazing. Thank you for sharing those. Sometimes it really helps to see some specific dollars and specific goals. Even though every situation is relative, it’s encouraging to hear that. It sounds like you’re off to a great start.

Linda, it’s been really exciting for me personally to have watched you go through this journey and see where you are now, and hear this from you. It sounds like you’re on the right track.

Linda: Well, I think so.

Erin: Okay. So just a few questions to round out the episode I like to ask my listeners. What’s some of the best business, best business advice that you’ve ever heard or received?

Linda: I think the best business advice I’ve received to expect the unexpected. I know that doesn’t seem like it’s business, but I have to tell you that all the sections, all the moving parts of this, from starting a new corporation to getting my endorsement for my license here in Arizona, for finding the space, for finding the person to work on the space, for negotiating the lease, and all of that.

There were many unexpected things that happened, like delays. Believe it or not, I think we would have been open almost a month earlier without some of the delays we ran into. That totally helped me stay in the flow of everything. It was like, you know what? It’s just a delay. Yeah, it’s frustrating. But you know what? Something would inevitably happen that would just show up after the delay that was like, “Oh my God, that’s perfect. That works perfectly.”

Erin: Right. So it’s all matter of perspective, right?

Linda: That was really good. Um, I just say that it’s a mindset thing, but then, you know, that’s what I focus on anyway,

Erin: Which is good. It’s good for us to hear. It’s helped me a lot. Next question. What advice would you give another woman in your space looking to buy a franchise?

Linda: I would say line up all the things that you want and check off the list. Does this fit with you? For me, doing a therapy practice franchise fits with me over doing a different kind. Check. I know about it. I didn’t have to start from scratch. What is it that you really want? Are you trying to create passive income while you’re trying to build a business?

Find the thing that fits at the best. Just make sure all those factors come together, including making sure your spouse is part of that process in a way that they feel ownership as well. If not, go into the business with your spouse. My husband is technically my partner. He’s just not working with me all the time.

Erin: Right, right. And then the last one, I know you’re at the beginning of this journey, but what other female franchisees do you know who are rocking it? In any franchise.

Linda: I don’t really know other women and franchises right now, unfortunately. I’ve definitely heard our friend Carmen talk about numerous people, but I don’t really know them. But, I do know of a couple people that are in the Thriveworks franchise, and I have to tell you, that’s a whole nother world.

I’m on a forum where the franchisees all talk to each other and there are some super awesome people who own these franchises. I just love them. But there’s two that are in the thing.

One of them is Heidi and, by the way, each of these people gave me great perspective. Heidi’s done corporate and she owns her own franchise and number one, she said “You make sure you hire people who are independent. When you talk to them you say, ‘I need for you to be a person who if you’re at that space by yourself, you’re okay with it.’ Independent that you’re a self-starter, that you’re motivated, that you don’t have to be told what to do. I want people who could survive in their own private practice in here,” she said, because it saves you a lot of headaches. Do that up front. That was probably the second best advice I got.

Erin: Oh, that’s really good advice and not something that could come to you automatically because that’s not always the right kind of person for every business.

Linda: Right. And then the other woman is somebody who I just heard about. I didn’t get to meet her, but I heard about her, and she’s just this rockstar who’s really doing her own thing. And she’s the one who’s about to open her second and third franchise when she’s only opened the first one four or five months ago.

Erin: Wow!

Linda: Oh yeah. I think 40% of the people who have franchises with them open at least two.

Erin: Do you think you will?

Linda: Yeah. My goal would be to have three.

Erin: Yeah. There’s something about that number three, it is my favorite one. A lot of magic that comes in threes.

Linda: She’s kind of a rebel and I’m kind of a rebel. I love doing it, and at the same time I recognize that I need to respect the baby that the CEO has built and nourished.

Erin: Well, as you all protect the brand, then that’s going to help you going forward. Right. Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing all this. I would love, love, love to circle back to you in a year, find out how things are going, with your permission. We all wish you the best and we really appreciate you sharing your story.

Linda: Absolutely. Thank you, Erin.

Erin: Thanks, Linda.

 

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