When I learned that entrepreneurship would be a featured story in this issue, I immediately thought it valuable for me to a) reflect on the entrepreneurship process, and b) to share my challenges of entrepreneurship as I build a human service agency.
You will be reading many articles, and books which address much heralded philosophies, detailed procedures, and road maps to “success.” These all have merit.
However, I caution you to determine what you wish to do, and answer the question, “Why you wish to do it?”.
I must further ask, not what you are willing to invest, but “what is it that you wish to personally gain from your efforts?”
In 2010, I moved to Florida where I had become a trained family court mediator several years before. My belief in 2010 was that I could construct a non agency providing affordable family mediation services with fees based on sliding scale. In this manner, I believed that I would “corner the market” with effective, lower cost mediation compared to the ongoing fees charged by attorney mediators that range between $300 and $400 per hour.
There were two considerations here. First, price competition. Second, Toby Center mediators would be impassioned, sensitive communicators, non litigators with no indoctrinated and strong armed advocate tactics as attorneys possess.
Within six months, I learned that we could not at all compete with the attorney provider marketplace. The legal industry is a brotherhood (sisterhood, too!) which retains all their business within their own community of colleagues.
However, at that time, I found that demand increased for another court related service, supervised visitation. This was so intriguing for me, because I had much experience in this field. I served in Washington, DC as Assistant Director for Child Access (visitation)Services for the Children’s Rights Council. I was involved in designing the training curriculum for supervised visitation and was one of two instructors to train the trainers in this service nationally.
Remember the year 2010. This followed the immediate years of 2008 and 2009, when the economic collapse had threatened the American way of life, and over 30 percent of jobs were lost. Many people lost homes.
Now, also think that non-profit agencies saw their investments shrink overnight by nearly 50 percent, and most had lost from 1/3 to ½ of its donors. Donor funds had seriously declined, impacting the delivery of many service organizations that had been dependent upon such financial contributions.
Now, also know that providers of supervised visitation had gone out of business due to this lack of funding. You see, these were non-profit providers who lost funding, and had no system backup for remaining in business. They had complete dependency on donor funding.
Again, revisit 2010.
I had gone to Florida because it was just one of twelve states requiring mediation when parents separate. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to reduce the conflict between parents when they divorced, and I wanted children still to have maximum opportunities for their parents to remain active in their lives so that children may grow with joy, with confidence, and with all that both nurturing parents want for their children.
I founded the The Toby Center for Family Transitions as a multi-service agency to provide parents child access, support and co-parenting skills when they separate. The agency was funded primarily by myself who had saved and inherited monies since my dad had passed on in 2009. I was fortunate that my dad’s estate provided several years of personal financial security, but most importantly, that money was used to help us pay our rent, purchase supplies, and hire part-time staff. Those funds were used often to help people who were unable to pay for visitation and therapeutic services.
Increasingly, family attorneys and area Circuit Courts learned of the Toby Center’s available visitation program. We were filling a vacuum. But we had little structure for preparing these independent contractors and no finalized system for charging standard fees for these services.
As my personal funds became diminished over several years, it was then that I had a significant “reality check.” I realized that we did desperately need to create a) payment policy; b) staff training policy; and c) accountability for client reports.
Let’s now have a check on those points which challenged me greatly, and gave me pause and sleepless nights.
1. Assumption that family mediation services were needed in our marketplace.
2. Assumption that Circuit Courts would immediately welcome us into their purview and offer us financial support and referrals.
3. Assumption that our reputation would grow.
4. Assumption that funders would come forward and donors would delight in their association with us.
5. Assumptions above were unfounded.
6. Annual Revenues from service fees did not exceed $10,000.
1. The Toby Center partners with 12 churches offering classroom space to assist our work with client families seeking supervised visitation, therapy, and reunification services.
2. The Toby Center has a staff of 27 independent contractors, including two employees and offering supervised visitation, therapy and parenting education in 12 counties and counting in its home State of Florida.
3. Over 300 children and 600 parents served annually since 2015. Countless extended family members helped also.
3. The Toby Center has standardized procedure for new clients, for case assignment and for accountability from clinical and non clinical field staff.
4. The Toby Center is accepted formally by six Circuit Courts in South and Central Florida.
5. The Toby Center has been invited to provide supervised visitation and therapeutic visitation services in Toledo, Ohio.
6. The Toby Center revenues exceed $175,000 from service fees.
7. I do not support the Toby Center with personal finances. (I haven’t since 2014.)
8. Toby’s Kids was introduced in 2017 as a scholarship fund for parents who are unable to afford services to see their children or to improve their co-parenting skills.
9. The Toby Center is a provider for the Department of Children and Families through a regional third party case management company, Child Net. (Child Net pays for services ordered more than 45 days following receipt of invoice. That remains a challenge for us.)
10. The Toby Center is contracting with a Development Officer who will be paid percentage of fees raised from fundraising events and grant writing.
11. Volunteer and low fee web designers have assisted us with the Toby Center’s online presence.
12. We are automating the agency by contracting with ADP to provide data when staff members complete their time cards.
13. We are seeking further automation options for client database and case management. Options found so far exceed $1000 which is currently unaffordable.
14. We still have no budget for working capital, so I am driving Lyft evenings.
15. I now earn a paycheck, $250 weekly, along with my early social security.
16. I continue to work 10 to 12 hours a day, and go to sleep thinking about my To Do list.
Lessons I learned from this 10-year history
1. Don’t assume.
2. Prepare environmental scans of your marketplace in advance to know truly what the needs are for your (products or) services.
3. Have a budget. (This actually scared me. I was personally motivated by own highly conflicted divorce in 1997-98, and I wanted nothing more to achieve than helping parents and their children in crisis. Lack of money wasn’t going to stop me.)
4. Practice self-care. Identify supportive, understanding individuals and spend time discussing your concerns, your fears, your dreams.
5. Participate in networking groups that have a) direct relationship to your work; b) may open doors for marketing exposure; c) identify who you’d like to learn from, work with, and co-marketing with; d) let everyone know who you are, what you do, and why what you do is important.
6. Believe in your mission.
7. Be open to change.
8. “Don’t look backwards, life doesn’t go that way.” Sidney Roseman, my dad.
9. Find a mentor. Don’t be bashful. You don’t know everything. You won’t ever know everything.
When I was attending grad school at Syracuse University where I was studying business in the mid 70’s, there had been another depressive economy. What I observed then was that companies had drastically pared down their marketing departments. Instead, they were looking at how to preserve their cash. In fact, at that time, the University MBA program had virtually no marketing courses! Can you believe that? One course! It was a fabulous applications-oriented marketing course taught by someone who I considered a blacksheep in the University at that time.
Professor Bill Fleming was a soft spoken, down to earth, jeans-wearing former fighter pilot who had been shot down while serving in Viet Nam. He had an uncanny sense of possible and impossible. In fact, he saw that nothing was impossible, if you can imagine it. It was Professor Fleming, who, with his flaming swept back red hair was kind, and encouraging, always with a special smile, I found most engaging of anyone at Syracuse then. He then, as I recognize now, had been my inspiration for achieving what may be insurmountable. Find your Professor Bill, and you’ll be on your way!
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Dr. Mark Roseman owned an insurance agency at the time of his divorce in 1997. Subsequently, he obtained his Ph.D. in Marriage and Family, became a Family Mediator, worked in Washington DC for the Children’s Rights Council. Later, after teaching college Management and Human Communication at University of New Haven, he relocated to Florida where he founded the Toby Center for Family Transitions, now a primary provider of co-parenting and visitation services (www.thetobycenter.org). A specialist in high conflict divorce, Roseman is author of Preserving Family Ties, An Authoritative Guide to Divorce and Child Custody, his first book published this Spring by WestBow Press. It is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. The text’s website is www.PreservingFamilyTies.com.