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Karen Vassar Interview: There are No Cookie-Cutter Days

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Amanda: Hello, we are coming to you live today from our 2019 national conference, Griswold Home Care. I’m on-site with a few of our franchisees today. Super excited to get some different input and thoughts on some questions that we have prepared. And we’re joined today by Karen Vassar, a franchisee director, owner in Northern Virginia. Karen, Northern Virginia, right?

Karen: Correct.

Amanda: Thank you. First of all, thanks so much for joining us, taking time out of the conference to come and be on our franchise with purpose.

Karen: I’m happy to be here.

Amanda: We are very glad to have you. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Pre-Griswold, who was Karen?

Karen: Pre-Griswold, five years ago, Karen was an executive recruiter for many, many years. And I woke up one day and found that that really didn’t hold any magic for me anymore. So I did some soul searching and said, “What do I want to do next?” And I definitely wanted to work for myself, own my own business, and I wanted to do something that was personally meaningful to me. And I quickly landed on Home Care. I don’t think there’s many people who can’t relate to the importance of it. And we look at the demographics of our population and how that need is just going to grow. And then I dial it back and look at my own parents and personal experience that has come from their aging process. So I definitely did a 180, you know, from leaving Corporate America and moving into a business ownership position, which has been quite an experience.

Amanda: Awesome. That’s a lot. And it’s a common theme when I ask people this question, you know, what was it that made you decide on home care and getting involved, and it’s being your own boss is a whole different conversation entirely from where is it that you want to make a difference And I love that you shared, you know, it’s something that touches everyone’s life. Home care with aging parents and family members and loved ones. So there is something that I think is very personal for a lot of folks. Making your own choice and being your own boss, and there’s a lot of options there, right? Do I start something up from the ground? Do I go to some other different routes? Do I buy a franchise? So why ultimately did you land on the franchise route?

Karen: Yeah, that really wasn’t a decision I had to think about for a long time and simply because I knew I didn’t know a lot. But one thing I did know is that I didn’t want to spend my first nine months to a year putting together marketing materials, back-office systems, which can be just incredibly time-consuming and energy-consuming. And I also…

Amanda: And financially consuming.

Karen: And financially consuming. And I wanted to go with, you know, versus hanging out my own shingle, Karen’s Home Care, I wanted to go with proven model and something that had been out in the market for a while and was, you know, a proven entity, had had been done and it had a good reputation. Because I think that when you have a business, a home care that is so incredibly personal, that reputation means a lot.

Amanda: Absolutely. And we say all the time, I won’t put a caregiver in a home that I wouldn’t put in my own mother’s home and…

Karen: That’s exactly right. Yeah. I mean, essentially, you know, there are very few businesses that require you to build the trust with the family. So that they know whoever that caregiver is that you’re putting in their home, you have fully vetted them and you know them, and you are… You know, again, I tell people that I speak with, “Where do I set my bar?” My bar with caregivers is, would I put them in my mother’s home? My mother is 85. So I am living…my clients who are adult sons and daughters. I am living their life. I know exactly what the concerns are and where they get push back and how hard it is sometimes for people to actually receive care. It’s a process.

Amanda: Right. So this isn’t just kind of a talk the talk, you really are walking the walk. This is something you’re experiencing yourself.

Karen: Absolutely. My mother has mild cognitive disorder and it is… I always tell people that we clearly take care of a lot of people at end of life and we see a lot of grieving. And one of the things I have learned or has come to the forefront for me is that grieving happens well before the person passes. Anybody with Alzheimer’s or dementia knows that very well, is that you lose part of that person that you have known for your whole life.

Amanda: Absolutely.

Karen: And there are a lot of mixed emotions with that. And you can’t really understand it unless you go through it. But those people still should have quality of life and they should be given their dignity. And many times that is…the best way to do that is by allowing them to stay in the home.

Amanda: I could not agree more.

Karen: Yeah.

Amanda: So how long have you been running your office?

Karen: So I’m in my fifth year.

Amanda: Congratulations. It’s a five-year…it’s a milestone.

Karen: I know, yeah. In many ways, it seems a lot longer and in some ways, it seems like we opened last year, but yeah, it’s been a very, very interesting journey.

Amanda: What would you say the best part of owning your franchise is?

Karen: The best part is, as trite as it may sound, knowing that you are making a difference in somebody’s life. And I think that what I couldn’t really get my mind wrapped around until it happened was a spouse or a daughter or a son, you know, saying to me face to face or on the phone, “I just so appreciate what your caregivers have done. They have made dad’s life so much better. They have allowed me to continue working.” You know, it’s never just the client that you’re caring for, very few times is it just the client, it is the family, this little ecosystem, because when someone needs care that affects everyone. And just the appreciation and knowing that they have faith in me personally and in my company is extremely rewarding. And again, you know that you are making a difference in quality of life, not only for the individual, keeping them safe, keeping them in the environment that they want to be in, but keeping them engaged but also helping their family members continue with their life because life does go on.

Amanda: It really does. And, you know, you set out when you’re thinking about making this transition from corporate recruiter to owning your own business and making a difference with something, we talked to early on in the episode about that was something that was important to you. And it sounds like, from this conversation, that that’s not only the driving factor, but something that you’ve realized, you know, every day is getting that confirmation from the people whose lives you are making a difference in.

Karen: Absolutely. And it’s just… I call it a very different walk of life. I mean, when I was…I had a fabulous career in Corporate America. I mean, but the focus was on placing people in high six-figure and seven-figure jobs. And there is nothing wrong with that, you know, but that is also a very narrow lane of society. And I don’t take anything away from those folks, but I felt that it limited my exposure to something that was really happening in our world. Meaning, people are getting older at a much more rapid…we’re living longer.

There’s a lot of things going on that are deeply affecting people’s day to day life. And it’s just something that very few people cannot relate to. You know, we can’t just put our head in the sand and hope that these things never happen, that mom won’t need care or dad won’t need care or something. And I would also just say that it’s not the elderly. It’s not just the elderly. Yes, those are certainly a lot of our clients are 80 and above. But the big eyeopener for me is, you know, folks in their 40s and 50s who have either brain cancer or some other horrible condition that they need the same level of care. And that’s just… And probably in those situations, it’s even more of a crisis for the family because everybody is still working.

Amanda: You’re not prepared for it…

Karen: The spouse is still working.

Amanda: …at that stage in life. I feel like everybody sets out to make a difference. Everybody wakes up in the morning, goes, “I want to make a difference in the world,” but to actually be able to do that and not just have this grand idea that I’m gonna make an impact, but that you really are doing that every day and you’re living your purpose, you’re…

Karen: You’re living your purpose, right. And the other interesting thing about home care, and I’m sure there are other owners that would agree with me on this. It’s a very fine line between… You know, we’re not a not-for-profit. But there are certain areas of the business where you really have to think about that closely and make what I think are tough decisions. And because if we don’t, obviously if we’re not a money-making operation, we will no longer have our doors open and no one will get the help, right? So you do have to… You have to balance that business owner hat with your human hat, I’ll call it, right?

Amanda: Absolutely.

Karen: That, yes, caregivers should be paid twice as much…at least twice as much as what they earn. They’re terribly underpaid. And it’s not until you’re a business owner where you look at that in terms of profit margin. So there’s a real part to this business like any business. But sometimes what makes it hard is that you’re dealing with people and that making decisions that affect their lives and kind of have to toe the line. Remember that you’re a business owner and you have to look at the health of the business

Amanda: Absolutely. And I love what you said, you know, it’s, yes, you to pay bills and keep the lights on and do all those things, but not just for the sake of keeping the lights on, right? If the doors aren’t open then nobody’s getting the care that they need. So in order to provide care to more people and to give people the help they need to live in the place they love, you’ve got to keep the lights on and do all those things. So it is really a balancing act.

Karen: Well, it’s a balancing act, and I also…we’re talking a lot about clients, which for obvious reasons that’s very important. But the other side of this is the caregivers that we employ, I mean, they are relying on us to give them work, which is another reason I like collaborating with my friendly competitors, is I like to call that, because there is no one home care company who can constantly staff every caregiver that comes through the door. And that’s what caregivers need. They need constant employment. So it’s not a matter of competition because we’re all working with the same pool of caregivers, and if we work together to keep them employed, that will keep the caregivers in our community. And eventually, this business is very cyclical when it comes to caregivers. Caregivers will leave and they will take another assignment, an assignment with another company. But if you have treated them as they should be treated, they will come back to you. It’s very rare that they don’t.

Amanda: There’s three sides to every coin, especially in this industry. And I was not ever fortunate enough to meet Jean Griswold before her passing a few years ago. But that is something I know just through… I had been fortunate to interact with folks who did work very closely with her and that was a driving force behind the mission of the company and how things got started. It wasn’t just providing care for folks who needed it, and not to get into all the stats and figures, but people are living a lot longer with diseases and things that they need a lot more help with, unfortunately, or being diagnosed earlier with things and great medical advancements, but just means we’re living longer with those things and needing to care for it.

And it is two-side because we’re also putting caregivers to work and providing an income and employment and all of those things that the economy needs and that people need to keep the lights on, you provide for families and the like. So it really is, you know, making a difference in a lot of different avenues, and in your own life because it’s the freedom of flexibility that comes with business ownership. So kind of along that same line, now that you’re five years in here, what is something, hindsight is 2020, right? If I knew now what I knew then or however it goes, what’s one thing you wish that you knew before you made the decision to purchase a franchise?

Karen: I wish I would have been smarter and more educated about business principles. Not necessarily having an MBA, although it certainly would have worked. But to be completely frank, I would not have known what a P&L was before I bought my business. And so I had to learn everything from scratch, and numbers are certainly not my forte. I did never gravitated to finance, but you have to understand your numbers. So there’s that. And that wasn’t a huge amount and decline to understand financials. I think it was more the general running of business, you know, choosing vendors, selecting your payroll company. When you haven’t done that before and you haven’t had a practice run, it’s like, you know, I can think of a million examples where, okay, how do I know how to choose, right? What’s my criteria? What’s…

Amanda: What’s are the question I should be asking?

Karen: What are the questions? How do we screen these people? And you’re constantly learning. And again, I don’t know exactly what would have helped me prepare for that. I would also say, I mean, I, fortunately, have a fabulous person who does all of my hiring and payroll. But again, that was something I had no experience in. So I had to learn that and do it myself. That would have been another big, big hill. But I’ve been very fortunate in having that person, that is a big part of the business, is the caregiver, the hiring, the payroll. Nobody really knows all of the paperwork that goes into hiring a caregiver and how organized you have to be and meticulous and make sure that you are crossing Ts and dotting Is.

So again, if I did not have that person in that seat I would be at a deficit. So there’s just, I think, a lot about business operations, but, you know, in a sense, I’ll flip that and say maybe it’s better because if you are so business smart, maybe you come in with some set ideas. When you are opening a small business, you just wear so many hats, and that ability to be fluid and open and then you use your judgment as to what…you rely on your judgment and you will make mistakes. I have made mistakes. Everybody does. I think one of the… The account that I used my first year when I was really, really ignorant, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, as we like to say. I put a lot of money into some marketing venture that was going to give me all kinds of leads.

Amanda: The magic bullet, right?

Karen: And it was an expensive mistake. And I remember my accountant saying, “Karen, you’re gonna make mistakes. Every new business owner does.” So that made me feel a little bit better, but not a lot. But you do. And I think, you know, this isn’t just as owning a business in life. I think the greatest lessons we’ve learned are those that impact us the most emotionally, right? They kind of stay with us.

Amanda: That’s true.

Karen: We learn from them and we grow. Nobody likes to make mistakes. I certainly don’t like to, especially ones that involve money, but that is sometimes necessary to get attached into your brain that…what not to do.

Amanda: Right. Yeah, I mean, like you said, any new venture, whether it’s a business venture or just life, in general, you’re going to make mistakes and it’s learning from them and it’s finding your way. That is how you come out better on the other side of them. Talk to me a little bit about… And I want to make sure that you get back to the conference so we won’t keep you too long. But I do want to talk a little bit about the support from the franchisor… We could just kind of talk about, “I had to find vendors and had to figure this out,” and there’s a lot of that and in any franchise system, but how, you’re not having a finance background, so, you know, an MBA would have been great but it didn’t need it. What kind of support was provided? What were you looking for from the franchisor?

Karen: So I think in terms of the basics, obviously, of getting my bank accounts up and running and how payments were going to be made, how royalties were going to be made with the corporate office, that was all laid out very, very clearly in Academy, what I’ll call, you know, really the ABCs of franchising. And there is no way, if anybody told me that, you know, you learn everything in Academy and then you’re set to go, that’s just an unrealistic wish because you have to be on the ground and you have to be living it.

So I feel that in general I was well prepared through Home Care Academy to start my business. The other thing is, and one of the good things I like about Griswold is that there was no cookie-cutter approach. Meaning it wasn’t as though Karen, you need a marketer, you need a care coordinator, you need this and that. Nobody was saying this is how your team should look. And as I just said to another director earlier today, you know, you’ve seen one Griswold Home Care office, you’ve seen one Griswold Home Care office. Nobody runs their business the same way or has the same components in admin teams. And so there’s really no right or wrong. I think everybody finds what works best for them.

But one of the things that kind of came to light for me, it was interesting, I was meeting with the owner of a private company in my area, private home care company, and we were just chatting and all of a sudden she said, “Well, I’m just so anxious because I’m being audited by the Virginia Employment Commission.” And of course, she was anxious about it. And the reason I bring that up is because it made me so aware that how she continued to talk, she had had no guidance on overtime and scheduling caregivers and payroll. And again, she wasn’t with a franchise, she was a private owner. And it just…again, very intelligent woman. But it made me realize that had I not had the guidance from Griswold with compliance, with all of this DOL stuff, you know, somebody kind of a corporate office feeding you that information and knowing this is what you need to know, this is what you need to be aware of. I recognized how what valuable it was.

But when I had this conversation with this other owner, I thought, “Wow, yeah, that’s what you don’t get when you’re not with a franchise.” I mean, not that you can’t get it, but you’ve got to take the initiative to get it on your own to educate yourself. Otherwise, you’re really going to be in the dark. And that’s something I think that no owner, it’s necessary evil. You know, you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing things right. You don’t want the department of labor, you know, knocking on your door. And that also worrying about that just takes good energy away from building your business. That isn’t what you should be focused on. You should be focused on it and make sure you’re doing it right, but it shouldn’t suck up all your time.

Amanda: Be an all-consuming.

Karen: To be all-consuming. So I think that… And again, that goes back to Griswold being on the ground since 1982. This isn’t, yes…things change and Department of Labor things change. But again, many people in the corporate office had been there, done that. They had the context to understand what we’re going to be the hot buttons and what should our franchisees know, what should they be aware of? What do we need to tell them?

Amanda: Right. And it’s tried and true. And we talked a couple of episodes back about, you know, different options for franchises and as a franchise has been around for two years and the flexibility that might come with that versus a more established brand and the brand recognition and the fact that been there done that, you know? No, like, you just said, what to pay attention to, what’s kind of passing in the night not out of a deal and can provide the guidance for things like that. Especially in an industry like home care, that’s regulated all over across the board and all kinds of different ways where you somebody who’s looking out for your best interest and provides the information you need, so, good stuff. Any parting remarks? Anything you would tell someone who’s looking to purchase a franchise or kind of strikeout on their own?

Karen: I would just…I think the best thing somebody should be aware of is that if you are the type of person who likes things all structured and nice and neat and in little boxes, that a franchise is probably not for you. That this is you have to kind of roll with it. Every day is different and things change. And I’ve had to change because of that because I did work in a very fixed environment where things were predictable. I think that’s the word I would use. And that’s not always good. But there is very little that you can rely on in this business. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, but it’s just that you have to duck bob and weave as they say. And that’s a positive, I think, for the right person because that’s what keeps it really, really interesting.

Amanda: And that’s one of the perks of business ownership.

Karen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Amanda: It’s not the same cookie-cutter day.

Karen: No, no, there are no cookie-cutter days. There absolutely aren’t. And just when you think that you’ve heard it all, you will hear something new.

Amanda: I say it all the time too, especially our home care franchise owners. You know, you folks could write a book, the things that come down the pike, but it is always interesting, for sure. It keeps you on your toes.

Karen: That it is. But I appreciate the time to come and chat with you.

Amanda: We love having you here. Thanks for taking some time out of a conference. I hope you learn lots of things over the next couple of days here. And, again, thanks for your time.

Karen: Great. Thank you.