In Conversation with Michelle Worth & Erin Vollmer of TherapyWorks
Describe your business in a few words?
TherapyWorks is the only national teletherapy provider that connects parents with experienced pediatric therapists for speech, occupational, physical therapies, and social work services.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
Michelle: One main reason was that Erin talked me into it! 🙂 It’s so valuable to have a partner who knows the industry so well and has such vast experience. We both knew there were improvements to be made in this sector and we understood the pain points from a therapist’s standpoint (no flexible work option where they have complete control over their own schedules, no ability to treat privately without taking on the administrative burden of running your own practice) as well as from a parent’s standpoint (no central place to find a therapist to treat in-home or via teletherapy, streamlined intake and billing processes). Beyond those business reasons, we wanted to build something of our own and create a culture of collaboration and inclusivity and be a company where people love to work. As parents ourselves we understand better than anyone, the value of being able to manage our own schedules and work from home when necessary!
Erin: The idea for TherapyWorks came from Michelle’s experience as a parent of a child that received speech and occupational therapies and mine as a speech pathologist working in private practice. We realized that there were two problems to be solved: making quality pediatric therapies more accessible and creating a flexible job option for experienced therapists that wanted the opportunity to treat private clients but didn’t have the platform.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
Michelle: I have a background in the finance industry so a far cry from the healthcare tech sector! That said, it’s been so much fun to learn – that’s one thing I love about being an entrepreneur is that you are always learning. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and my Master’s of Business Administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management where I had an amazing entrepreneurship professor, Linda Darragh, who’s now the head of the department. I spent almost ten years at J.P. Morgan Chase (and predecessor organizations) in a variety of roles including investing in small, privately-help middle market companies, credit portfolio management, and corporate finance. I left my finance career to spend time raising my three children but I always knew I would do something else but didn’t know what until Erin and I teamed up to launch TherapyWorks.
Erin: I am originally from Traverse City, Michigan. I received both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Marquette University and moved to Chicago shortly thereafter. I’ve worked in the Chicago area for almost 20 years, in a variety of settings including schools, clinics and private practice. I started my own practice when I had my oldest son, 16 years ago. I wanted to be home with him but didn’t want to leave the career I loved. Having my own practice enabled me to do both. I continued in private practice while raising my four kids until Michelle and I teamed up.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Michelle: No! I tend to be risk averse and started my career in the financial services sector working for a large firm. Once I had a child that needed services and I saw the pain points as a parent, I knew there was a need to improve this process and the service delivery. That said, I would not have acted on it on my own. Erin saw the need for this model from the therapists’ standpoint and talked me into joining her.
Erin: I dreamed of a successful practice but never imagined founding a company until Michelle and I put our heads together!
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
Michelle: First, we marketed to therapists – we did everything from cold-calling or handing out flyers outside of schools where we knew meetings were being held with therapists in attendance. We quickly realized recruiting therapists wouldn’t be difficult. In terms of marketing to clients, our initial strategy was to market to referral sources, mainly pediatricians. We cold-called them, stopped by their offices with treats and swag and brought them lunch – really anything that would keep our name in front of them. It turns out (not surprisingly!), most pediatricians do not have a lot of time so we knew we had to figure out another way to bring in clients in addition to referrals.
Erin: As Michelle mentioned, early on we pounded the pavement and began meeting with anyone and everyone we knew in the industry. Someone had told us to never turn down a meeting and that proved to be great advice. Often, the most successful meetings were those we didn’t expect much from.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Michelle: I remember early on when a client sent me an email (that wasn’t so nice, to say it lightly) about the number of emails our billing team sent him. I immediately picked up the phone to call him and listened to his complaints. One of our values is to make our billing as transparent and seamless as possible (which can be extremely difficult when billing insurance) and he felt like we were spamming him with emails and thought our statements weren’t clear. We went back and reviewed our process and made some changes including revamping our billing statements and reducing the number of emails we send. This has not only made our internal processes more efficient but also has worked much better for our clients. That taught me that whenever we are implementing changes, we need to look at it from all angles.
One piece of advice we received from another female founder shortly after we launched was to try not to let the “down” moments keep you down. She told us, as entrepreneurs, we would feel like we’re on a roller coaster and will have lots of ups and downs. That couldn’t be more true. When we make mistakes, we may feel “down”, but then we take a step back, evaluate what happened, and change our process to improve it. We solicit feedback from our clients and therapists so that we can address any issues. We are constantly trying to make changes to improve our process. If we have made a mistake, we own it and we reach out immediately to address it.
Erin: I couldn’t agree more. That advice we received early on was so important to the way we approach our day to day. Luckily, since we value feedback and try hard to learn from our mistakes, we’ve never gone too far down the wrong path.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Michelle: The accomplishment I’m most proud of is the number of clients and families we’ve helped. We care so much about our clients and have created our business around being partners with our clients and their families. We know seeking therapy for your child can be scary and we hope that we have made that easier for them. I’m also so proud of all the incredible therapists we have hired and get to work with. When I see all the amazing reviews that our clients have given us and I talk to our therapists and they tell me how much they love working for us, that really gives me the sense of accomplishment.
Erin: I agree! As we scaled, we’ve attracted talented therapists with a variety of backgrounds and specializations. As families come to us with a very specific need for their child, we’re able to match them with a therapist that has the training their child needs. It has been incredibly rewarding to see the relationships developed between our families and therapists and most importantly to be able to provide families with access to high-quality, successful therapy.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
Michelle: I have a couple of go-to questions I like to ask. One is “Describe a situation where you had to deal with a difficult client. How did you handle it?” I also like to ask “What is your communication style and how do you communicate with your clients?” It is extremely important to us that all of our clients receive the highest-quality therapy and we want them to be 100% satisfied with the services their child receives. Before we hire a therapist, we want to be sure that they have the tools to handle difficult situations and to communicate effectively with parents. In therapy, communication is key so we hire therapists who not only are experts in their field but are also masters in communicating.
Erin: As we grow, we’ve learned that a positive, all hands on deck attitude is incredibly valuable to our team. We can determine a lot from small talk before the formal interview even begins. We look for someone that is optimistic, enthusiastic about our brand, and has a strong ability to think creatively.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 had a significant impact on our business. When Illinois shut down, our session counts were cut in half. We knew we had to get our clients onboard with teletherapy as a delivery model. Before COVID-19, we offered these services, however, since it wasn’t the traditional delivery model, many people were resistant to try it. The pandemic changed that but we had to quickly check insurance coverage benefits for teletherapy for all clients and also train many of our therapists on our teletherapy platform as most had not used it before. When insurance companies started providing coverage for these services, then many clients who had previously been resistant decided to give it a try. Some have reported that their child has been more receptive to teletherapy! Prior to COVID, we were only providing in-person sessions in Illinois and Ohio but since that time, we have been able to expand our services nationwide.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
Michelle: Continue to expand and grow. I hope you will see more about TherapyWorks in the press and an increase in brand awareness with all of our outreach efforts.
Erin: We would love to continue to scale geographically in order to serve more families nationwide.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Michelle: The biggest lesson we have learned in 2020 is that sometimes external factors that you have no control over can have a dramatic impact on your business and you just have to do your best to adapt!
Erin: Most of us never imagined what 2020 would bring. One important thing I’ve learned is that connecting virtually can be as impactful as connecting in-person, especially when it comes to telehealth.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
Michelle: That your difficult clients are sometimes the ones that help you determine what you need to improve.
Erin: I’ve learned that just having a good idea is not good enough. I think I naively believed that everyone would be on board with our concept right out of the gates. I now realize that success is all about the execution, not just the idea.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Michelle: I know I need to be active first thing in the morning to be in a good frame of mind for the day. I kept that up during COVID, which helped me to stay positive. I run outside almost every day as getting out in the elements and the fresh air really helps me clear my head.
Erin: As an introvert, I didn’t mind the stay at home portion of the pandemic. I loved spending more time with my husband and kids without our normal busy schedules. In many ways 2020 enabled us to slow down in order to speed up.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Michelle: Absolutely. As moms, we both know how important it is to keep that balance, which isn’t always easy to achieve. We work at all hours and are always “on” so if we need an hour in the afternoon to shuttle our kids around, then that’s what we do! That’s one of the advantages of having your own business and a partner who is on the same page!
Erin: I believe very strongly in a work/ life balance! Michelle and I have a “no feeling guilty” rule. We are both moms that have obligations outside of our company. We decided early on that we would never feel guilty when we put work aside for our friends and families.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
Michelle: When I was 18 during one summer in college, I traveled through Europe by myself. This was before mobile phones so my parents were not excited about the idea but I talked them into it! I have always loved to travel as my dad and sister are pilots so I grew up in a family that often traveled. I have always loved experiencing new places and learning about other cultures. I also learned to travel lightly as you never knew if there would be space on the flight. To this day, I only use a carry on!
Erin: Maybe that I’m a wannabe artist? I love to paint in my free time.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
- Exercise or be active in some way every morning.
- Keep your desk and workspace organized.
- Limit your interruptions (i.e. find the times of day when you can be most productive and crank out as much work as you can!).
- Get up early.
- Recognize that no matter your intentions, you’ll never get through your list.
- Don’t feel guilty about not getting through your list.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Michelle: Being an Enterprenista means being a risk-taker who’s persistent, driven, and passionate about her business. It means that you support and help other female founders and champion other female-founded businesses. We are all in this together and need to use our networks to help female-founded businesses be successful.
Erin: Being an Entreprenista means being a part of an incredible community of female founders. I am always inspired and motivated by the Entreprenistas around me! To me, it also means setting a good example for my daughters. Given that I’m working from home and my kids are learning remotely, the pandemic has brought a unique opportunity for my daughters to see the day-to-day as a female entrepreneur.