Dana Pittman would tell any firm looking to enter into the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8 (a) Business Development Program that it’s not about the number of sole-source federal government contracts the company can obtain, it’s the relationships that will develop and the high-level training that marks the program’s many benefits.
The 8(a) Business Development Program is an important resource for small businesses seeking business-development assistance. Named for Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act, this program was created to help small and disadvantaged businesses compete in the marketplace. It also helps these companies gain access to federal and private procurement markets. The 8 (a) program allows businesses many opportunities, including mentoring, counseling, training, financial assistance and surety bonding. Businesses can stay in the 8 (a) program for up to nine years.
The 8(a) program offers a broad scope of assistance to firms that are owned and controlled at least 51 percent by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Pittman is an African-American female Veteran who is the controlling shareholder for her commercial flooring firm Sustainable Floors (doing business as Sustainable Interiors) located in Fife, Washington.
The company furnishes and installs all types of flooring, and has expanded its services to include installation of interior fixtures and furniture. The key component to the business, though, Pittman said, is that her company only uses materials that are environmentally safe and incorporates a sustainability culture into her company. Ten percent of the company’s profits are donated to local and foreign non-profits. “Holistic sustainability is meeting basic environmental, economic and social needs now and in the future without undermining the natural systems upon which life depends,” according to the company’s website.
The sustainable message seems to be resonating with federal, state and local governments and private sector businesses that contract with Pittman. From starting out of her Lakewood, Washington home with fellow owner Colin Higginbottom seven years ago, Sustainable Floors generates more than $7 million in revenues each year, and has hired 27 employees. Including sub-contractors, she may have up to 100 individuals employed. She has had contracted several jobs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, remodeling one of the bases’ movie theaters, Madigan Healthcare System and several barracks.
Pittman said she has a mantra that she lives by in the business world: When it comes to getting contracts, your previous work is important, but it is also about who you know. “It’s not about getting the contract, but about getting to know that contract officer or the people involved in the decision-making process,” Pittman said. “Relationships are way more important than the deal; if you show passion in what you are doing, the deals will come.”
Providing business advice like this is one of Pittman’s newfound passions. After 15 years in the Army, six years in health care, and approaching eight years as a small business owner, she is devoting more time to counseling and mentoring others. She is on the Board of Directors for an entrepreneurship non-profit that teaches construction-based small business owners about the many different aspects to running a small business. She said one of the biggest downfalls to small businesses trying to get government or private business contracts is not catering your sales pitch to that agency or company. “If you haven’t taken two seconds to figure out what (you are trying to contract for), you aren’t interested in the relationship, but the bottom dollar, and that’s not going to get you very far anymore,” Pittman said.
One relationship Pittman bends over backwards to maintain is with the SBA Seattle District Office’s 8 (a) Program staff. Business Opportunity Specialist Linda Laws provides oversight, training and any other assistance Sustainable Floors needs while it is in the 8 (a) Program. The Seattle District Office currently manages about 100 8 (a) clients. “I can tell the 8 (a) clients who love what they do, and that defines Dana Pittman perfectly,” Laws said. “We love to see her passion, her perseverance, and have really enjoyed watching her grow and excel.”
For more information about Sustainable Floors, visit their website at www.sustainableint.com, and for more information about SBA’s 8 (a) Program, visit http://www.sba.gov/content/8a-business-development.
Vanita Rodde has had the dream of owning her own business since she was 17 years old. That dream was realized after 20 years of experience working hard at prioritizing and planning, and receiving a little help thanks to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
She is the proud owner of the Blue Skies Montessori School Inc., one of West Seattle’s few Montessori preschool educational establishments. Starting up a niche business is not easy, and it was the culmination of more than 30 years as a childcare teacher, educator, director and ultimately, business owner. From assisting a friend with bookkeeping and creating staff handbooks at a daycare center to taking dozens of college classes and receiving several certifications, Rodde has been able to move up the ranks to obtain her dream of owning a Montessori preschool and is so happy to call herself “boss.”
Rodde discovered her passion for owning her own business after two years as a director at a major childcare corporation. “Working in the corporate world really set my mind that I was going to have my own facility one day,” Rodde said. “(The corporate daycare system) just became too impersonalized for me, with hundreds of kids, 30 plus staff; I am geared to do my own thing.”
Rodde experienced several detours on the path to entrepreneurship. Her biggest off-the-trail move was to leave daycare all together and work with abused and neglected children at a local non-profit organization. For five years, she picked up new skills learning about a different population of children and families, rounding out her knowledge base for establishing her own business. She began to realize her strengths and interests were different than just watching over children as a teacher. Rodde wanted to be an educator, to help guide children in learning and life – to provide preschoolers a Montessori education.
Thanks to an education benefit through the non-profit organization, she earned a Montessori Teacher Training certification. Montessori education emphasizes independence, freedom within limits and respect for a child’s natural psychological development, including society technological advancements. Students use a “discovery” model for development, learning concepts by working with materials, rather than by direct instruction. “I had to rethink how I taught on focus on new things with Montessori,” Rodde said.
She opened Blue Skies Montessori School in 1997 after leasing a building space on California Avenue Southwest in West Seattle. Like many new business owners, she experienced the full gamut of emotions surrounding uncertainty about her income. “I went from a job getting a regular paycheck to wondering if I was going to ever get a paycheck again,” Rodde said. That uncertainty soon subsided as she realized her many skills helped propel her through the rough first years of business management. She credits her family for help in providing extra assistance in bookkeeping and teaching at her school.
Due to disagreements regarding the lease, Rodde decided it was time for her own space. She reached out to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s resource partner Community Capital Development in Seattle to discuss buying her own property and loan options. Rodde met with CCD Loan Officer Roland Chaiton, who assisted her in receiving an SBA backed 7 (a) loan for nearly $200,000. Besides serving as the loan officer, Chaiton provided Rodde counseling about her business plan, understanding cash flow projections and buying the new property to establish the new school. “Roland helped me get everything with the loan together, including covering balancing, budgeting; all those things that help you understand where your business is financially and how to plan accordingly,” Rodde said.
The loan allowed her to secure a building on SW Holden Street in the Westwood District of West Seattle. Five families moved with her to the new location, and now more than 20 children, aged one year old to six years old, receive their care there. Since opening, she has hired four employees and business has never been better. She has become more involved with her community, participating in preschool fairs and creating public service announcements advocating for children’s safety. Her goal is to eventually become a part-time director to take a more active role in community service and volunteering.
And after 33 years in the childcare industry, Rodde is ready for a different change of pace, but she said she will not forget the amount of hard work it took to get to the point where she can make that transition. “I have worked on Thanksgivings and till 10 p.m. every night,” she said. “As long as I keep prioritizing, staying on deadline, and maintaining structure, everything should work. You just have to do a good job of setting your mind right.”
For more information about Rodde and Blue Skies Montessori Schools Inc., visit her website at http://www.blueskiesmontessori.org or call (206) 938-9663.
If home is where the heart is, the owner of Andelcare home health care in Bellevue has a big heart for her business and her clients.
Nine years into her business venture, Marla Beck has grown her passion for the home-health-care industry into a small business focused upon compassion for her clients. The U.S. Small Business Administration recently recognized her efforts: the SBA district office in Seattle named Beck the 2012 Small Business Person of the Year for Washington State.
Andelcare provides companionship, homemaking, personal care, nursing care, hospice care and care management, to name just a few of the company’s services. “We care for the elderly, the disabled and adults recovering from surgery or illness and help them maintain as much independence as possible while continuing to live with dignity in the comfort of their own homes, wherever that may be,” said Beck.
Her clients pay for care out of their own pockets. “We compete with hundreds of care options but are successful because we deliver what the customer needs with exceptional customer service and high personal values.” At any time there may be as many as 100 clients receiving care from Andelcare. Beck estimates since opening her business in 2003, she and her staff have touched the lives of well over one thousand people in the Bellevue and greater Seattle areas.
While the business has been an easy fit for her, she didn’t come into it easily. After spending more than 15 years in accounting, banking and the insurance industries, she said her passion and her joy for work was dying. “I knew I wasn’t happy.” She said she had opportunities to be a partner in a CPA firm – her degree from the University of Washington is in business administration with a concentration in accounting – “but I didn’t want to spend my life with an I.R.S. code that is illogical and overly complex.
“I wanted to combine something creative, with doing something good in the world while making a living at it,” she said.
She knew she was going to try a business startup in one of two industries: pet care or senior care. With a smile in her voice she said she chose senior care “because I don’t know how you make a living sitting dogs for 25 dollars a day.” She said she doesn’t have children and thought it made sense “to create my own elder care insurance policy” so there is someone to take care of her when she gets older.
Beck doesn’t expect to need that care anytime soon. She said at age 53 she doesn’t plan to stop working, perhaps into her seventies. And given her chosen industry – home health care – the growth potential is enormous. But therein lies her biggest challenge to date: how to grow from a small business with more than 100 employees to one that is larger yet provides the same level of personal care and service.
Beck said in the coming weeks and months that is the focus of her meetings with her mentor and advisor, Michael Franz of the Washington Small Business Development Center. Franz and the WSBDC provide free, confidential, one-on-one business advising to business owners who are seeking to grow and expand their businesses. Franz works in downtown Seattle in the Fifth and Pike building and nominated Beck for her award.
Beck was judged along with several other nominees and selected by an independent panel based upon business growth, stability, overcoming adversity, and contributions to the community. In 2010 and 2011, Andelcare was recognized by the Puget Sound Business Journal as one of Washington’s 100 Fastest-Growing Private Companies and in 2009 and 2010 received the “Corporate Citizenship Award,” recognized as one of the top 75 corporate philanthropists in the Puget Sound area.
The WSBDC network is partially funded by the SBA and Washington State University, along with other public and private entities throughout the state. In 2012 their services are provided by 34 advisors at 24 different locations.
Beck said she was feeling the financial pinch of the recessionary economy of 2008 and 2009 and reached out to Franz when clients started cutting back on their use of in-home care assistance. “Frankly, I was exhausted,” she said. With advice from Franz, whose office is in the Pike Tower building in downtown Seattle, Andelcare made changes to her business operations that offered more flexibility and pricing options.
But Beck’s challenges started much earlier in the infancy of her enterprise. Shortly after starting the business with a partner in 2003 she realized she was upholding the vision and her partner was not. Fortunately, Beck said she learned from her divorce from her former spouse, who was an attorney, “get everything in writing,” and before Andelcare opened, she had a partnership agreement drawn up.
She and her business partner went through binding arbitration, and while difficult at the time, she was able to buy out her former partner’s interest at a reasonable cost. Personal challenges were part of her life then, too, and shortly after becoming sole owner, Beck went through cancer treatment, her mother’s illness, and other personal struggles.
But the angels prevailed (in Andelcare, “andel” is Czechoslovakian for angel – a tribute to her mother’s heritage) and the struggles and hard work have paid off. The firm is on solid financial footing and expanding its business model to hire RNs as part of the in-house staff, rather than relying upon contracted nursing.
“The biggest challenge now is marketing,” Beck said. “We could be bigger than we are, but I want to keep quality high.” She said the industry has become franchised and it is difficult competing with the “glossy brochures” and national reach of the franchised firms.
“Typically people and families don’t start dealing with us until there’s a crisis,” she said. “Then they call the 1-800 numbers that they found on-line.” Unfortunately, while there are some good operators, issues of elder abuse, including financial abuse, can occur when corporations are too big to properly hire, monitor and train staff, she said.
“We try to think of everything in the beginning.” Based upon her experience in the business and what she has learned along the way, “we counsel clients about what to expect down the road given their current situation. Basically, every day is triage,” she said. It a process of “unraveling the story” for each client, dealing with people, “dealing with emotions.”
As the business has grown, Beck said she has let go of her desire to know every client, learning to “step back and trust my staff. You don’t see the manager of GM down on the assembly line building cars,” she said. And there’s a reason for that, which she said she learned the hard way: clients would sometimes bypass their care supervisors to ask Beck to resolve concerns or complaints.
“I can come in on the initial family conference,” she said, but after that, she makes it clear to clients, “‘After this my staff with oversee all your needs.” That’s not to say Beck and her company are inflexible in dealing with personal issues and needs. To the contrary, said Beck, “There’s always a story in the background” of every problem. “You just have to take the time to listen, start unwinding it, and deal with the facts.”
The facts of Beck’s story are, as they are for so many other small business owners: she created something valuable that didn’t exist before. “I feel my success is a classic entrepreneurial story,” she said. “I had a strong desire to create a new life for myself, I wanted to make a difference, I was willing to face my fears and I wanted to do it my way. I bootstrapped my way to success with having a vision, working hard, asking a lot of questions, being creative and learning from my mistakes.
“Today I have a job I love where I feel I contribute to the good in society. I look forward to going to work each day, I enjoy the people I work with, and I feel rewarded for a job well done.” It doesn’t get much better than that. But Beck said she intends to try.