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"Virtual Practice Success"

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Megan Walker: Hello and welcome to Market Savvy Conversations. My name is Megan Walker and today my very special guests are Simone Dudley and Sue Cameron, who are the owners of Therapy Connect. Hello Simone and Sue, how are you both?

Sue Cameron: Great thanks

Megan Walker: So we're going to be talking about the amazing success journey that Sue and Simone have been on over the last six years. And as an OT, which Simone is, and a speech therapist, that Sue is, I know they are a little bit on the humble side. So stay with us because there are going to be some amazing learnings in this conversation. And I'm going to be pushing these beautiful ladies to talk about just how incredible this journey has been that they've been on.

So Sue, let's start with you. Tell the story, how did Therapy Connect get started?

Sue Cameron: Oh, thanks Megan. So Therapy Connect got started, Simone and I decided that we would join forces together when we were at a business development workshop in Melbourne for allied health professionals, and we'd both been starting our own private practices. So I was starting a tele-speech practice in Victoria and Simone had started an occupational therapy practice in New South Wales, and we'd met online. And when we attended this business private practice seminar in Melbourne, we decided that we'd be better together and that we would start Therapy Connect together. And I'm so pleased that we did, we haven't really looked back.

Megan Walker: Fantastic. And Simone, that was in what year and how did you know telehealth was going to be the go?

Simone Dudley: Oh Megan, it was actually in 2015 and I can remember sitting down in this coffee shop that I walk past regularly when I go to visit Melbourne, that was the coffee shop that Sue and I had the conversation and decided we would give it a go. So it was definitely 2015. Did we know it was going to be the right platform? Well, it was 2014/15 that we were thinking about it. So, we really felt that it was going to be the right platform, but there was so much we didn't know, so much we had to learn. And if you think about, it back then we were really thinking about our clients being the rural and remote clients that were very much like us because Sue and I are both remote, rural practitioners. So we thought that those clients would be the clients that would be seeking services where there were vast distances to travel.

I guess the first thing that we did was we had to really problem solve a lot to bed down a lot of the challenges around how you would adapt your practice online, and we really did that by being supported in some research with a partnership with the University of Sydney. And that partnership was so fundamental in helping us identify the components of a telehealth model that were really important to clients, and that really underpinned how our business would sort of take shape. I guess we had a narrow client group at the very beginning, but we really persisted and problem solved at that point to try and make it work.

Megan Walker: And Simone did that project involve you doing a lot of research with individuals, with potential clients, and getting their input and thoughts?

Simone Dudley: It absolutely did, it was a case study analysis. So it was information from us as therapists, information from the clients and it also tracked data around the time that was spent outside sessions. Most of us now are very familiar with telehealth, but telehealth requires a lot of workflow adjustments. And so there were a lot of processed time that was spent when we were developing our capability that we had to capture. Of course, what we were hoping from the research, was to understand that the delivery of services online was really valued and effective, so of equal sort of effectiveness compared to face-to-face. But also, what we learned was that the technology was not a big barrier, that sometimes the technology might let us down, but that wasn't a deal breaker. And that really, the effectiveness revolved around the clinical competency of us as practitioners more than anything. So that was a really great way to start.

Megan Walker: Fantastic. I'm so glad you expanded on that because in marketing, I've seen over the 20 odd years I've been in marketing, that so many times we skip over the research part because people are in a hurry to get into the doing and the selling. And we often sell what we think people want and need, but that fast track to success comes from the end user doesn't it? Like if we can really tailor a service that's going to meet people's wants and needs, we're so much more able to get on the right track more quickly, would you agree?

Simone Dudley: I absolutely do agree. And I think it was surprising to us to hear some of the findings from our clients at that time. We were really excited to hear that some of our participants, even if they had a face-to-face alternative, would stick with telehealth because of the progress that they'd made with Sue and myself in clinical sessions. So yeah, we did, we learnt a lot didn't we Sue?

Sue Cameron: We did. And it's all about the relationships, and families told us that they were a bit nervous about the technology and that was something new for them. But they soon forgot about the technology, and it was the relationships that we formed with them and the way that we helped them to learn how to help their children in their everyday life that made all the difference really.

Megan Walker: Fantastic. So key point take-away number one is research. If you don't know, go and ask. And Simone, and I'll ask both of you this, but you've in recent times hit a really significant growth milestone. You've got now 50 practitioners working with you all around Australia, which is absolutely amazing in the six years you've been in business. So as we all know as business owners, that's just a huge achievement, so well done. What would you say Simone, and I'm going to ask Sue the same thing, what do you think your top three strategies were for achieving that success in that relatively short period of time?

Simone Dudley: Oh gosh, it's a great question Megan. I would start by saying firstly without a doubt, the business partnership with Sue was really the headliner. So working together, Sue and I, because we are different disciplines, but we've got different experiences and we really have different views, I think that that collaborative combination allowed us to really see things in a very broad way. So, that underpinned everything but the three things below that I think from my point of view, were the most important, were the continual persistence in the early days to problem solve and to just keep pushing through when things were really difficult and they really were hard. When we could afford a business advisor, we did, and that just made a phenomenal difference.

Simone Dudley: And then thirdly, building awareness of who Therapy Connect was. You can imagine without a bricks and mortar practice, you've got this very national audience and it was really hard work. Marketing was really hard work. So we applied the old fashioned marketing tactics and spent a lot of time on the phone and traveling until we met you, Megan. Yeah, so I'd say those would be the three things for me.

Megan Walker: Yeah, okay. And Sue, what do you think? What are your three?

Sue Cameron:

Well, I'd have to say that you've got some old info there Megan, because we now have 60 or 70 team members. So, we're still growing.

Megan Walker: I can't keep up.

Sue Cameron: Oh I know, it's very exciting growth and especially these days when it's hard to recruit. But what we have done is that we have recruited a really experienced team of practitioners, and Simone and I are both very experienced as both tele-practitioners and as therapists and so we felt that it was really important to have that kind of person on our team. So we have recruited experienced people with an average of about 15 years experience since graduation, which is different to many other services, especially ones that are in the country I guess, in rural areas. So I think that that helps us to continue recruitment, because people want to come and be part of the team. We've got lots of PhDs on our team, we've got people who are very specialised in certain areas, early childhood intervention, they might be very specialised in pediatric feeding, or they might be mental health, occupational therapists, so people with lots of specialties,

We've got a very experienced team. We've given the customers a really good experience at Therapy Connect. So we really invest a lot of time to make the journey smooth for them, and to make sure that they're getting a service that's really equivalent or better than what they would be getting in their local area, so that's been a very important part of it. We use a very capacity building approach, so we teach a helper in the child's environment or the participant's environment to support them so that they can be supported all week long. And the third thing that we've done, is that we've really supported our practitioners to help them to adapt to the telehealth model of service delivery. And we've really worked hard on keeping them feeling connected because they live all around Australia, they're working remotely. So we want them to be able to feel supported with a great team around them, and there is such great value in the team that it's been great to connect them.

Megan Walker: Yeah, that's amazing. Simone, you told me once a story about Book Week. You want expand on that, what you did with all of your therapists?

Simone Dudley: So we have informal team chat functions, and it was the Book Week week, which is very exciting for most mothers and students to come up with characters. So we had a lot of photos of what the kids were all wearing, and these were practitioners' own children. So it was lovely, a lovely way. And we've recently done a team exercise challenge where we've had teams, and everybody's posted an image of them doing some physical activity from wherever they are. And because practitioners are based all over Australia, it's just been remarkable to see the variation in geographic locations that the team are enjoying.

Megan Walker: How exciting. So that sense of culture is possible through this technology and Simone I'll stay with you, and then Sue I'll ask you the same question. If you were starting Therapy Connect tomorrow, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Simone Dudley: Wow, if only we knew right? I guess I would have confidence in our ability and judgment. And probably, when I think about what made the difference for us, it was definitely the research, engaging our business advisor and engaging some marketing, some really great marketing advice. So if we were to think about doing anything differently, it might be to push the fast forward button on some of those points where we can, although we did do the research very early on in our journey. I think it's always hard when you're self-funding your own growth to try and prioritize, so it might be to have some confidence, and maybe a little bit more appetite for risk in the early years, might be something I'd tell myself.

Megan Walker: Although Sue, you were saying that you were both flat out affording a desk at that point. So it's a bit hard to decide where to spend the money, isn't it?

Sue Cameron: When you're so gradually getting new clients, it's very difficult. And, Simone said when we could afford to get a business advisor, we invested heavily in that business advice. And I can tell you, I didn't feel like we could really afford it when we started doing that. But, it was so helpful to have a business brain to collaborate with Simone and me, was really helpful because, we're therapists and we haven't had a lot of experience with business. I've had none and Simone's worked in private enterprise, but I've always worked in health and education. And usually, as a sole practitioner, my business knowledge was fairly limited, so that was a good thing to invest in early.

Megan Walker: Yeah, and Sue what would you change or do differently if you were starting Therapy Connect tomorrow?

Sue Cameron: Probably not a lot really Megan. I think that we've tried things, we've given things to go and then we've pulled back and said, "Well, we gave that a go and that didn't work well." We have taken that low risk strategy where we've just tried different things and then we've followed down the paths where we think that we can make the most difference. And in some ways we've made some full circles, some things that we thought that we've sort of expanded and added lots of other allied health professions into our business. Maybe down the track we'll refine our services and look into having more of a niche kind of service in the future. So yeah, I wouldn't do a whole lot different really.

Megan Walker: Great, you got it right the first time.

Sue Cameron: Yes and no.

Megan Walker: Actually, I'm going to ask you both a question without notice, so feel free to pause if you need to, but what are your philosophies Simone? And then Sue, I'll get you to answer this as well, in terms of starting with, is it staff first or building up clients first? I often hear people ask, like that fine balance between juggling the two, what's the horse and the cart for you, Simone?

Simone Dudley: Oh, well look it's a really great question and for me, it was always important that we had enough resources between us to be working on the business. So there was a point in time when we were working on the business, as well as in the business, but you absolutely need to be working on the business to be able to make decisions. So there is that period of time for me that I can remember, that it felt strange that we had a team that were doing more clinical work than me, but that was really important for the business growth.

Megan Walker: Okay, and Sue would you agree? You sort of put in the human resources first, before you build up too many of the clients, is that your thinking?

Sue Cameron: I think you described it really well to us on there Megan, when you said that it's like this. You advertise, get more clients, recruit, get more clients, So it's a real balancing act. And I think what we have to be very careful of, you can't predict the future, so you don't know how many clients you're going to get. So we are very honest and upfront with people, so if people are going to be contractors with us, we explain that this is what we would hope, or this is what we expect, but we can't guarantee that you'll have a full caseload in the first week and it might take a few weeks to grow. So I think contractors have to understand that as well. And I do apologise for my online fail there with my telephone, which I forgot to turn off.

Megan Walker: All good. And Sue, I'll stay with you. What would you say to others, and Simone I'll ask you this as well, what would you say to others considering running a virtual practice over a bricks and mortar? Sue, any advice for those people?

Sue Cameron: I would absolutely encourage people to use telehealth. I mean, I think COVID has proved to us that telehealth is a viable way to work, I think a lot more people understand that now. It's great because it gives equity of access to families and it means that you don't have to be on the waiting list and it's convenient and it works. And so I would encourage people to have telehealth, at least as part of their offering, if not their whole offering.

Sue Cameron: But I would caution people. And if you think that you're going to save a stack of money on rental, by being a virtual practice, just be aware that you will have to make a really big investment in marketing, because you're not in one locality, you're going to be marketing across Australia. How are you going to get those clients that are in need, if they're not the people that you know in your local area? And also because everything's online, people aren't coming past the reception desk, means that all of your systems and processes and workflows all have to be online as well. So you need to invest quite heavily in that as well.

Megan Walker: Well said, good insight there Sue. And Simone, what would you say to people considering setting up a virtual practice?

Simone Dudley: Oh look, I totally agree with Sue's comments and I really don't think there's anything else to add to that other than, the more niche or targeted, potentially the easier it is to be found in the digital space. But there is no shortage of consumers out there that need allied health supports, and telehealth really represents a great way to deliver services, promotes access and equity. And as Sue said, you've got a lot of problem solving around workflows, but it's all possible if you're persistent and keen to develop that section of the market.

Megan Walker: Yeah. So one of the things that I would credit to both of your successes, as well as your tenacity and how lovely you both are. Sue you pick up the phone and you ring and you make calls, and there's a lot of people who are terrified of doing that, and I think that's been a huge credit to your success. And this is tying into a question, for practitioners who are listening, who are thinking, "Oh gosh, I'm really good at my craft, I'm a great therapist, I'm not so good at the business development. Maybe I'm not so good at the systems or the HR or the IT and everything else that goes into the backend that you just beautifully explained." Tell us about opportunities instead of growing their own practice, working with Therapy Connect. And this is when you have to have your 1-300 number ready Sue.

Sue Cameron: Oh, right. Well, yes I'll have to remember that 1-300 number, I don't call it very often Megan. Look, we're always looking for experienced practitioners to join our team. We have a high level of referrals that are coming into Therapy Connect all the time, so we're always looking to increase our team. We have a flexible workplace, we think sometimes we're a bit too flexible because people are having a lovely time. They can work the hours that they want to work, they're getting high rates of pay, they can be contractors or employees.

Sue Cameron: So any allied health professionals, especially speech and OTs who are looking for work, please contact us, ring our 1-300 number. And it's 1 300 757806, and talk to Simone or myself about it, we take a really keen interest in recruitment, and we take a lot of time to explain how we work at Therapy Connect and what a job would look like with us. Yeah, so we'd love to hear from anybody. We're always running some ads as well, so you can and apply any way you like. You could join our team on our website as well.

Megan Walker: Beautiful. Well, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to both of you and more enjoyable working with you both, just been absolute joy. You're both so lovely. Thank you for having this conversation with me, and I hope that you get some calls on your fabulous 1-300 number. I look forward to speaking with you both soon. Thanks again.

Sue Cameron: Thanks Megan.

Simone Dudley: Thanks Megan.


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