Tafa Jefferson – Founder & CEO, Amada Senior Care

Tafa Jefferson is the founder and CEO of Amada Senior Care and Amada Franchise Inc. Both companies are committed to enriching lives by providing nurturing, compassionate non-medical in-home care, and guiding families through the many senior housing options available for assisted living and care homes. Today, there are 100+ Amada Senior Care locations across 34 states nationwide.

In 1996, Tafa was recruited to play for the Chicago Bears, but less than one year later, he suffered career-ending ankle and shoulder injuries forcing him into early retirement. Tafa pivoted to the world of entrepreneurship and health care after a short-lived career as an offensive tackle in the NFL.

Having been raised by a mother who was herself a caregiver, Tafa was inspired to pursue his own career path in the senior care industry by starting a home-based business. With a desire to fully-understand the responsibilities and compassion involved in delivering exceptional care, he became a Certified Nursing Aide, taking care of patients with varying stages of Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s diseases. His business flourished and he was soon providing jobs for more than 200 caregivers in Southern California.

In 2009, he was a founding member of the American Board of Home Care (ABHC), a non-profit dedicated to educating the senior community and establishing standards in senior home care. Today, ABHC serves over 10,000 client households.

In 2013, Tafa was named a top entrepreneur under 40 by the O.C. Metro Business Magazine and Orange County Register. He earned a B.S. from the University of the Pacific in Entrepreneurial and Small Business Operations (1996), where he was a founding student member of the Entrepreneurial Studies Program. Tafa is a fellow of the 2017 Class of Henry Crown Fellows within the Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board at Grace Classical Academy in Laguna Niguel, California.

Tafa and his wife, Alysia, reside in Orange County, California with their four young children.

Tell me about your background.
I was born in Los Angeles, and was raised in Orange County. I have four siblings. My mother and father met at a record store owned by my uncle. My father was always an entrepreneur, and my mother was a caregiver. She came to the United States from the Pacific Islands, American Samoa. She had aspirations to become a nurse, and once she came here, she enrolled in nursing school, but fell in love with my father and they decided to have a family so she never had the opportunity to finish her nursing degree. However, she continued to work as a caregiver, as a nursing aid, and over the years, she was presented with an opportunity to work in an office one day and she took it. Over a period of fourteen years, she worked her way up to be the supervisor for a very large senior care nursing organization called the VNA Visiting Nurse Association. As a young child, we always had seniors in our home. I would visit her office on occasion and she would often take me to the private residence of her clients to pick up or drop off paperwork for the employees. My mother always had a great relationship with the senior clients she served, and even brought some home for the holidays, because quite often they never had family members who were in close proximity. Visiting the homes and getting to interact with our elderly community at an early age gave me an appreciation and different perspective on our elderly. The stories shared with me about who they were, their children, and what they accomplished professionally had a profound impact on me during my formative years. I’ve seen my father, over the years, build and grow several different businesses, some successful, with the majority being unsuccessful. However, he never had a quitting attitude. He continues to this day to be a perpetual optimist. Observing this behavior growing up left a huge impression on me which eventually developed an organic entrepreneurial mentality as a young adult, so it was a natural progression for me to go down the entrepreneur path, but also wanting to do something in the senior care industry.

Tell me about your early career.
I didn’t have much of an early career, because after I graduated from the University of Pacific, I studied business, specifically entrepreneurship and marketing. But immediately upon graduating, I was selected as a free agent to play for the Chicago Bears, so I had what I call the “short cup of coffee” in the NFL. It was under a year that I played in the NFL. Injuries piled up, and I was sent over to rehab in Birmingham, Alabama for a few months and then tried to reenter into the NFL through NFL Europe. Again, I was reinjured and then I found myself at home injured with a business degree, with no formal skillsets outside of what I learned in college. One day, I was having a discussion with my mother and I mentioned to her, “I really want to do something within healthcare,” and she said, “Why don’t you just start your own business?” I thought that was a great idea. I had a little bit of money saved up from playing in the NFL, so that’s exactly what I did. Immediately after playing football, I decided to start my own company. It was a small business that started out of my parent’s basement. At the time, I had a free download from EarthLink. So I started researching the requirements to start a small, home-based business. I quickly found out that all I needed to do is incorporate the organization. So my first real job was essentially starting my first homecare company.

How did you come up with the name, Amada Senior Care?
My first company name started with an H. After running that on my own for ten years, the hospitals that I was able to develop relationships with and fulfilled contract work with, including regional centers and workers compensation organizations, would send their patients a referral list which would be a list of agencies as trusted resources for their patient population. I was often on the sixth or seventh page of the referral list for no reason other than my company’s name starting with the letter H.  In 2006, I gave serious consideration to a reorg and start the business over again. By the spring of 2007, we reopened and I understood and appreciated the mistakes from my previous company. My biggest error was not conducting extensive due diligence and thorough market research on my competitors and the healthcare space. After ten years of essentially trial and error, I realized everything mattered. Establishing a name with meaning would prove to play a critical role in our ability to receive new business. It couldn’t be a name where it had no real purpose in describing what we do and who we are. My business partner, Chad Fotheringham, is bilingual. He served a missions trip in Ecuador for a few years. Working through the process of selecting a name was challenging. We had a couple of different names that we were filtering through, but one that we both settled on was Amada. Amada is the derivative of the word, amor, which means love. The most commonly-asked question that we get is, “What is Amada, and what does it mean?” Amada is a Spanish word which means beloved or loved and it’s actually the concern for the well-being of others, to love one’s neighbor. It really captures the essence of what we do, which is taking care of our neighbors and taking care of others. That’s our core business.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business is tough. With any small business, your first year is really difficult because you’re doing so much to set up your infrastructure, and that takes up precious time and also drains your seed capital. We were spending so much of our time developing our concept differentiators, developing the brand guidelines, and establishing the brand presence, that required much of our attention. There were many sleepless nights, when we had to stay in our office, creating processes, documents, and building protocols. It’s difficult to do, but I think in order to build a successful venture and avoid the entrepreneurial pitfalls, you have to articulate your vision and create it on the fly while creating an environment in where others will participate with you. You’re always building towards the future and if you live in the moment as most live in the now, that can prevent you from getting to where you need to be. We understood that there were things we had to do which required more capital than we had, or that we were somewhat limited operationally. We stayed laser-focused on building for the future, and that’s a tricky thing to do.

Did you have a lot of competition?
Absolutely! But competition is good. Even today, we’re working in an environment where the senior care industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. The #1 fastest-growing job in America is that of a caregiver. The #2 fastest-growing job in America is a home health aide (a CNA). Even though we have one of the fastest-growing business models in the country, with serving the aging population, our competition is fierce. We never worry about our competition. We have no control or influence on how our competitors approach consumers. What we have to do is focus on the task at hand before us. For us, it was all about blocking, tackling, and making sure we had the right game plan. Making sure we’re doing everything necessary to stay above water and able to meet our obligations to our valued staff in order to close on the next payroll. It was always keeping one foot in front of the other. Making sure we’re adding the right caregivers and clients, and our key performance indicators were all in alignment with our organizational goals.

What was your marketing strategy?
Initially, it was more or less a shotgun approach. Before we initiated our marketing efforts, we conducted regional and local market research. We surveyed how many hospitals and skilled nursing facilities we had in our service area. Studied the demographics, especially the number of seniors in our area. Disposable income for adults over age 65. How many employees to target and pull from certain zip codes for recruiting purposes. How many media outlets. There was so much research that we did. So when we went to market, we knew exactly who we were going to target. We knew exactly where the patient population and clients were flowing from based upon medicare discharge data online. If an adult suffered a stroke, we knew which hospital or skilled nursing facility had the specialty to service that segment of the population. We knew what the best rehabilitation facilities were, so we focused there. We knew where the insurance companies were located, so we developed the relationship with management. With every different call-point, or referral source, our messaging would have to change. Some of the topics that are important to insurance carriers vary from the hospital or the discharge plan. Having a keen understanding of what type of client we were looking for really helped us in our marketing strategy because we were able to really define what type of call point to focus on, and we custom-tailored our marketing materials to that segment of the marketplace.

What was an average workweek like for you back then?
I can honestly say there was no average workweek. Working twelve to sixteen hour days was just the norm, even to this day. It wasn’t something where we were punching the timecard. We surely were exhausted, but we loved every moment of it. We would start off with a quick meeting in the morning just to discuss what our goals were, and what we needed to accomplish. We probably spent 90% of our time marketing. The business evolved over time, but we spent the majority of our time, initially, just growing the brand awareness. I would say that’s probably one of the most difficult things to do, which is establishing a brand in your market. Making sure that you know your product or service better than anyone else, and you’re very confident in how you deliver your differentiators, because it is a very competitive marketplace. But for us, we spent all of our time marketing. Very little was on administrative tasks. When we were pulled into the office, we realized that we could do the administrative tasks after hours. During the hours of 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, we needed to be in front of our referral sources, and the people who could refer us patients, and we worked hard to develop those relationships. Our workweek was 90% marketing, then as the business matured three, four, five years into it, we pulled more into an administrative role because we were able to gain recognition and a great reputation for quality care in the medical field. I would say that we’re recognized by the medical community as the top two or three companies in Southern California. From that point, we were able to focus on how to expand our footprint and service areas. We reinvested by developing our very own software to create internal efficiencies and recruiting key employees to then drive new sales channels and deliver our messaging.

Has the work hours come down a bit?
No. It’s interesting, because the work hours have gotten so much worse over the years. You just take on so much. The business never sleeps, so now we spend the majority of our time just working differently. Teaching our operators to do exactly what we’re doing. But here’s the thing Jason, when you truly enjoy your work, time just passes by. I don’t look at this as work. I enjoy coming to my office each and every day. Creating the vision and having all of our departments move forward in executing it. My business partner and I work in a different capacity now. We’re working more with scaling the business, as opposed to working on the business. The workweek certainly has changed, and the business has become a little more demanding, but we love it.

Were you profitable by the end of year one?
No. Just because we spent so much of a time trying to build a brand, and in order for people to refer you the business, they have to know that you’re out there. We realized that we’re spending our limited seed capital, but we were doing it in a way we could measure. We knew exactly at the end of the week, how many of our clients referred us new business. We knew, at the end of the month, what our client acquisition cost was. Exactly, what our liabilities and our cost of goods sold were. We were constantly measuring our financial indicators, and I would say about 2 ½ years into the business, we were profitable. We were then able to take a reasonable salary and pay down our debt. I believe by the end of year three, we were debt-free, and the business was viable. We were able to sustain ourselves, and by the end of years four, five, and six, everything just got better and better. We decided to up our initial investment into our organization with additional staff and focus more on our new technology platform which accelerated our growth.

Did you have to raise money to initially fund the business?
No. Believe it or not, we bootstrapped it. We own 100% of it with no investors and no debt. We firmly believe that if this is going to be a viable business, we were willing to outwork and out-hustle everybody. In some cases, depending on the business you want to open up, you have to take a look if the business is labor-intensive or capital-intensive. In the franchising space, if you want to open a restaurant, there’s a large capital requirement on the frontend, with retail space and equipment. So, you have to make a calculated decision on seed capital and runway (living expenses) required before you really approach the danger zone and having to dig into reserves or rely on credit. For us, we decided to bootstrap, and we decided not to grow too fast, but to have a slow, healthy, and sustained growth. That’s our mantra, even today. Anytime the business can grow 10% annually, we’re happy with it. There are years where we’ve grown well beyond 10%, and we’ll take it, but if you start experiencing 40%, 50%, 60% growth, that’s good by most standards, but you want to be careful that you don’t get ahead of yourself operationally. So we’ve always been careful to take measure of that.

What was your growth rate in the first few years of the business?
First year, we broke even. Second year was 10%. The third year was 30%, and from that point forward, we grew pretty quickly, 30% or up. For us, that was a good growth, but sometimes when you grow too fast, it can be detrimental to you. Thankfully, we’ve been able to control a lot of our growth. As an entrepreneur and a businessman, I can tell you that if you grow too fast, it can cause operational issues, so we’re always careful of that. That was probably one of our biggest lessons. One year, we grew around 50%. We were thinking that it was awesome, and great. We’re very fortunate to have this much growth, but what it did was require more capital, and that’s something that never dawned on us. So, we had to literally slow down our growth. We had to pull our marketing team out of the market for three to four weeks, just so we can keep up with our growth. At that particular time, that was the right and judicious thing for us to do. We grew so much in a two to three month period that we couldn’t afford payroll. We were able to scramble, and we actually had to rely on our family and friends and borrow capital. This was three years in. We had taken emergency loans out, and we were able to pay them all off in a matter of two to three weeks. That near fatal crash and burn taught us a valuable lesson: too much growth can inhibit your ability to keep the business.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
We were just coming off of a phenomenal month of growth, and I was $40,000 short on my payroll. And I had roughly two hours to raise roughly $40,000. I was all tapped out with my savings, as well as my business partner. We put everything we had into the business. We had to immediately call upon our friends, and that was a difficult thing to do. During that point in time, we were a very reputable agency in Southern California, and business was going really, really well. On the surface, things seemed to be amazing. Underneath it all, we were undergoing some very stress fractures, because we were growing so quickly. That was the first time I could look back and think, “This is how it all ends. This is how we lost our business.” I remember thinking that. But then, quickly, I just snapped out of it and we put an action plan in place, between the two of us. We started working the phones, and we did it. What’s interesting is that the very next day, a very large check came in for the exact amount our shortfall was, so we were able to pay back our family and friends within that week. But we learned our lesson. That was one of the most challenging times with growing the business. But also realizing that you could lose everything within a matter of days, so for me, it’s something I wouldn’t want us to ever experience again, and led us to manage our numbers better and have a feel for the business, and just really manage the business through the numbers.

Did you ever feel like giving up?
Never. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when I was cornered. We never got to the point where we felt like, “Now is the time to look for work.” It was tough, financially. There were times when we had to take a paycut. There were times where I had to sacrifice my mortgage or delay a car payment because the $3,000 to $4,000 we needed to pay company bills in order to survive. We frequently had to put personal cash into payroll due to growth. For me, as an entrepreneur, I knew we needed to sacrifice the things we often needed to survive in order for the company to make it. For anyone who’s considering entrepreneurship, you really have to ask yourself if you would be willing to do what’s necessary in order for your business to grow. I’m not sure if most would welcome making those types of decisions. For us, we didn’t have a choice. The business was always our lifeline and we were always willing to do whatever it took to make it work, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Did you ever feel like you have to sacrifice family time for the business?
Absolutely. It goes back to sacrifice. I can’t tell you how many birthday dinners I’ve had to walk out on because of a work emergency. I can’t tell you how many anniversary dinners have been ruined. Family time is so precious and I now realize that more than ever, the importance of work/life balance. One of the keys to my success was my wife. She was just as dedicated to sacrifice just as much as I was. Initially, it was tough for us to adjust. I can’t tell you how important it is to have a spouse or partner who believes in you and the business. My wife and I met in high school, so we’ve been together for a very long time. She knew how important the business was. As long as I had that support from home, it was great, not having to worry if she’s behind me or not. Don’t get me wrong, there would be days where she’d be at a grocery store and she swiped her debit card, and it would be declined. That’s the reality of owning a small business, because again, I had to go without a paycheck. I remember one day she called me and said, “Okay, we have our four children here. I have a grocery cart full of food, and the ice cream’s melting, and I just swiped my card and it’s not working. Honey, what would you like me to do?” My gut dropped. I was so sick, because at that point, what my wife was telling me was that we’ve been sacrificing a long-time here and we’re not able to make ends meet. Now, our children that are pulled into this decision we made to own and start a business. I was able to get her some cash to pay for the groceries that day, and I was determined to work harder. Not for one second did I ever think I needed to find a job. I told myself that I’m not working as hard as I should be, and that I need to work harder. Thankfully, that never happened again, but you have those moments of truth, where you really have to decide, “Am I really doing the right thing? Is this the best thing for my family? Is this a hobby, or is this my calling?” I’ve always felt like this was the work that I’ve been called to do.

How do you organize your day?
Before I get to every day, I always prepare the night before. I go through the list of things to do. When I wake up, I’m oriented and I have a clear and concise direction where I need to go, and I have a checklist of things that I need to accomplish that day. I always try to have four to five things on my tasklist. Easy things to do that are realistic. Things I know I can accomplish, and that tie into my weekly, quarterly, and annual goals.

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
Staying organized, and staying on task. I live and die by my calendar, so making sure that I’m on top of all the little things that need to be done. One of the things that I’ll struggle with is the work/life balance. Making sure that I’m exercising as much as I need to and that I’m eating right.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I keep a list of some of the quotes I like the most. One is, “Great things come to those who leave their comfort zone.” Another is by Steve Jobs, “Great things in business is never done by just one person. It’s done by a team of great people.” I think there’s just so much to be said about what Steve Jobs has been able to accomplish with his company. He was a great thinker and he was able to execute and change the way we communicate, but he would be the first to admit, that if it wasn’t for his team, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of that. This other one came from Muhammad Ali, who said, “I hated every minute of training. Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” It’s nice to hear about the struggles the great champions had to go through. What’s involved in toughening their skin, and building themselves up. I think it’s great to see that. Another quote is by Jay Danzie, “Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after having an experience with you becomes your trademark.” There’s just so much to unpack in that quote. What Jay is driving at is if people like you, and there is a certain sense of genuineness when you interact with them, people will follow you and will work with you. This has been, in my different businesses and in my life, from the people I’ve come across, very true for me. If people really enjoy you as a person, and there’s that trust element established, people can believe in what you’re doing. They’ll follow and support you in that endeavor.

What are some of your favorite books?
I have a couple. One of the books I’m reading right now is an interesting book because it’s talking about how you handle and develop others. It’s called The Talent Masters by Bill Conte. It allows the reader to think about how to bring out the best in people. I really enjoy books like that. I also like The Dip by Seth Godin, and it talks about the psychology behind starting an organization and all the various challenges that come with starting a business. There’s another that we are big fans of called Traction by Gino Wickman. Fantastic book. It breaks down the hierarchy in business, and it also shows you how to practically build your organization and run a fantastic organization. There’s also Good to Great. We’re big fans of all of those books.

How do you define success?
I personally define success when you are able to do what you love, and you’re recognized as a thought leader or major contributor in your space or craft. When you can do it for free, and when you can do it and it never gets old. You can work on something and you always have this renewed desire to get better and bring others along with you to experience that. To me, personally, my goal is to create as many successful entrepreneurs as possible. That’s what I’m working towards. I want to show people how to achieve the same level of success that I’ve been to achieve, and also give them the confidence to do something that’s out of their comfort zone. That’s how I define success. Doing what you love and being able to do it as long as you want, and having the willingness and desire to teach others and invest in other people.

How many employees do you have?
We have several thousand in 94 offices across the country.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Adversity. Adversity is so healthy. I don’t understand why people recoil when they are facing adversity. Whenever we are faced with a challenge, do you know what we do? We double down. That’s just the way it is. If you’re going to be in a business, and you think that adversity is not good, you should not be in business for yourself. You should take a job working for an organization. Being a small business and growing your business, it really challenges most to get out of their comfort zone. If you’re not used to swimming in deep waters, or if you don’t have the ability to make quick decisions, it’s going to be challenging for you as an entrepreneur. Adversity insulates us from our competitors. When you really understand adversity, and you understand it’s good, because when people are faced with adversity, most who are inexperienced in business quit. That’s what we bank on. We bank on new competitors entering the market quitting. For us, it reaffirms what we’re doing, and it makes us double down and focus on acquiring more market share.

What makes a great leader?
His or her ability to connect and listen to others around them. One of the things we value the most is our ability to listen, gather information, and then make a quick and decisive decision. Some of the great qualities a leader should have is decisiveness. To have a natural sense of humility and take criticism and receive input. Also, to be able to execute. Also, clearly communicate the vision. Because if people don’t understand what the vision is, or if they don’t feel like they have input, what happens is people won’t have the tendency or desire to follow. Who wants to follow a leader who doesn’t take a personal interest in you? I wouldn’t want to follow a leader like that.

What is your vision for the future of Amada?
Our vision is to set apart in the industry as the “go to” agency for senior care. Our business model is very unique in that we’re not just a healthcare company. We do what’s best for the client, where we work to make sure their family member is in the right place. For us, we want to position our agency as a resource in the senior care space, specifically focusing on long-term care insurance and helping people to age in place. Our goal is to be the gold standard. We know it’s going to take time and effort, but we think in the next seven to ten years, we would like to be positioned as the gold standard in our industry.

What do you think is the most common mistake entrepreneurs make?
Lack of planning. They may think that their business is a viable business without seeking input from others. They’re not planning appropriately or making sure their finances are in order. That’s a common mistake most entrepreneur make, which is making sure you’re not well-capitalized and that your business model is an actual viable business model. So, lack of market research and making sure that you’re prepared to handle adversity, because challenges will come and you need to make sure that you have a contingency plan in place, A, B, and C, because you will burn through A, B, and C. So, making sure that you are prepared for the unforeseen events, because it will happen.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
It’s the most practical and easiest advice, which was given to me when I started my own company. Seek out other people in the space that you’re considering. Seek wisdom from those who have been successful. One of the first things that I did was I went to my competitors, and I went in and said, “Hey, you know I’m interested in getting into this space.” And any entrepreneur loves talking about their business. I love talking about my business. If someone were to approach me and say, “I’m really interested in getting into senior care, and I’d love to spend maybe 10 to 20 minutes over a cup of coffee. Would you mind?” I would be more than happy to carve out time and spend with that individual. That’s what I did. So I was able to gather information before I jumped in. And in the event where an entrepreneur is looking to do something that’s never been done before, just ask around. Family and friends. Just get some serious feedback from those who are around you, and understand who your customer is. Understand what drives their decision making process, and position your collateral materials around their need. That’s what I would focus on. Seek information. Do your due diligence, capitalize the business, and make sure you have a viable business model.

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