Evan Haines is a co-founder of Alo House and specializes in admissions, marketing, and business development. An active participant in the recovery world, it felt natural for Evan to transition into the sober living business, and help others obtain and maintain sobriety. In 2010, he and Jared founded Alo House, which, in less than three years, became one of the most successful sober living residences in the area. Evan has a natural ability to connect with clients and bring out a sense of hope in them.
Evan has a Master’s degree in community development planning from the University of British Columbia. His strong academic background, coupled with years of hands-on experience in community-organizing work with non-profits, makes him a great asset to the Alo House team. An example of this is the ‘Alo House Farms‘ project, an exercise in community economic development. It gives clients valuable work experience in a variety of areas, while simultaneously building their self-esteem, as they feel part of something larger than themselves and positively affects those around them.
How did the concept for Alo House come about?
Alo House began in 2011 as a single sober living home. My partner, Jared Valentine, and I are both in recovery, and were attending 12-step meetings at local sober living homes here in Malibu. The homes were beautiful, but we quickly realized that we could do a better job of running one. So right from the start, our focus was on quality and integrity. Eight years later, and about ten homes later, those are still our two most important guiding principles as a business. One of the other main things that set us apart was that we were very hands on. We lived in the home ourselves, and basically spent every day, all day, with our clients. We genuinely cared about them, and actually really enjoyed that time in our lives. And many of those first clients are still sober today, we believe, because of that passion we had, and that bond we established with them. So we’ve made sure that every person we have hired along the way has both that same passion, and the ability to connect and bond with our clients. Hence, the Alo motto: “Connection, Not Control.” Now as a licensed treatment center, the clinical approach emphasizes the importance of the ‘therapeutic bond’ that our staff has with clients. So we use the same approach we used when we first started, but now within a professional, licensed context.
How was the first year in business?
We learned a lot in our first year in business. One of the most important things we learned was that, if you’re doing a good job in our business, you aren’t making a lot of money (I think I personally made $2,000 that entire first year). That is still our understanding. We aspire to have an 8% profit margin. This goes back to that original business model: quality and integrity. We are constantly reinvesting, not just into expansion, but into our current staff. This creates a heightened morale, which contributes to the passion of our staff, and which also ensures that our staff turnover is very low. And the passion and well-being of our staff directly transmits to that of our clients. This was a huge realization for us.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy has always been based on word of mouth. So for this reason, our reputation is key. We protect it with everything we have because we realize how precious it is, and never take it for granted. I once heard the saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Those words echo. And once again, this idea connects back to our core principles of quality and integrity. As an industry, sadly we are plagued with bad actors. Patient brokering and kickbacks are a huge problem, and we refuse to engage in these practices, even while that has made it very difficult to compete with the many facilities that do employ them. Well fast forward, and just a couple of months ago, new federal and state laws passed that have finally and conclusively outlawed these practices. So while other facilities are trying to figure out how to attract clients for the first time, like by actually having a good program or by innovating, for example, without just paying for them, we are way ahead of the curve.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our company grew by 100 to 300 percent each year for our first few years. In fact, we were #1032 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies. It’s been a bit of a blur. We went from no employees in our first year (just Jared and myself), to one employee in our second year, to almost 100 employees now, eight years later.
How do you define success?
For me, success has less to do with the numbers, and more to do with making a difference. Of course, I’m interested in providing for my family, and that’s a big driver. But for me, where both of my parents were artists and thinkers, maybe I look at what we’re doing as a creative endeavor. When you’re looking at treating mental health and addiction, where no one has really done a great job when it comes to outcomes, we look at this as a challenge, almost like a very complex riddle that needs solving. We want to question everything, and take nothing for granted. We want to push boundaries and, to use a term from the tech startup world, ‘disrupt’ more conventional thinking around how drug treatment is done. So when I’m on my death bed, I’m not going to be thinking about how much money I made, I’m going to be asking myself, “Did I make a difference? Did I help to revolutionize, in my own quiet (or loud) way, the way addiction treatment and dual diagnosis treatment is done in America?” I’m always very conscious of how we fit into the history of the way we treat people with mental health problems in the west. This is so much bigger than us, and such important work. I think of myself as a humble servant, a sort of midwife, helping to bring a new paradigm into being.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned is that there really is no such thing as ‘easy money’ in life. At least, that hasn’t been my experience! Being an entrepreneur is incredibly challenging. It’s grueling and takes a physical and mental toll. I study Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and for me, it is the closest thing I know that helps me to prepare for what I do for a living. I think the same could probably be said for yoga. Similarly, we learn to breathe through adversity. And in jiu-jitsu, we learn to never give up and to use intelligence and technique to survive and thrive through what are extremely difficult circumstances. It also teaches me humility. At least half of my jiu-jitsu classes involves me getting bested by my fellow classmates. I train to constantly adapt to changing situations and to learn to let go, to become more fluid and agile. And however challenging certain classes are, no matter how frustrated and defeated I feel, I’ve learned to keep coming back. Because it’s never over, and as long as I’m alive, I’ll have the opportunity to come back and try again.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts
What are some of your favorite books?
My favorite book is Good to Great by Jim Collins. The lessons in that book are so important to me and certainly reflect my experience running a business: so much of our success was the result of luck and (lucky) timing, and so much of our success was and always will be the result of the collective efforts of an incredible team. Together, I’m very confident that we can be the best at what we do, and we are well on our way to doing so.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Probably the toughest day being an entrepreneur came recently. On the morning of November 9th at 5:00 AM, the Woolsey Fire, one of the most destructive, largest, fastest-moving fires in the history of California, crossed the 101 Freeway and started heading toward Malibu, where a lot of our facilities are located. By 7:00 AM, we made the call to evacuate our clients. We moved a number of them to our facilities in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. We thought for sure that, although it would be a close call, we would be able to return in a few hours. Well, at around noon, I got the phone call that four of our six houses had burnt to the ground (we since lost a fifth to very bad smoke damage). I was sick to my stomach and dizzy with shock so much so that I had to pull over. Sitting in my car, parked on the side of the road, I basically curled up into the fetal position, and for about five minutes, I figured that this was it. I gave up. We had a good run, I thought to myself, but now I’d have to sell my house, trade in my Volvo for something more affordable, and start looking for work. But then something came over me. I remembered that we don’t give up that easily. So after calming myself, I wracked my brain, and I started making some phone calls. Because we had built a relationship with our mentor, Richard Rogg, who had founded Promises thirty years ago, and then sold it eight years ago, I called him to ask for help. I knew that he still owned the properties that once housed the original Promises in West Los Angeles. And as luck would have it, the treatment center who occupied those properties had moved out literally four days earlier. We were able to pick up the keys on the Sunday and moved our clients in on Monday morning.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
There are two things that push me forward when faced with this kind of adversity. First, I picture my two daughters, and I think about their dance classes and gymnastics, and our family trips. These things are so important to my family, and I will do anything humanly possible to provide these things to them. Second, as I believe might be the case for a lot of entrepreneurs, I’m totally unemployable. I have been working since I was eight years old – first delivering newspapers, then washing dishes by age thirteen. I’ve been a house painter, an archivist, a movie extra, and worked at a non-profit while I was in college. And although I have nothing but respect for hardworking people – my dad was a construction worker and my stepmom was a secretary for their whole lives – I just can’t do it. There’s something in my wiring. I don’t know if I’m lazy, or have a problem with authority, or maybe a little of both. I was born to be an entrepreneur. Don’t get me wrong, some days when the crises are mounting and the stress levels are sky-high, I wish I was washing dishes or serving coffee, and that I could just come home and unplug and be 100 percent present for my family, but this is just not my experience.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The advice that I would give young entrepreneurs is this: find a mentor. Find someone who will take an interest in you and share their time with you. Learn from them, and study under them. I went to school for eleven years and earned two degrees, both of which are basically useless to me now (besides teaching me how to finish what I started). If I could do it all over again, I would apprentice under a master. That is what’s missing today – the power of the human connection and the bond of community. If we hadn’t built that bond with Richard, and didn’t have that kind of relationship, like he told me, “I would have been just another phone call.” A number of people who had also lost their treatment centers in the fires had obviously called him to see if his houses were available to lease. That relationship saved us; that mentorship saved us. Richard Rogg saved Alo from being destroyed, and we will never forget that. We are forever grateful.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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