Shelly Sun – CEO & Co-Founder, BrightStar Care

Shelly Sun is the CEO and co-founder of BrightStar Care®, a premium healthcare staffing company providing the full continuum of care, from homecare to supplemental staffing, for corporate clients such as nursing homes and physicians. In 2005, BrightStar launched its franchising efforts, becoming the first and only franchising company in the country to specialize in both medical and nonmedical care and healthcare staffing.

BrightStar Care has grown to over three hundred locations nationwide, serving over fifteen thousand families and generating over $350 million in system-wide revenue. In addition to leading the strategy for the BrightStar Care, BrightStar Senior Living & Memory Care, and BrightStar Technology Group divisions, Shelly is charting the vision for complementary brands and services to help consumers care for their families and homes.

Shelly is a certified franchise executive and participates on the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) Board of Directors. Shelly will be chairperson of the IFA Board of Directors in 2017 and currently holds the position of vice chair of the IFA. Shelly was also selected by the IFA as the 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year. BrightStar was named to First Place on the 2014 Forbes’ list and remained among the Top 10 on the 2015 and 2016 Forbes’ list for franchises under $150,000 initial investment. BrightStar was also selected for the Inc. 500/5000 every year from 2010 to 2015. BrightStar is the only franchise homecare brand to receive the Joint Commission’s Enterprise Champion of Quality Award every year from 2013 to 2016.

BrightStar was featured on CBS’s Undercover Boss. Shelly also published her first book, Grow Smart, Risk Less: A Low-Capital Path to Multiplying Your Business Through Franchising, where she discusses her journey as an emerging franchisor through amazing growth, lessons learned, and game-changing ideas.

Tell me about your background.
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. After three months, we moved to California for ten years. My dad was an architect and had a construction company in California, when building was hot in the 1970s, and my mom, generally, stayed at home. I was born in 1970. When I was in fifth grade, we moved back to Tennessee, based on some health issues with my mom’s parents. My folks split when I was a freshman in college. My dad was a very driven individual. He had very high expectations, so that’s probably what developed me into being so particular and so driven. I’ve always been trying to prove that I’m good enough. My mom remarried a wonderful man, so I finally got to realize what it was like to have a nurturing, loving, supportive father with my stepdad for nearly twenty years. They were married until he passed away six years ago. So if you’ve seen my Undercover Boss episode, the father I was crying about losing was my stepfather because we were very, very close. I’m an only child, so all the pressure was on me to perform. My dad always wanted a son. I probably heard a hundred times growing up that he had wanted a boy, and I wasn’t a boy, so I just remember a t-shirt my mom bought me growing up that said, “What boys can do, girls can do better.” My mom was a champion to say that I could do anything and tried not to let my dad keep me discouraged. So I was very driven to prove him wrong and to prove my potential. I put myself through college waiting tables and graduated with minimal school debt, which I paid off within two years. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and a graduate degree in accounting from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Tell me about your early career.
After graduation, I moved from Tennessee to Colorado and worked for a company that rented, leased, and sold computers. I interviewed with the owner of the company, who liked my Southern accent and wanted to hire me as his secretary. I said, “I’m not looking to be a secretary. I have an accounting degree,” and there was an accounting position open. He was willing to pay me more than what the accounting job would’ve paid because he wanted me to be his secretary since I had a cute Southern accent. So I took three weeks, bought voice tapes, and trained myself on how to talk without a Southern accent. I went back to the same company because that’s where I wanted to work. I saw the high growth potential and I felt it was a company where I could do a lot of different things and get a lot of great experience. I interviewed with the general manager and got the job. On the second day of the job, I saw the president and owner of the company again, and he looked at me like I looked familiar, so I had to help connect the dots and make sure there wasn’t going to be a problem. So I ended up working for them for three to four years. I helped them get to the point of going public. A prospectus had become filed, and then a major competitor came in and made an offer to buy the company, so the owners did very well and I got to be a part of that entrepreneurial growth story. I went from there to work for a food distribution company where I had an opportunity to utilize my accounting skills but also manage a large team, where I had ten to fifteen people working for me. I had found out that while I’m great with numbers, I’m better with people. So I was there for a few years and had an opportunity to move up to a higher level position as a controller but also manage large teams at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Colorado. Then my CFO, who was overseeing some of the operations areas, saw my talent, capabilities, and potential and allowed me to run the entire membership area of Blue Cross Blue Shield. My background in numbers, in terms of putting performance metrics in place for very strong operational functions, was helpful, and I also got to manage a 100 to 150 people, in my late twenties. So it was a great experience. Our Colorado plan got acquired by Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. I didn’t like the change in culture, so I put my resume out to some headhunters and received multiple job offers. The job offer I took was to be the vice president, SEC reporting for CNA Insurance in Chicago. So that’s how I got to Chicago in late 2000, where I became the youngest vice president that CNA Insurance ever had, at twenty-nine years old. Amazing experience. Not only did I handle SEC reporting, which was a great responsibility for a publicly-traded company, but they also had an operations area, much like BCBS had, that was completely messed up, and they needed me to step in and get the reinsurance area in line. Get the right performance metrics in place. Get the right talent in place, and hand it off to an operations person again. So I did that as sort of a special project for multiple months and managed over three hundred people. I was at CNA Insurance during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and I just saw the manipulation of reserves in order to boost company profits at a time when so many families were destroyed and the country was looking to heal itself. So I decided I no longer wanted to stay in insurance. I moved to a fractional jet ownership company, which was a subsidiary of United Airlines. I was there for two months, then the unions got into a dispute and pressured that the subsidiary funding be pulled, and the company shut down. So I went to the executives of the parent company and said, “I’m your last one in and I have the least seniority, but I’m not as close to everyone else so I could manage all the terminations, getting us out of the weeds, selling off the furniture. Doing all that. And by the way, I think you’ve been mispricing and overpaying for fuel. For the last several years, you’ve probably overpaid at least $10,000,000 for fuel. I’d like a period of time to be able to collect that back and get that back to the corporate entity that needs that money very badly.” So I was essentially able to negotiate, instead of a two-week severance, a one-year severance with milestones that I would achieve. I ended up getting them $27,000,000 in recovered money versus the $10,000,000 I had projected in the very beginning, so I got my one-year severance, which essentially became my startup capital for the launch of BrightStar Care in 2002.

How did the concept for BrightStar Care come about?
In late 2001, while I was working for CNA Insurance, my husband’s grandmother in Jacksonville, Florida, got very ill and all the family, except Grandpa, was in Illinois or spread out in other areas throughout the country. So it fell to me, being detail-oriented, to call multiple different types of service providers to find the kind of care we wanted at the type of service level and quality level we were looking for, and we were somewhat horrified to find that all that existed was sort of the “Walmarts of homecare.” So even though we were willing to pay more for healthcare, we were unable to pay more and get a different level of experience. You could do that with where you sit on an airplane, what restaurant you eat at, or what store you shop at, but we couldn’t do that with healthcare. Grandma passed away the day before my husband and I got married, in March 2002, so she was really the tribute of which the brainchild came to start the business. So, within a couple of months of losing Grandma Pat, the passion to provide consumers with this type of services began me thinking of starting a business. During this time of thinking about starting a business delivering the type of services BrightStar would eventually provide at the quality and service level BrightStar would provide it, I also had an opportunity to read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki, which really spoke to me of how much more control I would have with my own destiny, since I never had a problem with working hard and being somewhat tenacious, by becoming an entrepreneur rather than working at a corporate job. So those two things formulated into spending the summer of 2002 doing the business plan and launching BrightStar Care in October 2002.

How was the first year in business?
You don’t know a lot when you’re starting out in a business you didn’t come from, but we really tapped into a market need that was being unfulfilled. In the marketplace, there were a lot of different healthcare companies that would provide companionship-type services, like making a sandwich, making sure the customers are not falling, some personal care or bathing, or helping them get to the bathroom for the toilet or to stay clean. But for all the other services needed, like injections, wound care, and medication management, you had to work with multiple companies in order to take care of all that. We had a vision to provide everything, end to end, for families. We would send them different levels of personnel, and it really resonated with the marketplace. We launched in October, and within four months, we were breakeven and became profitable. So the finances came quickly, but the hours were extreme. Most weeks, I was probably working 90 to 120 hours a week in the business. Finally, within ten months of starting the business, I was able to hire one additional key employee to help me with the administrative functions. I hired a nurse from the very beginning, so I was a CEO and ran all the administrative functions and interfaced with all the clients in the living room, in terms of getting care going. Hired all the caregivers and matched them with the clients. My husband did outside sales, calling on referral sources to get the phone to ring. Then I had to sell them over the phone when they called in. I had a nurse coordinate with the families to make sure we were providing the right quality of care. So it was the three of us from the very beginning. I tried to do every single office function: payroll, billing, recruiting, interviewing, customer service. All of that was pretty taxing. So I was really doing the lion’s share of the work. Ten months in, we finally had enough financial traction to feel good about hiring an employee, and then I’d say things started to click to where I had a better work/life balance, even though I still worked seventy hours a week consistently for the next nearly ten years. At least it wasn’t the 90 to 120 hours a week, which was pretty taxing physically to keep up with.

What were some of the challenges you initially faced?
I think it was always trying to balance the recruiting and the sales. Those things really have to stay linked. You need to have enough people to be able to fulfill orders with customers that would do business with us. But if I hired people and I didn’t have clients for them, those people would leave and work for somebody else. It’s always that delicate balance of how many people you are recruiting, because it costs money to recruit and pay for drug screens, background checks, and credential checks. So what’s the right balance of hiring people and knowing when you’re going to be able to put them to work? Similarly, when you’re getting cases from clients, whether you have enough people or don’t have enough people can be very taxing to be able to keep those things in perfect balance and harmony, which continues to be an opportunity within the industry, thirteen years later.

Who was your first client?
Our first larger client was a son whose parents needed homecare. The father, Stanley, had pancreatic cancer. So he needed a lot of physical assistance, but he was sharp as a tack. His wife, at the time, had early stage dementia, so we were taking care of her as well. She was strong as an ox but was losing her mental capacity. We took care of Stanley for about three months with the family, 24/7. We worked with the family and tried to understand the needs of Anne, his wife, of how she would do having Stanley pass away in the home she wanted to stay in, which she didn’t think she could handle. So they kind of said their good-byes and had Stanley move into a palliative care community for a few days, during his active dying stage. I’ll call it women’s intuition, but I just kind of had a feeling that it was time for Stanley to go. So I put together a gift basket with homemade cookies and crossword puzzles. They had four boys, and all four boys saw their father at various times, so I brought that to the palliative care facility. I had gotten to know the family very well. I’m a hugger, so I would always hug Stanley and Anne and their sons as well. I walked in and Stanley was obviously in a very declining state. He was much smaller than I had ever seen him, even a week earlier. I walked in and one of the boys said, “I’m not sure if he is going to recognize you, Shelly.” Once Stanley heard my name, he opened his eyes and tapped himself on the cheek. Sometimes, when I came to the house, I would kiss him on the cheek before I hugged him. So he tapped himself on the cheek. So I came over and kissed him on the cheek. He grabbed my hand, more strength than he should’ve had, and said, “You promise me you’ll always take care of my Anne?” I got really choked up and said, “You have my word. We’ll always take care of Anne.” We said our good-byes and I hadn’t even gotten back to my office, thirty minutes later, and Stanley had passed. While we always hate to see people go and having to see someone suffer, which I think is harder, I think that really showed me what an important role we have in the mission of BrightStar: not just to provide great care, but also to help people die with dignity when it’s necessary. For Stanley, it was necessary to know that his wife was going to be well taken care of. We took care of Anne until she passed away five years later, so we became very close to the family.

Did the business have steady growth during the first few years?
Very much so. We did a little more than $1 million in revenue the first year. I think we were $1.6-1.7 million the second year, and a little over $2 million in the third year. So, pretty consistent growth. We’re fortunate to be serving a growing demographic and that is true for us and our franchisees across the country, as well. Our franchisees tend to make nearly $500,000 in revenue, year one. They double to $900,000 or so in year two, and they’re at about $1.3-1.4 million in year three. So we’ve been very fortunate, from a business model perspective.

What was your marketing strategy?
Professional referral services. We would call on hospitals and nursing homes. For hospitals, we were looking for people that were going to be discharged but also needed homecare services in order to be safe. For nursing homes, it was the rehab department, where someone would come in and rehab, for example, after hip surgery, and then they’re going back home but still need some care services. We’d market to physicians. We’d market to labs. Anyone who might be interfacing with a senior or an adult child who’s making a decision for their parents. Those trusted referral services are who we were coordinating with. I think one of the things that really worked for us is that we were able to come at it from a consumer perspective: “Here’s why we got into the business. Tell us what you’re looking for and how we can absolutely become the best.” I think a lot of salespeople tend to throw up all over those they are calling on, and I think for us, it was “here’s what we’re intending to do. Here’s why we’re passionate and here’s what got us started. Tell us where we should be focusing our business. Help us help you be the best provider in the community.” I think that really resonated where a lot of people got behind our passion and our story and wanted to be a part of that success story in helping us do it the right way, believing that we really intended to and would do whatever was necessary to do it the right way.

Did you ever feel like giving up?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt like giving up. I think there are days where you can have just a lot go wrong, like when key employees quit and you can’t imagine doing your work on top of their work. I tend to be someone whose glass is half full, but when some of those things hit too many at a time, I just need a little bit of quiet time. I need a good cry in the shower, and then I put my big girl pants back on and I push on. But I always take those private moments to purge without anyone seeing me. I think probably the most lonely thing about being an entrepreneur is that no one can see you have a bad day, so there would never be any times that I would ever let anyone believe I wanted to give up, even if I ever had an inclination to do so, and usually within an hour of that feeling, if I could have a shower and a good cry, I’m back to doing what I need to do to get us back on the right track to move forward again. But in front of customers, employees, and franchisees, you just can’t have a bad day, and I’ve always really kind of just stuck with that. My tone, attitude, and outlook are what influence that of everyone else around me. It could have a disastrous effect. So if I have a bad day, now I have eighty people around my corporate office having a bad day. If I have a bad day in front of my 315 franchisees and their key personnel, then 1,000 people will have a bad day. My bad day could impact 1,000 people. I won’t let that happen.

How did you come up with the name BrightStar Care?
It’s cute because my last name is Sun, so I frequently get asked whether the sun part of our logo was intentional around our name. It wasn’t. We hired a professional branding company, Brand Within. James Burgin worked with us and kind of walked us through the seniors industry and what we’re about. He asked enough questions to say there’s enough similarities between the care at the start of life and kind of how the parents were taking care of or making decisions enough for us when we were born just as the adult children often do for their parents at the later stages of their life. And so he brought up the concept of nursery rhymes to think of names, so “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” was up on the board, and “Star Light, Star Bright,” and so the “bright” from one and the “star” from the other came together.

Fast forward to today. How fast is the business growing?
We grow, top line revenue, double digits. Probably around 15 percent. We are a $350 million system, so our brand generates $350 million in sales. In 2010, that would’ve been $100 million, so we’ve more than tripled in that five-year period of time.

Why did you switch to the franchise model?
We didn’t necessarily switch. I’d say that we had company-owned locations, initially. We still have company-owned locations here in our backyard, but the choice came that we want to help families everywhere, because what we had been looking for to help Grandma in Florida didn’t exist anywhere else. We felt compelled, through our mission, to help families. Not everyone would be a client, but those who could afford to be at least could pay a little bit more and have that different kind of experience. So I really think it became a choice of are we going to expand nationally by taking outside funding through private equity and own them ourselves with an outside financing vehicle? Or are we going to franchise and utilize franchising as a way to grow the brand and provide services with local owners? I’m very big on culture and being intentional about culture, and I felt like I had a better opportunity to protect the culture of the values of what BrightStar’s all about through franchising. We were very successful in our first location. We had already moved to a second and third location. So we already knew we could replicate the model. My mother-in-law was investing in a couple of hotels and asked if we wanted to invest alongside her. We did. I went to the new owner and management training with her for Choice Hotels and was in the training class being taught how to be a franchisee, essentially. I came back from that training thinking that we could totally franchise our business. So that was July 2004. In August 2004, I went on bedrest. I was pregnant with twins at the time. I am a type-A, workaholic individual. What do you do when you’re on bedrest and you have a new idea for franchising the business? I wrote our operations manuals, end to end, when I was on bedrest in the fall and winter of 2004. I filed our legal entity, BrightStar Franchising, on January 21, 2005. Our twins were born, at twenty-eight weeks, one week later on January 28. So, had we not invested in the hotels, would I have felt as confident about franchising, with the strategy we chose? I’d still say probably an 80 percent chance yes. But having the opportunity to see it firsthand, knowing how I was about keeping the culture that made our brand special and loving the fact that I had a local owner putting their money on the line who would make sure they were doing business the right way. I don’t know if I could feel as confident in every single situation that an employee would have that level of commitment, a thousand miles away from me. But an owner who was a member of the community and who had so much money and personal reputation at stake, I felt better about that, so franchising just made sense for us, not only from a financial growth model but also from a cultural perspective.

How did the recession affect your business?
We were very fortunate. We did not have dips. Now, I’d say that growth rates that had been in that 13-15 percent range might have come down to 7-9 percent, but we didn’t have a reduction in average sales at the local franchisee level. So we were fortunate with that. I think we slowed down the number of new franchisees that were joining us, but at that point in time, we were already profitable. Again, we didn’t go to a scenario that was unprofitable. We didn’t have to go to a point to do layoffs of our corporate employees during the recession. But what would’ve been a higher level of profit became a lower level of profit. It was a positive number, so we never had to harm our culture by doing a reduction in workforce.

How has Obamacare affected your business?
For us, it’s more about our franchisees that are larger in scale being required to provide benefits for their employees. Many of our franchisees had already done that before the federal government came between an employer and employee and said we had to. But I think the one area from Obamacare that benefited our business was the focus on implementing efficiencies and programs that would bend the cost curve by looking at value-based purchasing by those that might be the payers for our care: insurance companies. We were the first and only brand to require Joint Commission accreditation of our franchisees. We are the only brand, out of over twenty-eight thousand private pay agencies, that have the Joint Commission Enterprise Champion of Quality designation, which we have maintained four years in a row. There is now more incentive for insurance companies to do business with companies like BrightStar, where we can prove we can help someone improve their health outcomes and avoid readmissions. Before Obamacare and the focus on bending the cost curve with initiatives like penalties for readmissions, there may not have been an ROI to invest in technology and quality that we have made as a brand. We made these investments and that leap of faith and long-term view have positioned us to charge more from a margin perspective but also to increase volume, with our focus on quality and improving healthcare outcomes.

What is your vision for the future of BrightStar Care?
We are beginning to enter into the addition of complementary brands. So, BrightStar Care is really focused on in-home care. We also recognize that there are families who can progress beyond what may be safely provided in the home or economically provide it efficiently in the home as resources are constrained. The safety issue can occur when someone has advanced stages of dementia and is living alone. Moving to a memory care home would be beneficial for the person needing care as well as the family. As soon as you get over twelve hours of care per day and you need someone who is physically awake and with the patient twenty-four hours a day, the costs of homecare will be more than an assisted living community. If the family has constrained resources, they might move them to an assisted living community so they can receive those type of services, so we’ve begun building communities owned by our franchisees. In the future, it could be a referral partnership between BrightStar Care and BrightStar Senior Living, because the senior living facilities might fill quickly, so the people on the waiting list might have preferential treatment, utilizing our price and services. We have an opportunity to see what care they need, so it would be a smoother transition. Similarly, we have a referral in the other direction, where someone progresses beyond the care of the BrightStar Care brand and they move over to the BrightStar Senior Living brand. So we’re starting to look at adjacent brands that are also about doing well and providing goods and services to the same care recipient. We have other brands, of which we have around $400,000 in trademarks, for a total of eight brands. We’ve launched two, but we have more brands that we will probably launch every two to three years, based upon the market conditions and assessments at that point in time. We still have a lot ahead of us to be able to add growth opportunities for our franchisees while continuing to provide a valuable service to adult children who are usually making decisions for multiple different services in the community. We are also beginning our international expansion. We just signed an agreement today to expand into Canada with Michael Shneer, who is a wonderful individual with franchising experience in Canada, but we are very passionate about our brand and doing it with the right people. His background has been mostly on the retail side. He had never really worked in a healthcare service oriented business, so as a condition for approval to be our master franchisee in Canada, he had to work in one of our locations performing all the roles and responsibilities at his own expense for a month. He successfully passed that, so now we’ve entered into his agreement to allow him to expand with our brand in Canada. So international expansion is a large part of what we’ll be undertaking in the next few years. We’ll be looking at additional brands. We’ve got 315 locations in the U.S. The U.S. will hold about 700-1,000 for us, so we’ve still got a lot of organic growth out ahead of us, as well.

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
I walk around and make sure that I’m thinking about and acknowledging my team. I’m a hugger, so that high energy, enthusiasm, and appreciation permeates our culture. I’m a big believer of the book Traction by Gino Wickman. We have adopted that throughout our culture, at the corporate level and through all of our franchisees. We’ve flown Gino in for three conferences. We’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of investment seeding an initial pilot group of franchisees, around twenty-five of them, to help them implement traction. Then they’ve become our testimonials to franchisees that they should do it as well. Part of that process is doing what’s called a Level 10 meeting every week, with my senior staff. Ninety minutes. Once per week, at the same day and time. It’s called Level 10 because you want to get a 10/10 score. We have very effective communications, and we’re talking about the right issues. More importantly, we are solving all the issues and moving the business forward. So that’s part of my daily ritual. I’m very active, externally as well. I’m a big believer in putting the right talent in place. Empowering them. Inspecting what I expect, but that doesn’t mean I have to be in my four walls very frequently. I have an amazing president and COO who I put in place a few years ago and who does a great job. I’m here for him as he needs it, but I don’t want to stand in his way and stifle his ability, so I let him run the day-to-day show. Having great talent allows me to get involved in different things. I will chair the International Franchisees Association beginning in February 2017, so I’m very active in the franchising industry. I’ve written a book on franchising, called Grow Smart, Risk Less: A Low-Capital Path to Multiplying Your Business Through Franchising. Again, it’s kind of a give-back to the industry. I speak at many different conferences on franchising. I usually have an active group of mentees in the franchising space, around twenty-five at one given time. So my day is probably half externally focused, with some time giving back to the industry or the individuals that are growing businesses within it. And then about half on the strategic items of BrightStar, complementary brands, and international expansion and growth. And then I hear from my team, from a cultural perspective, as there’s certain times during the week where that’s intentional or walking around. I get hot tea more often than I need to and I’ll take the long way around the office just so I can go by and see all of my team at various points during the day and make sure they see the visibility and the appreciation that they’re looking for when I’m here.

Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?
I’m very glass half full, and I think I permeate that throughout my organization. I think it’s very true for our franchisees that are entering the business, and I say this to every franchisee prospect who is thinking about joining our brand. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you’re going to fail, you will. If you believe you’ll succeed, you’ll do whatever is necessary to make it happen, and there’s not a way to get around that. If you tend to be someone who will find the problem and focus on the problem, I don’t think it’s right to be an entrepreneur or franchisee. If the opposite is true, then it can be a good fit.

Do you set goals?
Yes, absolutely. We do that in our organization as well, with our senior team on a quarterly basis. We’re all very visible and accountable to each other, so my team will know what I’m working on, just like I know what they’re working on. There are my business goals, whether that’s doing a stock option repricing, a business valuation, or an international exploration trip. They’ll know what I’m working on from a business perspective. I’m also a member of the Young President’s Organization (YPO), so I’m socializing with my YPO forum about what my personal and professional goals are.

Are they weekly, monthly, or yearly goals?
For BrightStar, I plan ten years out with a more filled in plan three years to current and we do check-ins on a quarterly basis. With my YPO forum, I provide a five-year outlook, by year, for personal and professional goals and we do check-ins on an interim basis.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I think I focus more on our core values as an organization versus quotes. So our core values are be open and positive. Serve with passion. Do the right thing. Do what you say you’re going to do. And make it great. So, in looking at our first value, 1) be open and positive: we want to be approachable. Everyone should be coachable to reach the next level. We want to be empathetic. We want to be unflappable, with no drama. 2) Serve with passion: what are we doing to make a real difference? It’s certainly the kind of the industry and business that we’re in. 3) Do the right thing: honest, ethical, tell the truth. 4) Do what you say you’re going to do: we’re finishing what we started. Be accountable. 5) Make it great is really about continuous improvement and bringing out the best in others. Those would be what I, or any of my team, would say as to what we focus on and what we live by, in terms of what we’re doing within our organization and how we’re interacting with one another.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read all the time. Make Big Happen: How to Live, Work and Give Big by Mark Moses is one that I’ve recently read. I’m a big Marcus Buckingham fan, StrengthsFinder 2.0. All of Gino Wickman’s books, including Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, Get a Grip: How to Get Everything You Want from Your Entrepreneurial Business, and Rocket Fuel. A lot of books on success and leadership, like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I probably circulate through two to three business books every month, which is one of our core values. It’s all about continuous improvement, right?

How do you define success?
It’s about making a difference in people’s lives. So, for me, it’s about the number of families that our brands will serve and serve well. We have a goal of serving a hundred thousand families by the end of 2018. We track net promoter score, because not only do I want to have the honor of serving families, but we also want to do a great job at it as well. And then, if you get down to the financial success, we’ve already more than achieved my definition of success personally, so now it’s about creating wealth for my employees and for my franchisees.

What do you think is the key to success?
It’s about positive attitude, which we’ve talked about before. It’s about tenacity. You’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days. You just have to keep going after it. It’s also about inspiring others, because there’s very little that we can do on our own, but there’s a whole lot we can do linking arms with a great group of people. So I tend not to focus on what I’m doing but what I’m inspiring others to see the potential of, in themselves and collectively.

Did you always know you would be successful?
Is it wrong to say yes? It sounds so not humble to say, but yes I did. Everyone always asks me if I always envisioned BrightStar to be as big as it is. I know the right answer should be no, but yes. We’re pretty much on track with the original business plan I did, back in 2002.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The responsibility I have to my employees for employment and wealth creation and the responsibility I have to my franchisees, who put a large amount of their retirement money on the line to invest in their local businesses. Also, the responsibility to the families we made a commitment to provide absolutely the best care. I really have this strong, nurturing component to me, so that’s certainly about my children. I’ve got twins that are eleven, but I look beyond that to the nurturing of the brand, and that’s all of its stakeholders, which are our customers, employees, and franchisees.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The strong power and necessity for an entrepreneur to have a board of advisors. I still own 100 percent of my stock today, so I don’t need a voting board of directors, but I do have a board of advisors and I’ve had one since 2004. I’ve had three different sets of them, so as I’ve continuously improved myself, I would get to where we were equal intellectually and I would keep them as friends, but I would change them out from a board perspective and put a new board in. I’ve done that a couple of times, and it’s been very helpful to be challenged and not to always follow all of my ideas. I think that makes me a much better executive for the organization. It’s a huge, psychological aspect for me to have a board that I can go to when I have those down days and just talk things through, where I know that I’m going to be pushed to be better when I need that but they are also able to know when I need a pat on the back, a bit of encouragement, and a safe place to go maybe to vent. I don’t have that anywhere else but with my board. And I think that’s something every entrepreneur should have in place, regardless of the size of their organization. It can even be informal and potentially unpaid, like getting coffee, when you’re in the earlier stage because you don’t have a lot of money. You might not have access to the same board as you progress and can pay more, but I still think there’s an important function that it plays. Because even with going home to your family, oftentimes family can be misaligned with whether or not you should stay in the business or start another business. So, really, if you’re saying you can’t have a bad day in front of your employees, franchisees, and customers and you can’t have a bad day in front of your spouse and family either, you don’t really have a place to go, so a board of advisors has been very critical for me in that.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I’m taking up tennis, so I’m enjoying that. Anything I get to do with my boys, who are very active, whether that’s Top Golf, tennis lessons, or throwing the football. Any time that I can spend with them is valuable. I also have some girlfriends and we try to do some girl trips a couple times per year. I’m also really into Cabernet, so I’m a huge Napa Valley fan and try to get there a few times a year, as well.

What makes a great leader?
It’s a couple of things. I think it’s about understanding what your best talents are and being unafraid of hiring people who are better than you at what you’re not great at and empowering them to take those things and run with them, while inspecting what you’re expecting, so that everything you’re being told that’s being done is really getting done and at the level that you need to expect it to. So, at the early stages of a business, the CEO has to be the visionary and the executor. As a business grows, an entrepreneur has to think whether or not they are the best visionary and have the right skills, capability, and strategy or if it’s better for them to just execute the plans. You have to almost split that role into who’s going to be the visionary and who’s going to execute and be more detail-oriented and work with the team to execute the plan that the visionary is coming up with. So I think knowing what your talents are and not being afraid to empower others to take key roles and giving them the runway to succeed in a way that might be different to what and how you would do it, but their way still works.

What do you think is the most common mistake entrepreneurs make?
Being underfunded. Projections are always optimistic, so it’s important to get financing plans from the bank for what it’s going to cost to be in business based upon a worst case scenario. It always costs more and takes longer, like with building a house, than what you think. It’s a common mistake, as it was for me, and I find it with other entrepreneurs as well. What makes us great entrepreneurs is that we’re optimistic. We’re visionaries, in terms of how big the business can be and how fast it can ramp up, but that also works against us in planning the pessimistic view on the financing that’s going to be necessary to succeed.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Make sure what you’ve built your business around is something you’re passionate about. I find that with many entrepreneurs, the ones that I know will be successful are the ones that are really passionate about the service or widget that they have built their business around. Those that have just seen a market need and try to fill it but they’re not really passionate about what they’re doing, I find it really difficult for them to be sustainably successful. So, being passionate is really important. Believe in yourself, and cull your circle of influence. If there are those who believe you should not be an entrepreneur and they believe you should go back to being an employee, you need to not spend time with them because that gets in your head. So having that positive connectivity around you, once you’ve already taken that leap off the cliff to become an entrepreneur, is really important. Keep people around you that are positive.

What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs?
Our journeys are very common, between men and women. It’s a question I frequently get asked. What tends to be different is our school system, which still makes girls believe they won’t be good at math, and so if you’re not encouraged in something, you won’t pursue it. So I would say to most female entrepreneurs that if they’re not comfortable with numbers and they don’t know how to read their financial statements, get educated. Go to classes and have that language and that command so that you’re not deferring to your chief financial officer or to your accountant, particularly if you’re going to need access to financing along the way on your journey to grow. As soon as a banker realizes that you don’t know your numbers and you’re deferring to someone else, it makes them nervous. You commonly hear that women cannot access financing as much as men, but I have never found that to be the case with me. Now, I am a CPA. I have an undergraduate and master’s degree in accounting, and there’s not a single man or banker that’s going to run numbers around me. So I think it’s more about skillset than gender, and if you don’t have the skillset and you’re a woman, make sure you shore that up and get it, and that you have the confidence to show your numbers and not defer to a male member of your team.

What advice would you give to spouses who want to start a business together?
Be very intentional about whose role is going to be what. What are each of your accountabilities? What are the areas for which you can hold each other accountable? Make sure you’re aligned with how long each of you is going to stay in the business and what milestones the business needs to achieve in order for one of you to exit (if one of you doesn’t envision staying in it for forever). And then, if there are fights in the business, don’t bring them home.

Do you believe the American Dream is dead?
I hope not. I think the current administration keeps trying to kill it, but I do still believe that it’s there, alive and well. I think there’s many of us who still want to make sure we believe the American Dream is still alive. I still believe in the American Dream, but I think we’ve got a lot of headwinds ahead of us, so getting things like this book out there is really, really critical.


This interview is an excerpt from American Dream: Interviews with Industry-Leading Professionals by Jason Navallo.

Best Books for Entrepreneurs

Check out our books page!