Entrepreneur works hand in hand with SBDC advising to open business

MOUNT VERNON, Wash.—Sometimes you have to be the change you want to see.

Donna Klein had been an occupational therapist specializing in hand therapy for more than 20 years and had worked under a variety of management structures. In 2016 she began managing a busy practice, along with seeing patients, and she realized she enjoyed the business side of the work as well.

Life was good, but she knew it could be better–for her and her patients, and for several of her colleagues, as well. In early 2018 she went to them with a proposal to start their own hand therapy clinic in Mount Vernon. “I think I can make a better life for all of us if we do this,” she said.

Klein suggested a partnership, but after some discussion they agreed Klein would start the business and they would join as employees. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without them,” she said. And so the idea of Skagit Hand Therapy was born.

Klein said she realized at an early age that she was good with her hands. An avid horseback rider, she competed in rodeo and eventing. Her success depended on her ability to feel small muscle movements in her horse and communicate back with her legs and her hands. “You need to be one with the horse,” she said. “With your hands you ask the horse to do what you need it to do.”

She started out wanting to be a physical therapist, but then changed her major to occupational therapy and specialized in hand therapy where her own hands were among her most important tools. “I really like feeling tissues change under my fingertips,” she said. After earning her occupational therapist license Klein went on to become a certified hand therapist (CHT), one of only about 6,000 in the world.

Over the years, Klein had developed strong working relationships with surgeons and other healthcare providers across Whatcom and Skagit counties, but particularly in Skagit Valley. Word-of-mouth and physician referrals had kept her patient schedule full no matter where she worked. Klein was confident that Skagit Hand Therapy would be profitable and she would be able to provide superior patient care.

But there was a problem. Klein couldn’t get Skagit Hand Therapy up and running without financing, and she couldn’t get financing without a business plan. With a long to-do list in addition to the demands of her full-time job, Klein went online and found a company that offered to take her raw information about payroll costs, payer mix, other expenses and projected revenue and turn it into a business plan.

Klein had never written a business plan before, but she knew the plan she got back from the online service “completely missed the mark,” she said. That’s when she called the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and began working with Cindy Brooks, an SBDC business advisor. The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen business advisors who work in communities across the state to assist small business owners who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business.

SBDC advising services are paid for by a matching-funds grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that is administered by Washington State University. Each year the Washington SBDC must secure matching funds from state and local sources including community colleges and economic development agencies. The SBDC office in Mount Vernon is co-located with the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County.

Brooks, who had owned her own healthcare practice before joining the SBDC, started out by going through the online plan with Klein and making suggestions for improvement.

Even though Klein was working on a tight deadline, which is why she hired the online service to begin with, she eventually decided she’d actually save time and get a much better plan if she started over with Brooks. By writing her own plan with SBDC assistance, she knew she’d be much better prepared to defend it in meetings with loan officers. Klein and Brooks spent hours together going over spreadsheets, creating financial projections and discussing myriad issues involved in running a therapy practice including marketing, market analysis, and long term goals.

In April Klein submitted her loan application and business plan to several banks and on May 25, 2018, she was notified that she’d been approved for a $150,000 loan from Heritage Bank.

In July Skagit Hand Therapy opened in offices co-located with Balance Point Physical Therapy. She was joined by Neil Plume, also a certified hand therapist, Lettie Pratt – front office coordinator, Jayme Sanford – front office and therapy aide, and Tonia Kern – therapy aide.  She also contracts with a payroll service, an accountant and a bookkeeper. Skagit Hand Therapy is now up to five employees and 2019 looks to be a very good year.

A lot of people have helped Klein get where she is now, but Cindy Brooks at the Washington SBDC was a big part of it. “I could not have done it without her,” Klein said. “Thank you isn’t enough.”

For more about Skagit Hand Therapy go to www.skagithandtherapy.com

For more about the Washington SBDC, go to www.wsbdc.org