Business advising equips autism practice for rapid growth

TUKWILA, Wash. – Takanori Koyama’s clinical practice for children with autism spectrum disorder was growing so quickly that in two years his one-person staff burgeoned to 24 and he needed more space.

That priority changed when he began meeting with Steve Burke, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Burke helped Koyama realize that his efforts would be better spent shoring up his business systems to ensure his labor-intensive company, Northwest ABA (http://www.northwestaba.com/), would not just survive but thrive in a period of rapid growth.

Some of the staff of Northwest ABA

Finding a larger space moved down the priorities list, but meeting monthly with Burke was at the top. “Steve directed my attention to aspects of my business that are critical for its success,” Koyama said.

The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) is a network of more than two dozen business advisors working in communities from the Canadian border to the Columbia River. Burke meets with clients in Tukwila to provide no-cost, confidential, one-to-one advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business.

The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of economic development and higher education.

Work on the business, not in the business

New business owners are under such pressure to keep up with day-to-day demands that developing efficient and reliable business systems often gets short shrift, Burke said.

“Establishing a system of financial discipline and working on other business systems builds a solid foundation that provides the basis for managed growth,” he said. “Doing this rather than reacting too fast to competitors’ actions has a higher chance of long-term success.”

Koyama started meeting with Burke in early 2016 about everything from business structure to employee compensation to training.

With six clinical supervisors and 16 behavior technicians, Northwest ABA was working with clients at the clinic in Tukwila but also in schools and homes across Pierce and King counties. Keeping track of all the moving parts was a challenge, especially when Koyama had responsibilities for clinical work as well.

“The biggest advice Steve gave me is that I need to work on the business, not in the business,” Koyama said. “That kind of changed my mindset.”

Finds calling while working at autism camp

three children's faces looking at a video screen

Koyama first came to the United States as a foreign exchange student in psychology at Duke University in 2001. He found summer work at a camp for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders.

“That’s when I really found my passion,” he said. “I loved working with this population.”

He returned to the U.S. in 2002 and started taking graduate courses at the University of Washington while also working with children in public schools, preschools and private clinical practice. In 2011 he earned his Ph.D. in special education.

In February 2013, now with a green card, Koyama opened Northwest ABA, which stands for Applied Behavior Analysis, an evidence-based therapeutic approach to improve the capabilities of people with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.

Sustaining growth and service

Each client has a customized treatment plan created by a clinical supervisor and typically meets three to five days a week for two to three hours with a behavior technician.

“It’s very intensive therapy,” Koyama said, which makes his business labor-intensive and expensive.

About the time he opened his practice, insurance companies started approving ABA therapy for people with autism and the field exploded: There simply weren’t enough practitioners to handle the demand.

Koyama said he has seen other practices in the region grow to two or three times the size of Northwest ABA in the same period, but he’s satisfied with his more deliberate approach and his work with the SBDC.

“My main challenge has been to create business systems related to financial accounting, but also client records, employee roles and responsibilities, data security, process manuals and more, so we can sustain rapid growth without sacrificing the quality of our service,” Koyama said.

Keeping track of data, industry

Burke said Koyama is wise to protect the integrity of his brand and focus on long-term goals.

“The first trait of a business owner who can successfully get a business through 10 years of profitability is someone who constantly does research, collects data and seeks mentors,” Burke said. “The other piece is to listen to your customers, employees and stakeholders to understand what is going on in the industry and the economy. Taka is doing all of that.”

Koyama’s business has passed the three-year mark and includes 36 employees. His initial interest in buying commercial property is again on the table.

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

News media contacts:
Takanori Koyama, Northwest ABA, 206-313-8840, info@northwestaba.com
Steve Burke, Washington SBDC in Tukwila, 206-246-4445, steve.burke@wsu.edu