SBDC advising helps Auburn therapy business quickly expand

AUBURN, Wash.­—When the lease came up on the 900-square-foot office that housed Circle Creek Therapy, owner Courtni Doherty’s speech therapy practice, she had a decision to make—baby steps or a huge leap of faith?

When she found an affordable option in a great location, she decided to take the leap. In December 2018 she signed a new lease for a 3,400-square-foot space that would allow her to add one additional speech therapist (bringing the total to three) and expand her practice to offer on-site occupational therapy and physical therapy.

“Speech clients often benefit from other therapies as well and it makes sense to offer them in one location,” Doherty said. Not only does it save families a lot of travel time to and from appointments, but it allows the therapists to collaborate and coordinate their efforts to help patients achieve maximum results.

But she had a problem. Her lease was ending on her current space and she didn’t want to move into her new space until she had made two major improvements: a private restroom to better accommodate clients with physical or cognitive impairments and a kitchen where occupational therapists could work with clients on activities of daily living. The estimated cost of the tenant improvements was $40,000, and by mid-January she was still looking for financing.

“We didn’t know where to start, and that’s a hard piece to overcome,” Doherty said.

That’s when her husband, Stephen, a marketing and communications professional, suggested that she call the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “He said, ‘I’ve heard some great things about the SBDC, let’s try them,” Doherty said.

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen business advisors who work in more than 20 communities across the state to assist small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. Washington State University is the statewide host of the Washington SBDC and helps fund the program as do other institutions of higher education and economic development. State and local contributions to the SBDC are then matched by federal funds approved by Congress and administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Green River College helps fund two SBDC advisors, one in Auburn and the other in Kent.

In late January Doherty began meeting with Taryn Hornby, the Washington SBDC advisor at Green River College in Auburn.

Together Doherty and Hornby looked at Circle Creek’s financial spreadsheets to chart growth and build future projections. Hornby, who was a small business entrepreneur and also spent more than 13 years in banking before joining the SBDC, helped Doherty put together financial documents that were accurate, concise and complete. She then provided Doherty with the names of several banks that had issued tenant improvement loans in the past.

Different banks have different lending priorities, Hornby said, so when she started with the SBDC in 2017 she made it a point to meet as many bankers as she could and learn about their lending parameters. When clients such as Doherty come to her with specific loan challenges, she can help them avoid banks where they have no chance of success and guide them to three or four banks where similar applicants have been successful. Hornby said a big part of her job is getting out in the community and meeting people so that she can help her clients find the resources they need when they need them.

“I’ll go pound the pavement so that they can run their business,” she said.

Getting a loan for tenant improvements can be tricky, Doherty said, because if the loan recipient  defaults on the loan, there is no property or tangible assets for the lender to seize. “They are investing in me, not my company,” Doherty said.

She needed to present herself as a skilled speech therapist with a vision for her practice and a savvy businesswoman with a good grasp of financial spreadsheets, Doherty said. “If I didn’t come across as a numbers person, they weren’t going to believe in me,” she said.

Doherty made appointments with three bankers and two weeks later she learned that Heritage Bank had approved her for a $40,000 loan.  “It happened incredibly quickly,” Doherty said. “That’s not typical.”

Heritage Bank was wonderful to work with, Doherty said, which is what several online reviews say about Circle Creek Therapy, as well. “Our expectations were well surpassed,” wrote one parent who is also a special education teacher herself.

Doherty said that kind of feedback is why she wanted to open Circle Creek Therapy and expand it in the way she has. “I’m a naturally empathetic person,” she said. “I feel other people’s pain and I want to help.”

Doherty said she gets tremendous satisfaction out of helping clients progress toward their goals. Her first career was in marketing, and while she enjoyed the technical side, including website design, the work was not fulfilling. While trying to figure out a Plan B she shadowed a speech therapist and was hooked.

Doherty’s mother had once considered a career in speech therapy for herself and she now works in the front office, as does Doherty’s mother-in-law. After almost a year in her new space, Doherty said she’s happy with what she and her team have accomplished, and she’s looking forward to finding more opportunities to help clients reach their potential.

In that way, the work she does is not so different from SBDC advising.

Doherty said she saw Hornby at a networking event recently and caught her up with how the business is going. “It was fun to be able to show her what we’ve been able to do with her help,” Doherty said.

For more information about Circle Creek, go to www.circlecreektherapy.com

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