This installment in the OT Entrepreneur Series is Sue Ludwig, president and founder of the National Association of Neonatal Therapists (NANT). This is a professional organization designed to support, network, and educate the OTs, PTs, and SLPs in the NICU.
What was your background before starting your business?
I’ve been an occupational therapist for over 20 years. At least 17 of those years have been spent in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). For the past decade, I’ve also been a national speaker as well as a consultant to NICUs in the US in the areas of neonatal feeding, developmental care and leadership.
Why did you decide to start your OT business?
I started the National Association of Neonatal Therapists (NANT) for several reasons, including:
1) as I consulted around the US, I realized that therapists who worked in the NICU had no way to connect with each other. Often we didn’t even know of another therapist who did what we did! We were isolated and didn’t know where to go for specialized education, mentoring or validation. That also meant we recreated the wheel for every project, goal, and directive.
2) Every neonatal therapist I met was passionately invested in their practice. They LOVED working in the NICU. And they were self-motivated which is something I admire in anyone.
3) The babies in the NICU deserved knowledgeable, highly specialized therapists. You can do harm in the NICU if not properly trained. This gnawed at me.
4) I had more to give. I had a vision. It just took me a long time to believe that I could be the leader of this grand endeavor.
What was your tipping point to get started?
I had previously worried about if I would have the approval of my peers when starting and leading this organization. I wasn’t sure if I fit my own definition of a powerful leader. My mentor kept telling me, “No one is going to anoint you worthy. Only you.” (This statement stops one in her tracks.) I remember lying in bed one night wondering how I’d feel if someone else decided to start this organization. I was afraid they wouldn’t have the same perspective or that they’d limit it to one discipline. It was then that I realized that I did, in fact, have a very specific vision and I wanted to see it come to life.
How did you take your first steps to starting a business?
My first step was to hire a business mentor. I still have the same mentor 5 years later. This was a critical and invaluable step. We need to learn from those who are several steps ahead of us. High level mentoring saves time, mistakes, and money while adding depth, strategy, and forethought to business. I’m thrilled that this is the route I took.
Have you found a benefit from social media marketing (twitter, facebook, blogging)? What are some of the strategies that you have used to maximize your success in this field?
Yes I have found huge benefits from using social media. I’m not sure many businesses can afford NOT to have a social media presence. I have a very personal approach to all of my communication, whether it’s social media or our weekly newsletter. I did not want NANT to be just a ‘big organization’ that didn’t relate to its members. I AM them. I want them to know I have their backs. Everything I do is to support them professionally and personally and in turn, support babies and families.
What were some lessons that you learned in the initial stages of your business? Were there challenges that were difficult to answer during this time?
I learned thousands of lessons. I learned that I actually really love business (who’d have thought?!). Being an entrepreneur is stressful and highly rewarding. I learned that my colleagues around the world are doing amazing work that often goes (or went) unnoticed. I learned that every NICU in the world needs therapists who see infants through our unique lens. I learned that there are many opportunities out there, but to let my true vision guide the choices I make. If the opportunity isn’t in alignment with that vision, I let it go.
The challenges were similar to those any new business faces: learning how to hire the right people, how to make the business more scalable, how to avoid being the bottleneck for decisions and creative content. Each challenge helps me grow and learn. It’s not for the faint of heart.
How long did it take for you to hire additional help?
I hired help before NANT even went ‘live’ in the world. My mentor was very clear in teaching me that there are some things I just never need to do. That I could start small (hiring-wise) but needed to learn to delegate immediately to people who were fantastic at executing work that I should never do. That way I could focus on what only I can do. This was sage advice.
What was your original goal, the hope you have for the business?
My vision was for NANT to become a sustainable business so that we could keep serving our members. But my goals are more long-term. I’ll consider it successful if I leave a legacy…if NANT outlives me and continues to thrive beyond my wildest imagination…if neonatal therapists fully understand the value they bring to the NICU team and stand in that value – humbly, decidedly, intentionally.
What is the best thing about owning your own business? The worst? What surprised you most?
-The best thing: Freedom. Being able to bring my kids to school or be there for sporting events and other important moments. Even if it means working extra hours on other days, the freedom to be present for my husband and kids is priceless. I’m also so grateful to work every day toward a vision that inspires me, grounds me and pushes me. Not everyone loves their work. I am fortunate that I do.
-The worst: The stress of responsibility. I want to make sure I’m moving this field in the right direction. Luckily I’m surrounded my amazing colleagues who contribute to this journey.
-What surprised me the most: Selling out our first national conference in 2011! And the nearly instant acceptance of NANT by other neonatal associations and professionals as well as AOTA. The neonatal community is small (no pun intended) and I’ve found it to be supportive beyond measure.
What are some tips that you could give to OT practitioners considering starting a business?
-Be prepared to live outside your comfort zone- personally, professionally and perhaps financially at first. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll emerge stronger.
-Get a mentor. You might have your MBA already and that’s great. It’s just not the same thing as knowing the steps to take when you begin on Monday morning or how to implement all you know.
-Consider your true motivation for starting the business. All the money in the world won’t make you want to get out of bed and work at a job you hate. Look for the deeper meaning and stay true to that vision.
-Have fun with it!
Surround yourself with people who buoy you and are not prone to drama. Support them in the same way.
-Be kind to yourself. Schedule self-maintenance. Sleep.
-Understand that you have a unique contribution to make to the world. Express that through your business to serve others.
Many thanks to Sue for sharing her perspective on business ownership! If you're thinking of practicing in the NICU, NANT is a great resource to make that a reality. Check out their annual conference and website!