Few businesses that focus on the senior market are more unique and have garnered more attention than One Senior Place, which opened in 2006. It is the second of Don Kramer and his wife Beth’s successful ventures. The first, Senior Partner Care, provides non-medical in-home care throughout Central Florida. One Senior Place, located in a 13,000 square foot facility in Viera, is described as a one-stop information resource center for every need seniors could face. Now, Don and his team are making plans to open a second location in Altamonte Springs to serve the Orlando metro area.
SCB: What was the inspiration behind your focus on senior care?
DK: Like everyone else our age, I dragged my parents through the senior system – and I use that term, ‘system,’ loosely. I was flabbergasted by how frustrating, inefficient and unpleasant it was. Then, over 13 years ago, we started Senior Partner Care, which is a non-medical, non-Medicare company providing services like meals and transportation. Over time, we felt we were doing a good job providing a vital service, but we recognized it wasn’t easy to get certain types of care as a consumer and it wasn’t easy to get in front of those consumers as a provider. We asked, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ There are two huge demographic groups that have a hard time connecting.
We started with the classic entrepreneurial seed, a strong unmet need. Then we thought about how we might meet that need. We asked, ‘Is there a business here, which can be helpful and meaningful?’ We gave everything a lot of thought, even the design of our building; everything was purposely structured around that concept of bringing together consumers and providers.
SCB: What were the practical steps you took from identifying the need to building a business to meet that need?
DK: We asked first, ‘What is the worst part of this process?’ From the consumer’s side and as a provider, we knew the system was bad, but why was it bad? That wasn’t so hard; consumers don’t like thinking about these issues, so planning for aging is often more of a crisis management response.
SCB: So there is a strong avoidance factor?
DK: Yes, denial is a beautiful thing. I recently had someone tell me, ‘Last week my mother wasn’t old.’ But she was 85, she was old; she just wasn’t having health or lifestyle issues. So then they are thrown, unceremoniously into making major decisions at the worst possible time. The other key issue was where do you go to get information? Time was when you went to your doctor, neighbor or pastor, but that isn’t the case anymore. If you go to a provider and their only tool is a hammer, you better hope your problem is a nail (laughing). Plus, the market is so fragmented, you can drive all over town or maybe you are from out of town and don’t know where to go.
SCB: How do you approach the providers?
DK: Well, we ask them, ‘What are you doing with your marketing budget and how effective have your efforts been?’ It’s kind of a trick question. Oftentimes, they don’t even know if their efforts are hitting the target. Then we simply say, ‘If you take that portion of your advertising budget and partner with us, this is what you will get.’ People come here looking for services, ready to make consumer decisions and we put you in front of them. We are then going to treat them so well, they are going to trust us and respect our referrals. These providers are putting their brand under our brand, which we have worked tirelessly to build. Some providers have great brands themselves, but no one has heard of them.
Also, our brand doesn’t have that ‘one foot in the grave’ connotation, that we are a place of no return; instead we are about living and living fully. People aren’t afraid to come here given our approach to admit that they have a need.
SCB: What is the uniqueness of marketing to the senior community, even if you’re a business which is not unique to seniors?
DK: First, when advertising to seniors, many advertisers think the only thing seniors think about are their problems or their fears. The fact of the matter is seniors don’t want to think about their health or mortality any more than anyone else. Nevertheless, most of the advertising seems to target those concerns. Though we may address a concern, we turn it into an event that is fun, with door prizes and food. Don’t treat seniors as a ‘symptom.’
Also, recognize that the 80-plus senior grew up in a different era of time, where trust, loyalty and integrity were priorities. The Baby Boomers have redefined everything else and they will redefine this issue as well.
Finally, know what they are going to experience in their market search, since they are basically amateurs in their search.
SCB: Even as there is more attention on entrepreneurial studies in the Business schools at the university level, do you see a coming specialization in senior marketing and business in the near future?
DK: I think so; just by looking at the sheer numbers and trajectory we are looking at that falling into that category.
SCB: What surprised you the most about building a business around this market sector?
DK: The most obvious was, ‘Why isn’t someone doing what we are doing?’ because the need is so apparent. Either I am brilliant or we are missing something. Then it was like walking through a door into this giant space and nobody was there. That was seven years ago, but frankly things have changed very little. Secondly, even though it is compelling and the need is great, it isn’t easy, in fact there are a thousand ways to do it wrong and only a couple of ways to do it right.
SCB: Where do you want to be in five years? Your concept seems as though it would lend itself to franchising, especially in the Sunbelt.
DK: On February 1st, we open our second location in Altamonte, where we anticipate improving on all these lessons we learned at this facility. But we are taking our growth one step at a time; we hope it is a great time to expand, but it is also a challenging time to expand. We are most interested in Florida and want to continue expanding. People have approached us about franchising, but we don’t think that is the best growth model. Each location is very expensive and what we do is extremely complex; we aren’t making subs or pretzels, it requires such broad skill sets.
Also this is a pretty small community and because my staff and I have been in the business for some time we know the providers in the area and have seen how they operate. Nevertheless, though we have a due diligence process, we make our consumers aware that we are a referral service, not an accrediting agency. Also there are some businesses we don’t let in, like annuity marketers; though they ‘love seniors’ they don’t love them the way we do.
SCB: Do you receive any kind of referral fee?
DK: No, that is against our code of ethics and the companies that are represented here have to follow the same code; we want to promote consumer choice. That is also one of the drawbacks of franchising, i.e. your ability to control those type of variables. We are much more concerned with our reputation than with, say, legal liabilities.
SCB: You are not only providing services to seniors, but to caregivers and decision makers for seniors. How do you work with that group?
DK: We don’t send any real direct message, but when the red flag shows its head, we’re here to help in this rather complicated journey. We want children and health care professionals to know that there is no ‘norm;’ I wish there was but there isn’t, everyone is an individual and preconceived notions are just that. We know adult children often make or are big players in these decisions. Therefore we make sure our advertising and the community services we provide go across a broad range of ages.
SCB: How do you market your business?
DK: Initially we had to spend a lot of money on every type of advertising because there was an uphill educational process we had to go through. It isn’t like we were a tire store and everyone knew what we did. No one was doing what we did. Initially, it was a lot of advertising and very little word-of-mouth; now, the two have merged and the word-of-mouth has balanced our approach. We track very carefully what drives people to our door, word-of-mouth is number one, professional referrals is number two, etc. In Orlando we are starting all over, but we are known and we aren’t untested. Also, a provider that is interested in what we do can hop in their car and make the one-hour drive to Suntree to see it and talk with the businesses we work with.
SCB: One Senior Place is so unique and your business plan is quite costly; from a start-up perspective, how did you capitalize you business initially?
DK: I was terrified, the closer we got to opening. Our first business had been successful and we started at the kitchen table with minimum capital. So we had that track record of success. We were funded using an SBA loan, which required us to put about 10 percent of our own capital down. Then, for a couple of years, we didn’t breakeven; we were empty. During that time, Senior Partner Care carried this business.
SCB: Are you financing differently this time, with your branch in Altamonte Springs?
DK: No, we are handling it the same way. It is a 40 percent second mortgage from the SBA and 50 percent first mortgage from a bank.
SCB: Why did you go that route?
DK: I didn’t have enough money to do it any other way. We put every nickel we had into it. We had good personal credit, but not business credit. Now, we might be able to get a conventional loan but that would have required more capital. The cap of the SBA has grown from $1 million to $5 million.
Eric Wright is the assignment editor for SpaceCoast Business magazine.