The primary push behind developing Anthony at Your Service was to create employment for Anthony that he could enjoy on a daily basis, that was doable with the resources his family already had, including the staff funded by Family Managed Services, and that appealed to Anthony, his support staff, and his family. Starting a small business tailored to Anthony seemed an easier alternative than trying to convince an employer to hire Anthony, train him and maintain Anthony’s interest and skill level.
Other families who have started self-employment endeavours for their adult children with autism appear to have had the same thinking. Despite the challenges of creating a business for their loved one, it seemed easier than trying to fit their adult child into an existing employment situation. Many families of older teens or young adults who have significant cognitive challenges due to autism or other developmental disability may feel similarly. Anthony at Your Service and the model it has developed can offer other families these points to consider when starting a business for their young person with significant developmental disabilities:
1) Start with the interests, skills, loves and challenges of the person around whom the business will centre.
A couple of years before Anthony was to graduate from high school, his family had already begun to worry about what the future would look like. They organized monthly meetings of other parents who were facing similar concerns. At one point, another mom, Roma Kurtz, said she had developed some questions to guide her thinking about what her boys might do. Her questions were: What do they love? What are they good at? What challenges them? Roma understood that a job for her children would need to be something they wanted to do, but it would also need to stimulate them to meet new challenges if they were to continue to grow. At the monthly meetings, parents tossed out ideas, brainstormed and listened as they all began to formulate first steps for after high school.
Some individuals, like Brad, who builds things, have very specific skills and talents that may be able to be turned into paying work. Others, like Anthony, won’t have an easily identifiable, saleable skill. It helps to create lists, on one’s own or with others, about all the things an individual likes to do over a range of categories. As those lists emerge, it may be possible to see areas of overlap that may create a beginning place for thinking about potential goods or services a person could do.
2) Start small.
The businesses surveyed in this study all began and remain family-based. Families at the helm mean the business will be shaped around the personality of the individual(s) with the developmental disability. The advantage families offer is that they are particularly attuned to the abilities and needs of their loved ones. Families are the most likely to be guided by the vision they have and the “goodness of fit” for their family member. They can also create the types of business relationships that will provide nurturing and growth-producing experiences for their loved one, and possibly for their customers as well.
3) Gather existing resources.
Families must ask themselves what resources they can contribute. They may have time, interest or expertise. Where a family has Family Managed Supports, through PDD, the interests, abilities and commitment of existing family managed staff will be another essential resource. Other resources could come from extended families, community organizations, and community college or universities. No matter what the resources, however, it will likely remain the family’s responsibility to guide the process and make sure it fits the interests, needs and desire of the person with the disability.
4) Plan how the individual will offer his or her services to potential customers.
Will this be a home-based business? How will the public become aware of the goods or services that will be on offer, and once the public is aware, what infrastructure or supply of goods will be required to serve the need? Try to project what the business will look like once the public becomes aware of it and have a plan to serve the demand. Also, do additional research to see what other businesses offer similar goods or services and decide how your business will differentiate itself.
5) Launching the business
Once a business idea has been settled on, the family is motivated, and has buy-in from any PDD-funded staff, it’s time to launch the idea. Anthony at Your Service began with Mike Hamm’s idea to create a YouTube video to introduce Anthony as a human being with strengths, weaknesses, odd behavours, and autism to the public. Mike’s talent made Anthony appear to be a very lovable guy (he really is!) who has autism. Despite Anthony’s significant autism, however, he was starting a business delivering things for individual citizens and businesses in the Edmonton area. Brad Fremmerlid of Made by Brad, used a similar approach.
Videos that catch the public attention, however are powerful tools. In the two cases mentioned above, the stories Mike Hamm told on video inspired the public to support them. Families weren’t prepared for the deluge of work that came their way.
6) Create a website.
Once launched, the public will want to be able to find your business. A website can be an easy and inexpensive way to help people find you and to help them understand what you are trying to create with your business.
7) Develop administrative procedures and systems.
Even at the very beginning of a family-based business, it helps to create systems to keep orders straight, to create a list of customers, and to keep track of billings, receipts and expenses. As the business grows, it will become increasingly important to keep track of such information.
If the business has been created for one person only, it will be important to think about the message the business wants to share with customers about who the individual is, the value of his or her products or services, and how customers can support him or her with their patronage, while receiving something of value. If the business grows to employ more individuals with disabilities, additional systems will need to be put into place to ensure their schedules, needs, interests and personalities are also met by the growing business.
8) Address insurance, legal and regulatory compliance issues.
If it looks as if the business is moving ahead, it’s important to make sure the business is properly licenced, has appropriate business insurance and WCB coverage, where required. Depending upon the scope and type of business, it may also be appropriate to incorporate. (See Task 2, p. 7, and Task 4, p. 8, of this report for more information.)
9) Consider a two-pronged model.
At the core of the Anthony at Your Service model is the realization that two populations with very different concerns and communities are being served. There are also, minimally, two different objectives: to create valuable employment for one or more individuals with developmental disabilities, and to create a community that sees value in the individuals and in their paid work. The vision of Anthony at Your Service is for adults with developmental disabilities to prosper through visible, paid service to the community. This vision underlies the model, which seeks to create rich, full, enjoyable work for persons with autism or other developmental disabilities. At the same time, implementing the vision means introducing the public to the idea of employing such adults to do valuable, meaningful work. Anthony at Your Service is not particularly interested in make work or charity. We strive to provide valuable service to individuals, businesses and organizations that depend upon AAYS to achieve their own individual or business goals. The two-pronged model means AAYS continues to learn how to serve both its major constituents by developing systems that allow them to interact and do business while not asking drastic changes from either customer nor contractors and their respective communities.
10) Learn as you grow.
Self-employed businesses for persons with developmental disabilities are unique. Currently, there is no well-beaten path for such businesses to follow. Still, much of the literature on the development of any small business applies, but it must be tweaked and utilized to serve the vision behind the creation and ongoing growth of self-employed businesses for persons with developmental disabilities. The value of having few fore-runners is that self-employed business owners have the opportunity to create a way forward that works for them!
Considerations in Starting a Self-Employed Business
a) Individuals’ strengths, talents, interests, abilities and aversions
As with most people looking for a job, a self-employed business must consider the strengths and aversions of the individual. He or she has to want to do the job on a daily and ongoing basis. Some individuals will have special talents, but many will just have things they like to do along with a desire to play a role by offering their products or services to the economic community.
b) Need for the product or service
Is there a general need for the product or service being offered? Many people will want to be charitable to help individuals with developmental disabilities, but to sustain a business an ongoing demand is needed. This can be established in two ways: create a strong social demand for the product or service by making it popular or trendy, or find a niche in the market that is not currently being served that can be filled by the individuals’ products or services.
c) Decide upon the character of the business
Businesses need not be only about making money. They can simultaneously be about creating social and economic opportunities for a group of people with developmental disabilities. Businesses can also create community and connections for one or several individuals with developmental disabilities. It is important to understand and articulate the underlying goals of the business, because it helps business owners and managers make decisions and sets the tone of the business.
The situations of adults with developmental disabilities can be complex. They may have caregivers, supportive roommates and family members who share their care on regular or shifting schedules. Some individuals may have funding through Family Managed Services, others through an agency. Still others may be on AISH, but may not qualify for other funding for supports. In addition, many people have recreational activities, volunteer work, medical appointments and other commitments that they do not want to drop. It is important to understand the situations of each person with a developmental disability and to ensure both family and support staff are in support of the work the person will be doing.
Who will the customers be? At first the answer is anyone who will purchase the goods or services our business offers. As time goes on, though, it becomes increasingly important to identify what makes a good customer, and to create plans that will facilitate interactions and increase interactions with growing numbers of good customers. Businesses built around persons with developmental disabilities must also realize that building a clientele is also building community and opportunity for their particular individual. It is important to consider the degree to which potential customers are comfortable with individuals with developmental disabilities and to respect the distance that may or may not be needed. To do so allows customers to increase engagement as their comfort level grows and, over time, has the potential to open minds and doors to the value of employing adults with intellectual disabilities.
f) How much energy will it take?
In all cases surveyed in the Edmonton area the chief drivers behind the establishment of self-employed businesses for adults with autism and/or other developmental disabilities were parents. Sustainable self-employed businesses take a considerable amount of energy. They involve making a business plan, marketing, pricing, administration, contracting, and succession planning. Parents must ask themselves if they have the energy to do this on an ongoing basis. If they foresee a time when they cannot, creating new systems and structures in order to remain sustainable must be a part of the planning.
g) How much capital will it take?
With a solid business plan, most self-employed businesses developed with the purpose of finding community-based employment for adults with developmental disabilities would likely be considered social enterprises. Funds may be available from the Social Enterprise Fund in the city of Edmonton. However, none of the self-employed businesses in the Edmonton area have gone this route. Families appear to prefer to start low-capital enterprises and/or to fund the self-employed businesses themselves. This may be because they are unsure how their loved one will respond to the demands of work, or whether the business will have customers. Parents who are looking at retirement in the next few years may not want to take on the burden of a new debt. These are, however, speculations. The families surveyed in this study were not asked this specific question.
h) Needs of Constituents
A self-employed business for persons with developmental disabilities involves a number of constituents, all of which must be taken into consideration if the business is to be successful. The individuals themselves have varying interests, abilities, strengths, energy, aversions and schedules. Their support staff also has schedules, interests and responsibilities. Their main focus is on supporting a person with developmental disabilities to live a good life. This may or may not include supporting the individual in a specific work environment. In addition, support staff may move on to do other things, leaving an individual unsupported for a period of time. Or a supporting worker may be new to the individual and the situation, and may need a grace period to learn how to be most effective. Families have a definite interest in making sure any situation is ultimately a healthy and growthful one for their son or daughter.
Customers or clients may want to be inclusive, but may find they are apprehensive about the needs an adult with a developmental disability may bring with them. Businesses in particular may not feel they have the capacity to adapt their workplaces to support persons with developmental disabilities or to provide the type of supervision or team building they imagine might be needed.
The self-employed business will depend upon the smooth functioning of all the components in order to provide competitive and professional services or products to their customers.
i) Flexibility of Administration
Once a self-employed business is launched family members and support staff may find themselves overwhelmed with work for the first while. This may challenge their administrative skills, and is worth considering prior to launching the business. As the business grows and develops, systems will need to be developed that will include such things as keeping track of orders and expenses, invoicing, payment of individuals and staff. The details of the system may vary from business to business, but in general some systems will need to be put in place. Currently some apps are available on the internet, but some may have to be developed to suit the particular business.
Systems will be necessary, but for a business to truly support one or more persons with developmental disabilities, it will be necessary for the administration to also be a connector between the individual and the communities his or her business will serve. The administrator must find a way to support individuals and their various lifestyles while also making it easy for customers to access and support the business.
It appears that the majority of self-employed businesses are started and managed by family members. Often these family members also have careers they are simultaneously managing. Parents in particular may be at a time of life where they are considering retirement and may have concerns about what would happen to the business if they took a vacation, fell ill, died, or just didn’t have the energy to continue. Without some form of succession planning and implementation, it may not be possible for the self-employed business to support the individual if the family member is not able to continue for any reason. Plans and systems must be put in place to ensure the business is not dependent upon just one or two key individuals.