Interview with Dr. Ken Gibson, founder and CEO of LearningRx.
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Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
LearningRx specializes in brain training that improves learning and performance skills in people of all ages to help them live up to their full potential in school, business or life. Using a comprehensive skills assessment test, certified trainers quickly and effectively pinpoint the weakest cognitive skills – such as attention, memory, processing speed, and problem solving – and then use intensive one-on-one training to treat the cause (not the symptoms) and strengthen those brain skills. Students completing the program usually see three to four years of improvement in as little as 12 to 24 weeks and benefit from improved confidence, self-esteem and overall achievement. We do for the mind what physical exercise does for the body. Our five years of clinical pre- and post-training results confirm what parents and TBI students tell us: that LearningRx brain training works to change lives.
When did you start the business?
The company was officially founded in 2002 after 17 years of intensive product development. Our home office is in Colorado Springs, CO but we have 69 centers across the U.S.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
I started as a pediatric optometrist in 1968, then spent the next 20+ years to develop a methodology to improve cognitive skills while starting many other businesses (including: Christian book distributor, real estate, chain of preschools, chain of eye care centers, medical management software, practice management consulting, and a bookstore) and serving in my local church and twice in a public office.
How did you come up with your business idea?
I would have been labeled dyslexic as a child and wanted to help children become better readers – and learners. I was disappointed to realize that as a vision specialist, I could only significantly help about one in twenty students with learning and reading problems. For 17 years I worked with nearly 1,000 professionals to test my various cognitive training systems in more than 700 training locations, clinics, schools, and hospitals. Most other programs – like tutoring - only treat the symptoms of learning struggles, but I wanted to treat the ROOT CAUSE.
What outside resources were helpful for you?
Books! For the past 45 years I've read a book a week (not easy for a dyslexic). The types of books were split almost equally between business/marketing, cognitive psychology, and self-help/spiritual. The focus of my reading is to stimulate and synthesize ideas that can be tried in my businesses or products. When we decided to franchise, almost all members of our support, sales, and executive teams went through special franchise training with the IFA, earning their CFE (Certified Franchise Executive). Our company may have the highest percentage of highly trained franchising staff in the franchise industry. Each year we hire top national franchise consultants to evaluate our processes – applying the principles of "Good to Great". We want to remain #1 in our franchise category, a position we have held for the last two years.
Do you own a business with family members? What do you think are the benefits and challenges to running a family owned business?
We have 50+ corporate employees, nine of whom are family members. Working with family is great providing they are talented, have high work ethics, and we promote and pay based on performance without favoritism and treat non family staff as if they were (we share 50% of our profit with our staff) It's been an incredible experience to work with my family on a daily basis, seeing that they really care for each other and love working together on a common purpose. Seeing all five children, all eleven grandchildren, mother and two brothers at least weekly is a blessing few fathers enjoy.
With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?
I actually just completed my second book, which demonstrates 15 profitability keys for success. The book is called "The Purpose Directed Business; An insider's look into the values, strategies, and 15 profitability keys of small business success." In the past year we have stressed three actions: Try to renegotiate leases, reduce administrative expenses by increasing efficiency, and increase effective marketing even if the ROI is less but above the lowest you could go.
What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business
Not everyone who is interested in opening a LearningRx center is given the opportunity. We are very selective in our franchise decisions – from new centers to buy-outs of existing facilities. By choosing our franchisees carefully to make sure they are a good fit for our system - that ensures that our company continues to grow. Also, a very high level of franchisee support with an emphasis on increasing the client "WOW-factor" and profitability.
Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?
I wrote an extensive business plan for LearningRx and modified it monthly. It was most effective on keeping us focused on the most important projects.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Corporately, we started in my home until we had 7 cars in the street. Our braining training centers operated from retail or office space.
Have you hired additional staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?
Our company has grown tremendously over the past eight years – both in terms of staff and franchises. Regarding hiring, we are always looking for people who are interested in changing lives – not just making a living. We sometimes interview candidates that have an impressive resume, but not a heart to serve.
Have you outsourced any portion of your business? Has that worked for your business?
In some cases we use local companies and freelancers to assist us with things like marketing and PR and foreign companies to help with internet marketing. It's allowed our full-time staff to give more attention to our franchisees, and to help LearningRx expand our franchise system.
Finding employees to work in a new and growing business can be a challenge. How did you find your employees?
Ninety percent of our employees are part-time trainers – all having degrees and over half with graduate degrees. This gives us a tremendous pool of very bright individuals to observe and more into administrative positions. Also our student parents are a good source for potential trainers. We often have ten qualified candidates for each trainer position which results in hiring the best of the best.
Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?
Our home office and many of our franchisees use social media sites like Facebook and/or blogs to generate new business and stay in touch with current students and parents. However, the return on investment and time hasn't been proven.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
It's been better than I could have imagined. I am blessed to work with my family and staff that love working as a team to be doing something very meaningful (significantly changing the lives of thousands of students for the better)
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I wish I had franchised LearningRx sooner - if only to have helped more people.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Make sure that you are pursuing something you love, something that matters and makes a difference in the world, and something that allows you to retain your core values while making a profit.
It's been great talking with you, Doctor. Thank you for speaking with me.