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Sampling Success

YPO member Carmen Sample talks about building success, managing diverse businesses, learning from failure and the inadvisability of slowing down.

“I wake up every day looking forward to solving problems,” says YPO member Carmen Sample, the Founder and CEO of Sample Supports.

That is undoubtedly a useful mindset for someone whose network of businesses features such diverse enterprises as a restaurant (along with a food truck and catering business), a metaphysical jewelry store, an event center and art gallery, a therapy practice and — soon — expanding into senior care with an assisted living facility, which will be housed in a renovated historic home.

At the center of this varied portfolio is Sample Supports, a social services agency she founded in 2009. Based on Sample’s belief that “every person deserves to be in the community,” Sample Supports offers comprehensive programs to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout Colorado, USA, especially those who have dual diagnoses that may include mental illness and substance abuse in addition to their cognitive disability. Sample’s other companies work in concert with Sample Supports by providing its clients employment opportunities, while also operating as standalone businesses.

Samples shares her sometimes rocky path to success and what she has learned along the way.

Why did you create Sample Supports?

I saw an unmet need. People with disabilities exhibit a broad range of abilities, functions and behaviors. After practicing in social work for a while, I noticed that most agencies tended to cherry-pick the “easier” individuals, so the people who were more challenging and never experienced a community setting were overlooked. They never got out of institutional life. Through Sample Supports, we deliberately targeted the more challenging individuals, the people no one else would work with.

It was difficult, but it paid off. The skills we had to develop to deal with these challenging individuals, while also building the business, helped us grow quickly. We became known for our ability to handle the hard cases and do it well. Since 2011, we have averaged 60 percent growth in revenues, compounded year over year, and the number of people receiving our services has increased from three or four in 2010 to about 500 today.

Has anything in your other professional activities been especially helpful to you in creating and growing Sample Supports?

When I was 22, I bought a business, which I ran into the ground. But I learned a lot of lessons from that failure, especially how much work it takes to build systems and manage employees to do the work rather than doing it yourself.

It is probably that lesson that makes me focus so much on employee training and retention now. I started as a social worker, and we are taught we will get our degree and work hard, but never make any real money. It does not have to be that way. I look for people who can be social workers and business people. In fact, half of our team has a master’s degree in social work, so they know that discipline; we are building their business skills. We are a competitive business and I believe strongly that competition raises the bar of care. We have to provide excellent service to grow. That is why I like to hire hustlers — people who are smart and can work quickly. They help keep us ahead of our competitors. My leadership team is also 80 percent female and I think investing in women leaders and the skills we bring to the table has been a primary factor in growing as efficiently and quickly as we have in businesses that are ultimately based on building and maintaining relationships.

My companies are fairly diverse, but at the end of the day, a business is a business. You have revenues coming in and expenses going out. Once you get those two things on lockdown, it is not that complicated.

Why do you think Sample Supports has been successful? Was there a particular moment when you knew it was going to make it?

I think the key to our success is that we provide everybody who is receiving our services the opportunity for a job — right away, from day one. This can be a challenge because for 85 percent of those we work with, this is their first job. But we are committed to them. We do not fire anybody due to their behavior issues or turn them away. If there are issues, we work through them. And we pay competitive wages, so they develop a sense of pride in taking care of themselves.

I think I first realized that Sample Supports was a success a few years after founding it, when someone said to me, “You realize you are never going to work for someone else again.” It caught me by surprise. In my mind, I was still hustling to make payroll. I did not self-identify as a successful entrepreneur. I think that mindset sometimes caused me to make poor choices: I was always preparing for disaster instead of taking advantages of opportunities. I had to retrain my mind to believe the growth rate would last, which then freed me to think about how to make the company what we wanted it to be.

What tips or lessons can you share with other YPOers who are juggling multiple businesses?

Choose the challenge. I get told every day by someone — a friend, a banker, a business colleague — that my pace makes them uncomfortable. I hear over and over, “You should slow down.” But I am successful because I do not do that. I capitalize on opportunities and seize the moment. Embracing the challenge is what makes people successful, so my advice would be to stick with it, even when people tell you to slow down. Remember, it is not you who cannot handle the pace, it is them.

Also, take advantage of YPO. I wish I had known earlier about the resources and the peer group YPO provides. I would have grown faster!

Jane Seago is a business writer who focuses on topics related to governance, risk and compliance. Her work has appeared in publications targeted to insurance, internal audit, cloud computing, association management, IT governance, information systems audit and information security readerships.