Can good business ethics be bad for an entrepreneur’s business?
Entrepreneurs value good business ethics. But is it possible for good ethics to be bad?
Your reputation is your biggest asset, and bad business ethics can ruin your reputation, sometimes irreparably. Even if you’re able to recover, restoring your image will likely take lots of time and lots of money.
So exhibiting good business ethics is important. But what do you do when your adherence to good ethics is sinking your business?
Meet Andrew Haha Ross and Mary Sunshine Ross, of Sensory Swim, the “most requested special needs program on the planet.”
The married couple launched their business in 2006, and still handle all the teaching duties themselves, welcoming students with a wide array of disabilities, including autism, down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory processing disorder, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and hearing and sight impairment, among many others. Over the years, they’ve taught more than 4000 students ranging in age from 2 to 40. It was the students that gave them their middle names.
To everyone who has ever met them, Andrew and Mary are special people. They pretty much embody the dictionary definition of business ethics… “commitment to non-economic values and social responsibility.” That’s what the Ross’ and Sensory Swim are all about, in fact, “the business started out as a ministry program,” Andrew says.
“We come at it from a place of patience and love. The kids are amazing, and to get a hug from these kids is incredible. Mary and I get huge satisfaction from seeing them reach their goals. And the parents are amazing too. I mean, we play a small role spending a small amount of time with these kids, but the parents are there 24-7, providing love and support, and care all the time.”
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On a daily basis, Andrew and Mary are helping kids acquire swimming and water safety skills, something that’s even more valuable to these students Mary says, because “special needs kids are often by their very nature attracted to the water, and tend to put themselves in situations they’re not prepared to handle. Many of these kids suffer injuries or can even be killed when they’re not prepared.”
When they started Sensory Swim, they thought of it as a community service.
They traveled long distances to work with the kids, and they charged minimally to make it affordable to a maximum number of families. Inspirational, doing good work, making a difference, definitely worthwhile and infinitely admirable. Good business ethics. And nearly fatal with respect to Sensory Swim.
Even though business was booming thanks to very positive word of mouth, Andrew and Mary were struggling. Their expenses were too high due to the fact that they were constantly traveling. In fact, during one 6 month stretch in 2013, they logged 82,000 miles in six months. They had trouble paying the phone bill, had a car repossessed and got evicted because they were behind paying the rent.
And they realized if they didn’t put business logistics ahead of their good intentions, they wouldn’t have a business.
“In time we had to develop a big picture realization regarding pricing,” Andrew commented. “Because if you don’t charge enough, pretty soon, you’re not going to be in business. In our case, we started out driving 200 miles to reach the kids, and for the good of the community, we charged too low. If we had kept that up, it would have put us out of business, leaving all the kids we’re helping now, without help. It’s great to be nice to everybody, but you have to keep the business running or everybody loses.”
So they changed their business model, quit doing high travel, high expense tours and set up their program in 4 cities, two each in Virginia and Maryland, regularly on Mondays through Thursdays. They also rethought their pricing. And it’s working.
But make no mistake, it was never about the money with them. It’s always been about the rewards. Early on they were conducting their sessions at a YMCA. Officials there were so impressed they tried to buy the Sensory Swim program. When Andrew and Mary wouldn’t sell, they were kicked out and were left without a place for several weeks.
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What makes Andrew and Mary entrepreneurs?
We first met up with Andrew and Mary last November, when we published the results of a survey we conducted where we asked 113 small business owners if they considered themselves entrepreneurs – and what three characteristics each person felt were the most important for an entrepreneur to possess.
The Ross’ answered the question with: The Character To Stand For What’s Right, The Vision To See Things Through and The Ability To Adapt, all characteristics they’ve embodied with Sensory Swim.
“Yes, Mary and I consider ourselves entrepreneurs,” Andrew said, “because there’s really nothing consistent about what we do every day. We’re clear on our goals, and what we want to accomplish, but every day we get there in a different way, adapting to the situation and doing what’s needed.”
Before starting Sensory Swim, Andrew and Mary were gymnastics instructors for special needs kids. At one point, the mother of one of their students asked them if they’d ever considered teaching swimming. She was so impressed with their techniques, with the patience, humor and skill they exhibited teaching gymnastics to her child, she encouraged them to move into the swimming area. They thought it over, realized the opportunity was there to continue using their insights into the many challenges faced by special needs kids to make an impact, and uh, took the plunge. They adapted their teaching methods and set out to make a difference.
The Ross’ have some other rules they live by that other entrepreneurs might find useful.
Follow your passion. “To be an entrepreneur, you can’t fake until you make it,” Mary said. “You have to have a genuine love and passion for what you’re doing in order be successful. You have to follow your dream. Even when it’s hard. We both could find jobs in a minute with our backgrounds, but this is what we love. And nothing else could ever be so personally rewarding.”
When you fall down, get up again. “Don’t fear failure. And don’t let failure stop you. It’s OK to fail. We’ve failed hundreds of times over the years, but you have to look at each failure as an opportunity,” Andrew said. “If you give up the first time you fail, you’ll find yourself working in a cubicle you’ll hate. Take risks, leave your security blanket behind. Make that leap. Then keep at it. You just never know when everything you’ve done before will all come together and you’ll turn that corner. That’s the way it happened with us.”
Think outside the box. “Take an unconventional approach. Don’t blindly follow the accepted rules,” Andrew said. “In our case, we had a big advantage in that we weren’t swim instructors before. Therefore, we’re more flexible, and more able to evaluate each person’s needs independently. Much of what we do is undoing what other instructors have done, because they’re versed in the “accepted” way of teaching swimming to special needs kids, which requires results in a certain time period. But if you put a special needs kid underwater before he’s ready, he’ll have nightmares, for years maybe.”
What’s more, “thinking outside the box allows you to stay engaged, to be passionate about what you’re doing, and to get up every morning looking forward to another day.”
Don’t be rigid, don’t dwell. “Be flexible. Take the road where it leads you,” Mary commented. “God opens a door, and when he closes it, then you look for another door. In our case, many times along the way, it was the parents of the kids we helped that stepped in when we needed it, with support and encouragement to keep us going.”
Thanks Andrew and Mary! If you’d like to know more about the Ross’ business, visit their website.
What traits do you think are most important for an entrepreneur? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. If cash flow challenges are slowing your company’s growth, get more information on how invoice factoring can help today.