A few years ago, we had a staff member that did great work but was regularly getting complaints from fellow coworkers about how paranoid he was and his tendency to spread false rumors. For months, I coached him and expected it to get better, but the complaints kept coming and things got worse. We lost 3 great people at once that year due to this person and I realized something critically important to every new entrepreneur: it only takes one bad apple to affect dozens and negatively impact your whole culture.
As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bradley Bezan.
Bradley is the founder and CEO of Spark Lifecare, a company often described as the e-harmony of home healthcare services and the fastest growing healthcare company in Canada. He is a venture philanthropist, world’s top 100 healthcare leaders award winner and self described misfit CEO.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started Spark for a lot of reasons. I wanted to make people’s lives better, and it was the best way I knew how to do it. I also wanted to create a workplace that was a real community — a place where you feel valued and empowered. Where you can be yourself. But I also did it for me and my dad who struggled with mental health. To show him and everyone else that you can have a mental illness and still follow your dreams, that it doesn’t have to define you.
It took me a long time to begin to face my own anxiety and slowly take back control of my life. When it was at its worst, I wouldn’t see anybody. I wouldn’t go out, answer my phone or do much of anything. But something amazing happened to me when I would work with kids — the anxiety would fade away. It turned out that the best treatment for my struggle and to help other people deal with theirs.
I’ve since combined that treatment with exercise, talk therapy, medication, hard work and the love and support of my family and friends. I feel healthier, happier. I’ll always have anxiety, it’s never going to disappear fully. But I’ve gone beyond surviving. I’ve finally learned how to live.
My thinking is: instead of letting the world force you to fit in somewhere, build a community where you and other misfits can fit in together. Spark is more than just a Monday to Friday for us. Spark is our vocation. It’s where we belong.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways idd you take out of that story?
This one is easy. It’s been a joke that doesn’t seem to go away around the office and it’s hilarious.
When I first started Spark, I won an award as one of the city’s rising stars. Naturally, I was honored and excited. I was told to prepare for a video interview that was going to take place at the ceremony, so I stayed up for days planning for every possible question and scenario that could come at me. This was going to be our first bit of Spark airtime and we had to nail it.
So the stage is set, I feel ready. The interviewer introduces me and congratulates me on the award. His first question comes: “Brad, can you explain what Spark Lifecare is?”. I answer: “Thanks Jesse, well Spark Lovecare is …..”. I literally had one job to do and I start by messing up my company name? Lovecare? I was so mad at myself for the longest time but then I realized that interviewing like anything else was an art. I took it in stride, made fun of myself and remembered that no matter how much you prepare for something, it’s never going to go exactly as you planned.
You have to roll with the punches and get back up on the horse.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Every company has beautiful and flashy values and mission statements. Few of them live by those values in practice, especially when times get tough. A founder’s personal values and mission are equally paramount to a company’s success. Why did you start a company? To get rich? To prove someone wrong? To right a wrong? These answers become especially evident when a founder is being challenged.
Like Zuckerberg recently on privacy rights, many believe his true colours are coming through. Our goal since day one at Spark has been to give the power back to our patients who have been powerless for too long. It guides our every move. As a social enterprise, we gauge success by the lives we change, not by our profit margin. That is our not-so-secret sauce and makes us extremely hard to compete against.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without many people but a few people were instrumental in the process.
My dad is the reason I continue to fight. People didn’t talk about mental illness when he was still with us. He did so even though it was hard and nobody else did. He would be so proud of how far we have come as a society but we have so much more to do.
I also wouldn’t be where I am without my godfather, Uncle Bob. My Uncle Bob was there for me throughout my whole life embodying the true definition of a godfather, especially after my dad died. Uncle Bob helped me pay for school when my family couldn’t afford it, helped me navigate many tough life decisions, and kept me going when I wanted to quit. He also showed tremendous self restraint when I took my last 10k on my line of credit and quit school to travel the world and learn from healthcare experts. It’s what helped me to start Spark.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We are always working on something exciting. We just recently released a brand new service offering to our list of services, expanded into 4 new territories and acquired 3 of our field’s top experts to oversee new divisions of Spark. We are also working on a secret project called Spark 3.0 — let’s connect about that one in a year!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We are blessed at Spark to truly have lasting impact on our clients’ lives. From catastrophic car accidents to diagnoses of cancer or early signs of dementia, being able to not only help our clients overcome these hurdles, but keep their sense of dignity and passion for life too, is the definition of rewarding work.
Beyond this, we continue to do our part to make our communities and the world a happy, healthier place to live in. Our Spark Subsidy initiative helps families who can’t afford care, Spark Ventures is our venture philanthropy arm that helps healthcare professionals launch the next big idea, and Spark University helps educate and connect isolated caregivers across the country.
We are always looking to do more than our part.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I am a voracious reader. My first ever book on business was Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It was the first time in my new entrepreneurial journey that I didn’t feel like an imposter. I was a young, anxious kid from a town nobody has heard of, trying to turn the healthcare system upside down. While I was a huge fan of Steve’s professional accomplishments, I obviously didn’t admire a lot of the details I learned from his personal life. But here’s what I did learn that was so important: everyone is human and nobody is perfect.
Most of the great entrepreneurs of our time are tortured souls.
It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to be imperfect.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
- My first client at Spark was a teenager who struggled with severe anxiety and social avoidance. He hadn’t been to school in years and was a pivotal crossroads in life. Slowly, together we bonded and started pushing back.
We got him back into school to finish his diploma, worked on dealing with his anxiety, got him a job with animals (his passion) and last time we checked, he was traveling across the country doing zoo presentations to large groups of people. Something he couldn’t ever imagine him doing until we met. I was so incredibly proud of him.
When Spark first started, I had my hands in everything, and as time went on, I had less time for frontline work like this which meant feeling less connected to the people I started the business to serve. I was depressed and feeling guilty. I had to realize early that I couldn’t be all things to everyone.
With Spark growing, it means less time spent with these people but my work on the big picture model allows for access to great services for thousands of others like my first client. The lesson? Be kind to yourself.
2. I remember signing my first ever official lease. It was a small office inside a clinic run by a husband and wife. I was so excited. In my first week, I ran into the landlord in the waiting room. We caught up and he asked more about what Spark is. After explaining to him, it felt like he looked me up and down and said: “Don’t you think that’s a little ambitious?”. I was so angry. I let it stew for longer than I should have. How could he not see the potential? The truth is that most amazing ideas sound crazy to most people before they are done.
Use these moments as fuel. As the late, great Steve Jobs once said, “because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. “
3. Losing my first ever employee to another company. When you are a young entrepreneur and just starting out, you already feel like the deck is stacked against you. The battle for talent early on is a competitive one. When someone chooses your startup over another, you (should) instantly feel grateful for them taking a chance.
When the group is small, you create bonds that naturally feel like more than a typical coworking relationship. After all, you are going to war against the big guys together right? Well, when I lost my first employee, I was crushed. I blamed myself and couldn’t stop thinking about how I could have done things differently.
Over time, I realized that I needed to change my view on coworkers. I told myself that from now on, I would be grateful for every day I have with them.
4. When Spark had just started, our network of providers was small. When we got a new client referral to match we really had to go above and beyond to make sure the right people were in and the hours were filled.
One Friday, we got an urgent referral from a Seniors Residence. They had a client who was dying and they didn’t have the staff to be with her so she didn’t die alone. They wanted us to come in for 24/7 support to ensure someone was with her when she passed. This was hours before everyone was supposed to go home for the weekend and we had never filled a 24/7 request before. The team sat together for a few minutes at most before everyone agreed we couldn’t let this woman die alone. We were her only chance. She had no family or friends.
Our Director of Recruitment at the time put the story out to our staff asking if anyone could help. Within hours, the whole next week was covered. People were pulling double shifts. Driving from one end of the city to another. Giving up their weekends so this lady wouldn’t die alone. It was a remarkable moment that still brings me tears. The moral here is this: If you hire incredible people, they will do incredible things.
5. A few years ago, we had a staff member that did great work but was regularly getting complaints from fellow coworkers about how paranoid he was and his tendency to spread false rumors. For months, I coached him and expected it to get better, but the complaints kept coming and things got worse. We lost 3 great people at once that year due to this person and I realized something critically important to every new entrepreneur: it only takes one bad apple to affect dozens and negatively impact your whole culture.
What are the main takeaways you would give to a twenty-year-old who is looking to found a business?
- Doing good and making money feels so much better than making money and not doing good. Trust me. If you have the opportunity to create a business that makes the world a better place, run with it. Today’s consumers and job seekers are more in touch with this than they have ever been. They want to work for companies that do good and they want to buy from companies who care.
- Do you know how long you are going to be dead for? Someone once asked me this and it caught me completely off guard. I was pondering a big decision that I knew was best for our clients but was a huge financial undertaking. That question stuck with me and now guides me through many tough decisions. Think about all the things that had to come together for you to be in this position right now. Get out there and get it! After all, why not you?
- Your story is your gift. It’s yours. Unique to you and something nobody in this world can take or mimic. Use your story. Own your story. And get out in front of everyone to cement it. The good and the bad. People will respect your authenticity and you will feel great about it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
This one is pretty funny considering his world HQ is next door to ours but I would love to have coffee with Harvey Finkelstein of Shopify. Ensuring we continue having a strong company culture at Spark is so important to me. In a field where people are essentially our product, happy people truly mean happy clients.
I am amazed with how well Shopify has been able to nurture its culture at scale and would love to pick his brain about how he has done this.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I took myself off Instagram and Facebook years ago for mental health purposes but I did keep a Twitter account. You can find me at @bradleybezan.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
The pleasure was absolutely mine. Thank you so much for the opportunity to connect!