You Need a Professional Support System — I am part of the EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) Forum. It is a trusted place to share, vent and recharge. To be surrounded by people who have walked in similar shoes and can share how they handled the situation as well as their emotions is extremely helpful. Many times they have helped me define the emotional high or low I was feeling when I couldn’t quite express it myself, which was then helpful in enjoying it or better working through it.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Asay.
Susan Asay grew up in a small town in East Germany, and went from bricklayer to VP at global investment firm PIMCO to founding Apex Social Group, with the focus of helping people reach their full potential. The agency recruits graduates in Nursing, Teaching and Occupational, Physical or Speech therapy from Europe and the US and places them nationwide in the U.S and Australia as live-in specialized support — helping optimize the lives of families with children with special needs. In addition to being a social entrepreneur, Susan is a mom of three, public speaker, mentor and investor.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Hello! I grew up as a child splitting my time between the “big city”, Bad Schlema, Germany, (well, big to me, but it was only 8000 people!) where my dad and mom worked in the local hospital and my grandmother’s home in a 200-person village where I worked on the family farm with my cousins. I started my first business at age 14, leveraging “supply and demand” between the city and the countryside, making pyramid studs for goth lovers. Keep in mind this was in East Germany. As money was not that valuable, having a product that was in demand and couldn’t be easily bought in a store was the real asset — I traded studs for all my teenage wants and needs!
When I was old enough, I worked on my degree as a bricklayer at the same time as studying for my A-Levels and foresaw becoming an Architect as my future. Then the wall came down and I saw the movie Wall Street and was instantly awed. Ten years after a banking apprenticeship at a local bank to learn the basics I arrived in Newport Beach, California to work for Pimco, fulfilling my dream of working for a Wall Street company. And then I had my first child…
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In 2005, after the birth of my first child, Klaus, I struggled to find childcare that suited my family’s needs. I knew I needed a caregiver to live in our house, but I was disillusioned with the options available. After extensive research, I decided to recruit a pediatric nurse through my network in Germany, and quickly realized how much more valuable it was to have a professional in my home to help me, and not a traditional 18-year-old au pair. This truly was another “aha” moment in my life — how much better my family runs with another mature, professionally-minded adult in the home — especially one that loves children, has extensive experience in a care-related profession and who can help both my children — and us parents — live our best lives. It is at this time that I pivoted again and became an entrepreneur.
Based on this experience, I founded Apex in 2008 to help other parents who realize the value and benefit of highly skilled, professional live-in care. Over the years, I have grown a family of businesses based in the United States, Germany and Australia, and two of my companies are amongst the only 15 US State Department designated J1 Au Pair visa sponsor programs. I am proud that we are one of the few agencies focused on providing highly skilled care professionals, able to support cultural exchange, and support families with children with special needs.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
In all honesty, I was a little bit of both. As I shared earlier, I created my first business at age 14, filling a supply and demand need with a little ingenuity and openness to a different business model (trade vs financial exchange.) And I’m a go-getter — once I believe in something, nothing will stop me from achieving it, and I think that’s a core competency of an entrepreneur. But being an entrepreneur requires a host of skills, and I’ve learned those over time, through both my successes and failures. I’ve also gained those skills through a community with others — being part of female entrepreneur groups and Entrepreneur’s Organization, etc.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I am forever grateful to Uwe Grundmann, who was a director at Dresden Bank. I applied for a position in their Traineeship program, but I did not have the same fancy degrees most of the other candidates had.
During the interview he peppered me with how I would approach different situations, trying to figure out how my mind worked. He was very open to the belief that a strong employee is about conviction and a can-do attitude and was willing to train me to gain the knowledge I needed to be able to do my job.
Through the support of Mr. Grundmann, I gained the confidence to apply to work at a Wall Street company, even without a degree. That confidence transferred over as I started Apex, as I knew my work ethic, strengths, strong character, and positive mindset would support my success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Unlike traditional home staffing and/or “au pair” agencies, Apex Social stands out in our absolute commitment to our employees, our care professionals and our host families to push them past their own limiting beliefs of who they are and who they (and their children) can become.
In general, I believe people can achieve great things, independent of what they currently think they’re capable of if we give them enough evidence. Also, just getting someone to try something can help them move forward. We have potential Care Professionals we meet while they’re in school who love the idea of furthering their training by working with a child on a daily basis, but they do not believe their English is strong enough to work in the US. We connect them with other Apex alumni who have pushed past that and have found it to be an excellent mechanism to help people see things in a different light. One such Care Professional now has a degree from Harvard!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Constantly be Giving — I believe in having positive relationships with people and the way to achieve that is by listening to people when they speak, understanding their pain points and going above and beyond to try and solve them. I built my relationship with the German Red Cross in this matter — by listening to their needs and providing a solution, before being concerned with my own company’s needs.
- Be a Futurist — I am personally inspired by the future, and that bleeds over to how I view business. And it pertains to things big and small, and while I say that, I realize nothing is really that small. For example, I envisioned bringing all of my Care Professionals to California so they could meet in person and connect with each other, while also expanding their horizons through programs such as adaptive surfing. Recognizing the value an event such as this could have on the program has paid dividends many times over, in the happiness of our care professionals and our company satisfaction ratings.
- Know-How to Execute, and To-Do So Quickly — Once we realized COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon, we needed to create different mechanisms to recruit European Care Professionals as we no longer could travel through different countries, hosting get-togethers in schools. Four virtual events later, we have found a new way to recruit, educate, connect and entertain — and have no plans of it going away once the world gets back to normal.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
While I am now the type of entrepreneur who likes to try different things and not be afraid to fail, earlier in my career I was advised to be much more thoughtful and linear in my thinking and launching of new ideas. Following the advice, I incubated an idea, thought about it a lot, and by the time I put it out in the world, it was too late. I will never be so obedient to someone else’s advice again!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
This is a question I can answer well, as I have had to learn this lesson over the years. As an entrepreneur, I’m always seeing new opportunities and am excited to get them going. But I’ve learned that I need to be strategic in how I share them with my team, testing them first in my “lab”, and when I think they’re ready to be part of our business, presenting them in a way to the team so that they’re equally as excited and invested. Once they’re onboard, they feel less overwhelmed and there’s a lot less burn-out.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
First of all, you need to have trust, credibility and authority within your own company; you have to be able to clearly articulate your vision, hold yourself to a clearly defined set of non-negotiables, deliver on the service you are providing, and treat others as you’d like to be treated.
In addition, many of our employees reflect our clientele — whether they have a nursing or occupational therapy background, are the parent of a child with special needs, previously were a live-in caregiver, etc. While not everyone at our company needs to have a relevant background, we’ve found it to be part of our “special sauce” in building trust and connecting with those we serve.
As our service is so personal (a stranger living in your home, responsible for your children and supporting their growth), the consistency of the high level of our service — both from our care professionals and corporate employees — is at the core of our ability to build trust, credibility and authority. We are grateful to our clients for recognizing what we offer and recommending us to others, which has also become an important part of our credibility platform.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
I’m not sure that my point of view is revolutionary, but living it on a daily basis is what makes it work. Word of mouth is more powerful than ever in today’s digital world, and for a service such as ours that is so personal, having trust, credibility and authority with our clients helps us amplify our reach and differentiate our offering.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
As I mentioned earlier, overthinking can kill an idea — or an entire business. But there are safe ways to test the marketplace without having to jump in with two feet, as well. I was approached to write a book on the best ways to hire a live-in caregiver. Before I invested all of the time it would take to write the book, I put up a pre-sale notice on my website to gauge demand. I had 75 requests within a week so then I quickly wrote it!
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
First and foremost, as an entrepreneur I feel 100% responsible for the success — and failure — of my employees and clients. The buck stops with me. Every call I get from a family whose child has hit developmental milestones through the support of their Care Professional fills my heart with joy. Every Care Professional who has grown more than they imagined — both personally and professionally — feels personal to me. But when COVID hit — I didn’t sleep for weeks as I had to quickly figure out how to best protect the livelihood of my employees, how we were going to handle families expecting Care Professionals who could no longer enter the country, and how to support the Care Professionals that immediately wanted to return to their families as they were scared by what was happening.
As an entrepreneur, I believe I’m creating something newer/better/more important than myself. And so, in both success and failure, it hits harder as I’m not just focused on my bottom line, but also on making something better for this world.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
As I mentioned earlier, I am extremely proud of how we created our annual surf outing event for care professionals to come together, connect and learn. In 2019 we had over 50% of our care professionals along with our entire Apex team from three continents attend. The camaraderie was amazing, and I regularly watch our VR video of the experience, which you can see here.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
One of my lowest moments as an entrepreneur was when Apex was included in a 2.5B dollars class-action lawsuit focused on alleged antitrust violations around price-fixing wages for au pairs. We were grouped in with other companies yet the suit was completely irrelevant to us — our pricing has always been higher than the general market due to the specialization of our Care Professionals. That said, I still had to spend significant financial and human capital resources, and the mental energy required was draining. I considered closing Apex during this time; I truly was considering if it was worth it to continue on. It was one of my lowest, most vulnerable periods of my life.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
While it may sound simple, I just kept moving forward, one step at a time. I hired someone else to handle the work required for the lawsuit, which took a lot of the pressure off of me and my team. I relied on my support network and my innate positivity to believe things would work out. I persevered and am still here today helping families!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I am happy to share five things that I think you need to successfully ride the emotional highs and lows of being an entrepreneur. You can check out my video of my suggestions on YouTube.
- Be Comfortable with Failing, Fail Fast and Fail Forward — I am not always clear on the best way to sell something new. I am confident it’s needed but have launched many services without being crystal clear of the positioning. But I know my audience and how to motivate them, and am open to being wrong, cutting bait and moving on.
- “Everyone Needs a Rosie” — I find that meditation and personal rituals help keep me grounded and focused in every area of life. I personally rely on a spiritual advisor named Rosie to keep me centered. A spiritual advisor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but finding a calming ritual can be your Rosie!
- You Need a Professional Support System — I am part of the EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) Forum. It is a trusted place to share, vent and recharge. To be surrounded by people who have walked in similar shoes and can share how they handled the situation as well as their emotions is extremely helpful. Many times they have helped me define the emotional high or low I was feeling when I couldn’t quite express it myself, which was then helpful in enjoying it or better working through it.
- Know Your “Superpower” — I know my superpower is my ability to actively listen to people, really hear what their problems are, and then know how I can help them. This is organic to me as it supports my bigger purpose of making a difference in people’s lives, but it has also manifested much more happiness in my life, both personally and professionally.
- Have a “Bad Ass List” — This idea I borrowed from someone else, and now I tell everyone to create one! It’s a list of my biggest successes. We all have days when we’re feeling low, and reading the list reminds me of all I have accomplished. It’s also equally fun to turn to the list to add a new accomplishment — it makes the successes feel even bigger.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
To me, resilience is the ability to address anything that comes my way and not let it knock me down. For me, that means flexibility. Flexibility gives me the ability to bend, but I can’t put myself, my family, my employees or my company in a place where we can break. I also attribute my resilience to a strong social network — community is imperative. I also think resilient people have a release valve. To me, that’s being by the ocean, where feeling connected to nature grounds me and reminds me how big our world really is.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Losing my father as a young adult was a pivotal moment for me. I went through all of the stages of grief until I found myself able to put things into perspective. I felt because of this hardship, sadness and anger that I no longer had any capacity to waste time on negative media, people, or pity parties. I no longer engaged with people being caught up in simple things. My father’s death was work-related, and it bred in me the resilience to keep things in balance, be there for others and understand a broader point of view.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
In all honesty, I know I’m lucky, as I’m predisposed to see a glass as half-full versus half-empty. But I also actively cultivate this trait through spiritual practice, manifesting and by surrounding myself with other positive people. These choices tend to keep me in a healthy head-space, which directly translates to how I view and respond to difficult situations.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
As implied above, positivity breeds positivity. I am confident that my positive attitude affects those who work with me and, in turn, their positivity rubs off on me. When I speak to a family that have just received a special needs diagnosis for their child and they’re overwhelmed, I know that after I speak with them they feel less alone and more positive about the future for their child and their family. I also encourage my team to re-watch our family videos on YouTube as I know they support my positive mindset — if you take the right perspective, every day is a happy day for any of us. Lastly, I identify positive people and surround myself and my team with them. A great example is Claudia Gersdorf, who recently spoke at one of our virtual conferences. Born with a debilitating condition, through strong family support and those of trained specialists — like the Care Professionals we place with families — she has excelled past even her wildest imagination. How can you not want to share that positive message!
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” I really like this quote attributed to Henry Ford. Everything I’ve shared today in this interview supports this notion. A positive mindset, the support of peers, building resiliency, my “Rosie” — we all have the potential for greatness, we just need to believe it into being!
How can our readers further follow you online?
I can be personally reached on FB @Susan.Asay and Instagram @susanasayca. I encourage you to check out Apex Social Group at apex-social.com where you can learn more about our different Care Professional and Family programs.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!