Most people would consider it a fairly long – and risky – leap to move from the fast-paced high-tech scene to the more sedate, conservative field of health care services. Not John DeHart – he paid no heed to the risks, and jumped right in.
After making his mark as an entrepreneur in the heady New York tech scene in the ‘90s, helping launch five tech companies as a venture capitalist, DeHart did some soul searching and decided the tech world was not for him. While it was fast and fun, the industry lacked the “heart and soul” the young Cornell business grad was looking for.
“I spent five or six years building high-tech companies, until I woke up one morning and decided to quit. That was right before the 2000 tech collapse,” says DeHart, who eventually went on to co-found the successful home health care franchise brand, Nurse Next Door. “I didn’t really love what I was doing.”
Just shy of his 30th birthday, the Okanagan native joined his wife in Vancouver, where she was studying, and personal experience soon pointed him in the direction of health care. DeHart’s future business partner, Ken Sim, was trying to find a caregiver for his wife when she went on bed rest with their first child, and it was a real challenge. “I had had previous challenges with my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s,” says DeHart. “The home care industry is unregulated, and it was like the Wild West. You never knew what you were getting.”
That spelled opportunity for the two, who decided to launch a business to fill what they saw as a vacuum in the marketplace. Their goal was to put their finely-honed business sense to use by building a completely different, aspirational health care model that would deliver more than just run-of-the-mill home care. That model was Nurse Next Door, which launched in 2001, and is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds.
“Our approach is different – we look at how we can bring a little bit of happiness into a senior’s life, and our service model revolves around that,” explains DeHart. “By focusing less on the clinical task and more on the personal experiences of the person, we deliver a very social model of care. It’s a radically different way to deliver health care and home care.”
At Nurse Next Door, the focus is on happier aging rather than just churning out a set of practical services. While the services are obviously provided, this is done within the framework of bringing happiness to the day-to-day lives of the company’s senior customers. A question asked of every client is: “What’s the one thing you love to do that you can no longer do?” Caregivers then try to help clients rediscover lost activities and interests.
Blazing a new trail
The idea of reinventing the wheel was not always welcomed in a sector that’s steeped in tradition and slow to change. More than one industry insider questioned DeHart’s modern take on health care, all the way down to the bright bubble-gum pink branding of the company cars.
But that did little to deter DeHart or Sim, who viewed each roadblock as an opportunity, and their lack of health care experience as a distinct advantage. “We could not do the work ourselves, so we had to hire well, which allowed us to focus on building the business instead of being a ‘technician,’” emphasizes DeHart. “The fact that we didn’t know anything about health care allowed us to build a radically different and unique organization. We weren’t mired in what was already being done, or stuck in the ‘old way.’”
The concept has worked extraordinarily well for the duo. Six years into their business, they started franchising, and today, Nurse Next Door has grown into a 150-franchise operation with locations across Canada and the United States. Plans are in place for 50 more locations this calendar year, and another 50 the next, and the company is also eyeing international markets like China, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
The company is perfectly positioned to benefit from the “Silver Tsunami” hitting western societies, as Baby Boomers retire en masse and cope with the challenges that come with aging.
This brings us to DeHart’s newest business venture, LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic.
Dubbed the “anti-gym,” LIVE WELL is a medical fitness clinic that targets sedentary people who suffer from chronic diseases, most notably diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Far more than a regular workout gym, LIVE WELL aims to teach people the skills to build healthy habits, and get them moving through supervised, customized exercise programs.
Each location has an on-staff clinical exercise physiologist, and clinical outcomes – blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, etc. – of every member are monitored as part of the program. About 50 per cent of business is generated through doctor referrals, with the balance coming from online marketing. “We’re a lifestyle change company,” explains DeHart. “If you have a chronic condition, the first thing a doctor will tell you is to change your lifestyle. The problem is that’s really hard to do. So we are that lifestyle ‘prescription.’ That’s our specialty, and that’s how we are different from a regular gym.”
A new “medical fitness” vision
DeHart tapped into the idea of “medical fitness” a few years back in, of all places, his office elevator. There was a LIVE WELL location in the same building, and he regularly bumped into gym members singing the praises of the life-changing program as he rode up the elevator.
His curiosity piqued, DeHart sought out the owner, Sara Hodson, who by then had two successful LIVE WELL locations on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. DeHart started mentoring her, a third clinic soon followed, and in 2015, the two teamed up to start franchising the brand. “It was a perfect core values match,” says DeHart. “Hodson is a visionary of exercise as medicine, and I bring the business, franchise, and brand strategy to the table.”
Nurse Next Door had hired Cathy Thorpe as CEO the previous year, leaving DeHart to focus on his newest venture. In the fall of 2016, he and Hodson opened the first three LIVE WELL franchises, all on B.C.’s Lower Mainland. There are plans to bring that number up to 15 by the end of this year, and to move into Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto with another 15 openings in 2018.
Nurse Next Door is on an even more robust expansion trajectory, and both brands are actively looking for new franchisees to add to their teams. They are looking for people who are genuinely interested in helping others, and who are also energized about building a profitable, successful business. “You have to be passionate about what we do, and then you have to marry that with tenacity and perseverance,” says DeHart. “Everything else, we can handle.”
Extensive training is provided for both brands, and while health care experience isn’t necessary, there does need to be a registered nurse on staff managing clients at Nurse Next Door and a clinical exercise physiologist to oversee the exercise programs at LIVE WELL. If a franchisee has one of these skill sets, he or she can fulfill this role; otherwise, a person with the necessary expertise is hired. The starting investment for Nurse Next Door is around $150,000, and the business can be run from home to start. Around $300,000 is required for a LIVE WELL franchise, which requires a bricks-and-mortar location.
DeHart is sanguine about his future as he branches into his second health care venture, and is exhilarated at the prospect of building another strong national brand. But to him, it’s about far more than just business success; it’s about helping others live their optimal life. In other words, it’s a business with the “heart and soul” he was once yearning for as a young man.
“It’s about helping someone aspire to live a better life, but it’s also about building a daringly different, bold brand in health care. We did it with Nurse Next Door, and we’re doing it with LIVE WELL. For me, there is nothing better than building a radically different health care brand that inspires someone to lead a better life. That’s magic.”
By Roma Ihnatowycz