Our guest this week is John Zimmerman of Brightstar Care, who has run his in-home healthcare and medical staffing franchise since the mid-2000s.
Today he joins us to talk about things like staffing issues, policy changes in the medical field, the things he loves about up north living, how his company’s technology set-up has propelled his business forward, and more.
After, Ruthy & Tim chat about SIP and VOIP phones that help businesses like John’s expand in today’s economy.
Well, hello, John. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Well, you’re welcome Tim, and Ruthy. I’m looking forward to it.
So tell us about Brightstar Care. What exactly do you folks do?
Well Brightstar care is considered a private duty home care agency. We provide skilled and non-skilled care to anyone from infants to seniors, so they can remain safely in their homes.
Who are most of your clients? Are they mostly the elderly or a little bit of everything?
It’s a little bit of everything. Many of our clients are elderly. They’re wanting to remain in their homes. They have difficulty with activities of daily living and we provide a companion care meal, preparation, light housekeeping. In other situations we are more hands on. We do standby assist. We do transfers. We assist with bathing and toileting and so forth. All of these things to keep them safe and help them have a higher quality of life.
You know a full disclaimer here, John’s outfit, John and Sharon Zimmerman’s outfit, Brightstar Care of Northern Michigan, took care of my mother-in-law, Anne. She’s now in assisted living. But when she was home -she’s in her late eighties now- John had some staff come over a few times a week. A lot of it was companion care, just hanging out with her to help her day go a little better and doing some errands and some light clean up and that stuff. It hugely valuable. The staff and folks that you had dealing with this situation were just really A-1. So it’s thank you, Brightstar, a good organization, that kind of care to keep people in their homes is pretty important.
And now can I ask you, John, you started Brightstar Care, correct? Yourself and Sharon?
Well Brightstar is a national franchise. My wife and I purchased Northern Michigan territory back in 2009. So we’d been at it now over 10 years.
I’m not mistaken, you had some background in the healthcare industry. What made you think about moving into this kind of this kind of a small businesses up here in Northern Michigan?
I was actually in pharmaceutical sales and management for 27 years. I worked for a number of big pharmaceutical company and was very successful, or at least I thought I was. And like the other people in 2009, when the economy went south, I was afforded the opportunity, if you will, to do something else.
You know, at 52, it’s a little difficult to start over, especially when nobody’s hiring. So I started looking around to see what other opportunities were out there, and came across home care. It’s got some science-based to it, a lot of the products that I had worked with in the past dealt with dementia and incontinence and so forth. So if I felt that it was be a good fit. I also had sales experience in how to provide care for seniors.
So starting this business really ticked a lot of boxes for you both personally. It just made sense to go into Brightstar.
And then the old standby, if you don’t have a job, why not start a business? Yay, America!
That’s right. And a willingness to lay that money out there and, and the drive and the grit, it actually takes quite a lot.
That takes us to our next question. So do you think that everyone: your customers, the community, even policy makers, what do you think they don’t get about what it is you all do? Is there something that you’ve just find that you kind of struggle with, or is a common misconception or misperception of what it is that both you do as Brightstar Care here in Northern Michigan, as well as maybe a, just as a small business owner?
Well, I think there are a couple of things. First of all, just as a small business owner, I think oftentimes political leaders and those that are making decisions think that if you own your own business, you make lots of money. You’re automatically a millionaire. And oftentimes the rules and regulations that are coming down from the various governmental organizations that can really play havoc with a small business, including cost of doing business and, just managing all the regulation.
Then I think the other thing, particularly in Northern Michigan, there is a severe shortage of home care workers in Northern Michigan. There’s just a shortage of people that work you know. Before COVID, we were probably about as close to zero unemployment as you possibly could be. We need to create an environment where we’ve got people moving up here that are willing to work and can fill the opportunities that exist in home care.
Do you feel that that that kind of work gets undervalued? Is that partly why there’s not enough workers?
I think so. Absolutely. You know, the reimbursement rates what we can pay our people- although we try to pay the highest hourly rate in the area, since we believe the work they do is essential. Quite frankly, I wish I could pay them twice what they are currently able to make
Sure. And it seems like some of that almost maybe does get undervalued. We need to value that kind of care, cause we’re going to need more of it, not less of it. And as the population is generally aging that becomes pretty critical. And, as you say, and essential business gets overlooked in some of that.
You know, on the policymaker side, we talk about this a lot on this show. We here at Terrapin Networks, as you know, we work with only small companies. And all of our companies are like yours, 5 to 10 to 15 computer users. There may be a lot more staff than that, cause there might be people out in the field and out on the shop floor, whatever. But we find that so often, to the folks in government, whether in Lansing or Washington, small business might be 500 employees.
Yeah. It mean a range of size in business.
And so many dozens of us that run these small companies that aren’t anywhere near that, but we’re still employing a lot of people in aggregate. And that can kind of get overlooked sometimes. Because they, like you say, they just assume that well, you own the place so you’re a millionaire, which means policymakers can institute all these kinds of regulations and this or that. But if you’re operating with 20 employees, then that’s a little bit different
What stands out for you as a positive for running a business up here in Northern Michigan?
Well, first of all, being in Northern Michigan, I think it’s a beautiful area. It’s got great demographics for my type of business. I grew up here. People want to move up here and live up here. People that have lived there all their lives, their children have moved away and they don’t have anybody here to help them. All of those things create more opportunities for my business, the way people interact with each other. It’s a very friendly area. It’s got a low crime rate, all of those types of things. There’s many good things I can say about living in Traverse City, but certainly for us, the demographics, the population, and so forth- that fits very well with our business
Of course we concur with that. Everyone we’ve had on the show so far has said similar things, like we love the outdoors, we love Northern Michigan, we love it up here. And the beauty of it now, does that add to some of your challenges on the staffing side?
It does. It does. You know, occasionally, we have call offs. If we have beautiful weather then sometimes people seem to get “sick” suddenly.
Sometimes we have some stretches of not so beautiful weather. So when it does show up, everybody kind of goes crazy.
I’m sure knew this was coming because it is me chatting with you here. How has technology propelled helped you folks move forward? I know Brightstar has done some really nifty stuff at the corporate level for you.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. You know, our franchisor has made a tremendous effort to integrate and upgrade and develop our software platforms to make things more compliant with the various regulations out there, and to provide all the information that’s necessary for us to do our business to ensure we’re maintaining HIPPA compliance and maintaining patient privacy when it comes to medical information and so forth. And it’s enhanced the ability of our caregivers to to track what they’re supposed to do and the plans of care.
That’s really valuable. Isn’t it? You also have some offsite staff.
We were able to use a Voice Over IP phone system. You’ve got a staff member living down in Ohio was actually on your system full time through phones and ShareSync cloud platform and so forth that even that’s been able to help you stretch out a little bit. You’ve got a branch office up in Petoskey, that kind of thing, all those things that you all have leveraged. There has been a lot of little things like that that seemed to have helped your ability to let people work from anywhere. I would imagine, even in the COVID thing here, at least what it appeared that your staff was able to just kind of keep right on working. Of course, you were essential anyway, being in healthcare, but you’re able to keep running on work and almost your normal way, weren’t you?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. We had a couple of individuals who, when initially the Stay At Home order were issued, stayed at home and they were able to continue to do their work using our schedulers and so forth.
And they have, at Brightstar Care, a cloud-based Voice Over IP phone system. Kelsey, your staff member down in Ohio, is able to use a SIP phone on her mobile device. So when she places a call, it looks like it’s coming out of the Traverse City office. She’s a full on staff member just working off an iPhone. So there’s a lot of neat things that it’s just going to help. It just makes the growth easier. Doesn’t it?
It used to be that when you wanted to put together, say, an office in Pestoskey, you’d have to get a phone system and it could get complicated. But now we have options that make those sorts of things much easier to implement in your business, making the making process on the management side a little bit easier to do.
Oh yeah, absolutely, it does make things so much easier. We’ve moved our office because of growth. We set up an original office and then we’ve moved three times, to this current location, and we’ve expanded into Petoskey. It’s gotten easier every time, particularly the technical aspects of it.
Nor do these types of options have a huge dollar amount. They’re actually pretty easy to implement. It’s easy for me to say, I guess, but once they’re in place, they seem to work. They seem to work pretty well.
We like it because we collaborate with your outfit, and we believe in your mission to the point that we became a customer, too. We’re really thrilled with what you all have done. Watching your growth has been exciting to see and very satisfying.
John, what changes do you see coming? Do you feel that you’re on a trajectory that’s just going to keep moving like it is?
Well, I think the need, the number of people who are going to be seeking care of some sort, is going to continue to expand with the COVID crisis. I think that more people are going to be looking at private duty home care as maybe even a first option compared to going to a different facility or something like that. Perhaps, you know, the thought is that maybe it’s not a bad idea to stay at home as long as you can. So we’ll see some increase there.
I see there’s going to be a lot more along the lines of technology. We’ve seen the remote tele-med road during the COVID crisis, with physicians that are doing their patient visits over the computer. I think there’s going to be much more of that. There’s a lot of different technology that’s coming out that help in terms of client monitoring at home, if a patient is just not ready to have somebody in the home or needs some help, but they don’t need a lot of help yet. Technology is going to be a big portion of how people can remain safely in their homes.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, you and I are awfully close in age, and our parents are very close in age as well. Again, Sue’s mother, as well as my father, are in their late eighties. We’re starting to learn a lot more about what it means to care for those types of folks. And of course, everyone has a a different journey through those last decades. Some need more help than others. Some might change very quickly. But many, most, want to stay in their homes, if they can. And as a family member, you’re thinking the same way: you’d like to keep them in their homes as long as they can be there. It means a lot to them. It means a lot to all of us. Your ability with Brightstar to be able to just fit in where it’s needed, it seems to fit right there in the middle just perfectly. It’s beside the next step into longterm care facilities outside of the home.
You all even do work with, say, when Sue’s mom first went into assisted living, we still had your staff member come over and spend time with her in her new facility a few times a week, which really helped the transition. So you guys have not just the transitional part of keeping them in their home, but also the transitional part of when someone does need to move into assisted care, your ability to help that transition happen. That was really valuable in Sue’s mom’s case. She was having some elderly dementia issues, not horribly bad, but it was progressing. And the ability to make that transition with your staff member was just really significant to our family. So that’s a good thing to get out there, that seems like a part of your value that a business like Brightstar care can actually do.
Yeah, that’s true. When you’ve got an individual with advanced dementia and you finally make that decision to place that individual into a facility, it can be very unnerving and disorienting. And having somebody coming in that are there, one-on-one with that individual, helps that transition. Oftentimes the facility doesn’t have somebody that they can just cut out of all of the other duties, just to take care of that one individual. So it helps the facility as well as the client. That’s a majorly added benefit.
Absolutely. And sometimes it actually helps that it’s not a family member. It almost can make that easier. That’s kind of what we found.
We couldn’t do our job without the technology. And we couldn’t do the technology without Terrapin Networks, with what you put in place for us including the maintenance of it. If we turn on the computer and it doesn’t work, we’re in trouble. So having having Terrapin Networks available 24-7 has really helped us out over the last 7 years we’ve been with you.
Well, that’s really kind of you to say so, but it’s a real collaboration, isn’t it? I mean, we really feel like we’re part of the team. It really helps things move forward, there’s no doubt. So we’re really grateful to be partnered up with you folks, that’s for sure. We just love all of you. You’re great.
Yeah, and we appreciate what you do.
Alright, thanks, John. We’ll talk to you soon, my friend.
Take care of both of you. We’ll see you.
Tim, let’s chat real quick about what we just talked about with John from over at Brightstar Care. John has “left the chat”, it is now just you and I. He brought up something really important in our conversation just now, regarding SIP phones. Can you explain to me exactly what a SIP phone is, and what Terrapin was able to do with Brightstar Care in regards to that?
Yeah, sure. So John and Sharon Zimmerman over at Brightstar Care of Northern Michigan, had us put in a phone system for them when they moved into their new office about 4 or 5 years ago now. It was VOIP system, meaning Voice Over IP. This meant no more landline connections needed by some handsets. Instead, you put them on the same network as the internet, just your internal company network. Once you do that, then any of the phones that we attached to that system can be used anywhere. Brightstar has a branch office up in Petoskey, at a part-time desk that they use when they’re in that neck of the woods. The phone there stays on their VOIP system, so when they make a call, no matter where that call takes place, it looks like it’s coming from Brightstar Care offices in Traverse City. (22:19):
It’s not a Petoskey phone number. It’s just all part of their system.
Likewise, one of their national accounts managers is down in Ohio, several hundred miles away. She uses what’s called a SIP phone. That stands for a Session Initiation Protocol, the term of which doesn’t matter at all. A short way to describe what a SIP phone does, in this instance, is she uses an app on her iPhone, and that app is connected to the Brightstar care phone system. When she makes an outbound call on this app on behalf of Brightstar, to anyone receiving the call, it’s coming from Brightstar. This is as opposed to, if she made the call right on her cell phone, it would be coming from her cell phone number down in Ohio. This would exposes her personal cell phone to people who she doesn’t necessarily want or need to, and it might look odd coming from Ohio when people are dealing with a company in northern Michigan. And more than that, it’s not relevant. Her personal cell phone is not relevant to the why she’s calling people. She’s calling on behalf of Brightstar. So with the SIP phone, she’s able to make a call just like she’s in the office, sitting at a desk with a regular business phone sitting there, however she can do it from her mobile phone down in Ohio, off this app. It’s terrific. And it works really well..
This type of setup is so handy, and I know this from experience. Regular listeners know that I travel around a lot. My husband and my family and I are based out of Queens, New York City, but I work for Terrapin in Traverse City. And my family and I travel between here and there quite often. And sometimes we go to Ireland, where my husband’s family is from. Anywhere I am, I can use this app to make a phone call on behalf of Terrapin. So it’s extremely handy to have, it means I can do business from anywhere. Especially now, in this post COVID world that we’re living in, where so many people are working from home and working remotely- to have a SIP phone set up so that I can seamlessly continue to do business no matter where I am or what circumstances I’m under, it’s extremely helpful. And it’s good for the business to operate that way. It’s a really helpful source to have within your business.
So this is for any small business owner out there. We all used to just buy a phone system that we installed in our office, referred to as a PBX system. They sat inside the building and while you could do things to extend that, it wasn’t exactly easy. These types of phone systems could last several years, 8, 10, 12 years, which was not uncommon, but then you’d need to buy a new one. If that’s you, if you’re in need of setting up a phone system in your business right now, think about doing a voiceover IP system. All you’ll need is a good internet connection and a firewall. The firewall is important, because you want to be able to segment some of the data that comes in through the internet for the voice. Plus, you get rid of all your landline charges, which is handy. No more paying for separate lines.
You don’t need any of that. That goes away completely. With a VOIP or SIP set-up, you’ll pay per month per handset, and that’s it, for unlimited talk unlimited minutes, unlimited long distance in the continental US, all that kind of stuff.
You can set it up so it forwards all calls to your regular cell phone. This means, if you’re going to be out of the office, all this is really easy to forward on. It also makes it easy to use a SIP phone for any off-site staff, or maybe sales staff out in the field, they don’t have to use their personal cell phones to make these sorts of calls. It also means that, as an owner, when a member of staff leaves and you replace them with another member of staff, you just move the SIP phone over. It’s always the same number going out to your customers. That’s got a lot of value, it’s easy to do, and anything you’re doing now for any smaller company, it’s the only way to go. It just makes by far the most sense to do.
Would you recommend at all having sort of like a blended option, having both a office phone, as well as the SIP phone setup for employees, or is a SIP phone really all you need?
Well, technically I’d say yes to all of that. Here’s what I mean: It all depends on how you work. So let’s talk about our conversation with Brightstar Care. They have a lot of people that work in the office all the time. They have some people who are out in the field almost all the time. They have someone who lives in a separate town, a couple hundred miles away, and they have a separate office that’s a hundred miles away. So as an office, they’re available all over the place. Each one is different up. In the Petoskey office, there is a phone sitting on the desk. It’s an actual handset, no SIP phone needed, and that makes sense for that set-up. Whereas down in Ohio where the young lady works for them doing a lot of sales, and communication for them, she’s using the SIP phone. So the beauty of these kinds of solutions is whatever makes the most sense for that particular staff member or that particular staff designation. That’s what you’re able to do. You have complete flexibility. That’s one of the things we’re always looking for in any kind of accompany, but especially in a small one.
There’s one more thing I wanted to touch on before we run out of time here. And that’s more the collaboration aspect that and Terrapin Networks has with Brightstar Care. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Well, yeah, that’s exactly what we look for with our all of our customers. We are a member of their team and Brightstar Care is a great example of that. We have a very, very high level of collaboration. When John or Sharon are thinking of moving or opening up a new office or adding a particular kind of a staff member, whatever it might be frankly, I’m always part of that conversation. Their growth, as John mentioned, they’ve been able to do this incremental growth really by exploiting technology. It’s a big part of it. I mean, they are forward thinkers, they’re great staff managers. They have a great team. It’s obviously a great place to work. But the collaboration part of it is where you can get some real power out of your relationship with your tech team, when it’s really based on collaboration, not just as a vendor. We’re not just a vendor, we’re actually part of the team and it feels like it. That makes a real difference to them and frankly to us.
All right, well, unfortunately we’ve run out of time this week, but thank you for hanging out with me again today, Tim, let’s hang out again next week and find somebody new to, to grill about the cool parts of their company.
Sounds good to me. This has really been enjoyable. Thank you. Alright. Have a good week. Thanks.