Walk through Home Care Assistance's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters and you'll find an energetic group of people, most of them in their 20s and 30s, talking social-media campaigns and brainstorming ways to improve the user experience. While their peers are working on the newest app or web platform, this crew is focused on innovating a different area altogether -- home care for seniors.
The company was founded in 2002 by two clinical psychologists, Jim and Kathy Johnson. After struggling to find quality care for Kathy's parents, the husband and wife duo created their own model for placing part-time and full-time caregivers in seniors' homes.
"Ten years ago there were so few good options for people who wanted help in the home as an alternative to assisted living," says Kathy Johnson, who initially opened a location near her home in California and a second location near her parents' home in New Jersey.
While Home Care Assistance isn't the stereotypical Silicon Valley startup, its growth resembles that of its high-tech neighbors. With backing from private equity firm Athos Capital, the 90-employee franchise company has expanded rapidly. In 2010 it had three corporate locations. Today it has 15 company-owned units and 60 franchises.
This isn't the first franchise of its kind, nor is it the largest. In fact, Franchise Help recently had about 85 home care franchises in its database. But with the number of people age 85 and older expected to double by 2030, assisted living costs climbing and more seniors wanting to age at home, there seems to be no shortage of demand for in-home care.
Where Home Care Assistance hopes to differentiate itself is with a higher level of service and better amenities. "Our goal is to change how people age," says the company's COO and president Lily Sarafan, a 30-year-old Stanford grad who typifies the company's energetic and entrepreneurial executive team.
Granted, it's a tall order to change how people age, but Home Care Assistance hopes to at least improve the experience.
Front and center of that strategy is recruiting qualified caregivers, emphasizing career development and keeping turnover as low as possible. In-home care is notorious for high attrition, says Sarafan. "Our focus is on building a loyal base of caregivers who feel like they're a part of the team rather than nomadic commodities," she says. The company recently launched an online "university" covering such topics as hospital-to-home care, and Alzheimer's and dementia. Caregivers in the Bay Area, meanwhile, have access to monthly Sur La Table classes that teach healthy cooking methods.
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"Caregivers know about clients' background, what they like to do and what they like to eat," says Sarafan. "Everything is tailored."
Meanwhile, the company's young executive team and location in Silicon Valley have inspired new ideas for improving the experience. The company tests many of these in its company-owned locations. In its Los Gatos location – which it calls the "LG Lab" – it's piloting the use of iPads in customers home to help caregivers keep better records, share ideas with their counterparts and keep families abreast on daily activities.
Whereas many home-care companies focus their marketing efforts solely on medical providers, Home Care Assistance is trying to create brand recognition among consumers. The company's La Jolla, Calif. "store," for example, is located in a prominent retail location near high-end boutiques and coffee shops. While it's a home base for caregivers in the area, it hosts free "Chair Chi" in its yoga studio and aging seminars for the community. "We hope to repeat that model," says Johnson.
The company has also been aggressive about using social media, web optimization and paid search ads to promote its services. "One of the fastest growing demographics on Facebook is women in their 40s and 50s," notes Sarafan. "These are the children of our clients."
Sarah Max is a freelance writer in Bend, Ore. She has covered business and personal finance for more than a decade for such publications as BusinessWeek, CNNMoney.com, Money and The Wall Street Journal. In 2009 Sarah got a first-hand look at the ups and downs of entrepreneurship when she helped launch 1859 Oregons Magazine, a quarterly magazine and website for which she is executive editor.