From Bootstrapping to Business Success: This Air Force Veteran Is On A Mission to Disrupt Mental Health Counseling
Neil Colvin, Air Force Veteran & Founder of Thera-fi
Tell us about you and your military background:
Hi, my name is Neil Colvin and I originally joined the Air Force to get out of Nebraska and to see the world. And then I was stationed at Offutt, Air Force Base... just 15 minutes from where I grew up. I was in the Air Force from 2003 to 2015 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Major. Did I go anywhere interesting? Yeah for the most part. I went to Kuwait and ran into the actor James Gandolfini aka Tony Soprano. Some video footage of that made it to CNN and I have a few photos of that. I was stationed in Germany which was beautiful. I ran a nuclear SWAT team in Minot, North Dakota. That was the coldest time of my life. I tried to branch out of the nuclear realm and went to Lackland, Air Force Base and ran school operations for the largest career field in the Air Force. While there, I was notified that I was selected to deploy to Afghanistan and also face a third reduction in force board in my career. I was on my way to train the Afghanistan military how to run security operations when I was intercepted along the way and I ended up going to NATO Headquarters, Kabul Afghanistan. It was an odd turn of events but stereotypical of an Air Force story but some O-5 tore his muscle in the gym and could no longer lead security operations at Kabul so I took over that spot. I really enjoyed working there and meeting so many amazing military personnel from every branch of NATO military. Fast forward a few weeks, and I'm told that I have three options: take the payout (equivalent to a year's salary) and start out processing the Air Force immediately or stay the entire deployment and don’t take the payout and get one more medal. The third option was to appeal to a NATO general to make a call and make this go away for me. Yep, just like in the movies. Obviously, that would be dumb move on my part. It sounds cool but the powers that be, in the military had already selected me to be in this position so having an intervention would make me highly unpopular with my officer board (career field managers) and I didn’t want to think what they’d have in store for me. I had career field leaders reaching out to me from the wood works. Telling me to stay and finish my tour because it was an honor. These are the same guys that voted me out of the Air Force, already knew this before sending me to Afghanistan, and had originally planned on sending me to the middle of nowhere to train local nationals on security tactics which was a great way to get killed off at the time. I’d basically be a traveling dude in Afghanistan training large groups of people that had plenty of enemy combatants embedded in these training sessions. Oh, but I was supposed to feel good because the Air Force implemented a guardian angel program where I’d have one other random military person assigned to watch my back while these guys are handling weapons. And the president had a mass drawdown of the military in that area from 10s of thousands to 600. Those kinds of vacuums are great at getting people killed off by local hostiles. Remember, I led a school on this kind of stuff. I knew what would happen. Think I’m overexaggerating? Look at what happened to Kabul when the US pulled out. I pretty much stopped watching the news and disconnected from all things military after that. Anyway, I talked it over with my Army “supervisor” via dotted line and took the payout. No sarcasm here, he was a nice guy and smart enough that he looked into my background with his connections and said some encouraging F words about my leaders. So I signed my documents to take the pay and get out. The Army supervisor said that he’d do the same thing but man there was a pucker factor surrounding this because I was dealing with the end of my first marriage due to my ex’s mental health and I knew I had to deal with being in front of the leaders that sent me to Afghanistan in a few days. Needless to say, I was blacklisted as soon as I got back and my wife at the time was in complete melt down mode. I feel it is safe to say that my out-processing of the Air Force was one that went down in history. All of my peers heard what went down. I say all of this because I literally started off my civilian life with no connections because I was blacklisted, I immediately lost my house and child in the initial proceedings of the divorce that drug-out over 5 years and my father passed away within a few months after leaving the Air Force. The silver lining was that I immediately lost my house so I had to move in with my parents. Which meant that I got to spend a lot of time with my dad during that time which I’m grateful for.
Tell us about your business:
I was lost. I knew I wanted to change my career, but I didn't know how to get started. So, I found myself at church, surrounded by a demographic much older than my own, asking questions and looking for guidance. It was there that I found new friends and mentors who led me to a path of self-discovery and learning.
I knew I needed experience, so I took on job after job, from Amazon to a startup with no funding, diving into video editing, airport international logistics, consulting and SaaS. I learned quickly that connections and soft skills often led people to higher positions, rather than actual abilities. It was time for me to out grind the competition.
I could see that mental health professionals on the ground weren't getting the compensation they deserved, and the big businesses were profiting, making it hard for patients to afford therapy. I was passionate about making a change but wasn't sure how to approach it.
Then, my ex-sister-in-law introduced me to the idea of therapy. I eventually came up with therapy and Wi-Fi combined, and Thera-fi was born. After doing some research, this was just beginning because therapy over the internet was a very unpopular idea by therapists and for that matter, so was a guy starting it with no medical license. Starting from scratch was tough, and I wore all the hats for months, dedicating time before and after my full-time job to make Thera-fi a reality. But it wasn't just about making money. I had two sets of customers: the clients themselves and my employees. I wanted to attract and keep top-notch employees by making sure the business protects them. Mental health therapy isn't easy, and burnout rates are high, so I created a work culture that supports and motivates each other.
Our clients vary, and we serve every age. Our approach is to create a safe space for people to express themselves and get the help they need. We offer counseling and coaching services, and while we do serve people with anxiety, depression, and trauma, our goal is to help anyone we can. Mental health is just as important as physical health, exercise it often and you can prevent many physical and mental problems in the future. At Thera-fi, we're committed to creating a new model for mental health counseling that prioritizes employees and clients alike. It hasn't been an easy journey, but it's been a meaningful one, and we're just getting started.
Describe how you got the business started:
Let me tell you the wild ride I went on from having an idea, to launching my online therapy business. It only took me eight months from start to finish - a relatively short time. The cost to start was also pretty low - just a few hundred dollars, really a drop in the bucket. At first, I thought the hard part was over once I went live, but boy was I wrong. The expenses just kept adding up as I continued to invest heavily in the business. In just two months, I spent about $14,000. Regardless, I was happy knowing that I didn't spend nearly as much as some others in the industry who easily spent over $60,000 to $148,000 to get started.
To make sure that my business was completely legal, I did a ton of research. Checking with the state and a licensing board were the most important to get in touch with, so I worked closely with them to make sure everything was properly registered, and that taxes and workers comp were all in check. I even went to the library to see if they had any resources to offer, and lo and behold, they did. I went ahead and signed up for a course they had on how to set up your business and ended up learning a couple of things that I didn't know before. There were also social media profiles to set up and online presence to be established.
The journey to get to my first client was not easy. It took months and months to get any traction. I upgraded everything bit by bit, piece by piece, until we gained visibility and initiated SEO. Then, it was all about improving the game even more. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. Now, I've gained an above average understanding of SEO and SEM. And the thing is, if you're looking to start your own therapy business or any business, there are resources out there. You just need to be diligent in your research. Because trust me when I say, the hard work, dedication and perseverance truly pays off.
When getting started, our first client came from an online source - and boy were we happy to see them! To bring in even more clients, I built out some strong funnels and made some adjustments. Slowly but surely, we went from just one client to a small trickle. I've heard some claims from others in the industry about getting clients in just a week or two, but let me tell you, that's not the reality for most of us. Online marketing can be expensive and difficult to navigate. So be wary of those who want to sell you their program or generic information on clients without any real results to back it up. Google already released countless times that it takes about 90 days to start seeing SEO take place and you won’t get big results until years in so if someone claims that they can guarantee big results in 30 days or less just know, if they haven’t truly reviewed your web presence, then they just plan on taking your money.
Here's a tip that I learned along the way - search engines see having a physical location as a huge advantage, so those who operate solely online get penalized in rankings. Who knew not having an office could be seen as a scam! Even still, I don't have any regrets. The process taught me so much and it was far from easy to get those first clients. Who knows how long it would have been before I would have started digging deeper into marketing strategies without going through that struggle? The truth is, it takes hard work and time to build up any successful business, but with determination and perseverance, it's possible.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
I'll be honest, my journey to becoming an entrepreneur started because I was fed up with the whole corporate world. I had given my all to the Air Force, followed all the rules, and expected a fair share of the rewards. But every time it was my turn to reap the benefits, the game changed. It was disheartening to realize that my future was in the hands of people who didn't care about me as an individual - I was just a number to them. And it wasn't just the Air Force, I saw it happen time and time again in big businesses where I worked. Senior developers getting let go right before retirement, VPs being shown the door during mergers and acquisitions - it seemed like no one's job was safe. In fact, I even received the ultimatum myself (twice!) since leaving the Air Force.
That's when I knew I had to make a change. I believed in my abilities enough to bet on myself, rather than putting my livelihood in the hands of people who couldn't even manage their staff properly. And you know what? I noticed something interesting - this lack of security and loyalty wasn't as prevalent in self-funded startups. Sure, they may not have had a lot of money, but once they figured out their business formula, they could truly take off.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against corporate jobs entirely. There are some truly amazing corporate businesses out there. But the thought of spending 20 years at a company, expecting to retire, only to be unceremoniously booted at the last minute? No thanks! And government jobs? Forget about it. I'm not a fan of a system where everyone gets paid the same regardless of their performance. I thrive on competition and creativity, and those things just don't seem to exist in government jobs.
Amid all my frustrations, I had one shining example of entrepreneurship in my life - my pseudo-sibling who owns a hair salon. She didn't have much advice for me, except to go for it and enjoy the freedom. She also didn't shy away from explaining the downsides of being your own boss. But overall, her success made me believe that becoming an entrepreneur was an achievable endeavor. I was ready to take that leap and experience life on my own terms.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
Let me tell you, my time in the military was an adventure. I learned a ton of skills that I never thought would be so transferable to the civilian world. First off, leadership - I saw both the good and the bad sides of it. Some of the senior enlisted and officers really tried to make a positive impact and cared about personal and professional growth. That's a lesson I try to keep in mind in everything I do.
But let's talk about something a little more interesting - personal budgeting. You won't believe this, but the Air Force managed to mess up my pay for a whopping 18 months! Can you imagine getting paychecks for 60 cents? Yeah, that was me. And you know what their solution was? They had me go to a pay cage and take out cash for each pay period. I felt like I was living in a different era, let me tell you. I actually became the "poorest LT" on the entire base. It was quite the experience. But hey, it made me really mindful of my funds and taught me the value of a dollar. Though I have to admit, I did ask to deploy because, hey, living in a tent in the desert seemed like a better lifestyle than being so poor that I couldn’t afford furniture, rent, or to pay my school loans.!
Now, onto the skills I gained. I was put in charge of training and resources, so I learned how to train people and budget for a few hundred employees. And get this - I was the youngest officer in my squadron and our graduating class! I had to prove myself, and the senior officers and enlisted leaders had a challenge for me. They said, "If you want to impress us and do cool things, learn the job inside out." They handed me a stack of job knowledge books and Air Force Instructions and said, "When you're ready, we'll test you on it." And let me tell you, that's when I truly learned how to study. I dove deep into understanding our operations and even did some competitor research. Those skills were so transferable, it's unbelievable!
Oh, and Lean Six Sigma? Yeah, I got a huge taste of that too. The Air Force started downsizing budgets, people, and processes, and I ended up working on projects to make processes more efficient. It was like a crash course in streamlining operations. And I should mention, as an operations officer, I was in charge of daily operations for all of the security forces. Talk about getting the skills needed to be a manager in the civilian world.
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
But here's the thing, I didn't let any limiting beliefs or mindsets hold me back. I knew I had the upper hand because I had experienced learning a new job every few months - something my civilian peers had never gone through. And yeah, there were definitely financial hardships along the way. I remember we had to upgrade our apartment at a moment's notice when I got custody of my daughter. Medical bills and ongoing legal battles didn't help either. And just when I thought things were getting better, I got laid off from my main job on the same day I announced that we were expecting a baby boy. Talk about bad timing! But you know what? I didn't let that financial strain break me.
Sure, there was a lack of time and knowledge as I was starting from scratch in a civilian career. But hey, slow and steady wins the race. And when it comes to SEO, I quickly realized that consistent content creation and picking a good strategy were key. It's a lot to juggle, but I'm up for the challenge. After all, my military experience taught me to grind through obstacles and overcome whatever comes my way. And I'm ready to take that mindset and conquer the business world.
Let me tell you, the SEO world can be a wild ride. I've seen countless self-proclaimed gurus just regurgitate other people's content. But after some extensive online searching, I finally found a few solid creators who specialize in specific aspects of SEO. These niche experts don't deviate and try to talk about all things SEO. And let me tell you, once I started following their channels, I saw our stats climb up!
Not only did I learn from these experts, but I also experimented and applied their processes to different aspects of SEO. And you know what? It worked! The areas I focused on grew, and I was ecstatic. But here's the thing I realized - without a specific location, search engines automatically ranked us lower than other businesses in the same space. It was a major setback, but I didn't let it discourage me. I knew I had the education and experience, probably more than most civilians, with my advanced degree and a massive list of certifications. So I rolled up my sleeves and embraced the fact that SEO evolves daily, and we are at the mercy of search engine platforms, especially mighty Google, who makes numerous changes every single day. It's a constant battle to keep up, but hey, that's the name of the game. It's like trying to hit a moving target!
But even with all the training and support from friends and family, I couldn't find anyone who had the secret sauce behind SEO. It's uncharted territory, my friend, and I'm blazing a trail. There were moments when people probably thought I should just drop it and get a job, but I didn't hear any of it. I was determined to make this work.
Describe how you're doing today and what the future looks like:
One of my top goals and priorities is to continually grow our SEO presence. The better we look online to search engines; the more people will see us and make informed decisions about whether they want to use our services. We've got an amazing team and we don't overcharge our clients, so once the word is out, I believe we'll start to grow at a faster rate. Of course, that means we'll be under a lot of pressure, but hey, pressure makes diamonds, right?
To handle the growth, we'll need to bring on more quality clinicians. And let me tell you, finding the right people takes time. I'm not about rushing the process or scaling for a quick cash grab. I want to build a team that I can work with for decades to come. Now, when it comes to revenue, it's a bit of an estimate. We started with one client in 2023, and now we have around 40 and turn quite a few away because it just wouldn’t be the right fit for the client and the clinician. Some clients are sporadic, some come weekly, and others may never return. But here's the crazy part - even during the slowest time of the year, we're busier than ever. That's how I know we're on the right track. I never envisioned having to turn so many clients away and by turning them away, I mean we refer them to other clinical practices that we believe may be a better fit for them.
Finding the right clinicians has been a challenge, especially when using job boards. I either encounter people who aren’t legally qualified or are qualified but have horrible bedside manners. So, I changed my strategy and started targeting potential hires through LinkedIn and good old-fashioned word of mouth. It's a slower process, but it allows me to handpick each candidate and ensure their success. And let me tell you, I'm not just the CEO, but also the HR department. I make sure they have everything they need to thrive.
As we continue to expand, there's a laundry list of things to do. We need to expand our website, revamp SEO for all our channels, add more phone lines and emails, update insurance, review policies, and handle the bureaucratic side of things like the Bureau of Workers Comp and payroll. And you know what's in my long-term vision? Eventually, I want to offer a brick-and-mortar site for the therapists who prefer an office setting. Some therapies are more effective in person and certain clients prefer a physical office. But that's down the road. I'll continue to support remote therapists who thrive in that environment.
Unlike those big-name places that just want to make a profit off of you, we're putting all of our money toward our dedicated staff and business operations. And let's be real, those mental health professionals who make $30k-$70k a month? They're undercutting their own staff and clinicians to do it. But I have a plan to change that. Let's recruit their talented professionals, give them the support and appreciation they deserve, and show the industry that treating people well is the key to success.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
But what about marketing, you say? Don't be fooled by gimmicky strategies that can't deliver. As someone who's been around the block, I know that what works in theory might not work in the real world. That's why it's so important to find marketers you can speak with, who can give you a realistic and effective approach to building your business. Not sure where to start your marketing efforts without a big budget? YouTube content creators who focus on one area can be a great source of information and guidance. Just remember not to try to memorize everything – take notes and take action! And when you're looking for mentorship, don't fall for big claims and spammy pitches. Authentic one-on-one mentorship is out there, and LinkedIn is a great place to start. Just remember to stay true to yourself and seek out the voices that sound legit rather than the loudest. With the right approach, you can build your business on quality and support – no gimmicks necessary!
Here's my advice for conducting effective research, but with an informative and entertaining twist:
Putting Together a Bulletproof Business Plan
Step 1: Draft a Business Plan
Put your ideas, goals, and strategies together in a solid business plan. Imagine it as your battle plan for success!
Step 2: Get Ready for the Fire
Now, it's time to play a game called "Shoot Holes in My Plan." Give your business plan to someone you trust and ask them to critique it ruthlessly. Redo it, make it more specific, and sturdy enough to withstand any challenge.
Step 3: Keep it Simple, Soldier
Your business plan should make sense and be simple enough for anyone to understand. Remember, complicated plans tend to fall apart in the heat of battle.
Forget About Paying for Generic Business Plans
Don't waste your hard-earned cash on generic business plans. Those so-called experts will just plug your info into some software program and poop out a useless, one-size-fits-all document. You deserve better!
Visit Your Local Library and Conquer Information
Deploy to your local library like a reconnaissance mission. Call ahead to let the librarians know you're on a mission to start a business and need resources. Many libraries have incredible business centers waiting to be explored. This hidden treasure trove is the cheapest access to resources you'll ever find!
The Superhero Librarian Will Show You the Way
Engage the superhero librarian on a quest for knowledge. They'll guide you on how to sign up for FREE business training, which is like finding a legendary mentor. These classes won't be as exciting as a Marvel movie, but they'll show you the exact steps to set up your business, plan, target clients, handle taxes, and even secure credit or investors!
Reinvent Yourself: The Power of Being a Civilian
In the military, you had a narrow career path, but as a civilian, you can be a master of reinvention. Discover new interests and charge through them like a boss. Every day, work on your business like it's part of your standard operating procedure. The most successful entrepreneurs make it a non-negotiable part of their daily routine.
Don't Sweat the Lack of a Fancy Degree
Don't worry if you didn't attend marketing school or whatever fancy institute. Theory is just theory. Those who went to school for their field know they often lack practical knowledge. You've got this!
The Truth Behind Books and Textbooks
Now, let's burst the bubble about books. They're created to be sold and generate buzz. Authors spice them up with keywords, phrases, and sensationalism to sell as many copies as possible. Those textbooks? They're no different. They're packed with sales pitches disguised as educational content. But hey, reading is still good. Just keep in mind that SEO is crucial for your website. Your web host and platform play important roles. Your website needs speed, SEO, and a killer design that impresses your clients.
Mastering SEO: Secrets of the Search Engine Jungle
Ready for some SEO adventures? Start by using your preferred search engine (cough, Google) and search for your business niche. See those "sponsored" businesses at the top? They paid for those spots and conquered the realms of SEM and SEO. Scroll down, and you'll find the "map pack" showing local SEO. That's right, local SEO is a niche marketing field where you can dominate.
Keep scrolling down to explore organic SEO. It's a free way to spy on your competitors. If you're scratching your head, wondering how to interpret all this, fear not! There are plenty of free YouTube channels that can teach you the ways of SEO. No need to pay anyone just yet. Remember, SEO changes like a chameleon changes colors, so paying someone again and again for adjustments is a no-go. Literally, if Google were to write a book on how to use Google SEM, it would be outdated by the time it was published since it makes anywhere from 8-20 changes a day. Just follow Google’s free training which is some simple reading, and you’ll know the latest processes.
Utilize Your Superpowered Google Tools
Tap into the incredible superpowers of Google. Use free tools like Google Search, Google Search Console, Google Ads, and Google Analytics. These will give you valuable insights and recommendations. But wait, there's more! Your chosen website platform will also provide analytics and SEO suggestions. If you're brave enough, get certified in your chosen platform and search engine for SEM. Become the superhero marketer you were destined to be! It is free after all.
This is just the tip of the iceberg! Don't forget about phone lines, email, chats, accounting, taxes, and payroll. Remember, with the right research, strategy, and daily effort, you'll conquer the business battlefield like a true hero. To grow, you’ll need to know the basics and figure out what you want to hold onto as your responsibility and what you can farm out to someone else. Good luck, soldier!
Where can we go to learn more: