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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Murphy and Andrew Haha of SensorySwim.com. I loved doing this interview. Mary and Andrew have such positive energy about them.
They co-founded a wonderful business helping teach children with sensory disorders how to swim. And through the promotion of their website they are able to generate more interest than they can handle (it sounds like easily 10 times as much).
Here’s a little of what Mary and Andrew share with you in this interview:
- What they focus on in their website and social media campaigns to generate so much interest in their swim classes.
- How they use Facebook to drive as many as 600 visitors a week to their site.
- What they feel is the pathway to word-of-mouth referrals and excitement from their clients.
There’s a lot more packed in this interview. The thing that really shines through is their love and passion for working with special needs kids and how they’ve been able to turn that into a full-time business spanning across 4 states.
And clearly with all the interest in their swim lessons they have a lot of room to expand the program if they choose to.
Learn how they’ve grown their business and hear their vision for the future of SensorySwim.com in the interview.
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Sensory Swim Interview
Lisa: Hi, everyone. This is Lisa Parmley here, from BusinessBolts.com and today I’m excited to interview Mary Murphy and Andrew Haha, co-founders of Sensory Swim. You can find out more about their business at sensoryswim.com.
I’m just going to go ahead and start asking you questions, if that’s alright.
Mary: That’s fine.
Lisa: Great! I really appreciate you guys coming onto the interview and I know everyone listening also really appreciates it because you guys have a really unique business and you have a lot to offer and I’m sure a lot to share. If you wouldn’t mind, instead of having me babble on about Sensory Swim, maybe you could tell us a little about what it is that you offer?
Andrew: We’re a special needs administering program. We do strictly one on one swim lessons for kids with special needs like autism, cerebral palsy, and the list goes on and on. Basically, if you need swim lessons and you couldn’t function as well in a regular swim school or they didn’t have instructors capable of teaching you how to swim, then we’d step in and take over.
Mary: We also work with the OT’s and the PT’s that the kids’ parents are working with so we make sure that not only do they learn how to swim safely, but we address different issues regarding coordination, motor skills, motor planning, speech, things like that, so we keep it all inclusive.
Andrew: Yeah, we’re all out of the box so there’s nothing we won’t do to get them to swim. We don’t have the same lesson plan for every kid, it’s all individualized. We basically have a ball so that they can get to swimming right away.
Mary: It’s our passion so it’s really fun for us as well as them.
Lisa: Great. I could even tell from your website how much you guys love what you do, which is awesome. For the people listening who aren’t sure what you mean by sensory disorders … I know some children with sensory disorder issues and I know how hard everyday tasks can be, and when you were saying PT’s, I’m assuming you mean physical therapists.
Lisa: It’s actually a pretty big deal because swimming is one of those things that impacts all your senses, so I bet a lot of kids probably have a real hard time getting that life skill. Is that what you found?
Mary: It’s true. A lot of them have coordination issues. Getting the arms to move is fine but then to put the legs with the arms, and a lot of what we do, just like Andrew said, is outside of the box to help them accomplish their goals. It is…I mean, these parents, they put up with a lot and they have to deal with a whole lot with just daily skills. Some kids won’t even take showers because they have a sensitivity of the water. That’s another thing that we work with as far as sensory issues. They won’t put their face under the water when they take a shower or a bath. It really does help with the outside activities as well.
Lisa: Right, yeah. I’m sure it’s a big deal and what you’re doing is amazing. Is it something that you were passionate about and then you decided to start a business? How did it come to be Sensory Swim?
Andrew: Mary was teaching swim lessons in her backyard while she was working for another company that I worked for part time. I did respite care for one of the kids that she was teaching at both of the programs that she was working at, teaching swim lessons in the backyard and doing special needs gymnastics down the street. She said, “Hey, why don’t you come work for me?” and I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” That program was really cool. It was called I Can Do It Too and it was a gymnastics program right down the street. It was really cool. The longer we were there the more we saw that program was being pushed in the back and that those kids weren’t given the attention they needed and there was less and less resources we could use in the gym, that used to be where I was inclusive.
Also, we were able to mingle our kids with the regular kids taking gymnastics and then it was, “Hey, you need to stay in this room and you can only go out to the regular gym these parts,” so it was like, “Mary, I can start this swimming program because I have a marketing background, kind of hiding myself from the back and there’s nothing I can get out there.” I’m kind of a wiz when it comes to stuff like that. She dared me to go ahead and start it and I’m not a big fan of people daring me. I started with 13 kids and we were asked to go and speak to a place called Kennedy Krieger Institute down in Baltimore which is basically a hub of research for special needs and it’s a big special needs school here in Maryland. Some marketing kind of took off and we’d have anywhere from 30 to 60 kids between the two of us all year round.
Lisa: That’s great. What advice would you give to other people who are considering starting a business doing something they love? Even maybe though they might think it might be difficult or not as profitable as something else.
Mary: I would say one of the most things I’m passionate about is when you start a business and when you put your whole heart and soul in, you have to love what you do. People can say that they love this and start a business, but if you really don’t love it, if it’s really not your passion, it’s going to be work and it’s not going to be as successful as if you’re whole-heartedly into it. I speak from the emotional end and from working with the kids and I absolutely love it and I know Andrew does, but I’m going to let him speak about the business part of it because you do have to have a really great balance and you have to have a very sound marketing person behind it all.
Andrew: You also have to think of…Mary was 100% correct when she said if you’re not 100% behind it it’s not going to go anywhere. You can do it for the money and you’re going to fail because I’ve tried to start several other programs and if you’re thinking about the bottom line you’re just going to sink like the Titanic. When you wake up excited to do what you’re doing and you’re like, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get in the pool,” you just live and breathe it. You just do it and it becomes second nature. You can talk more passionately about it. If you’re not an MMA fighter and you try to teach MMA, people are going to realize you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Lisa: Both of you actually do the swim lessons and you probably, like you said, wake up every morning excited because you follow the kids and see their progress and actually taught somebody how to swim.
Andrew: Yeah, I’m really excited about this program because I can sleep past noon — because it’s mostly — now. That was one of the biggest things. My mother is a special educator and my father has his own business so I wanted to kind of mix the two where I could be entrepreneur and a teacher at the same time and it has worked out “fabswimmingly.”
Mary: I do look forward to teaching, I do have medical background. I have a medical job during the day but I’m going to be…basically, because this is taking off so much, it’s just a part of me that works with these special needs children, so I do home care as well and that’s what I’m going to pursue. I’ll keep doing the respite care.
We wake up excited about what we do because parents will stay in touch. They’ll send us pictures and videos of, “Oh, wow, little someones,” who actually got in the water whereas we might not have been able to get him in the door to the pool the first time around. It’s very rewarding.
Lisa: That’s really great. I imagine being that excited. The thing that you’re doing is so wonderful, I know. I’m sure the parents really appreciate it.
I was thinking that with this business, it doesn’t need to grow just to grow and get bigger so that you guys make more money or anything, but it would be a shame if it doesn’t grow. The service that you’re providing is such a wonderful one so I’d like to see it get bigger because I know you were in, I think, only three or four cities around Washington DC?
Andrew: Four states, yes. We’re in Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. We’re a mobile program so there’s nowhere we can’t go. It’s just there’s only two of us. A lot of people will have this misconception that there are hundreds of teachers or hundreds of satellites or locations. It’s just we like to travel and if we can go to Hawaii and teach while we’re there, we’re all about it.
Lisa: Have you thought about maybe being the trainers and then hiring other people who have the right passion so that they could still give the excellent service you provide to other kids in your program?
Andrew: To tell you the truth, we’ve had three or four people work underneath of us and it didn’t work out because of reliability and stuff like that. When it comes down to it we can’t really vouch for anybody else, even if we train them. In the end, it’s not really something you can train because each individual student is all about passion so I can’t say I can put together a curriculum and it will work because it probably wouldn’t. I know that if there are other special educators out there…we have people who visit our website from all over the country and all over the world, wanting to do this. We could find people passionate enough to do it and we’d be more than happy just to send them referrals and say, “Hey, this kid needs swim lessons and we can’t travel 1600 miles for a free meal,” you know. I don’t think it’s going to get to a point where we’d train anybody. I’ve been thinking about franchising it and I just don’t think it will work and I don’t think I’d feel comfortable just taking something we worked so hard for and just kind of like giving it up.
Mary: That basically says it all but when I ran the sensorymotor gym, some people look great on paper. I mean, they’ve got this certification and that certification and hours of special education training, but when you actually see them with the kids and see how they relate to the kids, that’s the key. We haven’t found, we know some people, but we just haven’t found people that we would trust enough. That’s how seriously we take this.
Andrew: It always goes back to, just because you have a college degree doesn’t mean you’re a good person, because you know a lot of people could be good with it but just don’t have the patience and patience is – I grew up with two sisters – so I kind of have the patient ingredient in me.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s the kind of patience you’re talking about.
Andrew: Then I worked as a Christ’s intervention specialist for the state of Maryland and I thrive under pressure so when a kid who has autism can’t speak and is smacking me in the face, like I know there’s going to be a light at the end of it where other people would just kind of say, “Hey, this isn’t for me.”
Mary: Yeah, that’s true. I’m a mom and…well, that says enough.
Lisa: Maybe in the future you’d find somebody who might make you change your mind, but I definitely understand the business you started is kind of like another baby for you and you don’t want it getting messed up just because you don’t hire someone who’s really going to follow through. I can definitely see that. I know there are a lot of small business owners who are kind of in the same boat, where they are really afraid to hire and can’t grow their business, which is absolutely fine. I was just thinking, since the service that you provide is such a wonderful thing I was kind of wishing there was a way for you to expand, if you were up for that.
Mary: That’s true. We may, in the future, run into the people that may or may not have their certifications and this and that but have the passion and they’ll come across our path and we just kind feel like, God will put them there if they’re meant to be there and they’ll be the perfect fit. We’re open to that. We’re not close-minded to it at all. It’s just our experience in the past. We’ve seen where things look great on paper but you put the person with that child and…
Andrew: Maybe if we’re lucky after this interview. It’s funny because we have a YouTube channel and we’ve got to 20,000 views and have no idea how that happened. I just re-optimized it for different words and we get all these views. I’m freaking out because we’re in our baby stage and these people and these people are watching and are kind of eager. I’m thinking maybe after the second year, maybe Harvard or one of these science labs about possibly duplicating us, because I think that would be awesome. We’re up for cloning.
Lisa: Well, I’m sure if you put together, like you said it would be hard to do a curriculum, but I bet there are things that you could pull out of just what you do, what you know. Maybe it’s instinctive, it’s more of an instinctive thing to you, but maybe you could pull it out and help train other people so that you could bring it to other states that aren’t a 200 mile drive for you.
Andrew: We could sum that up with “use less of what’s in your head and more of what’s in your heart.” There is no wrong way when you start that way. This is a ministry arm for us so it didn’t start off as a business. It’s a business because it has to be that way, to keep on growing, but other than that it’s just getting up everyday, doing what you love, be able to pay your bills that way, and buy the pizza’s.
Lisa: Yeah, and that’s great. You definitely don’t have to grow it, I just mentioned it because it’s such a wonderful program. It would be awesome if it did grow.
Mary: It is needed.
Andrew: We could somehow help people start programs similar to this or again refer swim instructors, refer students to swim instructors who are willing to teach special needs, we’re all for it. Like I said, we’re getting probably anywhere from 200 to 400 enrollment forms a month coming from all over the country, maybe ten of them are from Maryland or 15 of them from Pennsylvania, but other than that, we’ve ranked number one for special needs swim lessons. Let me just pat you on the back.
Mary: It’s true, it’s needed.
Andrew: From an SEO oversight or when it came down to that, I knew we did special needs swim lessons and for me it wasn’t, “Hey, let’s target this to Maryland.” This is what we do so damn and it just happened to work its way up to where it’s kind of gigantic. It kind of runs off now and we couldn’t be happier.
Lisa: That’s great. I’m a little shocked, though, that there are 190 or so people who would probably like it, but they’re in different states.
Mary: That’s hard. When I talk to the parents and they find out, schedule wise, that we can’t be everywhere at once, and time wise and they’re on a waiting list which is pretty big right now. It does. It hurts because there are kids out there that this is a life or death issue and it’s also, like I said, a daily issue, where they won’t put their head under shower and it’s a big struggle for the parents for just the activities of daily living to get through each day and if we could be there. Even aside from aside from the swimming, we could be there to coach them on some of the things that worked for us in the water and transfer them into what they can do with their kids to gather activities for daily living. If we could reach them all, we would.
Andrew: A lot of these kids just need friends. They don’t get that in school, their teachers want to be their teachers and I understand that one year in the school setting, because I used to work in a school setting, that you’re strictly a teacher. With this, we’re allowed to be their friends. We’re allowed to have fun. I don’t care what we have to do to get them to learn how to swim. That’s a life and death situation if I have to be goofy and do cannon balls and back flips and hand stands and make awkward monkey noises to get them to do something, then I’m all for it. If I taught this in a school setting I’d end up not being able to do all that.
Mary: I do a lot of animal noises and imitate dolphins. They love it. The boats going by, and “Brrr,” and all that. I just love it…my background is theatre so I get to use everything.
Andrew: They think we’re kookey but we get it done.
Lisa: You guys are almost unclonable then.
Andrew: It’s got to take big money to make it up.
Lisa: If I could switch it back to the website, I know you said you’re ranking number one. I was thinking that a lot of people find out about your program through referrals and word of mouth but actually, what you’re saying is that you get a lot of searches online and a lot of people from different states, I guess, are finding you and they’re finding you from the key phrases that you optimized it for. Is that right, Andrew?
Andrew: Yes. We get a lot for special needs swim lessons and then we’ve just recently started writing articles about swimming and sensory processing disorder and they’ve been treating us extremely well. Mary writes all the articles because I’m very ADHD. Like many internet marketers, I have to bounce back and forth from things. The website has treated us extremely well. We do get a lot of word of mouth. Kennedy Krieger still refers people to us, Pathfinders for Autism which is a small branch of Autism Speaks, Autism resources section here in Maryland, and we get a lot of referrals from them. We just get a lot of referrals from all over the country who will get it from websites that we’ve never heard of or from programs that we’ve never heard of. We’re in the forefront where it comes down to social media, we’re very active in social media – Facebook, twitter, YouTube. We just do things…I can look at other people’s websites and what they’re doing and I’ll do things completely different, just not to be like everybody else. That seems to be working out extremely well.
Lisa: I was going to ask about that, because I noticed you do have Facebook, twitter, and YouTube pages. I know you said you get a lot of traffic to the YouTube videos. Are Facebook and twitter are working out to bringing more attention to your site and to what you do?
Andrew: Beside the re-tweets we get on Twitter, Twitter doesn’t really do anything for us. For twitter, I just basically set up a Google alerts and set my phrases for “special needs, autism, Asperger’s syndromes, stuff like that. You just kind of catch what’s going on out and about in cyber space and then post that. I don’t really see anything from Twitter over to our website. The same thing with YouTube. We don’t have many hits coming from the website. However, Facebook is a killer. We’ve been on Facebook for a long time. I wouldn’t know what long time constitutes. I will just take them back to my music days when I was on pure volume before My Space was even around. I’ve been online for a long time so I just catch what I can with Facebook. I’d say we have close to 600 or 700 visitors on Facebook a week.
Mary: We have a lot of great Facebook fans.
Andrew: I know and a lot of them turn. It’s got that viral effect. We have a profile page and we also have a life page. I get more out of the profile page than the white page. I think the white page is more like a yellow page ad. It’s not personal so you can’t really interact as much, but then again when they life our page, it goes to all their friends. That’s how people find out that way. Facebook has a high return for us. I just recently started doing Facebook ads, just to send people over the website or people who haven’t seen it before. I don’t get very many clicks for the Facebook ad. Just the Facebook account gets most of our swim students to us.
Lisa: Great, that and probably the high rankings that you have.
Andrew: Yeah, that never hurts.
Lisa: That’s great. That’s awesome you’re getting that much traffic just from Facebook. I know there are a lot of companies who are not sure if they should start a Facebook page and manage it because it’s just something else to update but that’s awesome then, if you’re saying you’re getting about 600 visitors a week. Was that what you said from Facebook?
Mary: Yes. It’s well worth it. For the small businesses, no matter what the business is, it’s well worth it, because people are just drawn to it. They try to stay in touch with family and friends, so there they are. If the business is right there in front of them and they don’t have to go out of their way, it’s definitely worth it.
Andrew: You have to play it right. There are a lot of businesses that I follow on Facebook that I just take off because they annoy me because they’re all about me, me, me. We do some completely different things where it’s not about us at all. We’ll do a quote, people will eat up quotes.
Mary: They do.
Andrew: You set up a crazy picture of a kid smiling and that tends to have more results than anything. Every once in a while we’ll say something about one of our students, but it’s not about, “Hey, why don’t you sign up? Why don’t you take swim lessons with us?” We’re at a point now and technically since we began, we’ve always been at a point where it’s all word of mouth, it’s all…we’re not selling the product, we’re selling the service. We’re not really selling the service and we’re not really serving the service because it’s someone’s need.
I did play music for a long time before I did this. I was an ego maniac and coming to recall that now you live and learn but if I would do my music career all over again, I knew that I’d have completely different conversions and I’d sell out anywhere I go because I know I wouldn’t make it about me. I’d make it about my music. If not my music, I’d make it about, let’s say, if I was a folk rock artist, it would be about folk rock not, “Hey I sing folk rock.” You know what I mean?
Lisa: I do. I know exactly what you mean .
Andrew: You remove yourself out of the equation, that completely changes things.
Mary: You guys know what you do or what you’re offering is valuable, so you don’t need to sell it because it just sells itself. Like I said, if you’re having fun with it and it’s a love of yours, people will want it.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s great advice, I think, just making it more about the people that you can serve instead of about you or your company. I’m sure that’s a big tip for a lot of people listening. Can I ask, because you were talking about word of mouth referrals? Do you guys do anything special to get those or just by providing the great service that you provide does that help get the word out? Or from a marketing standpoint are you doing anything to generate…
Mary: We don’t really have to do anything. Parents…especially with the special needs community, it’s the networking, the places that they go, the special schools that their kids attend, they all talk, “Hey, what did you do about this?” They share all the time so a lot of word of mouth from parents, doctors, and pediatricians, things like that. It just happens. We don’t ask anyone to say, “Hey, tell your friends about us,” because if they like us, they naturally will. That’s what people do in life.
Andrew: What we did on the website, we have a recommend form where people could throw in somebody’s email and say, “Hey, could you tell them about your program?” We’d get one or two people doing that that we’ve never even heard of before in our lives and they just happened to land on the website.
The website’s basically all the marketing that we do, if any. We pay for the hosting fee and other than that, I’d say, since 2007 I may or may not have spent 20 bucks marketing this.
Lisa: Wow, and I’m sorry I hadn’t asked how long you have been doing this. You’ve been doing it since 2007, so five years?
Lisa: Wow, that’s great. Can I ask where you see the business going in the next five years? What kind of dreams do you have for it?
Andrew: I see us swimming a lot.
Mary: I see things underwater.
Andrew: We’re thinking about remaking the Little Mermaid.
Mary: I’m just waiting for my hair to grow back.
Lisa: It’ll probably be a little more green by then.
Mary: We see where people will come into our lives that we can trust in different areas and different states where we may be able to work with them for a little bit. And To branch out in different areas where we don’t have to spread ourselves so thin, but we can see there’s a natural passion there, that there’s the desire there, that they have the same goals that we have for these children. I just think within five years, as you were saying, that probably will happen.
Lisa: Yes, I think that would be awesome, because like you said you’re turning away all these people. I don’t think there is anything like what you do here. I live in Colorado and I haven’t heard of it if there is something like it and I’m sure there’s a really huge need here just like anywhere else, so, yeah, that would be great.
Mary: Some of the younger people that we thought had a desire to do this and we did some special needs drama and I did some dancing, things like that. We thought, “Wow, they seem to really have what it takes but the commitment’s not there.” The younger people seemed to have a different work ethic than other people that were very solid in showing up for their job and loving it. it’s hard to find people that are really dedicated but I do believe we will have these people come into our lives.
Andrew: I know that young people are a topic. I’m 27 so when I started this program I was like 22, 21, somewhere around there, I’m not really good at Math, but I’d have people my age come in and – people I know – and they’d still be living with their Mama, with no ambitions, and “Hey, you have these three kids that we need you to teach and it’s from 4:30 to 5:30 on Thursday. As long as you commit for the month, 4:30 to 5:30, you can have that job. It’s not like we didn’t pay them well because we did. It’s just the ambition and reliability is…
Andrew: It’s not even the young kids these days. It’s a lot of people just throw them on the ice. I think we all need hope.
Lisa: Definitely. Well, I hope you guys are able to overcome finding the right people to help you grow, and again, not just so that you can grow your business, but just because, like you said, this is a very highly needed service. I want to thank you guys for doing the interview and thank you for providing the service that you provide. I know how difficult it can be as a parent just to get your children to do things and then to have all the sensory disorders thrown on top of it is really hard. It’s a great thing you’re doing and I hope it continues even if it’s at the rate that you’re doing it now. I’m sure it’s probably even a little reassuring for parents who maybe can’t take you guys up on your service to see that your website exists and to see that the kids are actually able to swim. They just have to keep at it. It’s probably an inspiration even for the people who can’t use your service.
Mary: Our parents love to inspire other parents so that would be really neat if we got some kind of networking thing, maybe even the whole Skype thing, for the parents, because the parents are the best resource for other parents. They try different things at home. If anybody’s listening out there who is a parent of a special needs child, hats off to you because we really do understand the struggle and the challenges that you face each day, and how lovable your kids are. They may not communicate like other children but they need the love, they need the hugs, and you parents, like I said, hats off to you, because you face many things and so many have a lot of grace in doing it. We’ve met wonderful, wonderful people.
Lisa: Yeah, I’m really inspired just listening to you, to build a business around something that you’re so passionate about, that’s awesome. Hopefully for the people listening, this will inspire you as well and if you want to get notified when I put together more interviews like this, just sign up at the BusinessBolts.com website and make sure, everybody, if you want to take a look at what Mary and Andrew are doing, go visit them at sensoryswim.com and their Facebook and YouTube channel. Hopefully, we’ll see more stuff out there in the future – maybe more videos or just a little more about what you guys do on your site – and maybe in the future we’ll see you guys in every state across the country or something. If not, like I said, at least as an inspiration for the parents and the children, that they can do it, too.
Andrew: That’s a call out to you, Harvard. Let’s do this.
Lisa: Well, thank you, guys. I really appreciate your time.
Mary: Thank you very much.