written by Jen Valu
First and foremost, speaking on behalf of all of your patients and families who love SSP so much, you are literally an extension of our families and we are SO THANKFUL of all of your efforts to stay afloat in this crisis. We would be lost without you. Thank you for your persistence, your insatiable will and determination to fight for what’s right, your ability to conquer what must have felt totally impossible and total and complete transparency throughout this situation as everything unfolded. We have been right there next to you this entire time. And you did all of this while homeschooling your ten year old daughter.
Would you like to tell us how you did it, how you were able to make the impossible possible and get through this without the initial financial support of the government protection payroll program?
Matteo: Going back to transparency, that was a big moment. We firmly believe in transparency and making everybody part of the decision. A lot comes with transparency , it’s a big risk. The day we decided to go public about the situation - we realized we have 2 avenues we could take. One is that we could pretend that nothing was happening, when we saw troubling signs at the end of March. We could have decided to either forget about reality and tell employees “don’t worry about it - we’ve got it, no worries” and tell our patients “no worries, you will have a place to go to while this is happening”, but it was not the reality. We decided to stick to our core values and decided to be transparent. This implicated risks that come with that.
What was the response to the video you posted on social media, in which you were able to share the truths about what was happening at SSP and the financial crisis you were in?
Matteo: The day I put that video on youtube, so that it’s available to everybody - both patients and those who are not patients, searchable for everyone to show the reality of small businesses in this situation - this was the beginning of the lowest moments for us. We honestly didn't know what was going to happen, but we knew we were going to put people first and patients first. We were going to put all of the money left into the people, and when we’re done - we’re done. Meaning that if we failed, if we ran out of money at least we could say we tried our best and did what is right to do. Provide a service to our patients, which we are still responsible for, and provide for the families of our employees who don’t need added stress to this pandemic. When I posted this video, I knew it was very risky to be that transparent. What I was expecting was a storm of emails about questions such as “Why? I need my records, I need a new pediatrician”.
So I decided to put myself on Instagram Live everyday at 6pm to answer questions. I was expecting to be attacked, to be put down….I was expecting people to come on and say “how can you do this, how can you not find a way - you are a pediatrician’s office, you should be fine”, with the assumption that doctors never have financial problems. Instead the opposite happened. We received emails of support, love and concern saying “I can’t sleep at night, we need to find a solution - I need you to be OK”. The 6pm live Instagram started as a way to answer questions, and it ended up being a brainstorming event with the whole community. And the community said “This is what you should do, you should start a gofundme, here are links to financial institutions that were successful with the first round”. It became a moment that changed from me answering questions, to us listening to the community. The community letting us know how we could fix it, sharing their ideas and they wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen. That’s when we realized - all the work we put into building a community from day one, even when we were called crazy from our colleagues and people in the industry - we were not making a huge profit but instead reinvesting in building a community, taking care of our employees with the ability to give employees special rewards, education and benefits and now our community is now coming back and telling us “You are not going anywhere”.
Dr. Cao: You know it would have been much easier for us on a personal level for us just to freeze, to shutter up and freeze the schedule and leave town, but the love that they gave us really motivated us to keep working on going. The dedication on the other side - from the staff and our colleagues who were responsible for giving me a good attitude during all of this. When you walk in and Tara is at the front desk saying “Let’s make this day happen”. A lot of what came from the Gofundme for me is that we had no choice but to continue and be motivated to find a way out of this mess.
Matteo: To be clear, the Gofundme was an idea from the community, they wanted us to do it. When it was first brought up on Instagram one night and I immediately told the community that we feel awkward - we want to work to earn the money to pay our employees, it is our responsibility to pay the employees, not our community - and they did not want to hear that. They simply told us “That's not the way you should think, not in this situation, we want to”.
Dr. Cao: It was very humbling, deciding to do something like that put ourselves in a very vulnerable situation but the love we got and overshot our goals by far...it was really inspiring.
Since then, the SSP community has purchased the team lunches on several occasions to help make it through this rough patch. How has this outpouring of love made you feel?
Dr. Cao: As far as the lunches, there is something to be said about how we all relate to expressing concern and care in food, there is definitely something comforting about that. Before we were in crisis I was always buying lunch on Friday for the staff to show my appreciation and have time to sit together. I actually cooked comfort food- I actually made mac and cheese once, Dr. Acosta also cooked for us, her mother has cooked for us. Having the meals delivered and catered from the families -we think of them in general, but it was nice to know they were thinking of us.
Matteo: I receive at least two requests a week from families wanting to cover our lunches. It's about the gesture, it’s not about lunch, it's about “we are thinking of you, want to take care of you”. What that does is, it reminds us that we know we are supported - which is a huge deal in this situation. A phone call came in from a doctor’s office in Wyoming who found us online, and started following us. They are in the exact same situation but it's a little different for them because they just now realized how important community is.
Dr. Cao: When you set out to build and establish a business it’s not always the focus. For us, it definitely was the focus and reason I stepped away from a job at a bigger, more stable place.
Matteo: The lunches are also a way for us to sit together and just let it out, touch base. At the very beginning, even during this pandemic we tried to keep Friday lunches, even when families weren’t coming to buy lunches because it's an important moment for us. During those first Fridays instead of laughter, gossip, silly jokes…
Dr. Cao: It was pretty gloomy...at that time we were dealing with Carolina’s sick mother and Carolina was stuck, Lorraine was ill, and Denise’s family was ill…
Matteo: And we went from a team of 13 to a team of 5 within 72 hours. Plus, our daughter had no other option but to come to work during this pandemic and figure out her own learning. We didn’t have time, phones were ringing like crazy, patients needed to be seen, we didn’t have time to sit with her and help her.
Is everyone ok now?
Matteo: Lorraine's family is now ok, it has now been a few weeks. Carolina’s mom recovered, it’s a miracle, because statistics would say otherwise. She just came back last week. Unfortunately Denise's brother passed away. It’s so hard for her to focus, and she’s taking a week off. She might take a couple of days off in the future, I mean I can’t even imagine.
How do you think this has changed you, as individuals and as owners of a private practice?
Matteo: It's a great learning moment. First of all, you realize who your supporters are and you learn as a team leader that transparency is everything with the consequences that it brings. That’s how we have always done it, and that solidifies it. That's exactly how we operate and that’s exactly how we go on. As a team leader it reinforces the idea that there is a natural selection. Some situations are too hard for some people and there’s nothing you can do but listen and be supportive of their decisions. We lost a member of the team to this as they couldn't deal with the stress and we had to say goodbye. And that’s absolutely OK. Moving forward having almost been out of the game financially has not changed the idea that we will keep investing in the community, even though we are not out of the gate financially. We will keep investing in the community and in our people, our team. That is still the priority. Profit means nothing to us. Dr. Cao, who is the owner….8 years into it, has never cashed a profit share at the end of the fiscal year. He’s put everything back into the business. Every single year.
Dr. Cao: It’s not about the number, when we first started the practice I didn’t take a paycheck for the first 6 months. Slowly I started getting paid. During the Covid19 crisis I’ve been working sometimes 6 days a week, because newborns need to be accommodated for, since they are discharging early from the hospital and I'm getting half my paycheck while working more than I normally do. It’s definitely not about the money. The reason we work hard is so we maintain our accountability for our clients because people need medical guidance and we can provide our staff with a job to support their families. Kids need to be vaccinated, and there's a sharp decline… The AAP just put out statistics of immunizations in March, April and May. It dipped - it went over a cliff essentially. So, I’m afraid that we’re going to have a second wave of vaccine preventable diseases which is a huge insult to injury at this point.
Matteo: From a business point of view, SSP has always been about giving the best experience possible to everyone. Whether that is a customer or a team member or 3rd party vendor, that is our goal. Now that we’re in this pandemic- even when we were a team of 5, although struggling to do so - we tried to give that same kind of experience. We learned we don’t need a team of two thousand to get things done. I was personally working 4 jobs while trying to save the company from disaster. Things needed to get done. I realized I was in pain while I was doing it, I was on the verge of crying - I had panic attacks while at work, and they manifested physically. And then I had the five people there telling me “You know what we’re going to do? We’re just going to do it”. When I was ready to just give up. That shows that not only what we can achieve with five, but now when we have twelve - we can do even better than what we were doing before.
Although we are clearly not out of the woods yet, you have certainly navigated through what is hopefully the most difficult period. What and who are you most thankful for now and what do you want the SSP community to know?
Matteo: We can promise that they will always know what's up, that if we need a moment because we can’t catch up with things to do, we will let them know. That our goal is to add value to this crazy journey we are all on as parents and that’s why we’re trying to convert our free classes to virtual, and do more zoom events about anything. We are working on a zoom sleep class, because a lot of kids are having problems. And we’re working on contacting a therapist on zoom to help out with the emotional journey that teens and preteens are going through. It’s apparently hitting them harder than a lot of other ages.
Dr Cao: I also want people to know how much they are appreciated, to know they are the fuel for us, to keep moving forward. Moving forward some things may be changing that are beyond our control but that we are trying to make decisions that will enhance their experience. We appreciate everyone’s flexibility - we’ve had to make weekly changes as this evolves weekly, so we deeply appreciate everyone’s flexibility.