SOS Learning Lab is a Labor of Love
SOS Learning Lab in Traverse City offers educational services for learners with challenges such as ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety and depression. As the local business celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2020, we checked in with the owner and founder Debra Caperton, BS, M.Ed., about making her entrepreneurial dream happen.
What did SOS Learning Lab look like 10 years ago?
It was some doodle scratches on a piece of paper after a trip to the Mayo Clinic with my 14-year-old daughter who had been living with chronic pain (fibromyalgia), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Hypothyroidism, Chronic Migraines, clinical depression and anxiety beginning at the age of 10. She was no longer able to attend school, and I was just trying to keep it together as a single mom and special education teacher who had moved from Arizona back to Michigan hoping a small town, less stress and fresh air would help her.
It did not, which is how we landed at Mayo. All the things they wanted me to do for her couldn't happen with a full-time teaching job, which I loved, so this was my solution. Start a tutoring business so I could work from home, decide my schedule and give her what she needed, and still be able to do what I love and what I am meant to do which is teach.
The doodling was the acronym (S O S) Skills, Organization, Strategies—that was my special education and school guidance counseling background kicking in. I asked myself, what could I put out there with my experience and credentials that set me apart from other tutors? What did I bring to the table that no one else in the area had to offer?
What does the business look like today?
Oh my gosh, so much has evolved in the last 10 years, it's hard to put into words. Currently, we are now an S-Corporation, Sole Proprietorship. I have four full-time employees (three certified teachers, myself included, and one administrative specialist), 3 part-time employees (two assistants, one teacher), and two sub-contractors (teachers). Since opening a small, one-room location in 2014, we now have four spaces total (at the same location) that give us the capacity for various programs.
I started with just tutoring on my radar and quickly realized I brought an educational consultant aspect to the table and added that to my services the first year I was open (working out of my home at that time). We now offer many programs: consulting, tutoring in specific subjects and basic skill building.
Because of my daughter, we have really evolved into a company that supports primarily people with disabilities, especially the invisible ones. I get to use my school guidance counseling and special education degrees combined, which has been such a blessing!
Your daughter's needs inspired you to start the business. How has SOS helped her?
Carlee and I together through this have learned so much about our own personal trauma. I am a domestic violence survivor and her childhood was a product of those circumstances. She has guided me, and I've learned from her knowledge, experiences and challenges. She is so wise and intuitive, which was birthed from survival skills. In the trauma world, we call that resilience.
I think these past 10 years have been a source of healing for both of us. She has helped me to develop a deep understanding of what children go through and how it can affect every aspect of their life. With that knowledge from her, I learned how to connect with other parents, kids and community agencies—our heartache has turned into a gift that has led to healing and the ability to help others.
For Carlee, I think it's given her a sense of purpose and belonging when life wasn't always fair to her. Going down an alternative educational path is never easy for any family. There's a grieving process and we went through that together. SOS helped her see that she was not alone and she gets to tell other kids that they are not alone either. I know that has been very helpful for her and it makes her feel proud. She's the heart of SOS.
How many students have you worked with over the years?
We help students and families in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Kalkaska, Antrim, Benzie and Cadillac. Currently throughout the year, we are serving about 200–250 students ranging from 6 years old up to 35 years old. I would say over these past 10 years it's probably been 1,500–2,000 students total. There is such a prevalent need for educational support, and to be able to support my fellow educators, community partners and families … I honestly never dreamed it would get to this point.
What is one of your proudest moments as a business owner?
There have been so many moments along the way that either sparked an idea to better serve or help a special population. This year has been extra special because I get to grow as a boss, and I get to do it in a way that makes sense for other moms and their kids. I get to make my own rules on how to be a good leader.
Another thing I'm proud of is the down-to-earth atmosphere we have built. All of our decor is either from Craigslist, second hand or made by us. People feel safe in our environment, and how you feel when you walk into our space has always been very important to me.
I'm also proud that this company has been built through referrals, that tells me we are doing good things and contributing to our community.
How did Venture North help?
When I decided to open a location in 2014, Laura was my person. She helped me get a small loan, connected me with the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and three years later helped with another loan. Laura walked me through so much, including some tears along the way. Anytime there was an opportunity for me to network or showcase, she would call me and say, "Hey Deb, would you like to do this or participate in this?" My answer was always “Yes!” I couldn't afford advertising, so I jumped at the free opportunities any chance I got—she has always given me those kinds of moments, which I am very grateful for.
Debra’s tips for small business owners:
Grow slow and sustainable!
Listen to your gut, your community, your colleagues and your clients.
Your specialty should always conform to a need in the community. If you think your specialty is above/better then you won't make it.
Be humble, honest and giving with your time and your niche. You have to pound the pavement and not expect anything in return, only expect knowledge and that is how you will thrive.
Keep your overhead as low as possible, most people are not impressed with having the most expensive furnishings, technology, materials, website … you want them to be impressed with what service you bring to the table and how you make them feel.
Don't be competitive with other companies that may provide similar services. Think of your "competition" as an ally that you can send a client to if you may not be a good fit.