Katherine Wells experienced the communication challenges of the caregiving industry firsthand when her mother was receiving care. Now, she’s solving that problem with Serenity Engage.
Katherine Wells, CEO of Serenity Engage
November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to honor individuals and business owners who help people who require care assistance.
Caregivers may be family members or professionals working in senior living facilities, group homes or medical settings. And even for those receiving professional care, the duty of coordination and communication with the provider usually falls on a loved one. The work, while gratifying, is often physically and emotionally draining for everyone involved.
Katherine Wells is familiar with the life of a caregiver. When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she stepped in. And when her father needed physical assistance, she took care of him as well.
Today Wells is CEO of Serenity Engage, a care coordination platform headquartered in Denver. Before launching the platform in January 2020, she worked as a software marketing executive for 28 years.
Serenity Engage streamlines the communication process, ensuring that everyone involved in a senior’s care is on the same page in real time. The HIPAA-compliant platform connects care providers and loved ones, allowing everyone to communicate and collaborate efficiently. It’s also educational, integrating how-to videos demonstrating things like how to transfer a person into and out of a wheelchair.
The need is great, and it’s increasing every day. “There’s a big demographic shift,” says Wells. “Baby boomers are aging, with 10,000 people in the U.S. turning 65 every day. Adult children usually step into the role of family caregiver or care coordinator, and there are 39 million who are family caregivers today. In the next 15 years, 55 million people will need aging services.”
Until now, the communications processes have been cumbersome and old-fashioned, relying on telephone exchanges. According to Wells, senior care is one of the last industries to be modernized. Many employees are dedicated but low-paid workers who are stretched thin. Meanwhile, family members are trying to keep up with what’s happening, too. The impetus for Wells’s business was to make the process easier for all involved.
“We focus on the family experience,” says Wells. “Relatives can ask for photos and really get a window into treatment, services and activities that are occurring in their loved one’s day.”
Can you describe the beginning of your business?
I am married to a serial entrepreneur who is also a software engineer. After spending three days trying to find out if the doctor had rounded for my mom, I shared the idea of Serenity with my husband, and he developed a prototype for me to see if we could sell it.
It didn’t take long before we had a customer, and then we had to scramble and build the product. I left my job, and soon after, my husband joined full-time, too. Since we were both high earners, giving up our jobs was an expense in itself. We had to figure out how to change the world and pay our bills!
However, I knew that the industry was ripe for change. Everyone in senior care is now investing in technology. They need to automate the tasks that don’t need to be performed by a human being, so their staff can focus on the care. We have a solid product today and a strong roadmap for growth. There are a lot of opportunities here.
What all goes into running your platform?
There are a number of expenses, such as development. We have a terrific team of engineers out of the Czech Republic, and we invest in sales and marketing.
I’ve learned to be a darn good juggler, but I do drop a few balls now and again. I’ve learned the importance of prioritizing. You can’t do it all. There is no work-life balance in the start-up stage, which is where we are.
And then came COVID-19. How did the pandemic impact Serenity Engage?
We launched just barely before the shutdown. The need was there before COVID, but senior care communities were busy putting out fires when the pandemic started. Horrible things were happening in a few places at that time.
Finding early adopters is always a challenge. There was just so much going on. They wanted to mitigate risk, but they were increasing risk by hiding information and not being proactive with delivering it. When adult children couldn’t get in to see their parents anymore, they didn’t know what was happening and were assuming the worst. They were worried. Is mom unhappy? Is dad getting good care?
We had to show senior care executives how being proactive and transparent allows them to create a trusted relationship with the families, which reduces the chance of lawsuits and bad reviews.
How does business shift during the holiday season?
For those in aging services – residential care, especially – there are a lot of activities such as dinners and events. Serenity allows the care community to market what they’re doing, to show it all off! It’s important – depression is normal during the holidays. There is so much nostalgia, stress, guilt. Having communication and education tools is beneficial.
The holidays are a time when people see their parents after being away for a while, too, then notice that they need help. There’s an influx of people going into care in January and February. We will have a version of Serenity that family members can use to help them know what to expect. It will be more educational.
I understand that you use a credit card for the business? Which, and why?
I love my rewards, so absolutely! I use one credit card that has a high limit, and we put everything on it. It’s the Costco Anywhere Visa® Business Card by Citi. This card has become material for us – I use the rewards for merchandise for the business.
We also use Costco’s travel services. Right now, I travel once a month, and this card is great for that. After COVID settles and events go back to normal, I’ll be doing a lot more traveling in the future.
How do you handle finances?
I used to do my accounting, but I hired a fractional CFO in the beginning of 2021. It was the best decision I ever made! The strategic impact she provides is enormous. Not only does she do all the basic bookkeeping and accounting, but she also mitigates some of the legal costs. She knows this industry and has helped us model the next three years of our financials for our investors.
We have an update meeting every month and do the billing together. I rarely look at bank statements anymore, but I look at the financial statements she produces, and I’m in tune with how clients are using the product. As far as debt, we have no loans or lines of credit. I make sure the credit card is paid in full.
Is good credit important to you?
It is, and that’s because of who I am. My mom taught me to pick up a penny on the street if I see one, to be respectful of money. I want to keep good credit because it’s part of running a good business that does good in the world! It’s part of my philosophy.
Can you share any future developments for Serenity?
Portable profiles are coming next, and we’re really excited about it. Senior care is difficult to manage, with advanced directives and power of attorney paperwork. The portable profiles will make the life of family caregivers and aging services providers a thousand times easier.
And we have more things up our sleeve that position us well for growth.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you could do-over?
I wish I had done this sooner! There’s a tremendous need. I have the vision, passion, drive to be a catalyst for change in this industry. I want to see it improve before I need these services for myself.
Do you have any suggestions for other business owners about credit cards?
Don’t be afraid of using credit cards. Use them responsibly. Have a plan to pay your bill in full if possible. They should help you build your credit. Look for a card that fits your business needs and supports you with points or cash back so you can grow the business.
Any final words of wisdom for emerging entrepreneurs?
Make sure there’s a problem that needs to be solved, that people want to solve it and that they will pay for it to be solved. Talk to a lot of people in the industry, including those in various roles. Get different perspectives. You’ll soon know if you have a good idea.
You will get advice from everyone on the planet about what to do. Listen, and then make up your own mind.