Finding the MBA in ABA: Why Entrepreneurship is in our DNA

By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

The first time I created a business plan and presented it to an investor, he laughed. He gave it back to me covered in red ink. “What am I thinking?” I asked myself. “What do I know about starting an ABA technology business? I’m not an MBA or an engineer. I should go back to what I know: autism, behavior assessments and report writing. How can I even think that I have the expertise to bring a technology to market– and then get people to buy it?” I’m glad I didn’t listen to my deflated self that day. I could have let the inked-up business plan discourage me, give up then and there, and return to the safety of my clinical practice.

But it’s amazing what time and contemplation can to do perspective.  After some clarity finally settled in, I took that marked up business plan and used it to inspire me to do better.

Despite my fears, and inability to write a good business plan at the time, I believed my partners and I had a product idea that was needed and had the potential to change people’s lives. So, even with our rookie status in business and technology, we moved forward, day-by-day, creating and building a tech product. After 2 ½ uncomfortable years of having a full-time job and building a product on the side, we at last had something to bring to market. We believed it was impactful and would fill a glaring need.  But how were we going to get the word out?  I thought, “Once we do a few marketing splashes, people will come flocking, right? It’s just like the movie Field of Dreams says: ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Come to find out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It was time to get business expertise from someone other than Kevin Costner.  We decided to hire a “New York start-up MBA” who’d recently moved to town.  This new addition to our team would package the product with a red bow and convert the world!  However, I was surprised where she started.  She didn’t come in and create this amazing market launch and growth strategy.  What did she do?  She started cold calling.  She talked to people in the target market to learn more about their problems.  I joined in this exercise as well (if you were on the receiving end of one of my cold calls, I deeply apologize.)  After a while, it came more naturally and we spoke with ABA business owners, went to industry conferences, and spoke face-to-face with industry leaders to learn more about the pains of their world.

During the process, my MBA colleague learned about behavior analysis and its applications to solve problems, and I learned about business and marketing and its applications to solve problems. After years of working together in the ABA world with the business lens, my MBA colleague and I learned that behavior analysis makes a good framework for product development and marketing.

There are essentially 4 steps to product development that are directly related to the 4 steps of creating and implementing a behavior change program that we know so well. They can be remembered with the acronym A-B-C-D (because both business people and Behavior Analysts love acronyms):

  1. Assess Problems. We behavior analysts are experts at this. We do this by conducting a Functional Analysis of problem behavior or identifying strengths and deficits through other assessments (e.g. Vineland, VB-MAPP etc.) This step is also the first one you would take when developing a product and bringing it to market. People don’t buy products; they buy solutions to their problems. Theadore Levitt, a professor of economics at Harvard Business school, said: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” If you have a product idea or solution, make sure that it is tied back to the market problems. To do this, talk to and observe your target market to determine if a) the problem and its solution is a priority to your market b) there are enough people who need it c) the problem is important enough for the market to pay money for a solution.
  2. Build the Intervention. In behavior analysis, this is our Treatment Plan or our Behavior Intervention Plan. In the world of business, the intervention is the product and how it will solve the target market’s problems. In the first step, we assessed the market by talking to potential buyers to determine the need for a solution but there is a world of difference between what people tell you versus what they actually do. The bestselling author, marketer and entrepreneur Seth Godin said, “You can listen to what people say, sure. But you will be far more effective if you listen to what people do.” As behavior analysts, we don’t need to be a bestselling author to know this. In business, this is where creating a minimum viable product comes to play. A minimum viable product is when you build a product or website with enough features and information to satisfy the early adopters so that you can learn from their behaviors and feedback to continue to design your product/intervention. Using a minimum viable product can prevent you from going down the wrong rabbit hole and losing time and investment. Once you have a minimum viable product, you can start on the next step.
  3. Communicate and Promote. In behavior analysis, once we have created a Treatment or Behavior Plan, we must make sure that all stakeholders are in agreement and have been trained on how to implement the plan. If we don’t have all team members on board, the intervention may fail. In the world of business, this is called Marketing and Sales. I believe this is the weakest area for most behavior analyst in both the clinical and business realm. The underlying skill in gaining buy-in for clinical interventions and products is communication and relationship-building. As behavior analysts, we should, of all people, understand the importance of pairing ourselves and our science with positive reinforcement. The more contact they receive from you that results in delight (email, phone call, social media, commercial, video, press release, face-to-face meeting, demo, etc.) will increase the likelihood that they will return for more. This doesn’t mean we should spam them. In fact, as you will see, the next step helps us make decisions on when and how much we should communicate and promote our product.
  4. Data Collection (Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant). We love data. Looking at a graph that informs our next move is what defines who we are as behavior analysts. Outside of behavior analysis, I think the field that collects and analyzes data the most is business. Businesses collect all kinds of data that can be analyzed to evaluate progress. Beyond financial data, there are many ways to evaluate what your market wants and how your product is performing. When you put up a website or landing page, you can use Google Analytics to see who went to your page, how long they stayed, and what they clicked. When you send email blasts, businesses can see who opened them, if they clicked through to any content, if they completed any call to action. This is similar to a preference assessment of individuals in your target market. You can see what solutions and content are important to them and can guide your decisions on how to sell and retain those customers. For example, have you ever looked at those insanely long receipts you get from CVS and wondered what they were for? The length of these receipts can be blamed on data. Their loyalty program uses a system of collecting data on your shopping habits and then gives you discounts and coupons for common purchases. This strategy is used to get you to come back and shop more. So, the true test of your product is not in its novelty, its scientific content, or even its sexiness. It lies in the success in the marketplace.

In summary (and to make a long story short), I still have that marked-up Business Plan.  I keep it to remind me of how much I’ve learned. Although behavior analysis can help you on your journey to be an entrepreneur, I could have never done it without my MBA colleague and her mentorship. That business we started went on to train over 200,000 individuals in applications of Applied Behavior Analysis with individuals with autism and was acquired by a large health care training company—Relias Learning. My training and education in behavior analysis continues to help me in business and in life.

How has being a behavior analyst helped you in your business endeavors? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in  2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education.  You can contact her at [email protected].


3 Comments on "Finding the MBA in ABA: Why Entrepreneurship is in our DNA"

  1. Hi Emaley, this article is great and very credible given you developed a successful business from scratch. Great stuff!

  2. Cheryl Fielding | March 28, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Reply

    Well done! Very much enjoyed reading. Keep up the great work.

  3. Very inspiring as I approach the 4 year anniversary of my ABA business and ironically have just partnered with Relias Learning for our in-house training. Sounds like we’re in good hands.

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