After joining the Stretton Centre co-working space two years ago after being wowed by the facility during an NDIS networking night, Cheryl and the First Step Solutions team said a bitter-sweet goodbye last week, as they left to expand into a larger office at the John McVeity Centre.
Before she left, we sat down with Cheryl to discuss her whirlwind first three years in business.
Fresh from building a nationwide disability services provider, Cheryl’s best piece of advice for people who are looking to follow in her footsteps is to be agile and listen carefully when your customers speak.
That has been her mantra from the get-go, quickly adapting the services provided as the business grows.
First Step Solutions was founded in March 2020, a month after the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. Cheryl had sold her financial planning business months earlier and had since been working with a friend in a plan management company – her first experience in the disability sector.
While working with her friend, Cheryl noticed a gap in the finance skills being taught to people with a disability. So, while she was at home with her new baby, she set up a small business and started teaching financial skills to people with a disability.
“I had planned this as a side-hustle, but very quickly I had my first call from a support coordinator asking me to set up a program in Victoria, so I just went with it”, said Cheryl.
Cheryl thought that she would be teaching finance and plan management skills, but learnt that there was a need to teach basic budgeting skills and show people with disabilities to live within their means.
It was while meeting with these same people that Cheryl identified that a lot of her clients who were experiencing budgeting issues were also having challenges in the dating space – and they were often interlinked.
“My very first client had been scammed out of $160,000 while online dating, and then over the next few months, I just had more and more people coming to me who had similar experiences. It was really concerning to me,” said Cheryl.
“And then there were clients who had met people on Facebook who were then coming over to their house that same night. I started understanding that avoiding exploitation when dating is a big issue for a lot of people. So, I came up with the idea of pulling together a team of a psychologist, sexologist, and counsellors to design a program (now called Date-ability). I wasn’t an expert in this field, but I really wanted to make it happen.”
People with disabilities are not getting the sex education that they require
Cheryl had assumed that sex education was being done in schools. But for a lot of people on the NDIS, it was either a long time ago or at a time when they were not even engaged in school – and there were still some education providers out there who don't do sex education for people with disability at all.
“To me this was a huge risk. It's scary because even if you don't have the ability to consent, you need to know what it is. Half of our clients have never been kissed; however, they still need to know how to keep themselves safe. People with disabilities still have sexual needs and need to understand what a healthy relationship looks like,” said Cheryl.
Through listening to the needs of their clients, First Step Solutions’ ‘Date-Ability’ program has been developed to cover everything from modelling good friendships to intimate relationships, sex education, and how to ask someone on a date.
“One of the things we teach is that if someone says no to you, it’s not a reflection on you as a person. They might be in another relationship, they might not be into your sex, they might be heartbroken themselves. You don’t need to personalise it,” said Cheryl.
Mates before dates
While the Date-Ability program was extremely popular, Cheryl found that after completing the course, many people had the same question; “now what?”
So seeing the demand for something more, Cheryl’s team created a series of what were initially speed dating events.
“We tried it in Adelaide first to gauge the demand for the program, and quickly found ourselves expanding it all over Australia,” said Cheryl.
“We’ve got events booked for this year in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, and we’d love to take it to Tasmania, the NT and Canberra too.”
The development of this program hasn’t been without challenges though, with Cheryl finding that it was much easier to get guys along to an event called ‘speed dating’, than it was to get women involved.
“The guys will line up around the block, but for this to work, we need to make sure that women feel safe. So, we’ve re-branded it to ‘mates before dates’ and we are making sure that first and foremost we are pushing the friendship factor.”
The Cliq Connection
Not being one to sit still for long, with ‘Mates Before Dates’ underway, Cheryl was already looking for the next opportunity to revolutionise dating for people with disabilities.
“We kept hearing questions all the time like ‘Do I have to have my disability on my Tinder profile.’ And it’s an interesting conversation to have because, is it someone's business? But, also, it’s part of who you are. Why should we try and hide ourselves?” said Cheryl.
“So, I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to create a place where people can just be themselves and know that they are worthy of love. So, we are solving that problem. A year ago we started building the Cliq Connection. A fully accessible dating app that is only open to NDIS participants over the age of 18.”
“I remember saying when we started, ‘how the heck are we going to pull that off?’ But we have an amazing team in South Australia who have worked tirelessly, and we now have a live app. We have a couple of hundred people onboard now, but it’s still a proof of concept at this stage. We are listening to clients and delivering what they are suggesting in two-week sprints.”
The app currently has voice to text and large print options, but Cheryl’s team is working to introduce a system of icons to make it really clear what each user is interested in. This will include things like ‘looking for friendship, and ‘rainbow’. The aim is to make the app really LGBTIQ+ friendly.
The thing that’s surprised Cheryl most though has been where app customers have come from.
"Out of our first 100 clients, 80 of them were people we had had no contact with before. We fully expected it would have mainly been clients. Most of our customers though have been coming from Facebook and Instagram advertising,” said Cheryl.
Advice for other people starting out
When asked what advice Cheryl would give to people starting out in the sector, Cheryl said that one of the most important things is to always be listening to your customers, and make sure that you surround yourself with experts who can complement your strengths - like her trusted operations manager, Ebony Swan [opens LinkedIn profile].
“Our two years at the Stretton Centre were so good for our business. It’s just great to be able to have those daily interactions with likeminded people and bounce ideas off each other. We met our marketing consultant here, just today I was getting advice from the accountant on site, and it’s just so much easier to get work done when you are in a business environment,” said Cheryl.
“I also have a group of other business owners who I catch up with. There are some conversations about your worries and your fears that you just can’t have with your staff, but they are still conversations that you really need to have.”
The next steps for First Step
After moving into their new office at the City of Playford’s John McVeity Centre, Cheryl’s team is looking forward to having their own dedicated training space for the first time.
Where to next for First Steps though? Well, we are sure that Cheryl is looking forward to finding that out herself, but as usual, this will be guided by what her clients need.
To follow the next steps in their journey, follow: