Introduction : Diala Pharaon, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Gain Contact
Describe your company, service, business location and number of employees, and years in business.
Gain Contact is a lifestyle and learning brand that provides language enrichment and custom educational and training programs for children, adults and organizations. We are based in South Bergen in downtown Rutherford with a satellite location in the Ridgewood suburbs. We are a small team of 4 staff and 15 instructional staff and have been in business for 15 years. We were first incorporated in 2005 when we launched our virtual educational counseling and off-site personal development workshops. We began offering programs on location in October 2008.
Tell Us About Your Company
Why did you start this company and when?
Gain Contact was born from a desire to provide educational solutions for diverse constituencies by building knowledge in target lifestyle dimensions: Self, Learning, Global Citizenship and Language Fluency.
What kind of corporation is your business? And why?
Gain Contact Group is incorporated as both an LLC and an INC. The Limited Liability Company was our initial form of incorporation in 2005. This was a good set up both for protection against liability and to allow pass through-entity for taxation purposes. We believe LLC is a good structure for launching new businesses to alleviate the burden of paying federal business tax. The fact that business owners are not required to provide worker’s compensation insurance for themselves is an added benefit. That said, the LLC may not be the ideal business structure as the needs of the business evolve. Business owners are considered self-employed and have to assume the full burden of the self-employment (SE) tax. The SE tax is designed to ensure that self-employed individuals pay the Social Security and Medicare taxes (payroll taxes) that would otherwise be withheld by an employer. In addition, self-employed individuals have to pay the SE tax on the net income generated by the business (calculated as a percentage of their share in the business) regardless whether they cashed in that income or chose to keep it in the business. The S-corps or Inc. is a more favorable form of business structure for growth-oriented companies. While owner pay is factored into the worker’s compensation insurance, the benefits outweigh the costs over the long term.
Did you have an “Aha” moment that made you create your service?
Having lived in both the United States and overseas, I have come to realize that despite the prevalence of multiple cultures within the U.S., there is a sense of isolation with regards to the rest of the world that creates a gap in connecting these cultures to their countries of origin. Given how large the United States is and the need to blend in, there is a disconnect with the rest of the world. This view gave me the impetus for creating an interconnected community that bridges global cultures by providing the tools, skills and resources to further the knowledge, competencies and insights of individuals and organizations.
How did you come up with the company name?
The word “GAIN” represents the concept of attainment and achievement, and the word “CONTACT’ represents the concept of connection. The name “GAIN CONTACT’ blends the concepts of improvement/advancement and creating linkages with cultures.
The type of linkages desired are represented in the word “GAIN” as G for Global, A for Alliances, I for Interactions and N for Networks.
What were your initial goals?
Our initial ‘raison d’etre’ was spurred by a desire to improve or advance the know-how with respect to the acquisition of a given skill or competency area. It is this understanding that led to the creation of Gain Contact - a lifestyle and learning company committed to providing the tools, skills and resources for each target lifestyle dimension.
Our early beginnings in 2005 positioned us as a provider of educational solutions in the personal development and educational placement lifestyle dimensions. When we launched our language programs embedded within the global citizenship education dimension later on in 2008, we were faced with a significant challenge that ensued as a result of the steep downturn in the economic cycle. At the time, we used diversification as a survival strategy and experimented with providing a broad range of services that included personality and skills assessments, SAT prep, and homework help as part of our suite of educational solutions. Our vision at the time was to become a one-stop destination for educational fulfillment. We learned through this experience later on that the key to success is to choose niche focus areas and become really proficient in them. Upon embarking on that path, we took a deliberate market-based approach in choosing the activities that would help us further our area of expertise within these focus areas.
Tell Us About Yourself
Describe yourself and your family
I am a solution-focused and goal-oriented individual who has always believed ‘If there is a will, there is a way’. I enjoy taking a big picture view of what it is that I am doing at any given point in time and constantly strive toward doing things more efficiently whether in my personal or professional life. I enjoy diving into a process of creative thinking and exploring opportunities for win-win collaborations. I am interested in learning about the latest trends in technology and how that in turn could be used as a positive force to improve operations or create social good. I believe in the laws of the universe and the power of reaping what you sow. I believe that there is a universal energy that connects us all and that we can all benefit if we first identify what it is we are seeking to accomplish and focus our energies in that direction. I believe in the power of positive thinking and that we alone have the power to shape our paths in life. I believe in mindfulness and the gift of living in the moment.
As a mother of two daughters 13 and 9, I believe in the empowerment of girls and women and volunteer my time toward such causes. After spending 14 years in Morris County, we moved to Ridgewood in 2018 in search of closely-knit community, good education, and proximity to family and friends.
What is your background and how does it relate to your company?
Having lived on three continents (Middle East, Europe and North America), I have been exposed at a young age to the values of global citizenship. I was raised as a bilingual child and acquired my third language in elementary school. In college, I majored in International Relations and minored in French. I spent my junior year studying in France and completing an internship at the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Upon graduation from Syracuse University, I worked 3 years in France to further my language proficiency and expand my horizon. I hold a master’s in business administration (MBA) from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
What was your past career, and did you ever dream of being an entrepreneur?
I worked in several industries that included information technology, investor relations consulting, telecommunications and education technology. Early on in my career, I played the role of an entrepreneur in every position I occupied by fully assuming my role and leading myself and others to accomplish tasks over and beyond what is required. My work experiences prompted me to apply to one of few business schools that specialize in entrepreneurship where I honed my entrepreneurial drive that translated into the creation of Gain Contact Group.
Did you experience an epiphany that changed the direction of your life to where you are now?
I have come to realize that we are all looking for the same thing: a sense of fulfillment, stability, and balance in our lives. While each of us might use a different measuring stick to define each of those metrics, we are all on a continuous path of self-improvement where the more we achieve, the more we aspire to.
Through challenging life experiences, I have learned over time that not everything that glitters is gold and the grass is not always greener. We are all on a journey of lifelong learning that is marked by trials and tribulations along the way. It is up to each of us to use these challenges as opportunities for growth and continuously learn and adapt. How we choose to approach any given situation - also known as our attitude - will dictate whether the outcome may be positive or negative. While visiting an antique store down by the shore some five years ago, I saw a sign that read: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift’. This has stuck with me ever since.
How did you test out your service so you knew people would buy it?
During 2007-2009, we conducted both formal and informal surveys to assess what was needed in the area of educational fulfillment. We held language groups, foreign movie nights, book signings and cultural events to get a better feel for the needs of the community.
What process did you follow to develop a service?
We developed a sample curriculum that we tested out with an in-house group of people consisting of onsite adult staff and their children; we also held cultural events at schools and street festivals.
Were there any setbacks in service/product development that had to be overcome?
The setbacks that we initially encountered included finding authentic language and cultural materials for diverse constituents. At the same time, we needed to standardize our curriculum so that it was uniform across all languages while factoring in age and target audience.
Was it more expensive to create than you originally thought?
For us, the process of creation necessitates the identification of standards that in turn govern the creation of educational materials, as well as the development of intellectual capital to ensure the successful adoption of these standards. We embarked on a course of self-study as part of our accreditation process that spanned two years. This process was quite expensive and required the dedication of specific resources to achieve that goal.
How did you determine the price of your services?
We determined the price of our offerings by doing a competitive benchmark analysis which we compiled by first identifying who our competition was, finding the gaps in their service delivery, doing a market-based needs analysis and positioning ourselves to fulfill that need. All of the above factors were utilized in formulating our pricing strategy.
Through what markets are you selling (retail, wholesale, internet, specialty sales)?
Our markets are internet, retail and specialty sales. Buyers of our language programs and educational services can purchase our programs online and visit our educational facility or satellite location for the first time once their program begins. Interested customers may visit us in person and conclude purchases on-site at our location in Rutherford. We also provide specialized translation, in-school and after-school language enrichment programs and training solutions to organizations and corporations.
How did you introduce buyers to your service?
Buyers to our product learn about us through google organic search, email marketing campaigns, affiliate marketing partners, and social media.
What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?
We have learned that word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool. Having a brand strategy and a solid web presence coupled with a social footprint consisting of positive reviews can also go a long way. To do so requires a commitment to excellence and the establishment of systems and processes that enable delivery of quality services.
What was the biggest learning curve in terms of marketing your service?
The biggest learning curve in marketing our product is that a quality product does not need to be commoditized to be appealing. If anything, that gives the wrong message about the product and may even attract the wrong type of customer. In order for a product to be successfully marketed, there has to be goal congruency with the marketing strategy. In other words, the 4 Ws, (Who, What, When & Where) need to be aligned with the purpose of the brand and the need that it seeks to fulfill. In the absence of such alignment, there is brand dilution and the messaging of the brand is lost in translation without reaching the target consumer for which it is intended.
Time Management & Personal Needs
How long did it take to get your service from idea to market (conception to product launch)?
It took 1-2 years to get our product from idea to market.
What parts of the business did you decide to delegate to employees?
I delegate the administrative and instructional roles to employees. I have learned with time that in order for a business to grow, it is important to work less in the business so that one can work more on the business!
How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and family/personal life?
Given that the business was born one year before the birth of my first child, juggling the roles of business owner and family/personal life were very challenging during the early years of the life of the business. While there may be a manual out there that provides the recipe for such a juggling act, the growing pains of any business typically necessitate making sacrifices and that includes missing evening dinners, activities and weekends with family. The most challenging aspect of having one’s own business is knowing when to draw the line at the end of the day. Unlike being employed by others, when you are working for yourself there is no clocking in and clocking out. As a business owner, I have found that discipline, structure and daily priority setting are keys to having a good work/life balance.
What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?
I started my business as a partnership with my mom and as a result she has always been both my personal and professional backbone. My dad played a role in serving as a controller for the business before passing away at the end of 2017. My brother initially joined us on a contractual basis before becoming fully involved in the business in 2008. While my husband is not in any way involved in the business, he has provided me with the much needed support at home since the founding of the business and I could not have grown a business while raising two daughters without him.
On a professional level, I have tapped into my network to explore new partnerships and joined professional associations along the way in an effort to continuously expand my circle.
What are your hours?
I do not think I have work hours per se. Typically, I begin my day around 9:30-10:00am and generally commute to Rutherford 2-3 days a week. I manage our satellite location in Ridgewood three days a week with classes running into the late afternoon/early evening.
How do you balance your family’s needs and your own?
I balance the needs of my family with that of the business by having the flexibility to take time off to attend to the needs of my family. I am present every morning in helping my children start off their day on the days that I commute; at other times, I work from home, that provides me with the time needed to be involved in their schoolwork and many activities.
What drives you to keep going every day?
What drives me to keep going every day is my will to keep building on the prior day’s work from an operational perspective while making a difference in people’s lives on a humanistic level.
When you need a break, what is your go-to activity?
When I need a break, I enjoy having a good cardio workout for a boost of energy. If I’m feeling more on the mellow side, I enjoy curling up with a good book or engaging in mindfulness meditation.
How much vacation do you take?
I believe in ‘All work and no play make Jack (or Jackie!) a dull boy/girl’. Depending on what is going on in a given year, I like to go on vacation about 2-3 times a year whether for a long weekend trip or extended holiday.
Your Journey and Success Stories
What has been your greatest success or "high point" in the process?
So far, I have two great moments that could define success for me. The first was when we opened our doors to the Rutherford location in 2008. Given the hard work we had put into creating our branding, first time visitors believed we were already a franchise! The second great moment was in 2015 upon completing our MSA self-study followed by a site visit by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and finding out at the end of the visit that we were approved for accreditation!
Have you experienced a “low point” and if so, how did you rally yourself to get back on track?
My lowest point is when we lose one of our long-term employees to a new state or to the public-school system. It is really a challenge to invest in people and then have to find new talent and do the training all over again.
Did you expect as many challenges – personally and professionally – being an entrepreneur?
Absolutely Not! Would I do anything differently if I did? The answer is: Hindsight is always 20/20. Setting expectations as an entrepreneur is an anecdote to disappointment.
Were there more financial challenges and risks than you expected?
Starting one’s own business requires an ongoing influx of financial capital to get you through the good and bad times. Don’t expect to break even overnight. Entrepreneurship is like an investment in stocks; it takes time to realize its value. While entrepreneurship is not for everyone, the costs/benefits should be weighed on an individual basis.
What was the greatest surprise in the process?
The greatest surprise in entrepreneurship is that in the absence of an angel investor or venture capital, financing one’s business is a personal debt. It is important to remember that while any loan taken out for the business is recorded as a liability for the business, it is the individual and not the business with the individual credit score. Therefore, any debt taken on by the business is a debt on the individual.
Who has been your biggest source of inspiration?
My biggest source of inspiration has been my mom who is a serial entrepreneur and has been a role model for me as I was growing up. From her, I learned the value of education, professional fulfillment, women empowerment, and good mentorship. I strive to leave a legacy and make a difference in the world while juggling multiple things at once and making time for family.
Did anyone help you along the way?
In 2015, I participated in the Emerging Leaders program offered through the Small Business Administration. This was followed in 2016 by participation in the Entrepreneurship Pioneers Initiative offered through the Rutgers center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Planning. Both have been instrumental in providing a support network for the growth of my business.
How does your family feel about your business?
As long as I balance my family commitments with that of my business on most days, my family – daughters included – is supportive of my business. Every now and then, when the business becomes more demanding of my time, I get off balance. I have learned to auto correct as soon as that happens and regain that work/life balance. It is work in progress and in need of constant self-monitoring.
If you work alone, do you miss the connection with others - and if so, how do you build a work community?
Since I wear multiple hats that range from overseeing programs to providing instructional oversight, I enjoy any time I can get to work alone. That is the time I am usually in a flow where I engage in the creative process of building existing programs and/or exploring new growth opportunities. To fulfill my need for connection, I seek to expand my professional community by attending working women events through professional associations and community groups. I also try to tap into any social group that I belong to for the purpose of expanding my personal and professional perspectives.
Next 3 - 5 Years
Where would you like to be in the next 3-5 years?
In the next 3-5 years, I would like to build a strong franchise network and lay the foundation for franchising the business with 2-3 franchisee locations.
I would also like to build an App that brings our communities of culture together.
What do you need today that will launch your business to the next level?
We need to have a continuous stream of language teachers that we hire and train to use our unique curriculum. We need a content management and branding partner that can help us build a brand awareness campaign aligned with our 3-5-year plan. We need a learning management system to take our curriculum online. We need a technology partner to integrate marketing automation into our website, power our email communications and feed our social media presence. We also need a developer to begin working on an App while we work with a franchise marketing partner on creating the franchise network.
What is your absolute dream for your business? Work and grow the business, find the ideal partner to invest, or build and sell?
My absolute dream for the business would be to find the ideal partner to invest or build and sell.
What advice would you offer other women developing their products/ideas?
For other women developing their products/ideas, I would advise them to find a good mentor to guide them along the way. It is also helpful to have a pool of trusted advisors with expertise in the industry that they are targeting as well as cross functional knowledge in finance, marketing, legal and product development. Tapping into a professional network for feedback on the product/idea development process can also be invaluable.
Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you would like to share with other women?
I recommend the Small Business Administration, Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise Program (MWBE), the Entrepreneurship Pioneers Initiative (EPI) at Rutgers Business School, as well as the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) at Babson College.
What was the best advice you received that impacted your business?
There are two pieces of advice that I have received that impacted and continue to be the driving force in my decision making for the business.
The first is that the most essential strategy is knowing when to say no and while we could be good at many things, we could only excel at a few.
The second is to always maintain a positive attitude and strive for continuous improvement until our good is better and our better is best.
What advice would you give specifically to women who want to start their own business?
I would tell women who are considering starting their own businesses to take a leap of faith and go for it! While I did not originally start a business with flexibility to attend to my family in mind, it turned out to be the best decision I made while raising two children.
It is also empowering to know that women-owned businesses represent 36% of total businesses in the U.S. and account for 15% of all employment. To start a business as a woman is not only to contribute to that growing number of women entrepreneurs but also to feel empowered to do what you love and love what you do!
Gain Contact Group
Diala S. Pharaon, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Gain Contact
Gain Ville Learning Center
Rutherford + Ridgewood, NJ
Website : Gaincontact.com
Linked In : Gain Contact