Thinking about taking the plunge as a therapist entrepreneur? Is private practice where your professional ambitions lie? Before you start looking for office space or place advertisements in the Yellow Pages, you should start by looking at your future private practice endeavor as would an investor. Therapists go to school for many years to learn their trade, unfortunately, that training often leaves them ill-equipped to run a business. As a private practice behavioral health therapist, you are a business. You are an entrepreneur. Don’t forget that! Before you take the plunge and start your new practice, spend some time with a small notebook in front of your computer and plan your marketing. This post will show you how to get off on the right foot with your marketing and ultimately pave the way for your success when starting a private therapy practice.
Think like a Mount Everest expedition leader
Climbing Mount Everest isn’t just a matter of booking a flight to Nepal, putting on some boots and walking until you reach the top of the mountain. It requires strategy, logistics, timely information, coordination, contingency planning as well as discipline, endurance and adaptability. It’s an apt metaphor for starting your private practice. Many therapists simply rent an office, hang their shingle and perhaps place an advertisement in some local publication. Then, they hope for business. Then they hope for referrals. Then they hope that clients keep coming back. They hope they’ve set the correct session rate. They hope that they can pay the office rent.
Hope is not a strategy!
Many therapists however have started very successful private practices using the hope “strategy” and it has worked for them. I’d argue that they succeeded despite their “strategy.” The average salary for private practice psychologist with less than five years of experience in the US is around $54,000 per year. With six to nine years of experience, that average is close to $90,000 per year. Why? Are psychologists raising their session fees each year? Not really. Session fees are subject to market conditions; there’s not a huge market for $300 per hour therapists, no matter how experienced they might be. So what explains the difference between $54K average from years one to five and $90K between years six to nine? Let’s say your profit per client is $75, which would be your session rate minus your expenses. How does the more experienced therapist manage to profit $36,000 more than a less experienced therapist? With 2 additional client sessions per work day, that’s how. The $54,000 therapist is doing about 15 sessions per week. The $90,000 therapist is doing about 25 sessions per week.
As a therapist gains more experience, they gain more clients. Referrals, name recognition, marketing, returning clients. All of those things conspire to create more bookings. So what can you, a new private practice therapist do?
Think like an investor, act like a CEO
In business, there’s a concept called product-market fit. Essentially it means that a product is something the market is willing to buy. You may think your product is therapy. However, that’s like a restaurant thinking their product is food. While technically accurate, if I went to an investor and told them I wanted to start a resturant and sell food, they’d politely tell me to get lost. If I went to an investor and had a plan to open a Korean restaurant in a growing Korean neighborhood where there weren’t yet any Korean restaurants, then perhaps the investors might take my plan more seriously. You should think about your “therapy” product the same way. Start with the following three steps:
- Analyze your market
- Find an underserved or high demand niche
- Become the expert
How to analyze your market
The traditional way of thinking about your market is geography: where you live. Of course, with online therapy, your market can now expand across the globe. However for your first step, don’t worry about the world (yet,) worry about your local area. You certainly should offer online counseling, but in terms of marketing, think local. It’s more manageable than attempting a worldwide marketing plan! If you’re only an online therapist, you can still think locally; these ideas are completely applicable both online and offline! Analyzing markets can be incredibly complex, but for our purposes, we keep it simple!
First, think like a customer. Pretend for a moment that you have a marriage problem and might be interested in finding a marriage counselor in your city or town. Check Google- how many therapists in your area show up? Check Psychology Today’s listings. Use the free Google Keyword Planner tool to actually see how many searches are happening for marriage counselors in your town. For example, for the keyword “marriage counselor kansas city” there are 20 searches per month. For San Antonio (a similar sized metro area as Kansas City,) there were 50 searches per month. That’s very rough data, but it would appear that marriage counselors are more in demand in San Antonio than Kansas City. However, don’t worry about comparing cities, instead, compare specialties. Your goal is to find a high demand specialty with low supply. Much easier said than done, but at least think about what types of therapy will potentially be more in demand. You don’t even need the Google tool to do this; trust your instincts, then do some research.
For example, if you live in an area with high unemployment, there may be a large demand for depression, stress or life transitions therapy. How about divorce rates in your area? A high divorce rate can indicate that marriage counseling could be a hot area or not as obviously, children’s therapy could be a huge niche as well. Here’s an interesting US map of divorce rates by state. Comparing suicide rates can also give you some insight as to what types of therapy might be in higher demand. Did you know that Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the United States? Perhaps your area has a high number of retirees. What kind of therapy is demanded in that demographic?
Find an underserved niche
You certainly can be a generalist, however, in terms of your marketing, it pays to specialize! Being the best grief counselor in Pensacola, Florida is much more profitable than being just another therapist in Pensacola. You can certainly handle any type of client that you want, but what happens when you start to develop a reputation as the best grief counselor in a particular area? You’ll quickly get referrals. You can even design your marketing outreach around that niche. For example, you could start a blog on different aspects of grief (read our post about how to start a therapy blog.) You can then visit funeral homes and speak to the manager, offering business cards. The manager would be happy to help spread the word. If there’s a hospital near you, see if they have a list of grief counselors. If they do, get on it, if they don’t, then leave some business cards. Perhaps you could even create a very simple brochure about the grief process and how you can help. Leave those in waiting rooms, pin them to bulletin boards, give some to nurses. Be sure to have your blog URL on anything you print! If you’re an iCouch therapist, be sure to put a link to your iCouch schedule, so clients can immediately book with you! Also, read our post about social media for therapists. The question isn’t should a therapist use social media, but how you can use it to further brand yourself as an expert within your niche. If you’re focusing on grief counseling, then post and share lots of great content about grief and closely related areas. All those people who get your business card or brochure will visit your blog where you can demonstrate that you’re an expert. That will make them much more likely to book a session with you than simply a business card with “Grief Counselor” printed on the front with a phone number.
The blog and social media aspects of your strategy are seriously important. Read our post about inbound marketing for therapists for a refresher as to how inbound marketing can help you build a sustainable therapy practice.
Become the expert
You not only want to market yourself as an expert in a particular area, you want to become an expert. You also want others to validate your expert status. Becoming an expert is straightforward. Simply commit yourself to being on the cutting edge of your niche. Read everything you can. Get continuing education in your specific area. Attend relevant conferences. However, the validation of your expert status takes a bit more strategy and a tiny amount of luck. You’ll want to get invited to speak, give talks and be contacted by the media. The complete how-to guide would be too long for this post, however here are a few ideas to get you started. Of course, you’ll want to adjust based on your niche. In my examples, I’m using “Grief Counseling” as the niche.
- Go to a local cancer hospital and offer to host a free weekly grief support group. You get to offer a nice service while at the same time, establishing your authority within the grief counseling niche. Be sure to have some business cards handy in case members of the support group want to hire you!
- Send some emails to local reporters (with a link to your blog) to let them know that if they ever need a source on grief, they can call you. You could also join a service such as Help A Reporter Out which will connect you to national and international reporters looking for sources.
- Submit guest columns/op-eds to your local newspaper offering your perspective on a grief-related issue. Perhaps there was something tragic that happened within your community; write something about it for the paper.
Marketing should be the first thing you think about!
When you’re starting a private practice, you certainly have a lot on your plate. However, it’s really important that you take your marketing plan seriously. Many therapists spend more time picking out office furniture than they do thinking about their marketing strategy. Marketing is the single most important part of your business. Without clients, you have no business! Have any questions or ideas? Share them in the comments!