Many psychologists, social workers, LMFTs, LMHCs, or other therapists find that creating a successful private practice while still working at a clinic, hospital, agency, or some other day job can be a “chicken and egg” problem:
How are you supposed to create your private practice while you’re still occupied with your other work?
I know this dilemma from firsthand experience: I started my private practice while working full time at a demanding (yet wonderful) place where I had earned my licensing hours. A lot of the steps below can be done while you're working a full-time job and building your practice, or even just in anticipation of opening a practice if you're still in graduate school. I laid the groundwork for myself as much as possible so I wouldn't have to worry about all these things upon licensure; when I'd want to just focus on seeing clients as much as possible. It worked out REALLY well.
Here’s how I did it!
The key is to lay the groundwork step by step and to have your steps laid out in advance so that anytime you have an extra half hour or possibly even more time, you can get a step closer to your goal of having all the tools you need to succeed in place.
You don’t need to do these steps in any particular order-- just do whatever you feel like at any given moment since we often do our best work when we’re doing whatever we’re most inclined to do at that time, and all of the steps below will contribute to your success. Be patient yet driven. Don’t get overwhelmed by feeling the need to do everything at once. It’s totally fine (and even wise) to take small but consistent steps. You may want to give yourself anywhere from one to six months to take the steps you need to set yourself up for success. Just check off the steps one by one.
How to attract them?
1. Content is King (or Queen!): Write some website content, and keep a “rainy day” list of blog topics. Don’t even worry about setting up an actual website if that part feels overwhelming; you can just write content for your site in Google Docs or a notebook, and drop the content into your website later. Start simple, you'll need a:
- bio page
- page to describe what types of issues you work with
- page that describes your basic approach to therapy.
Try to write in terms that are simple rather than complex; and upbeat rather than heavy. Select certain key phrases and bold them so that your site will be easy for a busy, stressed-out professional to skim through and get the main points. As you write, you will probably realize there are certain topics that might not be right for general website content but that you still enjoy discussing and would make good blog topics (ie “Top tips for how to manage anxiety” or “How to get the most out of therapy”). Keep a list of those topics to use as starters for future blogs that will attract visitors to your site.
2. Image is Everything: Find some images you like for your website, even if you don’t actually have a website yet. Sites like iStockPhoto are great for this. You can create a free account to browse, and store your favorites on a “Board” inside iStockPhoto or wherever you use so that you’ll have a nice shortlist of images whenever it’s time to make your final choices. Great images are important for helping clients to connect with you. Typically, it’s best to go for color images that are, in some way, uplifting. Even if you’re a trauma therapist, try to find images that represent a turning point; or someone who appears to be contemplating a new direction. Don’t just use images you find online without purchasing them-- it will likely lead to legal problems down the road.
3. Lay the website groundwork: Get a website, and immediately or eventually add an online booking feature. Don’t even worry about writing the content if that part feels overwhelming; just setting up the site and blocking out the areas for the content is an important step. TherapySites.com makes the process very simple for therapists. Some people also like WordPress or Squarespace because they give your more flexibility in terms of design; but if you’re just looking for something simple and straightforward, TherapySites.com is a nice option.
However, make sure YOU OWN YOUR DOMAIN NAME. This way if you are with a place like TherapySites.com and then later want to go somewhere else, you won’t have to change the web address people type online when they want to find your site; and whatever places are linking to your site will still have working links. If you decide to use a place like TherapySites rather than creating your site through WordPress or Squarespace, still make sure to first visit a place like Godaddy.com to buy your domain, and then forward that domain to your TherapySites.com page; so that if you ever wish to leave TherapySites you can take your domain name with you. Godaddy support is SUPER nice; they’ll talk you through it.
4. Plastic fantastic: Get a merchant account so that you can take credit cards. This is MUCH easier than it sounds. Places like TherapySites.com often offer the service for you. Alternatively, you can google “merchant account setup” to find places that will guide you through. They are very motivated to help you; because they ultimately collect a small percentage of whatever you charge. You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to refer you to someone who can guide you through.
5. Secure your spot: Get a space, or just see clients online at first. A place like WeCounsel and TalkSpace help facilitate online therapy sessions. You may want to start by using someone else’s office during their off hours before you have enough clients to get your own space. However, you might be surprised at how affordable a full-time space could be. Try googling “office space for 2 people” along with your city’s name; and talk to a few rental agents. You can even try for a 3 or 6-month lease at first if you want. If you prefer to take part-time at someone else’s space, you can also google “therapist listservs” to join some listservs where you can ask if anyone has space to share. http://psychoffice.net/ and http://psychspaces.com/ also specialize in spaces and space shares for therapists. Also, google “therapy office by the hour” so that you can just rent for one hour at a time if you’re really just getting your feet wet; many cities have such rooms available. While “by the hour” isn’t ideal, it is an option if you’re just starting out and unable to commit to any sort of long-term agreement yet.
6. Get it papered: Get incorporated, set up a business checking account, and get a business credit card. Using your business credit card for all of your purchases will help you keep track of your business expenses and save money on taxes. There are lots of different types of corporations you can choose to be; I’m a PLLC and most therapists are too. Getting incorporated is much easier than it sounds. LegalZoom.com can make it simple; and so can lots of other places. Google “how to get incorporated” if you want options other than LegalZoom.com; there are plenty of choices.
7. LinkedIn = key: Make sure your LinkedIn represents you the way you want to be seen when potential clients google you (yes, of course they will google you if you are planning to see white collar professionals who are fond of phrases like “due diligence”!). LinkedIn is like the Facebook of the professional world, so make sure you have connected with all of your professional organizations (ie APA, your alumni organizations, etc), listed all of your volunteer experiences and training positions, and sent invitations to all of your friends and colleagues. LinkedIn shows how many contacts you have on your profile; once you reach 500 contacts it just says “500+”. Strive to get 500; it helps to convey you as an established person with a large network; plus many studies have shown that the larger and more high quality your network is, the more likely you are to succeed in any business endeavor. Also, I’d suggest configuring your settings so that others cannot view the names of your contacts. Be sure to add your website and contact information as well.
8. Get a basic social media profile: Create a business page on Facebook (this is free, and you can do it even if you’re not actually seeing clients yet). Invite all of your friends and colleagues to Like the page so they’ll get updates when you post. Activate the button for “join the newsletter”, and start a newsletter. Set up a Twitter account. Get these items and your LinkedIn profile linked to your website. Are you feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry, remember the idea is to do these things bit by bit, step by step. Doing these things before your practice is very big will help you to shape what potential clients see when they Google you, which of course they will (wouldn’t you google a doctor before potentially going to bare your soul and invest your hard-earned money in regular visits?). When I started my practice, I had zero social media. I created accounts specifically for the purpose of business; and I can tell you it pays off incredibly well over time.
9. Put your VERY best foot forward: Get some nice professional photographs of yourself. A picture says a thousand words. Therapists are supposed to be experts in social signals, so it is essential that your photograph presents you in the best light possible, literally and figuratively. To get your money’s worth, practice with a friend first so you can see how you look when you try certain ways of looking at the camera. Wear a solid-colored shirt (patterns often detract from the focus on your face), be indoors (therapy sessions happen indoors, so your photo should be indoors), wear modest jewelry, and definitely have zero cleavage. To save money, you can also contact your local university, photography schools, or Meetup groups for photographers to see if there are students or early-career photographers who would like to practice taking corporate headshots. If you can’t afford a top-notch photographer, use an app like Airbrush to get rid of any shadows, get color balancing, and do other things that a truly professional photographer would do.
10. Keep your energy up: Surround yourself with positivity and encouragement. This part is essential. Clients who subscribe to my practice building program for therapists and coaches often re-play the videos and audio files “in the background” while they do everyday things like fold laundry, get ready for work in the morning, or other times when it’s helpful to have a positive voice keeping you on track. Audiobooks about positive thinking, phone calls or visits with friends or family that cheer you on, a mastermind business group, or even a peer-led goal group are all great ways to keep your private practice feeling like the fun, stimulating, and gratifying endeavor that it should be for you.
Think of the steps above as sowing your seeds for a full harvest.
What I mean by this is that there are certain steps you can take that will develop in the background and grow to benefit you more as they have time to mature, and so it’s a good idea to do these things early in the process. When you get your LinkedIn profile looking good and make a habit to regularly invite new contacts as you meet them, you’re accruing a network that will be extremely helpful when you post that wonderful LinkedIn update announcing the start of your practice, or announcing that you have added new hours, that your latest newsletter is now available, or that you now have online booking, or whatever other updates you can share on social media such as LinkedIn or Facebook that are likely to help generate referrals. Likewise, drafting your website content before you really even expect a huge amount of traffic gives you the benefit of being able to review and refine it over time, which is always good for written work. Similarly, having time to work with a couple of different photographers over a couple of different photo sessions will lead to you having a nice library of images of yourself to share with the public; which has obvious benefits in a world where most people make snap judgments from the first impressions they get through online searches.
Although I started my private practice within a week of getting my license and was able to quit my day job within a month of getting my license, I started the work of building my practice long before I had my license. In the months leading up to my licensure, I was working on my website, spiffing up my LinkedIn, getting “grown-up” professional photos taken, and doing all the other steps above so that I was ready to go when the time came. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Going from your day job to full-time private practice doesn’t have to happen overnight. I waited till I was earning as much in private practice as I was at my day job before I gave notice. Thankfully, this was actually a very quick process since as we all know, private practice pays much more per hour than most day jobs! If you want help or encouragement with any of the steps above, or if you have questions, I encourage you to join my on-demand program for therapists and participate in our listserv where you can ask questions and find community with like-minded therapists who want to enjoy a healthy, fun, and private practice!