In May 2012, I was finishing my final licensing hours after six long years of full-time doctoral training. It was such a relief to be eligible for a good salary with benefits after all those years of squeaking by on student loans and credit cards. And so deciding to leave that full-time job to focus exclusively on my own practice was daunting, to say the least. I was terrified to leave the security of a stable job and regular paycheck, but I knew I had to if I were ever to realize my ultimate goal of building a private practice.
So I decided to start small: I would try to get at least one client, just so that I could start working toward my dream. Fortunately, my former employer allowed me to see private-practice clients early morning and evenings in my office at their location before or after my shifts. This was a good way to gradually build my practice until I could take on full-time space. It also meant burning the candle at both ends … but not for long.
Building a Business From Scratch
I spent every moment of free time sketching out business plans and doing nerveracking but hopeful hypothetical calculations. I showed them to anyone and everyone who I thought could help, from friends who had recently graduated business school to female mentors from Ellevate Network and the New York Junior League to men I was dating at the time who had experience in business planning. Basically, I was like a junior high school girl obsessed with a prom date — except for me, private practice was the hottest guy in the room.
My fledgling practice grew very quickly, and within eight short weeks, I had more than the minimum number of clients I had calculated would be enough to give notice at my day job in July 2012. I financed the security deposit by raiding the tiny IRA I had somehow guarded from student loans and thanked heaven for my good credit score. That was probably the scariest part: I knew that if for some reason the practice didn’t work out, I had no safety cushion. However, I sometimes think that knowing there was no safety cushion is part of what drove me to double and triple check my numbers until I knew it really was time to take a well-reasoned chance. I clung to the notes and calculations in my notebook, took a deep breath, and signed the papers.
It’s hard to believe that three years have flown by. In that time, the practice has grown from four clients to more than 1000 clients and over 7000 visits, including clients seen by the associate therapists I hired once the volume of callers grew greater than what I could serve alone. I went from being the only therapist in my practice to hiring six others — and believe me, learning to hire, retain (or fire), and manage therapists as well as support staff has been a whole other set of lessons that required more on-the-job training than I could ever have imagined.
The practice has also grown beyond just the three therapy rooms on Park Avenue where therapy sessions occur: I have been interviewed by VH1, CBS, FOX5, ABC7, and more!
My online anxiety treatment program, Anxiety Tools, has users in Japan, Dubai, Korea, France, Russia, and all over the United States. And most recently, my practice was selected as a training site by the American Psychological Association-accredited Long Island University. I’m still a little shocked when I stop and think about everything.
5 Keys to Success
So how did all of this happen? Looking back, I think there are 5 main lessons I’ve learned so far– I have so much more to learn, but here are 5 lessons I’d like to share from the past 3 years:
1. Act like you’re working for someone else.
When you’re working for a large company or business, you know your job relies upon your performance, which in turn keeps you motivated to achieve. When you’re working for yourself, however, it is so much easier to say “maybe tomorrow” or “I can do that later.”
But “tomorrow” or “later” is a dangerous proposition when you’re starting your own business, which is why I made sure to act as if I had a manager I’d need to report to. When I quit my day job, I set working hours and days for myself. I went to the office during those hours whether I had a client or not. When I wasn’t working with my clients, I set small tasks for myself that would help my business bloom. Whether it was making pamphlets, setting up a social media account or finding an office space to occupy, I was constantly working to make sure the risk of starting my own business would pay off. Setting up a structured schedule and holding myself accountable helped me achieve goals, both small and large, that eventually got me to where I am today.
2. Hire the right people, then set them up to succeed.
When I started getting more and more clients and saw that the practice was expanding beyond what I could handle on my own, I hired an associate. Within two years, there were six therapists working at my practice. How did I ensure the team would be as successful as when I was doing the work by myself?
The first step was to make sure the associates I hired were like-minded in their pursuit of working to see patients make consistent progress. Beyond that, it was all about giving them the tools to succeed: My associates are trained to interact with patients the way I would, and that means constant communication and collaboration. And because my associates are diverse in background and in training, there is plenty of flexibility when it comes to matching associates with the clients they’d be best-suited to help. There are rarely ever any surprises because I’ve worked so hard to build the right foundation and hire the types of people who are just as invested in their work as I am.
3. Talk to everyone, everywhere.
Many of my clients were referred to me by word of mouth, but I never relied on that alone. A huge component of any business is networking. Because everything about my practice is a labor of love, I never shy away from bringing it up in casual conversation. From those conversations, a number of surprises have sprung over the years. Some of my favorites:
4. Be accessible.
It’s important to never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, what you do is in service of others. For this reason, it’s important to tailor your services to work best for those who need them. In my case, this has meant getting creative about my offerings.
In a perfect world, everyone who needs support in any area of their lives would commit to boosting their well-being through therapy. But early on, I realized that some clients don’t have the time or financial resources to come for in-person appointments. For this reason, I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to find creative approaches that can still give people the tools they need to succeed, in the space and budget that works for them. Aside from regular in-person therapy, I offer online video therapy sessions, a weekly online support group, a weekly Anxiety Meetup, and even AnxietyTools.com, a self-paced online program for conquering anxiety. Out-of-the-box thinking can ensure that your business experiences healthy change that serves your clients best.
5. Be your clients’ best advocate.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as giving my clients the tools they need to create change in their lives quickly and effectively. A distinctive aspect of my practice is the importance I place on my clients gradually progressing and achieving goals outside of therapy. To do this, I actively listen to my patients, pinpoint issues that we can work through together during our first session, and stick to a plan in subsequent sessions. Personally, I don’t want my patients to be in therapy forever. Of course they’re welcome to stay as long as necessary, but I would rather provide them with a toolbox of skills to use outside of therapy on their own. I think this is partly the secret to my successful track record – that from the start, I make a plan for success with an ending in sight, and by the time patients leave therapy, they’ve gotten out of it exactly what they came for.
If you’re thinking of starting your own business and feel daunted, know that taking the first step is often the hardest part. But do more of the right things, and you’ll start seeing them pay off … and often, success is the greatest motivator of all. One of the greatest things I hear as a therapist is client anecdotes on an improvement they made after we worked together. A client recently shared with me:
“Yesterday you helped me make a complete 180 from how I was feeling over the last two weeks. Whether it is confronting the past or approaching the future, your support means the world to me!” – Anthony P.
While I don’t hear this every day, hearing it every now and then helps me realize this work is my calling. The last nine years have been a whirlwind and an honor, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for my practice.