Since many massage therapists work out of their home, I take this opportunity to share some insights I have gained from being self-employed for more than 20 years.
Cultivating a successful small business takes creativity, patience, knowledge, faith and endurance. This article shares some of the insights I've gathered over the years as my career evolved from a one-person business as a massage and breathwork practitioner, to my current corporation (which offers coaching services, facilitates seminars, writes articles, publishes books, and sells 40-plus products in a catalog), with a staff of two full-time and four part-time employees.
My definition of business success is doing what I love to do, doing it well, and making a decent living at it. I set my standards for success, and they are not always the same as what our society typifies. Several years ago I was conversing with someone who said, "Isn't it great now that you're so successful?"
I was dumbfounded. I have always considered myself successful. The material aspects and public recognition are simply two of the many characteristics of success. Unfortunately, those are the two that the majority of people equate with success.
I enjoy being with people and making a difference in their lives, which gives me great breadth in my career choices. When I was in college I took a course in Creative Visualization through the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning. That course changed my life. The professor posed the question, "If you could be anywhere, doing anything, and earn money doing that, what would you be doing?" Keep in mind that this was the early 1970's in Southern California. My response was that I would hang out at the beach and talk with people all day. Well, it's not always the beach, but that quality of simply being with people is the core of every aspect of my business.
It certainly was the way I approached my massage practice. My intent was to be fully present and facilitate change. That same quality is the foundation for the work I currently do, whether it be coaching, writing or leading workshops. Some of my core life values are honesty, integrity, directness, loyalty, balance, humor, spirituality, communication, time, compassion and service. I do my best to embody these values into all aspects of my business, from my interactions with clients, the manner in which I manage my staff, to running the day-to-day business operations. (See Values Clarification Exercise, Page 147)
One of the true joys of being in business for yourself is that you set the rules. Think about all the things that annoy you about other businesses and do the opposite! For instance, I find the way that most attorneys bill their clients rather egregious. So, I don't do that in my coaching practice. If a client has a quick question between sessions, I don't charge for that time (of course, "quick" is the operative word). Do you deplore getting massages (or any other type of treatments) where the practitioner rigidly sticks to a 50-minute hour? If so, set up your practice differently. I rarely could give a one-hour massage. I would tell clients to slate 1.5 hours total for their visits, and that the treatment itself lasts between an hour and an hour and a half, with most sessions somewhere in the middle.
Another example of setting boundaries that are right for me involves a wholesale customer that was extremely rude to one of my employees. I called that person back and attempted to resolve the problem. I took the position of apologizing, even though we had done nothing wrong. Still, it was clear that the customer was unwilling to move forward and threatened to stop carrying our book. I stood up for my employee and said, "I understand that you are unhappy with the way this situation was handled. Regardless, you have no right to treat my staff this way. In the future, if you wish to purchase more books, you will have to go through one of my distributors." Would it have been prudent to do everything possible to win back this customer? Possibly. But it wasn't worth it to me, and it made my staff feel great.
The flip side of this is to incorporate all the wonderful aspects of customer service that you have encountered or would like to experience. I have always believed in the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. I want every client to feel like the center of the universe whenever we work together: I give my full attention, which for me means no interruptions; make the environment comfortable and conducive to work; use high quality products; and provide beverages and sometimes snacks. My profit margin could be slightly higher if I didn't do all the "extras" yet that is not how I want to run my business. I invest a lot of time and energy in my business and I want to enjoy it.
One of the true joys of being in business for yourself is that you set the rules. Think about all the things that annoy you about other businesses and do the opposite!
You spend a lot of time in your office, so it is crucial to choose a location and space that you like and that attracts clients, fits your business image, accommodates your needs, and is within your budget. I prefer a home office. I've always had one. When I was practicing massage, there was approximately one year when I also worked out of a physician's office 1-2 days a week. I could never accomplish what I do and still keep my sanity (I know, that is sometimes questionable) if I had a separate office location. I tend to be a night owl, and often wander into the office after dinner and not emerge till the early morning hours. When the creative urge strikes, I just have to walk 100 feet and I'm in my office. If it's the middle of the night and I had to get dressed and drive for 20-30 minutes just to get to an office, I probably would not do it. Plus household chores can be easily integrated into my work day.
My clients have never had a problem with my home offices. I currently reside in a rural area on a dirt road, and the first time I tell new clients how to get here, there's sometimes a bit of apprehension and comments ("You live where!?").
I make a joke about bringing water, food, and a compass. Once they get here, they find it so peaceful that they look forward to their next visit. It's great to hold meetings on a patio surrounded by flora and fauna. There are only 2 houses on the road behind us so the traffic sounds are relatively nonexistent, except for those quiet, still times when you can hear a train off in the distance. We also have a guest cottage on the property, so I can accommodate out-of-town clients. This setting fits my way of being as a person and my style of working with others: informal, personal, intuitive, and respectful of the bigger picture.
One of the keys to developing a financially successful home-based service business--be it a profession such as massage, coaching or teaching--is to target the kind of clients who not only feel comfortable in a home office, but they actually prefer it.
Target the kind of clients who not only feel comfortable in a home office, they actually prefer it.
Unfortunately, there are disadvantages to a home office. Some people are not productive at home. They are easily distracted and lack discipline; they find it difficult to balance family life with work life; and they are faced with feelings of isolation. Another downside to a home office is that clients are more inclined to linger after a session. Friends are more apt to just drop by or expect you to talk on the phone whenever they call. Other problems arise when family members do not respect your boundaries or when arcane zoning restrictions limit or prohibit home businesses.
The distinction between home life and work life is often blurry with a home-based business. The traditional 5 p.m. quitting time does not exist. It is important to create a ritual for ending your day: Take a walk, meditate, do yoga, take a shower, listen to music, change clothes, or set goals for the next day. Then close the door to the office!
When we moved into our current home, we turned the garage into my office. It was great at first. The office was huge compared to the space in our previous home and it was definitely separate from the main part of the house; I could shut the door and not think about business. Then I hired my first full-time employee and I no longer had a space that was just mine. Some days there are five of us in the office. I thought I could live without privacy (after all the space was mine at night and on the weekends). My need for privacy is greater than I realized.
Challenges continue throughout the life of a business. Space became a premium as my business shifted and we started selling more books. I tend to print enough books to last 1 year. Luckily the printer I work with would warehouse half of my printing jobs for 6 months. Even so, the half delivery filled the office and the library. For several months twice a year, the house would be overflowing with boxes. This summer my printer informed me they no longer warehouse for anyone. My dilemma was then, do I find a new printer; do I pay to have the books warehoused; or do I just get an office and move everything out of my home? I researched costs and deliberated a lot about the various options. None of the options were ideal so instead I decided to extend the office, creating a private office for myself and an additional 500 square feet of storage space for books. The total office space will be just over 1,100 square feet with a sand colored floor and pale turquoise walls. I am very excited about it!
Setting a business structure is critical for longevity. While it might take some time to get organized, once you have those systems in place, you are free to concentrate on working with clients. The systems I set up can be followed by any business. The major areas involve planning, managing paper and operations.
We've all heard the cliche "If you want to get something done, ask a busy person." This is because busy people have learned (often by necessity) how to plan and organize their lives. We can incorporate those skills into our lives so that we do not become overwhelmed or miss opportunities.
I am a firm believer in setting goals (see MTJ Issue 40.1). I have an overall 5-year business plan with an overview of the major priorities and goals for years two through five and a detailed plan for the current year (with specific goals for each month). Each month I review the goals with my staff and we divvy up the tasks to accomplish those goals. Setting long-term goals keeps things in perspective and helps avoid last-minute chaos.
Managing paper is one of the biggest hassles for business owners. The amount of paper that people receive is astounding, everything from incoming bills, to magazines to correspondence. The advent of computers, scanners and e-mail has eased this somewhat. The concept of the "paperless office" sounds appealing, yet I have never encountered one. Organizational specialists recommend handling paper once. I must admit that even though I strive for this, it only works with about half of the paper I receive.
My filing system is rather straightforward. My desk has 13 built-in stacking trays: 10 horizontal (in 2 rows of 5) and 3 vertical. The categories for the horizontal trays are: In-Box; To-Be-Filed Business; To-Be-Filed Personal; Fun; Miscellaneous Reading; Marketing; Artwork; Teaching; Ethics Resources; and Presentation Catalogs. The vertical trays hold miscellaneous catalogs and filing supplies.
My desk also has a double-row file drawer. The outer row contains current and frequently used files: my "tickler" file; accounts receivable; payables; receipts; and an Urgent Follow-Up file (in a red folder). The inner row contains reports, active writing projects, and frequently used resource materials.
My tickler file is the first folder. It contains a file printed with the current month and dividers numbered 1-31. When I receive anything in the mail that needs follow-up, I put it in the folder behind the day that I plan to take action. I have a folder for each month of the year and an additional set of one to 31 dividers. The other 11 folders are kept in the inner row, with the upcoming month having a full set of dividers. At the end of each day, I put that day's divider into the third month. This system is quite handy. Sometimes I receive information that I do not foresee doing anything with for months, so I put it in the appropriate monthly folder. The key is to actually check the tickler file every day.
I have five four-drawer filing cabinets and they are fairly full. I use 10 different colors of hanging folders to easily distinguish them (so they will be put back in the right place). For instance, employee files are in pink folders, federal state files are in bright green, state files are light blue, Business Mastery files are teal, massage resources are yellow.
I have an overall five-year business plan with an overview of the major priorities and goals for years two through five.
Several drawers are filled with research materials, such as articles and workshop handouts. Someday, these will be scanned into the computer, but it is just not that high of a priority right now. The three major drawbacks to keeping hard copies are they take up space; they erode over time; and cross-referencing is not automatic. Whenever I have an article that could easily be categorized under more than one topic, I write the topics on the top of the article, file it and put a note in the other folders that reference the article and where it can be found.
Some of the paper information is also on the computer, but we keep the hard copies because it is easier to reference (e.g., monthly sales reports). I keep my important papers such as contracts, legal files, materials for future books and home-study courses, and tax returns in a fireproof filing cabinet. Other records such as old receipts are stored in boxes in a closet.
Another aspect of managing paper is its disposal. I shred most of our plain paper and use it for packing material. Nonetheless, I still have a couple of boxes worth of paper at the end of each month. I take the paper, magazines and cardboard to a recycling center every 6-8 weeks.
There is no "right" way to set up a filing system; just make sure it works for you and maintain it. For specific tips on office organization, see MTJ Issue 39.1.
My Computer software generates almost all the payroll reports (except for unemployment) and automatically calculates the amounts owed.
Develop an organizational system that fits your needs and personality, and that can accommodate growth. Frankly, I don't know how I managed before computers. The first change from paper to electronics was word processing. I think that I would have written Business Mastery much sooner had personal computers been available earlier. I had been accumulating notes for about 10 years and owned a computer for at least a year before I committed to writing the book. I kept all my records for my massage practice on paper. Now I keep all client session notes in WordPerfect® files.
I strongly advocate using a computer for financial management. My software choice is QuickBooks®. It's easy to use and you can set up multiple accounts. It generates almost all the payroll reports (except for unemployment) and automatically calculates the amounts owed. Talk about a time-saver! At the end of the year I hand my accountant a disk and he prepares my income tax return. I file paper receipts by category, such as marketing, computer, dues, education and supplies.
I have a custom-designed database for managing the publishing side of my business (it helps that my husband is a computer hardware and software designer). We take pride in providing exceptional customer service. It would be impossible to render that level of quality without this software. It keeps track of the last time we had contact with a particular client, inquiry, school, association or vendor. Each record has a memo field and a tickler function that we set to remind us when to make the next contact. We can also easily pull up a customer's order and payment history. Plus we can generate a variety of reports that assist in our marketing endeavors.
We recently added a feature that allows us to flag files that we want to include on our Web site "Resource Directory" and "School List." We had been doing this manually. Every month there were at least 30 additions and/or corrections. We kept a log in WordPerfect and then sent the information to our webmaster each month; he would manually make the changes, and then we would have to verify the changes, which amounted to several hours each month. Now it is automated through reports. All totaled, it took about 10 hours to design the code that generates the reports, go through each of the 4,000 records to flag the appropriate ones and design the table for the Web site. We update individual records in the course of daily operations. At the end of the month, reports are generated which created those web pages and we e-mail them to our webmaster. He uploads them to our site. This takes less than 15 minutes.
I built my massage practice mainly by being active in organizations and functions that were associated with my target markets
We are always looking at ways to streamline our organization. These methods often require an initial outlay of money and time. Other times, a simple procedure can save a lot of time. For instance, we have a considerable number of items we like to track, and lately found ourselves wasting a lot of time finding where some of those lists were kept (our categories of information often overlap, and there are four of us with our own approach to filing). So, we created a file in our Policy and Procedure Manual that lists the file names of each tracking list. In the process of assembling this master list, we discovered that some of the tracking lists were stored in more than one directory (each with some of the same material, as well unique information). We merged the duplicate files
Several companies sell software specifically designed for massage therapists. The prices range from $50 to well over $1,000. Some offer basic features, such as an appointment calendar and a client record log, while others allow for multiple users, contain complete accounting functions and even prepare insurance forms (see Resources).
Equipment is another aspect of operations that has transformed in the past decade. Up until about five years ago, whenever I asked massage therapists in my workshops if they owned computers, fewer than 10 percent raised their hands. Now, nearly two-thirds do. Even therapists who are in limited private practice avail themselves of the benefits provided by technology. Most have e-mail, surf the Internet for research and to buy products, and use word processing programs for client correspondence.
When I started my practice, all my forms were created with a typewriter. I shudder at those memories. My major pieces of equipment were a typewriter and an electric adding machine. Currently I have four workstation computers, two servers, a notebook computer, a scanner, three laser printers, a color ink-jet printer, a fax machine, an electric comb binder, and a massive digital printer/copier. And it all comes with a matching electric bill.
Marketing is an area that has radically changed. I built my massage practice mainly by being active in organizations and functions that were associated with my target markets, public speaking, client referrals, and affiliations with other wellness providers. When I first started my practice I printed cards and stationery. I created fliers for special events. I purchased greeting cards for follow-up and special occasions. That was it. Then I decided to take my practice from part time to full time, and had brochures and gift certificates designed and printed. Still, there was not much need for elaborate marketing materials. Now therapists have numerous options for marketing materials. In addition to designing these materials themselves or hiring a graphic artist, many companies produce promotional materials (e.g., brochures, business cards, greeting cards, gift certificates and newsletters) that are specifically designed for massage therapists (see MTJ Issue 40.4).
I have a variety of marketing materials about myself, my company, the services we offer and the products we sell. We use an assortment of commercially printed items such as business cards, stationery, postcards, newsletters and two-color, third-cut fliers. We print much of our promotional materials in-house so we can keep them up-to-date: one-half page announcements, two-sided fliers, 11 x 17-inch catalogs, booklets, and our 40-page company profile.
Whenever possible, we refer people to our web site. It saves paper, postage and handling; plus the information is much more detailed than what we send. For instance, the products in our paper catalog have a short description and the price. The web catalog features full descriptions on each product, complete with a table of contents and a colored picture of the cover. We could not afford to print and mail color catalogs.
Updating information on a web site is much easier and less costly than reprinting your marketing materials. The downside is that it never seems to be finished. My webmaster has been working on a facelift for a year and it is still not complete! (I am contemplating hiring a new webmaster.) (See MTJ Issue 39.4 for website tips.)
Our web site has been up for four years. My major goals for the site are to continually broaden my exposure, inform people about upcoming workshops, provide practitioners and teachers with resources and information, and sell products. We have not focused on the catalog aspect yet the sales have covered the costs of maintaining and operating the site. The web site exemplifies our commitment to service. We offer a lot of free information. For instance we have sections for Marketing Tips, Insurance Tips, and in the near future, Practice Management Tips. We also recently added a free Marketing Mastery subscription service. My staff expressed concerns that this would take away from the coaching services we offer. My response was, "So what! I would rather have the information available so practitioners could reduce their struggles." And truthfully, I doubt that there will be a net loss of potential clients. The bottom line for me is that first and foremost I am here to serve. I know that if I stay true to that then everything else falls into place.
Your marketing methods continue to evolve and change over the life of your practice. Gather knowledge about how to increase marketing effectiveness and choose activities and methods that support your personality, reflect your values, are consistent with the image you wish to portray, and appeal to your target markets.
Self-discipline is critical when you have a private practice or own a business, and especially when you operate from home. It is easy to get distracted.
Many therapists market themselves in a haphazard manner without putting much thought into the people they want to attract as clients. While it can be fun to let serendipity fill your appointment book, I think it is wise to be proactive. Choose your target markets carefully and have at least three different markets. I work with clients in all industries, yet I focus my marketing dollars and time in the allied health field, and mostly with the massage segment. I recall my mentor advising me to focus the marketing of my coaching and workshops on the corporate world. He said that I could charge substantially higher fees and the repeat business would be significant. Unfortunately (for my pocketbook), that is not where my passion rests. I have a vested interest in helping those who are bringing about peace through conscious touch. Besides, bureaucracy drives me crazy.
Self-discipline is critical when you have a private practice or own a business, and especially when you operate from home. It is easy to get distracted or procrastinate. The best solution is to set a schedule and create routines. Establish the days and hours you will work, including breaks (how often and how long), and when you will eat lunch or dinner. Also determine the following: the circumstances under which you will take time off to play, read or watch television; what interruptions you are willing to allow; and, if your office is in your home, when you will do household chores. Ascertain the necessary time for marketing and operations, and schedule those activities in your appointment book. Most importantly, arrange your schedule according to the demands of your work, as well as the times of day you work best. Within the structure of a schedule is the flexibility to make changes.
I experienced isolation as a massage practitioner as well as in my current business. Even though I work with people almost every day, client relationships and interactions are not the same as those with colleagues and friends. This was amplified when we moved to a rural area. It is easy for me to go for a couple of weeks without leaving the property. Many years ago I developed the following set of guidelines to combat that sense of isolation and keep me balanced: get out of the house every day, even if it's just for a walk to the mailbox (ours is 1/2 mile away from the house); keep in contact with colleagues and peers; participate in professional, business, and civic organizations; attend workshops; participate in on-line professional newsgroups (the Yahoo BodyWork Group is one such newsgroup just for the massage/bodywork profession); meet with peers and colleagues for a meal; and join or create a support group. The feelings of isolation have diminished now that I have staff, yet those guidelines are still important for overall balance.
Create a support system to help you through tough periods, keep you on track, provide an objective viewpoint, and advise you on matters where you lack knowledge, interest or skill. Even sole practitioners can assemble a "Board of Directors." I refrain from making any major decisions unless I have consulted with experts. Some of my advisors are trusted friends and colleagues, and others are professionals whom I pay for their guidance.
Being true to myself is the foundation of all I do, including my business. I have reconfigured my business over the past 20-plus years, yet the essence remains the same. Decide what you like and dislike about business, and do it your way. You take a risk that you might not make as much money, but you will be happy and can respect yourself, which ultimately brings you more abundance.
Keep in contact with colleagues and peers; participate in professional, business and civic organizations; attend workshops; participate in online professional newsgroups.
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