By Patrick L. Kerwin, MBA, NCC, MCC
As someone who has had a Career Counseling private practice for 16 years, I can tell you that having your own practice is filled with its share of joys... and headaches! So before you place your order for business cards and hang out that shingle, take a look at some of the following tips and items to consider...
It's a Business
While working with individual clients can be a delight, there's no way to avoid it: a private practice is a small business. And with that business comes record-keeping, bank deposits, tax forms, billing, and bills, to name a few. You don't need to be a CEO or have a degree in business, and you can certainly outsource it all and hire an accountant – but the most successful private practices are ones that provide outstanding, quality counseling, and that are run with income and expenses in mind.
Starting Up Is Easy
The bare-bones basics to starting your practice are actually quite few and simple. All you need for starters is:
- A separate checking account (to keep your business and personal income and expenses separate for tax purposes)
- A Fictitious Business Name or DBA ("Doing Business As") Statement from your county (only if your business will be called something other than your name)
- Professional liability insurance (available through organizations such as the American Counseling Association and the National Career Development Association)
- A business license (required in some cities)
Some other basic items to get you going are:
- Business cards and stationery if you think you'll use it (most communication can be handled via email or document attachments).
- A phone number. You'll want to consider if you want to use an existing phone number, or get a second phone exclusively for your business (you'll need a business phone number if you want to be in the Yellow Pages).
"Tell Me About Your Services"
This is the most common question you'll hear when someone inquires about your practice. And while it may seem like a perfectly simple request, your response requires consideration of the following questions first:
- Who will your clients be? High school students, college students, returning women, career changers, the unemployed, or another population altogether?
- Which populations wouldn't be suited for your services?
- What services will you provide?
- What services will you not be providing?
- How long will your sessions be? Fifty-minute sessions, 60 minute sessions, or something different?
- Will you do telephone sessions?
- How much will you charge?
- What forms of payment will you take?
Once you answer these, practice what you'll say when the phone rings and someone asks, "Tell me about your services."
Location, Location, Location
Then of course comes the question, "Where?" Unless you're certain that you'll have a steady stream of clients and income, I'd advise against signing a lease and having a fixed monthly rental expense.
Many therapists and other small business practitioners (e.g. insurance agents) are more than happy to rent out their office or excess office space on an hourly basis. When I first started my practice, I rented a therapist's office suite for $10/hour (remember, it was 16 years ago!). The only trick can be scheduling hours, but with a little flexibility and ingenuity, it's doable – and it sure beats writing a monthly rent check when you're first starting out.
Another option is to work out of your home. The main consideration with a home office is security. If you have even an inkling that you won't feel secure, then don't do it; you need to feel safe and secure in your work space. The second consideration is the actual office in your home. A separate room with its own entrance is ideal, and helps keep "work" and "home" separate for both you and your clients. I've had a home office for 12 years, in the form of an office off the back of my home with its own entrance. I've never felt my safety or security threatened, and I thoroughly enjoy the ease of working from home. If a client cancels, it's not a problem – and you can't beat the commute!
"If You Build It, They Will Come"
This may have worked in the movie Field of Dreams, but it's unfortunately not true in private practice. The standard marketing tools can be surprisingly effective: an ad in the Yellow Pages, attending local networking events, and doing presentations for local businesses or other membership groups.
Some other tools may be less obvious: a good website, and building relationships with fellow counseling professionals. A surprising number of my clients find me by doing a web search, finding my website, liking what they see, and making the call. Another Career Counseling colleague has created a steady stream of clients by connecting with Marriage & Family Therapists in her community and getting their referrals, and from creating a Career Counseling referral arrangement with a local university. And of course, there's no substitute for doing great work and creating a good word-of-mouth buzz.
What Not To Do
- Don't say "yes" to every potential client who calls (as tempting as it may be when first starting out!). Working with clients that you can best help will also help build your business.
- If you will be offering Career Counseling or Educational Counseling services, don't assume you can make a "full" financial living on individual counseling sessions alone. Clients for those services, unlike clients for individual therapy, are often short-term. As a result, most private practitioners in the Career or Educational Counseling fields make their full financial living by combining their individual private practice work with training, consulting, teaching, or other work.
- Don't expect your practice to be thriving in six months! Private practices often take about two years to be up and running with a steady flow of clients.
There is plenty of room for good private practitioners, and it can be amazingly satisfying and rewarding work. The key, as with any kind of work, is to go into it thoughtfully, with both self-knowledge and knowledge of the career.
So now, where's your shingle?
Patrick Kerwin has a Career Counseling private practice, is an MBTI®MBTI Certification Program faculty with the Association for Psychological Type International and the American Management Association, and an Adjunct Faculty for the University of San Diego's graduate counseling program. In addition, he is the author of the Kerwin Values Survey® career values assessment. His website is http://www.pkerwin.com/.