I love running my speech pathology practice. But it has its challenges, and I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years!
I recently re-read a great business book* that reminded me of some key things I got right (and wrong) in my first couple of years in practice. Here are seven things I now know to be true about starting up:
1. Starting a private practice has never been easier. But do it the right way
- Make a stand for something you care about. Do something that matters. Be proud of what you do.
- Don’t take on debt if you can help it. More importantly, don’t give away ownership.
- Focus on the core of your practice: something you think will provide a stable base for your business. Build basic systems around your core business.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: use tried and tested templates and speak to colleagues about resources they’ve already tested in practice. Learn from others’ mistakes.
- Start small: use whatever facilities and equipment you can get your hands on or you can easily use. You don’t need designer furniture to deliver evidence-based care.
- Many speech pathologists start up by working one or two days a week “on the side”. That’s a great way to start up, provided you have your key insurance and systems in place.
- Once you have your systems in place to run your core business, get going and launch. Don’t wait for everything to be ready and perfect, or you will never get started.
2. Be confident enough to brand your practice differently from other practices and be generous with your time and knowledge
- I’ve seen enough pastel-coloured, comic-sans-laced, craft-inspired speech pathology websites featuring hordes of grinning babies. Not all clients want that; and I love to see practices doing it differently.
- Sometimes knowing what you don’t want to do with your practice helps you to decide what you do want. For example, many independent coffee shops market themselves as the “anti-Starbucks”.
- Do not let other practices dictate your strategy. Focus on what you are doing, not on what everyone else is doing.
- This is a big one in my practice: once you’ve launched, share everything you know with clients and the public. Support clients, parents, teachers and students with How-To guides, videos, e-courses, tips and resources. Teaching others makes you a better clinician and improves your reputation.
3. Enjoy being small, but don’t forget you are in business
- Being small gives you the freedom to experiment (and to mess up in front of a small audience). It keeps you close to your clients, and more exposed to direct feedback to improve the quality of your services. It also allows you to act quickly to fix small problems before they become big ones.
- But your practice is not just a hobby: from day one, you need to know your break-even point (the point at which you start to become profitable), have adequate insurance in place, know about your key obligations, especially around client consents and confidentiality, health records, advertising, family law issues, privacy, infection control, professional conduct, debt collection, and (as you grow), hiring and managing staff.
4. Keep your range of services simple to start with
- If you watch enough reality renovation or cooking shows, you will know that, often, the key to improving quality is to cut out the deadwood, reduce the options, and to simplify things to a few things that you do really well. It’s the same in speech pathology. Less is more.
- Offering too many services to too many client groups, in too many formats, and in too many places, inevitably reduces the quality of your work. While it’s tempting to take all the work you can get when you first open your doors, it’s better to embrace a narrower scope of practice and to be (or become) great at delivering services within it.
- Don’t add services just because your competitors are doing it or because an existing client asks for it – especially if you are not competent to offer it. Add value by deciding what you don’t do and referring on. Make sure you are proud of the services you can and do provide.
- Learn to say “no” to projects, meetings, and professional development opportunities that are not aligned with your business goals.
5. Don’t pretend you are a big practice when you are not
- Clients want to be helped by a real person – not a faceless corporation.
- Your communications – blog posts and website content and other marketing materials – should reflect your size and capabilities. Don’t communicate with your clients as if you were Google or Telstra.
- Be proud of being small. It means you are independent and nimble. You are a person – not a bureaucracy.
- Communicate professionally in Plain English, using your authentic voice.
- Build an audience by sharing good quality, evidence-based information that people will value, share and come back for.
- Remember your best marketing is doing a good job: every email, phone call, assessment, therapy session, letter to a referrer, blog and social media post can deepen your bond with clients.
- Don’t be afraid to give clients a “behind the scenes” view of your practice to show them how prepared you are for their sessions.
- Be frank about things that don’t go to plan. Be truthful about your bad days and mistakes, and apologise for them.
6. Don’t over-plan
- This one’s a challenge for me!
- For a small practice, a key advantage is the ability to make quick decisions and to change directions without too many stakeholders having their say.
- Stay flexible. When necessary, improvise to maintain your service quality in a changing world.
- Once you’ve set some basic long-term goals, switch your focus to the present and short-term – and the small revisable decisions you can make that improve things for the time-being.
- Don’t spend too much time worrying about all the things that could go wrong. There are always risks in business. But, in many cases, you can deal with problems when they happen. Most of the bad things that could happen won’t.
7. Don’t overwork yourself: control the pace
- Another tip I was very bad at implementing in the first years.
- Being productive is not the same as being busy or working long hours.
- Often, the opposite is true.
- Get rid of needless interruptions or distractions – especially pointless meetings and Internet surfing. If you struggle with this, use a system to stay focused, like the Pomodoro Technique.
- Don’t try to be perfect. Crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” may make you feel better, but it will eat your time – time that could be better spent on clients.
In business, as in life, fortune favours the bold. From an information and resource point of view, starting a practice has never been easier. But starting an ethical, professional practice you are proud of takes planning and a strong sense of purpose. Be professional, but inject your personality into your services to make them different and authentic. Don’t lose sight of the big picture (your purpose), but don’t get bogged down in what might happen either. Focus on the present to build adaptable businesses, with good systems, bit-by-bit. Don’t try to be perfect or you’ll burn out.
Further free resource: From Launch to Waitlist in 12 months.
* Principal source: Fried., J. & Heinemeier Hansson D. (2010). ReWork: Change the way you work forever.