Preparing for a Private Counseling Practice

In 2013 the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that 31.5% of members who were employed full-time were owners of independent private practices. What the report failed to mention is that not a single APA accredited program included courses on how to open a private practice. By way of analogy, they dress you up for the party, but they don’t tell you how to get there.

Successful and seasoned counselors in private practice all have one thing in common; they each had to learn how to be entrepreneurs. No doubt they would agree on one thing: if they had begun to develop the skills needed to be a savvy business person while still in college, they would have been much better prepared for the real world.

A Private Practice is a Business

Most students studying to become counselors have chosen this field because they want to help people; they are the givers in the world. The mind-set that accompanies the altruistic personality is typically not concerned with nor prepared for what lies ahead in the fiercely competitive world of business. Therefore, with that in mind, it is necessary to begin to acquire knowledge today and develop skills which will prepare you for what will ultimately become one of the most glaring realities of your career.

Mona Cummings Ph.D., attended college in Minnesota and returned to her home in Ohio to open her private practice. After 23 years she still remembers the hurdles:

“One of the greatest shocks in my life came when I was establishing my private practice. No one told me the business challenges and obstacles I would have to overcome in order to be successful. I didn’t even know how to read a simple spreadsheet.”

The Good News

In order to develop the skills which your business will require, there are subject areas which are essential to master to some extent. And if you start now, you will have the benefit of being in college and having the chance to enroll in certain helpful classes which your institution may offer and your schedule may accommodate. Introductory college courses are great for learning the basics in the areas in which you will need to be familiarized.

  1. Accounting: Take a lower division accounting course. You will be responsible for managing the money for your business, and therefore, you will need to understand basic accounting concepts.
  2. Advertising: Seek out courses which deal with the topic of advertising and promotion. If your campus does not offer any, look into online classes which would be convenient and time-efficient. Consider it a hobby instead of another class. Topics which will be helpful are ones that deal with promotional design, cost-effective advertising techniques and anything else that will help your business become prominent in the public eye.
  3. Social Media Marketing: Today’s professional doesn’t just rely on word of mouth, business cards, and a nicely painted sign to increase the traffic flow of their business. Savvy counselors have mastered the world of Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, etc. You may already have these skills under your belt, so begin to think in terms of how to effectively integrate them into the realm of a private counseling practice. Begin to look at counselors who are involved in marketing themselves through social media channels, and notice what you like and what changes you would make. Have fun with this—your imagination is your friend.
  4. Business Plan: Anyone planning on success has some concept of what it means to devise a business plan. Basically this is a well-researched, well thought-out document which analyses costs and projected income. This will be something you will need if you intend to seek out a loan from a bank and/or investor. If your college has a business major, go to the department offices and inquire as to the classes which might be appropriate for your endeavors. If this is not available or practical, begin to read online about what a business plan is and how to come up with one. Even if you do not plan on securing financial backing, a wise business owner always has a plan.
  5. Minor in Business: If you are convinced you will want to go into private practice, you might consider choosing business as your minor. It may sound like something you really do not want to do. However, if you go into private practice it will be a fact that you will be doing business on a daily basis.
  6. Seminars on Small Business: During your quarter or semester breaks, consider attending a small business seminar. It will be a fast and easy way to get some basics under your belt; it will also give you a heads up on what might lie ahead.
  7. Web Design Course: Depending on finances, you may end up having to design a simple website for your practice. But even if you plan on hiring someone else to do it, knowing what you’re paying for is always smart business. Find out what attracts the eye and what doesn’t. Discover what appeals to different age groups and target your clientele.

Ronald D. Jackson MC, discovered that in Washington, a counselor needed a website to earn credibility. He was not able to pay for someone to design his website; he found himself very much in need of advice and instruction:

“I ended up taking an online course in basic web-design. Before that I had no clue what I was doing! I am a counselor! It was a real wake-up call to confront the fact that I needed to understand business.”

The Most Important Thing…

Believe it or not, you have already done the most important thing; you have become aware of the facts. You are now able to turn the tide in your direction and conquer some of the challenges ahead of schedule. The only thing more powerful than your awareness is doing something about it.