The first year of your practice will often terrify you, sometimes delight you, but no matter what, it will teach you more than you ever expected. Throughout graduate school I took classes on practice management. I learned a lot of really practical skills: how to write my bio, the format for my resume, and even how to name my practice. But when I opened for business, I still felt overwhelmed. So I did what I could to keep learning. I met with other business owners and grilled them for their advice, I cleaned out Amazon’s books on practice management, but nothing replaced what I learned by doing. After my first year as a solo practitioner, here are the ten best pieces of advice I can offer.
- Never be afraid to ask for help.
Even though I hungered to start my own practice throughout school, I didn’t know where to start once I graduated. Sure, I had to wait for my license. But what was I supposed to do while I was waiting? So I did the only thing I knew how. I called everyone who graduated before me and took them for coffee, and fired off every question I could think of. After each chat, I added goals and steps to a rapidly growing “To Do List.” Everyone I spoke with came back to some basic pieces of advice: make a budget, find a space, get a good table, build a website, get active on social media, and get yourself business cards. The list soon felt like an insurmountable amount of work. But I assigned each task to a day, or even a week, and soon I had more than enough work to fill the time before the Internet finally produced my license.
I also sought advice from people I knew who had started businesses–even if they were unrelated to acupuncture. They too offered some of the same basic pieces of advice. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help. People want to help others and they remember what it was like to start out. Pick up your phone!
- You don’t have competitors; you have peers.
Throughout your career, but especially when you’re starting out, you’ll feel threatened by other acupuncturists. Surely they have a secret formula to success! They are local celebrities! Your inner critic will speak up, loudly. It’s a negative emotional spiral though, and the best thing you can do is to fight this impulse. Remember the passion you had for helping others that led you to this profession, and hold on to it. Extend it now to include a spirit of generosity towards other acupuncturists. This is not a zero-sum game. When I started my practice I met with two other practitioners in my own town for guidance, and they were wonderful. The other practitioners–even those who you’d think would compete for business—will often be your best resource. They know about our work, but they also know the needs and expectations of your local client base. When I’m out of town, I’ll refer my patients to them, and over time I hope they’ll do the same. Don’t think about your competition; think about your peers.
- Talk to everyone about your work.
Throughout your career, but especially when you’re starting out, think of yourself not just as a health care provider, but as an ambassador of all the benefits of Chinese medicine. To do this, I try to attend every event in my community–often ones that have nothing to do with health or wellness. Building a client base is all about building visibility, and cultivating trust. If someone sees you on Facebook, the local paper, and then at the local fair, they will learn just how you can help them and you’ll demystify Chinese medicine. When your community identifies you as an approachable resource, your business will grow.
- Find free advertising.
Social media is your friend. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, there are so many ways we can promote ourselves. Gone are the days of your face on a park bench, direct mailings, or TV ads with 1-800 numbers. You won’t have patients every day in your first year. So get active on social media! Post regularly on Facebook, share fun photos on Instagram, update your profiles. And differentiate yourself on social media. With technology at our fingertips we can be our own advertisements.
- Decorate your office with “conversation starters.”
Every acupuncturist will seek to cultivate a different kind of atmosphere. But I personally want to bridge the patient-provider divide. I want my office to feel more comfortable than clinical, and I want my patients to identify with me rather than feel distance from me. So I’ve decorated my office with “conversation starters”– things that have nothing to do with acupuncture, but represent interests that my clients may share, or have something to say about. These can drive fun chats between me and patients. I have a mug on my desk from a race I ran. A football from my alma mater sits next to it. Who knows if a patient is also a runner or is Ohio State obsessed? Trinkets like these will remind your patients that you’re a multidimensional person, and not just their health professional.
- Keep updating.
On my first tour of my college, I asked why there was construction everywhere. Maybe the tour guide was just a cynical 19-year-old, but he said that the university wanted to look like it was perpetually growing. I think the same applies to your practice. You want your clients to feel like you’re innovating and successful. I’m not suggesting construction projects– you don’t want to overwhelm patients and people need some familiarity. But for example, once a month I change my format on Facebook or add a new conversation starter to my office. I hope my clients feel that I’m never complacent. Some of these ideas won’t work– many of mine haven’t. But others keep my practice flourishing. If one idea does not work, don’t worry; you will think of another one soon.
- Keep learning.
You might have just graduated and passed your boards but you’ve only just begun the learning process. Embrace the learning curve. The Internet is full of free classes on so many acupuncture topics. Over the course of the past month alone, I’ve spent some down time watching videos on approaches to fertility, knee injuries, and nutrition. We can also get most of our Continuing Education Units online and almost all these will make us better practitioners. If I have a free hour at work, I watch seminars about Chinese medicine or read a book to ensure that I am on my way to becoming a great practitioner. We are lucky to have entered a profession that has so much to teach us, and it’s our responsibility to stay up-to-date.
- Find something you are really good at.
Seek to project confidence. People want to feel they are in the hands of the best. I believe we should treat many types of ailments, but equally important is to find a treatment that interests you so much that you seek expertise, and want to share this with your patients. I like treating headaches and I think I am very good at getting rid of patients’ current and chronic headaches. So, I do extra research on headaches, which gives me confidence when I talk to current and prospective patients. I try to talk to everyone I know who has had a headache and tell them with confidence that I can help them.
- Find your community.
When deciding where to open your practice, think about where you feel most comfortable. I opened my office in the community where I grew up. It is actually on the same block as the grade school I attended! I did this to be near my community because I knew it would support me. While it’s not necessary to stay as close to home as I did, it is important to find a place where you feel a sense of belonging. You’ll have a more intuitive sense of your client’s needs, and your community will want to hasten your success.
- There will be lulls.
Some months I have two new patients and some weeks I’ll have eight. This inconsistency can make you nervous, but this is the nature of all businesses. Many lulls will stem from holidays and school schedules. January might be slow because it is cold and people do not want to leave their homes if they don’t have to. In the beginning of June and end of August, school is ending and beginning and parents are overwhelmed. It is a good time for them to come to the office but most likely they will be too busy to make an appointment. If you do not accept insurance, expect December to be slow because people have met their deductibles and want to see all of their doctors covered by their insurance.
The beginning of spring will be a busy time because people will feel a sense of renewal; they will make appointments. Autumn is cold and flu season and people want to feel better faster. Make sure you are around during those times. Don’t worry too much about the down time. Instead make good use of it. Plan vacations, catch up on work, or tend to your personal life. Most importantly, keep reminding yourself that business will pick up.
These are just a few lessons.
This first year of any business is difficult, and this time may be the most challenging period of your life. There is so much that you can’t plan. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll feel sometimes like you can’t go on. But everyone I’ve consulted agrees that I’ll look back on this time as one of the most fulfilling periods of my life too. There is beauty and meaning in building something. These ten hints are just a few of the things I’ve learned in my first year, many of them by trial and error…and more error. Most importantly though, I’ve kept going.
Dana Fine, L.Ac.
Editor In Chief