Step into Private Practice
by Sandra Hewett (April 2011)
Summer is just a few assignments away and for many of us it will herald a new future as a qualified counsellor. Now what? With mental health funding uncertain there may be fewer public sector jobs available. If you are planning to make counselling your living here are some thoughts.
I said ‘make counselling your living’ rather than ‘your business’, or ‘your profession’. Many counsellors are uncomfortable with the idea of making money out of others’ distress (women in particular), or even simply with making money. If this chimes with you then it is worth reflecting on why this is – even better, you could take it to therapy! What other emotions do you have around setting up? Fear and procrastination are very likely, but knowledge can help build confidence so read on...
The premise of this article, therefore, is that you want to work as a counsellor in private practice, pay the bills and earn a decent living. The first step, then is to be comfortable with money and understand or learn about finances and financial planning.
The Business Plan
The business plan is the place to start. This is the what, why, when, where and how of your practice. It is a useful process to write down what you offer because, having been a student and volunteer for at least three years your self-perception needs adjusting. Here are some of the other steps.
Where to work
For me, the starting point is where I will practice. The options include:
· Working from home in a dedicated room
· Renting (or buying) a small, commercial property that can be fitted out
· Renting rooms from or joining an existing therapy practice
· Renting rooms from or joining the team of an alternative health practice (osteopathy, for instance)
· Running a service in a GP surgery
Not all of these options will be available to you nor will they all appeal, but if two or three are possible then you need to weigh up pros and cons, costs and benefits.
The serious stuff
This will lead to an important decision: how to set up legally. The simplest way for someone working self employed on their own is sole trader, but other options are limited company, partnership (with one or more others) and social enterprise. The Business Link website has advice on this. Which leads on to...
Where can you get business advice? Business Link has been the Government’s support service for enterprise for many years (I have used it myself a number of times). Due to public sector cutbacks the face to face advice and training service is ending in November, so if you want to take advantage of this do it quickly. Their expertise is usually general so don’t expect an in depth understanding of a counsellor’s marketplace. However, the website has a great deal of really useful advice and signposting for all aspects of small business. There are plans to start a mentoring service, although this is likely to be online not face to face. Support via the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) has also been cut.
Business finances must be kept separate from personal ones, so basic bookkeeping is essential. You don’t have to have an accountant, but you need to complete a self assessment tax return if you are not on PAYE. Company accounts must be submitted to Companies House if you are a limited company (and they may need to be audited). Remember, compliance is essential and I have found my accountant earns her fees in the tax saved anyway. But it is also important to understand financial basics yourself so you know how your business is doing.
You will need a business bank account and here you can access advice about financial planning. Simply put, this is money out (marketing, telephone, rent, memberships etc) versus money in (number of hours times hourly fee). Don’t expect to make very much profit in the first year, so plan for a loan or income from another source for a few months at least. Whether the bank will lend to you as a startup is another matter.
Another aspect of the business plan is to look at risk. Insurance covers much of this aspect and BACP membership with regard to complaints. More than this though: sit down and ask yourself, ‘What is my risk profile?’ How much money can you risk in setting up your practice? What kind of clients are you prepared to see (and ethically, are you trained for)? How safe do you want to be (working alone or with others nearby, for instance)? Brainstorming what could go wrong and planning for this is also useful. Sickness, loss of premises, non-payment of fees all need to be considered.
Getting clients in
Marketing is a big area of study. Who are you targeting, who are your competitors, how will you describe yourself and your service and how will you get noticed by potential clients? A web presence is essential as is printed literature. It needs to be accurate, look professional and pitch counselling in an accessible way.
Support is vital so consider what kind of networking suits you. Meeting potential clients may not be easy, but other counsellors and health practitioners can be important referrers as well as support.
Building a successful practice is a big challenge and this is in addition to developing as a good counsellor. There might be some false starts along the way as business fails to develop, but mistakes can be learning opportunities. The key is not to sink too much money into very uncertain ventures. Arm yourself with bags of courage and enthusiasm in equal measure and good luck!
Sandra Hewett is author of A Woman’s Guide to Working for Herself (How to Books). Available on Amazon. She is a career and enterprise coach and is in her second year of a Foundation Degree in Counselling