Initially, I didn’t have to do anything to promote my practice: colleagues from my day job sent me referrals. Soon, I was seeing 10 to 12 people a week, in addition to spending my regular 50+ hours per week at the clinic. But that’s when I hit my first snag: I had no free time. I wasn’t sleeping enough. Conflicts with my wife increased. I got no exercise and, worse, began eating fast food regularly. Realizing this pattern wasn’t sustainable, I dreamed of quitting my day job and doing private practice full time. How hard could it be? After all, I was getting referrals, doing good work, making good money. If I were in private practice, I thought, I’d have more hours for all those new clients I felt confident would flow my way.
Of course, these rosy images of an untroubled future clashed with what many experienced therapists told me: “Don’t be a fool! Keep your day job. You’re lucky to have one. Private practice is dead! No one can make it that way anymore.” Furthermore, I was sent a flurry of articles about therapists whose private practices had been devastated because they’d ignored managed care (as I planned to do). What if they were right? What if my referrals dried up? Where would the money come from? Was I kidding myself? I rationalized these worries by deciding, quite arbitrarily, that getting to 15 clients a week would somehow prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could succeed in private practice. Assured of my future as a private practitioner, I’d then confidently quit my job. And it actually came to pass: I finally managed to squeeze in 15 clients two weeks in a row, and I gave my notice.
Within three weeks, however, I’d gone from triumph to terror. I had hours and hours of open time slots to fill, but was unable to get more than 20 clients a week consistently. Without the daily contact with therapists at my old clinic, referrals slowed down substantially, and I had absolutely no idea how to promote my practice. When I asked my private-practice colleagues how they managed, they said, “Oh, it goes up and down; that’s just the way it is. Get used to it.” One colleague told me just to say affirmations; another said I should talk to doctors or join the Chamber of Commerce. All this advice seemed unhelpful and lame.
So I bumbled along. Eventually, my wife, Shirley, an MSW, joined my practice. We both loved working to help people find more intimacy in their lives, whether it meant turning a lifeless roommate marriage into a fulfilling partnership, or helping singles avoid repeating the pattern of attracting partners that would hurt, disappoint, or cheat on them. We’d always gotten great feedback on our work, but to make sure we were concentrating on what potential clients needed in this area, we organized a series of focus groups. We contacted the directors of four local singles’ groups and found two couples’ meetings through a church and a synagogue near our office. We provided dinner for these groups, and asked them what types of services they and their friends might want. We asked questions, took copious notes, and got feedback on different workshop ideas and business names.
Without realizing it, we were taking the steps necessary to create a distinctive and viable brand. We wanted to do therapy and workshops for singles and couples from a psychoeducational, rather than a traditional psychodynamic, perspective, and we didn’t want to scare off people who were intimidated by therapy. Based on the focus group feedback, we started a drop-in support group for singles, an eight-week psychoeducational workshop for singles called Creating Lifelong Loving Relationships, and two workshops for couples. Also, we offered individual, couples, and group therapy. We chose the name Relationship Institute, with the tagline “Teaching the world to love.” This name emphasized the learning aspect of our approach, and conveyed the idea that singles who were alone and couples who were unhappy were not that way because of intrapsychic deficits, but because they’d never been taught the essential skills for healthy relationships. Several colleagues made fun of what they said was our highfalutin name, noting that we were too small to be an institute. But undeterred, we marched on.
We hired a graphic designer to create a logo and a professional brochure. The brochure told our story about how we’d spent a great deal of time and money in individual and couples therapy ourselves, learning how to have a more fulfilling relationship. It stated that we could now help others learn to do the same, but much more rapidly and inexpensively. As therapists, we had all the elements of a successful brand: a unique visual image, a unique business name, and an emotionally engaging personal story to tie it all together. We gave free talks about healthy dating practices at singles groups, and performed skits to illustrate red flags in dating. We spoke at churches and community centers on healthy communication for married couples. In the process, we refined our shtick and learned how to promote our brand and tell our story to generate steady referrals. I was soon seeing about 22 clients a week in addition to running two groups and leading bimonthly workshops. Hey, I thought, maybe this isn’t so hard after all.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
We had our first child in 1995, and it soon became more difficult to get out in the community for those business-generating public meetings. We were still taking turns leading workshops in our office, but getting out as a couple became hard to pull off. And it just didn’t work as well when only one of us presented, because our relationship was the living embodiment of our brand. Still, we were doing fine with our income—until our second pregnancy the following year resulted in the birth of twins. Our children’s food, clothing, and medical bills were going to triple. I panicked as the carefully constructed financial spreadsheet I’d created unraveled before my eyes. My only thought was that I needed more clients—a lot more clients. At this point, I learned that having a good brand was necessary but not sufficient on its own for a successful practice. I now needed to go further and learn how to promote the brand more effectively.