Lessons from My First Year in Private Practice

Lessons from My First Year in Private Practice

As promised, in this post I will be sharing the epic lessons I learned during my first year of business.

My successes, my failures, my costly mistakes, and the things I wouldn’t change for the world.

You’ll also learn exactly what I spent during my first year, and exactly how much money I made. The hours I put in, and how the heck I survived it all.

No secrets here, I’m laying it all on the table.

This is going to be a long-ass post, so I hope you stick around and pull out at least one helpful/relatable tidbit as you start your practice.

Full disclosure: I jumped RIGHT into business after passing my RD exam.

I could have gone the usual route & taken a full time job somewhere first. I even poked around on Indeed, Craigslist, etc. for opportunities, but none of them spoke to my soul.

Why fight it? I always knew I was meant to work for myself, so I just went for it right out the gate.

HOWEVER, I would caution AGAINST doing this unless….

  1. You have enough savings to cover your living expenses for 1 full year.
  2. You have a partner who can support you.
  3. You can move back in with your parents.
  4. You have a side-job or jobs to pay the bills without taking up all of your time.

Let’s be real. I had zero savings whatsoever (in fact, I went into debt to start my business), and moving back in with my parents (boyfriend in tow), was a last resort sort of scenario (it would require a move back to the bay area, 6 hours away).

So, thankfully, I lived with my boyfriend who could help split the bills (& still do), and had a few side gigs going to help cover my business expenses & rent.

So, let’s travel back in time to August 2014…

This was my first month in business. I had just passed the RD exam and rented a cute little office inside of a holistic wellness center (with other practitioners offering Chinese medicine, massage, acupuncture, reiki, etc.).

Here’s a peek at my office space:


Photo Jul 07, 2 22 21 PM

It was pretty tiny, but it fit the bill. At the time, I thought I wanted to work with people on emotional eating, so setting up the chairs next to each other gave the room an inviting counseling-like feel.

And here’s what the building looked like 🙂 Right on Venice Blvd!

Photo Jul 07, 2 23 14 PM

So there I was… fully credentialed, with an office, and ready to go.

Now what??

I’ll admit, my first year was all about trial and error.

You can THINK you know exactly what you want to do, but until you get into the real world and try it, you’ll never know for sure.

I learned so freaking much during my first year as a dietitian, that the easiest way to share it all is probably as a list of “lessons”.

So here we go, a list of lessons I learned (the hard way) during my first year of business:

Lesson #1: Niche matters.

The NUMBER ONE thing I learned during my first year, was that having a niche absolutely matters.

When I first started out, and people asked what I did, I would reply with “I’m a dietitian.” End of sentence. End of explanation.

Since I didn’t have much experience counseling people or running a practice, I really didn’t know how to explain what I did. And I was deathly afraid of pigeon-holing myself. I worried that if I told people I worked with mindful eating, for example, I might miss out on an opportunity to help someone with diabetes or picky eating.

I FELT like I was qualified to work with MANY types of people, but I had no idea what my favorite type of clients would be.

I later learned that successful marketing begins with identifying your ideal customer, and figuring out how to speak to their needs. Since I had no idea who my ideal client was, my marketing efforts were falling on deaf ears.

By speaking to everyone, I was speaking to no one.

Lesson #2: It’s okay to find your niche by DOING.

Yes, I know I just said having a niche is super important, BUT, for me, it was impossible to know what my niche should be without getting my feet wet & experimenting.

I was initially convinced that I would love working with people on intuitive/mindful eating.

After all, my background before becoming a dietitian was in mindfulness research. It was right up my alley.

I bought tons of books on the topic and read read read. I took notes, I created exercises and handouts to do with my clients, power point slides for my virtual clients, and everything.

But when it came down to it, something was off. Although I THOUGHT I would love that type of counseling, and I was told I was good at it by my clients, I had this gut feeling that it wasn’t true to my life’s purpose.

Some of the sessions were hugely emotional, and I had trouble separating from my client’s problems and not bringing them home to ruminate on them. Instead of looking forward to my work days with joy, I found myself feeling drained and uncertain of myself. I had placed this huge burden on myself to solve everyone’s problems. And if that didn’t happen at the end of a 1 hour session, I felt a sense of failure or disappointment in myself. (And yes, this was totally self-imposed).

Plus, I missed my passion for science & cooking. I hadn’t done a great job thinking about how to incorporate my unique skills and passions into my career.

I jumped into a cookie-cutter “private practice” career path without taking a sec to think about whether it was a good match for ME.

So, what did I do? I kept experimenting.

I tried other niches. I gave a talk at a library on childhood nutrition, a class at a yoga studio on division of responsibility of feeding, a session on healthy eating in college, and even a couple’s session with husband and wife!

I basically took anything that came my way, while simultaneously creating opportunities for myself to try counseling on new topics.

I’ll admit, by the end of the year, I was burnt out and overworked, and not very successful.

BUT, I had confidence that this was all part of the growing experience, and that I would eventually find my way.

Lesson #3: Feel the fear and do it anyway.

This was a BIG one.

Especially since I technically had a security blanket with my boyfriend & side jobs. It was EASY to shy away from taking risks or putting myself out there. (I’ll admit, I’m a natural introvert.)

But nothing gets better without some good old fashioned action. You can think, and plan, and plot away, but each day that passes by is one more day you could have spent actually achieving your goals. (Trust me, I’m STILL working on this one).

Stop waiting for the perfect time. Stop waiting until you finish that one last credential. Stop waiting until your parents approve. Stop waiting until someone gives you permission. Stop waiting. Just do it.

Lesson #4: I’m worth it.

Each time a new potential client called me, I would get a flurry of nerves. My palms would sweat, my heart would race, my stomach would drop to my butt, and my mind would move a mile a minute, trying to answer questions correctly and not “mess up”!

Starting a private practice can bring up all sorts of self-worth issues.

Enter the negative self talk:

“Who am I to give people advice?”

“Who am I to charge full price for my services?”

“Who am I to broadcast my stuff all over social media?”

“Who am I to act like an expert in my field?”

Yep, that all comes up. And probably more.

This is where connecting with other entrepreneurs can really help. Talking to other people who are in the same situation as you can help you feel more “normal”, and bring your (sometimes unrealistic) expectations back down to reality. The fact is, MOST entrepreneurs take about 3 years to really become successful. Those “$10k in 30 days” stories are mostly just marketing ploys, and not a great reflection of the realities of entrepreneurship.

If you can’t find any other entrepreneurs to connect with in your area, you can totally find a tribe of them online. I personally love Denise Duffield-Thomas’s Lucky Bitch Blog, especially this post about her 1st year in business. (It was the inspiration for my post, in fact!)

I also enjoy reading Pinch of Yum’s Income Reports. It’s so reassuring to know that in their first month of monetizing their website, they earned just $21. Flash forward 5 years later, and they’re making over $30k/month. Amazing. And a true testament to the value of persistence!

If you’re a dietitian and a part of the AND (Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics), I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend joining the Nutrition Entrepreneurs DPG (dietetic practice group) and the Dietitians in Integrative & Functional Medicine DPG, and signing up for the Electronic Mailing Lists (EMLs).

The mailing lists connect you with thousands of other nutrition entrepreneurs who are doing the exact same thing, and are at various stages in their businesses. You can email a question out to the group or search archived messages for answers to almost any question. I found it most helpful for tips on taking insurance (even though I ultimately chose not to), treatment considerations for various health conditions, and motivation.

I haven’t done this, but you can also sign up for a free mentor & have conference calls with them and their other mentees. Pretty awesome! Basically like a free mastermind group.

Well anyways, I CAN say that the self-doubt has gotten better with experience, but speaking to new clients can still give me nerves. But hey, you’ve just got to get out there and do it, knowing that with familiarity and repetition, the nerves will calm down, and success will come.

Lesson #5: Opportunities don’t just fall into your lap.

Expanding your circle and putting yourself out there (both online and in real life) are KEY to building trust in your brand.

The truth is, people have to trust you to buy from you, and the best way to build trust is to consistently show up and put yourself out there.

As tempting as it is to sit back and wait for the clients to rush to you, that’s not how it happens when you’re first starting out. It’s YOUR responsibility to get out there and create connections and opportunities.

In my first year, I did this in a few ways:

Approaching farmers markets.

I approached the director of my local farmers market and asked if there was any way I could get involved by running a booth or doing cooking/nutrition demonstrations.

Luckily, this market was rather new & on the smaller side, so they were very open to collaboration. While other more established markets might require a payment to run a booth, this one was able to add me in for free. I ended up running a booth during the months that the county-sponsored “Ask a Dietitian” Program was not there. Win-win!

Here’s a shot of me at the market 🙂

Photo Nov 09, 9 47 00 AM

I basically sat at the table with some activities and handouts & answered people’s questions. I also made sure to capitalize on the marketing opportunity, and had my business rack cards available & and an email sign up sheet.

My rack cards basically included more information about me as a dietitian, how I could help people, and my contact information. They went over well, and I think they were a great idea to have, even from day one!

Here’s another pic of a farmer’s market day, when I did a booth on the health benefits of cooking with spices. My absolute favorite booth topic, by far!

Photo Jan 18, 12 16 22 PM

Photo Jan 18, 9 34 38 AM

I did the farmers market events three times, and ended up getting one client out of it…. three months later. HAHA. Sad face. I definitely had my expectations set WAY too high.

I’d estimate that during those 3 events I talked to about 150 people total. 1 client out of 150 contacts = a 0.6% conversion rate. From what I’ve read, a 1% conversion rate is about average, so that’s not too bad for my first attempt!

I also contacted local yoga studios.

When I originally contacted them, I was proposing a talk (or series of talks) on prenatal nutrition. I don’t have the exact numbers anymore, since I switched email addresses, but I believe I contacted about 10 studios and heard back from 1. Yay, 10% response rate!

I ended up meeting with the owner of the studio to come up with a class topic that would most interest her clientelle (dealing with picky eating), and picked a date. Then I made flyers and hung them in the studio, and at the suggestion of the owner, did some marketing in person.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 3.20.54 PM

Slow clap to the owner of the studio, because I’m 100% sure that’s the only reason people signed up. I ended up going by the studio the week before the class was scheduled to talk to moms at the end of the toddler yoga classes. By doing this, I had 4 people sign up for the class. Woohoo! I probably talked to about 30 people, so that’s a 13% conversion rate! Awesome!

We charged $30 for the class, and I got $15 and the yoga studio owner got $15 per sign up. So, I made $60 for that 1.25 hour class, which actually wasn’t too bad and I probably would have made a profit for my time on the next one if I had done it again. (But I didn’t, because it still didn’t feel right).

So, long story short, you’ve got to bring the opportunities to yourself, and not just wait for them to fall out of the sky.

The worst thing you’ll get is a “No”, and that’s really not that bad!

One thing I DIDN’T do in my first year was approach doctors (probably because I lacked confidence in my message). More on that in my Year 2 post!

Lesson #6: I probably didn’t need an office space.

In case you couldn’t tell, I was doing A LOT of stuff outside of my office. Working side jobs, hustling around town to meet people & make connections. Guess what I WASN’T spending a lot of time doing? Actually seeing clients in my office!

Looking back, I think I would have saved A LOT of money (like $750/month x 12 = $9,000 *sob*), if I had started without an office. The smarter move probably would have been to see people at coffee shops, virtually, in their homes, or in rent by the hour office space. (All of these would have worked for me, since I wasn’t taking insurance). Once I built up a large enough clientele, I think I would have known when the time was right to jump into full time office space.

As much as I originally thought having an office space would make me legit, I don’t actually think it mattered that much to my clients, and I ended up seeing many of my clients virtually via Skype anyways. Oops! You live and you learn.

Lesson #7: The hustle is REAL, but self care is still important.

Year one was all about work. I’d say I was probably putting in at least 60 hour weeks (across all my jobs) during my first year in business. But, it was all stuff that would help me grow in the future (creating systems and paperwork, marketing, etc.), so it didn’t feel like a waste.

I will say, however, that I really dropped the ball on self-care during this time. I was go-go-go, work-work-work all the time, and never took time for ME (or my relationship, or my friends).

THANKFULLY, I have BEYOND AWESOME friends and family, and they all understood, even when I had to flake out on things because of business or financial reasons.

Looking back though, I didn’t need to push it that hard. Everything comes in time, and 30 minutes each day for a nice workout or lunch break with Aaron would have gone a long way in managing my stress levels and filling up my love tank (yep, thats a RHOC reference. Shout out to Vicki!).

I know it’s easier said than done, but I highly recommend coming up with a self-care routine and sticking to it. The benefits will come back to you, both in business and your personal life.

Lesson #8: Celebrate every win, even the small ones.

Alright, here’s where it gets real. It’s freaking hard to get clients! Especially when you don’t have a clear branding message, like me, circa year 1.

Here’s the true breakdown of how many clients I saw my 1st year.

Keep in mind, my time was split between multiple jobs, so you might have more success if you go full-time right off the bat. These are the results I got from putting in probably 20 hours of work per week on my business.

Aug ’14: 8 sessions
Sept ’14: 6 sessions
Oct ’14: 10 sessions
Nov ’14: 8 sessions
Dec ’14: 2 sessions
Jan ’15: 7 sessions
Feb ’15: 9 sessions
Mar ’15: 5 sessions
Apr ’15: 6 sessions
May ’15: 6 sessions
June ’15: 4 sessions
July ’15: 1 session

So, I averaged about 6 sessions with clients per month (1 or 2 per week). Keep in mind though, that I was just starting out, and didn’t charge my full rate for many of these clients (Although I totally could have. That was my own money block in full force). Most of these were long term “package” clients that I saw for at least 3 months.

Most of these clients were family, friends, or co-workers, and only 3 of the sessions were with complete strangers that booked with me after finding me on Google or meeting me at one of my events. And you know what? That’s totally okay. I’m so blessed that I could test the waters with people I know, love, and respect and that they could help me find my niche.

In sum, I made about $5,400 from nutrition-related ventures in my first year. That’s roughly $450/month. Which… if you do the math… didn’t even pay for my office rent. Plus, I’d say I held about 50% of those session virtually, via Skype or Facetime. Sigh. LESSON LEARNED on that one!

Lesson #9: Be prepared to be in the red financially.

So, as you can see, I was not profitable in my first year of business. In fact, I was pretty deep in the red. All I really did was recoup the money I spent on STARTING my business & furnishing my office.

But you know what, that’s cool. I seriously learned a lot, and most importantly, I survived!

Here are some extra things I spent money on in my first year:

  • Dropbox subscription for cloud storage ($10/month)
  • Acuity Scheduling subscription ($10/month) for online scheduling
  • Hiscox General Liability Insurance ($28/month)
  • Business Banking Fee ($10/month)
  • Nutrition Books- (~$150)
  • Stock photos (~$25)
  • My own health insurance through Covered CA (~$100/month)
  • Printing fees (~$100)
  • B-School by Marie Forleo & Lucky Bitch Money Bootcamp by Denise Duffield-Thomas ($2200) (the bootcamp is an affiliate link)
  • Plus all the other startup fees listed in my last article.

Lesson #12: Investing in yourself is always worth it.

I’m guessing you’re looking at that last list of expenses and saying “What the heck are B-School & Lucky Bitch, and why did you drop 2 grand on them??”

A valid question!

B-School (and the Lucky Bitch Money Bootcamp (that’s an affiliate link) I got as a sign-up bonus) were HUGE contributing factors to my re-branding and refocusing of my business in year two. And I have to say, I am a jillion times happier because of it.

B-School & Lucky Bitch are both online programs for entrepreneurs (mostly women).

B-school “helps you build a business and life that you love”, and Lucky Bitch helps you overcome money blocks (beliefs about money and your own self-worth that are holding you back).

Both courses have modules with videos and training that you work through on your own to help you accomplish your business and life goals. And guess what, they work!

In addition to the business, media, and marketing training they give you, the community of women (and some men) that you meet is absolutely priceless. In fact, I even ended up launching a side venture with a fellow B-Schooler at the end of Year 1 (more details to come in my Year 2 post).

Lesson #10: Start collecting emails NOW.

Even though I had no active email list in my first year, I’m SO GLAD I had the foresight to still collect people’s email addresses. Every time I did an in-person event, like a talk or a farmers market, or any time I had a new client, I passed around an email sign up sheet or asked them if they would like to receive my e-newsletter.

I really didn’t start to work on my e-newsletter until year two, but you don’t know how great it felt to START my list with 100 people on it, instead of 0.

Many new entrepreneurs put all of their energy into gathering “social proof” by gaining followers on social media. Yes, having a lot of followers can get people’s attention, and MAYBE turn followers into clients for you (or get you exposure with the right people), but the unfortunate part is that you don’t own that list of people.

If Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram decide to change their feed algorithms (which they all have done), you could be left with little control over how much of your audience actually sees your content.

In contrast, if you have your fans/clients email addresses, you have a DIRECT connection to them, and can send them messages/content/offers whenever you want and know that it will at least hit their inbox (whether they open it is another story). That’s a win in my book.

Lesson #11: Always listen to your gut.

Throughout all the confusion and trial and error of my first year, I always let my gut guide the way.

What is your “gut”?

Well, as my mom explained to me when I was about 6 years old… Everyone has a little voice inside of them that tells them when things are right or wrong, and that voice is always correct. Trust that voice, and you won’t be steered wrong.

Thanks to that HUGELY important lesson, I’ve always had a pretty good read on my gut/conscious. While I don’t always get a huge hit when things are right, I know right away when something is wrong. I almost always listen to that voice (or at least eventually), and it never steers me wrong. I can say my biggest regrets in life are when I ignored that voice.

So it is with business.

In my opinion, everyone is born here on earth to live out a certain purpose, and for many, their line of work is intricately linked to that purpose. Your gut / inner voice / conscious is there to guide you to your ultimate life purpose, and can be one of your biggest resources if you learn to tap into it.

Start by just paying attention to your emotions and bodily sensations when you are making decisions. Your physical and emotional reactions to your thoughts can reveal a lot, even if consciously you still feel confused.

Lesson #13: Follow the 1% infinity principle.

And finally, the best thing you can remember in the midst of your first year in business, is to follow the 1% infinity rule. Yep, I got this idea from Bjork Ostrom’s Food Blogger Pro Podcast. (My fave podcast EVER!)

The basic principle is that if you just try to get 1% better at something, every day, for the rest of infinity, you’ll eventually be great at it.

My favorite thing about this idea is that it really brings the BIG PICTURE into play. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed in your first year of business with an endless to-do list and a constant feeling of “never-enough”.

But if you can just calm down & focus on just improving one small thing each day (maybe signing up for a domain name, adding a pop-up to your site, creating a new form, reaching out to 5 contacts, etc.), when you look back 1 year from now, you’ll be amazed at what you’ve accomplished.

This all ties back into the idea that small actions, taken every day, are what accomplishes your dreams. Not dreaming, not talking, not planning, not learning, but DOING. (Yes, all those other things are important too, but nothing will ever happen without action).

I sincerely hope this super long blog post has given you some insight into what the first year of (part-time) private practice can look like.

Of course, everyone’s stories are different, and some may reach success sooner, or some may take longer, but that’s okay. Each journey is valid, and each journey is there for a reason. Embrace yours, and follow your dreams!

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6 thoughts on “Lessons from My First Year in Private Practice

  1. Hi Erica!

    Thank you for this! I too, have started my own business venture this past year and have very similiar experiences. It is reassuring to hear your perspective. It is such a learning curve! I love the process of it but I am happy I have some secure side jobs to help pay the bills in the mean time 🙂 thanks for your blog posts. I enjoy reading them. Take care.

    1. Hi Alejandro! It’s so wonderful to hear from you! So glad my post was helpful in some way 🙂 Let me know if you have any more questions I may be able to answer! You’ve got this.

  2. Hi Erica,
    I’m finishing up my dietetic internship and discovered this post at just the right time. Thank you so much for such a detailed description of your first year! I’m contemplating starting my own business after taking the exam (and hopefully passing) and really appreciate all of your insight.

  3. Hi Erica,
    Great blog post! It really helps me build the courage to venture as a private practice dietitian here in Ireland as a side job to my full-time clinical job. It feels like a huge task, but seeing it broken down like this, and seeing the struggles others are facing, makes it a more real jump!

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