Are you a dietitian looking to start a private practice and don’t even know where to start?
I get a lot, and I mean a LOT of questions from other dietitians and RDs-to-be asking me not only how I got started in private practice, but how I was able to be so successful so quickly.
So, for my own sake of not having to repeat myself multiple times, I’ve compiled this handy guide for you!
TIP #1: Niche, niche, niche
As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. The riches are in the niches. Get really really clear, I mean laser-focused, on who you want to serve, and then speak ONLY to that person in all of your communications.
I’m sorry to say I had a jumpstart on this one, with over 15 years working in NYC advertising as a copywriter before going back to school to become a RD, but you don’t have to have a degree in English or be a marketing guru to effectively communicate with your tribe (gahd, I hate that word…anyone else?) But it’s true. If you picture your ideal customer avatar as you’re writing everything, then the right people will find you.
You want them to feel like you’re writing directly to them. Which I frequently hear back in my discovery calls. Potential clients tell me, “I felt like you were reading my mind with your last post, so I had to get on the phone with you.”
Above all, do not be afraid of the clients you’re “missing out on” by niching. Remember that old saying, “If you’re trying to talk to everyone, you’re really talking to no one”? It’s true. Plus, there are so many areas of private practice available for dietitians, wouldn’t you rather be an expert in one area vs. a dabbler in many? I know if I needed brain surgery, I’d rather see the best neurosurgeon in the field vs a general surgeon…wouldn’t you?
In the beginning, you’ll be scared to turn clients down, because money is money, and you’re not making any, right? I will tell you that every client I’ve ever regretted taking was outside my niche. I really wish I had referred out to one of the other local RDs I know. Why? Because it’s more work. When you’re an expert in your niche, all of your materials, all of your protocols, etc, are geared toward that condition. Taking a client who’s struggling with something you don’t often work with means you have to develop everything from scratch, do a lot of research, scramble for materials, etc. You’re serving the client better by referring them to someone who specializes in that area.
But you do you — you gotta do what you’re comfortable with. If you’re a HAES dietitian, you’re probably not going to be the best fit for someone wanting help with a keto weight loss plan. Pass them on. But if it’s something that you CAN help with, there’s no shame in taking clients who aren’t the “perfect” fit at the beginning to keep your private practice filled! Working exclusively with difficult fertility nutrition cases and hormone imbalances, sometimes it was refreshing for me to have an “easy” client. Obviously, the more clients you have, the less you’ll have to worry about this.
TIP #2: Get to know your audience
Instead of writing about what you want to tell your audience, or what you think your audience wants to hear, here’s a crazy thought: Ask them.
It’s so easy these days to post “this or that” polls in Instagram stories, to ask for a reply to your latest email, to post a poll in a Facebook group, that it’s just silly not to take advantage.
You can also find out where they hang out and then go hang out there. And I’m not just talking about virtual places like Facebook groups or Reddit subs. Your ideal client shops at Trader Joe’s? The produce department is a fantastic place to eavesdrop on some conversations, peek into other people’s carts, etc. Take notes and USE THE WORDS THEY USE (eg, my clients don’t say “menstrual cycles”…they say “periods”; they don’t say “hirsutism,” they say “facial hair”). Words matter. Once you get started in your private practice, you’ll feel more comfortable with the lingo YOUR clients use.
TIP #3: Don’t be afraid to spend money
All the mindset coaches will tell you it’s better to come from an abundance mindset vs a scarcity mindset, and that’s an approach I’ve used in building my private practice. You’ve got to spend money to make money.
For me, it was important that my interactions with clients were nothing but professional from the start. Not a ramshackle system of free (not-HIPAA-compliant) Zoom calls or Google Hangouts, Google Drive or Dropbox documents, etc. And I didn’t want my personal contact info to be publicly available either.
So I invested in a private practice management system from the start, even though I made literally no money in my first 3 months in practice. I kept thinking, if you build it, they will come. And they did. And I’m sure glad I had the systems in place to handle it once my nutrition practice became extremely busy.
After testing out a few EHRs, I went with Practice Better. A few reasons for this: It had HIPAA-compliant video chat, client messaging, and photo food tracking capabilities. Clients can book a discovery call (or any appointment) with me without having to email with me back & forth to find a time. I was able to customize all of the intake forms and chart styles I wanted and I now have my library of handouts housed there. I could incorporate my branding and have a fax line for physicians to send referrals to. And it has the ability to create programs & educational modules built right in. Pretty slick.
You can save on Practice Better by clicking this link.
Another thing I spent money on from the start was the email system I use. Sure, I could have used the free version of Mailchimp, but I’ve used Mailchimp before and HATED it, so I wanted something both intuitive to use and that could grow with me. After a lot of research, I ended up going with ConvertKit, and I’ve been super happy. Not only do they make setting up automatic email sequences dummy-proof, they allow you to tag subscribers into segments and also have (pretty basic, but workable) landing pages for your free downloads. And the price doesn’t go up until you hit over 1,000 subscribers.
Click here to sign up for ConvertKit.
Besides those two tools, one other thing I spent money on at first was a VOIP phone line, which is essential for any private practice. (Google Voice didn’t have local exchanges left, so I went with Line2). I also got a domain-branded email address for $5/month through Google (because nothing looks less professional than [NutritionBiz]@gmail.com. C’mon, you better than that.
Because I see clients in person as well as virtually, I also found an office being subleased on Craigslist in a prime location for a ridiculously low rate by the day. Again, even so, the first 3 months I lost money overall, but it was worth it to me to have the business address and the storefront so I could start being found on Google locally. Do NOT go crazy spending a lot on rent. If you’re lucky enough to have a cooperative workspace in your city, that’s definitely an option. I considered a spot in a local physical therapist’s office that rented by the hour, but you had to sign up for time in advance, and at 6 hours a day, 2 days a week, $20/hour rapidly turned into $960/month. Way too much for just starting out!
Remember that renting a space is not a lifetime commitment. I actually only ended up keeping that office for my first year, as a better opportunity (with free parking!) popped up. But by then I could financially handle a bigger commitment. Your space can grow and change as your business changes! (Someday, I’d love an office with a kitchen space for cooking classes!) So, it may feel like a big commitment at the time, but it’s really not. A perk of subleasing my first space was that it was already furnished, so low start-up costs for me!
One way that helps me decide if a cost is “worth it” is to think about cost in terms of how many clients it would take me to “earn” it. If I think about it that way, my Practice Better & ConvertKit subscriptions together are still less than 1 client. My meal planning software is a fraction of 1 client. It helps put it in perspective, especially when you consider the value it helps you offer your clients.
TIP #4: Network locally and online
So, you started your business. Now, how are people going to find your private practice?
Join local networking groups, even non-business related-ones. Several clients and collaboration opportunities have come to me from joining a local feminist group. I was also invited to join a local chapter of the BNI, but the price tag was hefty for someone just starting out, and I don’t know what kind of new business owner has time for a weekly meeting plus all those coffee dates with other members. Certainly not this new biz owner. Hard pass!
I also try to get myself out there for talks in the community every couple of months or so. Every little bit helps.
Go to conferences and join boards & DPGs. Hands down, the best career decision I’ve made thus far is being on the Dietitians in Integrative & Functional Medicine board as Social Media Chair. I am inspired every single day by what the people in that group are doing. There are hundreds of opportunities to get more involved in the groups that share your interests.
The Nutrition Entrepreneurs DPG is another great one if you’re going into business for yourself. They have a TON of free archived webinars that I made extensive use of in the beginning.
I also joined my state AND board right away. Trust me…they WANT youthful energy & new ideas!
And I know conferences are expensive, but they are totally worth it in terms of the networking opportunities. Last year I went to FNCE and this year I’m going to the Today’s Dietitian conference, in addition to my state meetings (which I happen to organize). I’m always more excited about meeting online RD pals IRL than I am about any of the presentations.
A lot of RDs have had success listing their businesses on HealthProfs. Honestly, I haven’t gotten a large number of clients in my niche from there, but I keep it, primarily because having a profile there as well as having the “verified by HealthProfs” button on my page boosts my SEO (aka, makes my page appear higher in Google searches).
If you want to try HealthProfs free for 6 months, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a link.
Don’t forget to join dietitian Facebook groups, too! You’ll learn a ton and meet tons of RDs doing what you want to be doing!
Finally, remember that social media is meant to be social! Don’t just drop a post & ghost! Scroll down and comment on other RD’s posts! Reply to their stories in DMs. You’ll start to form relationships with people you’re aligned with. (Which will lead to opportunities & referrals down the road). I’ve heard other RDs complain that most of their social media followers are other RDs. This is not a bad thing, I promise you. I can’t even tell you how many referrals I’ve gotten from other RDs as well as RD clients (because, see #1 niching, above. An RD working in clinical who needs some help figuring out a fertility nutrition plan for herself or has recently been diagnosed with PCOS is going to come see me…just as I’d go to a renal RD or pediatric RD or oncology RD if I needed someone in those specialties).
TIP #5: Up your social media game
Gone are the days when you could get away with a pathetic social media profile.
My biggest tip is that you can’t do it all. So pick one platform, and stick with it till you master it. Ideally the one where your ideal client hangs out the most.
For me, Instagram has been the easiest to grow my private practice, and approximately 90% of my clients find me there. Facebook is nearly impossible to get new leads on these days without paying for ads. But new clients find me every single day on Instagram just by the hashtags I use and the strategies I employ to really speak to my ideal client.
Feel like you don’t know where to start? I can’t recommend the Beat the Algorithm course enough. I was doing pretty well at growing my IG account, but completing this course really helped me skyrocket it. I am NOT a millennial…but I wanted to learn from them how they maximize this platform for success, because, face it, they’ve got the market cornered as far as IG success goes. My philosophy is to always go to the people who are doing it best to learn from. Plus, as far as course investments go, it’s pretty low cost! Definitely a HUGE value for the price!
Click here to check out Beat the Algorithm.
Of course, I have a presence on ALL the social media accounts (Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram), but my focus is really on Instagram. Twitter I push from Facebook and Instagram. Facebook I put minimal effort into, and only share when I have a new article or a new quote. I should probably work harder on it, but honestly, the return on my time investment on FB is very very low compared with IG, so I don’t bother much. I literally just go there to see what’s up in the RD groups.
So, I’ve kind of let FB go. But I know how important a Pinterest presence is to growing website views, especially for a food/nutrition site. Honestly I just didn’t have the bandwidth to keep up with posting there daily, and was about to outsource it, but then a friend introduced me to Tailwind. Freakin’ gamechanger. After a couple of hours spent initially setting it all up, I now spend about 5 minutes every 2 weeks planning out my posts, and have grown my website views exponentially. Literally the best $100 I have spent on my business thus far (and much cheaper than outsourcing!). I only use it for Pinterest so far, because I actually enjoy being on Instagram daily, but they do have it available for both.
Click here to save $15 on Tailwind.
Another must-have tool is Canva, or what I refer to as “design for dummies.” You can get away with the free version, but the paid version allows you to resize quickly and to save your brand colors & logo. So I pay extra for the savings in time. Not only do I make my IG posts here, but I also make handouts for clients and downloadable freebies using Canva.
Other tools I use in my private practice
I also wanted to share a few tools that were crucial to my business success as I was getting started in private practice.
If you’re just getting started and not feeling super confident with your protocols, The Functional Nutrition Library is super helpful. It has info & protocols on dozens (hundreds?) of conditions. Whenever I get a client with an issue I hadn’t encountered before (hello fibromyalgia, mast cell activation disorder, etc.), I always check here before digging into Google or PubMed. Chances are, Erica has already done the digging for me. And again, this one’s super affordable.
Another fantastic resource is the DietitianHQ Society. It’s basically a low-cost, no risk way to join a mastermind geared entirely towards dietitians. Monthly topics help you grow your business, and monthly meetings and open office hours keep you accountable. Heather is the creator of the RD Symposium and she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to growing a private practice — or any nutrition business! The best part is getting to know other RDs better who are also working on growing their businesses. Good deal!
And after I had a roster of more than a few clients in my private practice, it was time for me to invest in some meal planning software. I researched several, and the one that met my needs the best was That Clean Life for Business. I rarely use it to make meal plans, per se, but in less than 10 minutes I can send clients “20 gluten-free, high protein breakfast ideas” or “10 low-carb crockpot meals” or “20 meal prep lunch ideas,” etc. It’s also great for developing downloadable freebies and for use in any programs you develop (a lot of the meal planning programs out there don’t allow for using the recipes in paid products, so if developing online courses is your eventual goal, be aware of the rights issues when making your decision).
Be sure to select the business plan for full access to its features. Special diets (eg, low-FODMAP, etc) aren’t available on the personal accounts. Again, it costs money, but it’s totally worth it in terms of time saved and added value you can provide to your clients. (And again, the cost is only the fraction of 1 client.)
To save money, I designed my website on Wix. It’s easy for me to navigate and works (for now). Full disclosure, I plan on paying someone to move it over to WordPress later this year (which is better for recipes & SEO). I’ve worked in WordPress before and know that I don’t even know what I don’t know, and frankly, I’d rather spend my time doing the things I’m good at, so this was a good compromise for me at the beginning. [UPDATE: My website has now been redone in WordPress by the fantastic Jess Creatives. Worth every penny!]
Other tips & tricks in starting a private practice:
- DON’T make a ton of handouts — you can make them as you go along or purchase what you need off of RD2RD.com.
- DON’T bother signing up to be an Amazon Affiliate right from the start. You have to make more than a certain amount over the first 90 days to keep it open, and having to reopen it after they close it is a big pain in the arse. You will NOT have enough website views in the first few months to support it.
- DO consider taking discount or free clients in the beginning, even though the business coaches will tell you not to. I put a call out on my personal Facebook page looking for my ideal client and offered 3 sessions in return for helping me test my processes and testimonials. I got dozens of requests and ended up working with 3 clients who most closely fit my niche. Again, I was not busy in those first months, so for me, it was worth the time investment it in terms of the good reviews. And being able to test my video conferencing, forms, etc, with non-judgmental clients helped me to feel more confident when I did have paying clients.
- DO take advantage of those quiet early days in your business to set up systems. You won’t have that time for long, and if your systems aren’t solid, your business is going to be a wreck. I’m talking things like how are you going to measure your performance metrics month to month, your accounting, how you’re going to follow up with potential clients, what your funnels are, creating free downloads & writing those email nurture sequences, etc. Get that sh*t nailed down.
- DO take care of all of the basics: LLC, business license, licensing, certification, NPI, professional liability & general liability insurance, etc. Duh.
- DON’T pay for Facebook ads / boosted posts in the beginning — running ads to a cold audience is not going to gain you anything if you don’t know what you’re doing. Once you have a freebie available for download, you can run boosted posts using those, but the ROI isn’t great when you’re not a FB ads manager.
- DO get yourself quoted in online magazines. And then have a “press” page on your site where you share your links. Having backlinks from prominent magazines back to your site boosts your SEO. Because of the number of backlinks I had, I was the top dietitian listed on Google in my area in less than 6 months.
- DO join a mastermind if you can (like the Dietitian HQ Society), and think outside of the “dietitian box.” In the beginning, I lucked into a free mastermind with 2 chefs, 2 event planners, and me, which I found through a non-dietitian FB group for women in business, and I learned so much from the other members who weren’t doing what all the other dietitians were doing. If you can’t join a mastermind, consider getting a business coach.
- DO always be learning. I listen to business podcasts like crazy. I’m a huge Amy Porterfield fan myself, but find someone whose tips resonate for you. Other helpful ones have been Libby Rothschild’s Dietitian Boss, Jenna Kutcher’s Goal Digger, and The Wellness Business Podcast (again…health coaches have the market cornered on online marketing and visibility—I want to learn from them).
- DO have not a “backup plan” per se, but rather a “stay afloat plan.” I worked a good-paying retail RD job 2 days a week for my first year in business, and it was perfect. It allowed me time and space to grow my business while also paying most of my bills. I was actually pretty sad when I had to leave it because I just didn’t have time anymore. (And I ended up leaving it about 2 years sooner than I’d planned to, due to my rapid growth in my business.) On the other hand, you don’t want to hold on to that full-time job that sucks your soul any longer than you have to. You’ll have no time & energy left and your nutrition biz will never be more than a side hustle. Ideally, you want to have a job that allows you to pay your bills without draining your energy. I was very lucky in this regard.
- DO think of yourself as a business owner. They don’t teach us this stuff in school, so you’ve got to go elsewhere to learn how to do it.
That’s about it!
I remember when I was first starting out reading in one of the Facebook groups about private practice that it takes 3 years to make a profit. The saying was “in the first year they sleep, in the second year they creep, and in the third year, they leap.” So I honestly didn’t expect to be profitable only 5 months after starting my practice or to be able to go full-time in my provate practice in less than a year.
Honestly, I owe the success of my private practice to the tips I’ve shared above. I think we’re lucky to be living in this era where you can reach your target audience, directly, for FREE, just by using social media and smart marketing strategies. Of course, it goes without saying that once you’ve reached your target market, you have to provide them with superior service. That’s what creates the raving fans and word-of-mouth referrals. Which is why I’ve never neglected those things that make my business appear more professional. You shouldn’t either. Trust me… they will leap.
Melissa Groves, RDN, LD