How to Start a Private Therapy Practice

Congratulations on deciding to start a private therapy practice. Whether you just graduated with your degree in mental health counseling or you are leaving an established therapy practice to go out on your own, this is a huge step. Being in the career you have dreamed about will change your life for the better.

That said, you’re not there yet. Being a private practice therapist is a journey. Even with all of your amazing credentials, there’s still a lot to do before your practice is up and running smoothly.

Marketing your therapy practice is part of the experience that so many counselors dislike. First, it’s not your primary skill set (none of us had classes in graduate school on business planning, social media marketing or even how to write a great blog). So if you can, acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily as easy as online marketers want you to think it is.

Marketing your private practice may test your limits, but, that’s why we’re here. This checklist is the list of tasks you need to work on over the next few months, even into next year. It takes time to build all of your marketing assets and it also takes time for Google to see your business as one that is a true authority online.

How To Start A Private Therapy Practice

Really, you just start. Starting is a decision that’s all. That said, once you’ve made it, you have steps to take which begin with making some phone calls to your licensing board. Every state in the U.S. has different rules and regulations around your practice limitations, insurance requirements and marketing and online regulations. Different therapy practices have unique limitations as does your specific license.

To get on the right page with your state and license requirements, begin by calling your licensing board.

Let the person know that you’re newly in private practice and seeking online documentation about your state’s requirements for running a private practice. If you cannot get this online, ask for it to be mailed to you. Ideally, you want documentation so you have a record of where your instructions came from.

Two women talking in an article by Melanie Gorman on how to start a private therapy practice.

How do you want to be paid?

There are two options here: cash pay or insurance (or a combo of both). Cash pay is what most private practice therapists want to be paid. Just know that this kind of business comes with lots of paperwork, so you want to be prepared for it.

Cash-pay therapy businesses are the gold standard and there is no ceiling on what you can charge a client. But, remember that clients often call around when they are looking for a therapist and if your rates are too high or too low, it can make prospective clients question why they should pay that amount.

As a new therapist you will very unlikely have referrals to speak for you (to their friends and family) so you’re doing what’s called “cold marketing.” Cold marketing means that you’re starting with little, to no, discoverable information online. That means clients will choose to work with you for reasons other than someone recommending you. (More on the therapy customer journey.)

Clients will need a compelling reason to pick you over a more established therapist. For many people, this decision simply comes down to price.

Network with other therapists in private practice

Ideally, when you start building your practice, it’s wise to spend some time networking with other therapists. This will give you a bird’s eye view of how other therapists run their practices, what they charge and what’s a “fair” or reasonable rate for the services you are offering.

Often local therapists also know people who can support you with the small business tasks that everyone has to manage. This can include a tax accountant, client management software, website provider, where to get business cards etc.

Your connection with therapists a few steps ahead of you is invaluable because they can take the advice offered in an article like this and personalize it to your state, expertise or interest.

As a coach, I also recommend that clients establish relationships with other local providers to develop a referral network. You will be contacted from time to time by clients who are not the right fit for your therapeutic expertise. If you have colleagues you can refer to (and who can refer to you) you have a built-in network that allows you to support clients even when they don’t hire you. Many good things can come from this as your practice grows.

Next, contact your malpractice insurance provider or one of the providers suggested to you.

This conversation should also take place on the phone and you want to ask about costs/premiums and what’s included in your annual fees. As a new private practice therapist, your insurance costs should take into account the size of the practice you intend to run.

If you’re going to accept insurance, you want to let them know that as well. Some insurance providers have requirements about the amount/kind of malpractice insurance you need to carry. So before signing up for coverage, be sure to collect all of the details. Then, you can make the most informed decision.

What you’re trying to avoid is overpaying for coverage. Think of this like a perk you get from your internet provider that “bundles” services together. For example, you don’t want to pay for a Netflix subscription if your cell phone carrier gave you one as part of their package. Make sense?

Truly understand HIPPA Compliance

Being HIPPA compliant is something that’s regularly talked about in graduate school and ethics courses, but in real life, it has many actionable implications. These range from:

  • how you can send and receive emails from clients
  • when you need to offer lifesaving hotlines and emergency numbers
  • how to manage client comments on your blog
  • client note-taking
  • storing your electronic records
  • and more

Starting with a HIPPA-compliant practice is far easier than cleaning up one where you have errors in the future. Your licensing board may have rules/suggestions, as may your malpractice insurance company.

No one can really anticipate when complaints from clients will be filed, and having your ducks in a row from the start is one way to ensure that if you’re subpoenaed the business practices for your therapy practice are in order.

Define the niche for your private therapy practice

Everyone who goes to graduate school to become a therapist is asked to pick a path: kids or adults. Beyond your basic classes, you’re on your own to develop a niche. Niche is simply the subset of kids or adults that you want to specialize in.

  • This could be couples counseling or being an expert on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
  • Or it could be anxiety and depression (soup to nuts).
  • It could be ADHD in kids through graduating high school.

Niche can come from the population you serve (men, women, kids etc) OR the clinical area of expertise (diagnosis, training or research).

Ideally, there is some thread or thru line to your niche that your clients understand.

Disparate topics that are unrelated are harder to translate on your website and in your marketing. As someone who is both a trained therapist and a marketing professional, I can tell you that it’s far easier to market a therapy practice when the therapist has some specific areas of expertise.

We all start as a generalist. But, you don’t have to stay there. The one obvious exception is if you’re the one and only therapist in your community. Then you, my friend, may have to help everyone.

Otherwise, you can pick subject areas and clients that naturally interest you and align with your values. The authenticity created by running your practice in this way cannot be overstated. It’s simply easier.

Build a website & sign up for Google My Business

Your website is your online business card. It tells the world all of the pertinent details about your practice, including how to contact you and what you offer clients. It works in partnership with Google My Business (GMB). GMB is a free listing of your practice online that helps specifically with Google Maps. (Here’s the basics on what you need to know about GMB and getting your account set up.)

If your practice is in an office, you can list your location, directions and contact details. GMB connects your business to the Google Map service which feeds directly into the “near me” search algorithm.

It’s very hard to optimize your website for “near me” searches without GMB in place.

If you have an online therapy practice, you still want GMB so you’re on the map in your state for clients. You can reduce the full listing of your address if it concerns you (but remember if you own your home then very likely your address is already discoverable online). Choose to show in your GMB just your city, state and zip code. That works well too.

Private practice therapist conducting an online therapy session in an article by Melanie Gorman on how to start a private therapy practice.

Your website and GMB empower potential clients to find you in search and contact you when they are ready. Without a website, it’s nearly impossible to put your shingle out that you’re open for business. And very few people take professionals in private practice seriously without a website.

Your competition has one, so you need one too.

Join therapy directories

Directories like Psychology Today and marketing tools like Yelp are very helpful for finding new clients who are looking on those sites for therapists. Psychology Today’s reputation is stellar in the industry and almost 100% of the therapy clients we serve have a listing. Here are the best practices for creating a well-crafted Psychology Today profile. (Tips for writing a great Psychology Today profile.)

But did you know that both directories also feed the Google Map service? Smaller directories that have a good reputation online help to support your other marketing and over time build your professional authority online.

If you see yourself doing more than private practice one day, starting now with a strategy to grow your online presence is critical.

Finally, define your therapeutic mission

Every client you help supports the world being a healthier place to live. Your gifts as a therapist help every person you come into contact with. It’s reasonable to spend some time thinking about how you want to use your gifts. What interests you? What do you want to see heal on the planet? What challenges or issues cause your insides to light up in a positive way?

Doing work that is interesting, exciting and meaningful will keep you going on the days when it also feels tedious, challenging and hard. Being a small business owner isn’t for the faint-hearted. It takes tenacity, courage and bravery to step out into the world and declare that you are a private practice therapist specializing in helping clients heal from (insert your specialty).

But it matters.

And the world needs you.

Learning how to start a therapy practice is hard enough, but this list asks you to start YOUR private practice. The one that you will feed with your heart and soul for the foreseeable future.

So take it seriously. And pay attention to the little details. Ask for help when you need it and don’t skip any of the steps above. You need to do each and every item on this list to really grow your professional reputation.

And if we can help you, with your website, your branding or even these little details here, please reach out. We’re always happy to chat.

author avatar
Melanie Gorman
Melanie Gorman is the owner and operator of Crownsville Media. She holds a masters in counseling psychology and has been in the fields of web development, SEO optimization and content creation for more than 20 years.

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