The number one question I get from peers in my inbox is “I love what you do and I think I want to start a private practice, where do I start?” Seeming so simple at first glance, this question is deceptively loaded. The question assumes that there is a “starting point”. Anyone who is either in private practice or does private contract work knows that this area of work looks less like a straight line and more like a tangled web of opportunities. But don’t let this lack of linearity hold you back. There are a few key things you should have in place before you hit the ground running with a nutrition consulting practice. While other RDs may have varying opinions on where to start, I’ve outlined my favorite 6 things you need to start a nutrition private practice below.
Mission and Vision
When starting a new business or private practice, it’s easy to tell people you can do everything for everyone. And let’s be honest, you’re desperate for business and your willing to stretch your skill set to get the ball rolling. This is especially easy to do as a dietitian. You are trained in such a wide variety of areas, everything from food service and community nutrition to tube feeding and outpatient services, and your credentials enable you to provide nutritional guidance to diabetics, heart disease patients, pediatrics, geriatrics – the list goes on. And while this broad knowledge base is great when you’re new to the field and working to identify your niche, you need to think about an initial direction for your practice – enter: a mission and vision.
First, ask yourself, what audiences interest you most? Do you want to focus your efforts on families, children, low-income communities, plant-based eaters, athletes, or moms? These are just a few ideas, but it’s important to take time to think about the type of clientele you want to work with because it will shape the mission and vision you have for your business. If you aren’t exactly quite sure where you want to channel your efforts, don’t worry. Pick a couple audiences that interest you and try them out – this is the only way to find out for certain if you prefer, for example, working with athletes over moms or weight loss clients over diabetics. Keep things slightly broad, but not too broad and specific, but not so specific that you funnel yourself so deep into a niche that you can’t change direction later on.
The initial direction you choose for your business can change and likely will change as time goes on. This. Is. OK. You have to start somewhere and developing a mission and a vision for your practice is a great exercise to get the ball rolling – having A direction is better than NO direction. Right? Right.
So what exactly does a mission and vision look like? A mission statement is a statement describing the reason your organization or practice exists. A vision statement is a statement describing the clear and inspirational long-term change, resulting from your work. Here is a great step-by-step guide to help you develop a solid mission and vision statement for your business.
Now that you know the audience you intend to serve, it’s time to put your services down on paper. While good nutrition counseling is rooted in solid recommendations from a licensed professional, a successful private practice relies heavily on a good marketing strategy. Decide how you want to organize your services – will you offer al la carte sessions, a package deal, group classes? In order to have clients commit to your services, you need to be transparent about what they will be receiving from you in return for your fee. What will their first nutrition counseling session with you look like? Will it be 60 minutes, 30 minutes, in-person, on the phone, via Skype? All of this information should be included on your sale sheet along with a price tag.
The next question is always, what should I charge? To this I say – be realistic, but don’t undervalue your services. What do you value your time at? If you had to put a price tag on an hour of your time, what would it be? And don’t say “I don’t know” because you DO know. Would you spend an hour of your time providing a client with nutritional recommendations for $8.25 (the current minimum wage in Illinois)? If the answer is no, how about $10? $20? $30? $40? $50? Work your way up until you hit price that would make you happy for the work you do and the time you spend doing it. Keep in mind that in addition to the hour you spend with a client, you will also spend time preparing for the appointment and taking notes after the session. All of this time should be included in the price of the service. Your contact information should also be easy to locate on this sheet. Whether you email this sheet to a prospective client or hand out copies at a community event, interested clients should know exactly how to contact you when they are ready to commit.
Speaking on contact information, one of the easiest things you can do for yourself is order business cards. You don’t need to have a fancy business name or a private phone line to share your contact information with others. VistaPrint offers pre-made designs to choose from and the option to upload your own design later on when you have your own logo. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have business cards – they’re less than $10 for 100 cards guys.
What should you put on your business card? Name, credentials, title, email and phone number are a great place to start. But I would also suggest adding social media handles and your website if applicable.
Ah yes, a website. I don’t know why some prospective private practice RDs get stressed out when I mention developing a website. A website doesn’t have to be a detailed dynamic masterpiece. It simply has to function as a place for people to find your information and services when they need them. Your website can be as basic as one static page with your contact information, your services, and maybe even a bio and a picture of yourself to add a personal element. You can always go back to update and enhance it in the future.
But I don’t know how to build a website! Neither did I and I am one of the least tech-savvy people on the planet. The good news is that there are plenty of user-friendly free services out there these days like Wix and WordPress to help you. This article walks through 8 simple steps to building a professional website – the content is personal trainer focused, but you get the idea. I’ve used WordPress since I started my website 7 years ago and I love how easy it is to use and the customization it provides – the platform has come a long way since 2009! If you’d rather not spend your time creating a website, hire someone to do it for you and be done with it.
But my website is never going to be as amazing as my competition. Don’t fall victim to the comparison trap. There are a lot of beautiful slick websites out there that you’ll want to compare yourself to. Don’t. Everyone has to start somewhere and what you don’t see when you compare yourself to others, is the number of renditions and redesigns those seemingly perfect websites have gone though over the years. You can thank the WayBack Machine internet archives for the following screenshot of my website from July 2009 (about 3 months after I started my website – this was before I was even a licensed RD and able to offer services). Hilarious. My site was called Eat Chic and my URL was www.eatchiclifestyle.com at the time. One of my favorite quotes is from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn who said, “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” You have to start somewhere – don’t be afraid to mold your business and change things as you go. Remember that it’s not a race and there is plenty of work (and clients in need) out there for everyone.
You have the education, now you need a professional profile to match. Professional headshots are one of my favorite things to talk about. In my opinion, they are one of the most undervalued assets. Do you really want a prospective client’s first impression of you to be a poorly cropped image from your Facebook account? Buzz kill. Seek out a professional photographer in your area and invest a hundred bucks in some descent photos. Trust me, it’s worth the money. These photos will work hard for you (think: on your website, on your LinkedIn profile, social media profiles, and more). My favorite part about professional photos is that they can give prospective clients a sense of your personality. Do you want to portray yourself as serious and academic or spunky and playful? My favorite headshot is the one shown above because I think it encompasses my personality perfectly. Here is what I think it says about me – I’m approachable and personable; I enjoy living in the moment and I tell it like it is; I’m down-to-earth; I love to laugh; I’m slightly sarcastic at times and I know when not to take life too seriously. What do you want your professional photos to say about you? Have a vision and hire professional help to bring it to life!
Professional Liability Insurance
If you are going to start providing professional nutrition recommendations to clients, it’s important to protect yourself from the start. Professional liability insurance protects service-providing individuals and companies who provide professional advice from bearing the full cost of defending against a negligence claim made by a client. I use Proliability as my provider – coverage varies based on the individual and needs, but to give you an idea, I pay around $100 for the year.
Advice from the Experts
I reached out to a few of my fellow RDs in private practice to get their recommendations for starting a nutrition private practice. I asked them. “if you could go back and give yourself advice on day one of starting your private practice, what would you recommend the first 3 steps be for success?” Here is what they had to say:
- One piece of advice I always give is to make sure all of your customer-facing content is on point, even if it’s simple. Have your website (even just a landing page), a professional email (not firstname.lastname@example.org), and a branded intake form to send potential clients. Ideally make it so when a customer calls or emails, you know exactly what to do next. Looking back I’d wish someone let me know that MOST of your time upfront is spent marketing and outreach. Opening a business doesn’t = instant customers. Do as much as you can to be where your ideal client is, and be OK doing some sessions for free in exchange for a killer testimonial. – Jessi Haggerty, RD (Boston, MA)
- Establish an LLC, use social media (free/cheap marketing!) to help get word out, use a program such as Quick Books or develop a spreadsheet to help keep track of your finances (sessions, profit, expenses, etc.). This makes filing for taxes as a sole proprietor so much easier. Also along with that, set up a separate bank account under your business name to keep yourself organized. – Angie Asche MS, RD (Lincoln, NE)
- Build the connection with other practitioners – so they can refer you clients. That was key for me – I’m in private practice within an integrative care model of other therapists, a doctor + naturopath, yoga therapy, etc. – so right away, they were referring me clients. Know the ideal client/clients you want to work with. You can speak to that client through your marketing and website (set up your website!) to attract the clients you want to work with. – Lauren Fowler, RD (Burlington, VT)
- The best advice I can give is to make your website look amazing. That’s how most people find me. Also, don’t be afraid to be you. Stand up for what you believe in and don’t feel like you have to say yes to every opportunity. Stick to what feels right and matches your philosophy. I would also recommend checking out Erica Hansen’s e-book A Dietitian’s Guide to Starting a Private Practice – Paige Smathers, RDN, CD (Salt Lake City, UT)
- The biggest things for me were figuring out where I was going to practice (I found coworking space with private meeting rooms that I can rent by the hour). I also always schedule phone consults with potential clients to let them know the details of my services, instead of simply emailing them my price sheet. I feel this helps with bringing clients on board. Also, find a go-to business “partner” if you’re in practice for yourself. You can do this through networking groups and listservs. I talk a lot with a non-competitive neighborhood RD, and we bounce around business ideas. I also have a couple of mentors who have really helped me think through the getting started stage. – Amy Gorin, RDN (New York City, NY)
- One really important thing is to figure out how you are going to document and if you are going to take insurance (that’s a very long, tedious process but worth it under the right circumstances). I use free programs for an electronic health record and for billing. They work really well. – Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN (New York City, NY)
If you’re a private practice RD please leave a comment with additional advice you recommend! And if you’re a private practice RD-to-be, feel free to leave us your questions in the comments section below.