At one point or another, everyone has thought about what life would be like to be your own boss. The flexibility around determining your work-life balance is undoubtedly attractive, couple that with the ability to take your annual leave when it suits you and you’ve got the modern professional’s attention. The opportunity to build something unique from the ground up is a highly motivating proposition, even for individuals who are thriving in their roles working for the proverbial man.
For psychologists, starting (and succeeding in) your own private practice may be intimidating, but for the reasons highlighted above there are many reasons to take the leap. If you have decided that you would like to start your own private practice, then there are some key considerations you’ll need to be across, such as understanding your personal and professional readiness, as well as your business aptitude, too.
You will know when the time is right to start your private practice
Robyn Stead, Educational Psychologist and Founder of Educational Psychology Services (otherwise known as EDPSYCH), says that starting her private practice was a long-term goal but felt that she needed to be experienced enough to have the confidence to go out on her own. For Robyn, it was time away that gave her the clarity she needed to define her future.
“I built up my networks and I got to the point where I really felt like it’s time to make that decision to start my private practice. I had taken quite a long holiday and went away with my family — it was that break that gave me the chance to ponder what makes me happy and what I really want to do with myself.”
Upon reflection, Robyn says she had accomplished all that she could in her public service career. She started pondering what her next challenge was going to be and it was ultimately that moment when she knew it was time to start her private practice.
“I was a practice leader for the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour Service (RTLB) and knew I didn’t want to be a manager because the role was purely management and very little in terms of an opportunity to be a practicing psychologist. At that time, I was thinking ‘What’s my next challenge? What do I want to do next?’ And that’s when I knew it was time to make that decision to go out on my own.”
Don’t downplay the importance of business skills
Robyn laid out all things that were important to her — personally and professionally — to understand how to truly build a private practice that would succeed and make an impact. She calls it having a “laser vision”, which helps you really get to the granular details of what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and then from there you can start to put the pieces together. The why and the what, or rather the purpose of your private practice, is an ever-present theme that will need revisions and refinements along your journey.
And while it may be tempting to fall back to focusing on your clinical or psychological area of expertise and how you’re going to deliver your service, without a business plan in place you'll hit a roadblock. A robust business plan helps you prioritise with clarity, it gives your private practice strategic direction, and it maps out the road to sustained success.
According to Robyn, business acumen reigns supreme. “I place quite a lot of weight on business acumen, but I think what you need to do, and my best advice to psychologists is that for someone contemplating going into private practice, start by reflecting on what you want to achieve in your own practice. That’s crucial.”
You should place a lot of stock in talking widely to other professionals, according to Robyn, because it gives insight into how others run their businesses, these are invaluable details you can only learn if you cast a wide net in your pool of professional networks.
“It's important to talk widely to people. I started talking to people about what I wanted to do, it's amazing at how kind people were in guiding, coaching and providing advice to me in those areas that I needed to upskill.”
“So, speaking to accountants, marketers, private practitioners and other business owners was an invaluable exercise that helped me take that leap into my own private practice. It’s amazing just telling people ‘This is what I'm doing’ how many of them will come back to you with free advice.”
Additionally, Robyn notes that psychologists have a wide range of talents and transferable skills that can be applied in private practice. “During my university training I was required to use a website building platform to create documentation to support my learning. I was easily able to transfer this skill into building my own website for my business. In this way I was able to build something for a very low cost and can edit it in real time. Many other small business owners I speak to can be frustrated at having to contact an outside agency to change their website each time they want to make a small change. If you are just getting started, paying someone to build a website can be a concern.”
Maintain your networking activities and professional associations
Moving into the private sector does mean that your daily interactions with other psychologists and clinicians will come to a halt, but that doesn’t mean that your professional relationships become a fading memory. For Robyn, starting a private practice required that she made a concerted effort to nurture her networks and maintain her professional connections because, as Robyn notes, they’re all-important.
“It’s critical to have professional associations, especially in private practice. When I was working for schools and in education, my community was right there for me. There were educational psychologists in my office and other offices that I could easily connect with, there were accessible professional development areas, and so on. And as soon as I stepped away from that and into my private practice, I lost all those daily connections.”
Additionally, Robyn had to acknowledge that the elements of her public sector role that she enjoyed would have to be fulfilled in other settings and found in other places. “I recently stepped into the role as the chairperson of the Institute of Educational and Developmental Psychology (IEDP) — influencing wider systems, networking with other people, and the range of professional work I had to acknowledge I wasn’t going to get in my private practice, so the IEDP is a great opportunity to maintain those areas of professional activity.”
Employ a growth, development and fail fast mindset
There are always things to learn and areas to upskill in as a psychologist — the role of continued professional development (CPD) must happen alongside your daily private practice activities to remain current. There’s always time to sharpen your understanding of certain areas by consuming new material and research.
For example, Robyn notes that she has typically used a solution-focused therapeutic approach, and this year she started thinking about doing something a little bit different. “To add to my approach, I've been looking at acceptance and commitment therapy, and have since done quite a lot of professional development online, which has been a great addition to continued further reading as part of my professional development activities.”
Robyn says when you start your private practice there is a danger of becoming too defined in your offering, or hyper-focused on one discipline, which puts you at risk of becoming irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that you must be a generalist to succeed, but know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and find that sweet spot where there’s untapped opportunity.
“I had observed and wondered about when stepping into private practice is that danger of becoming really narrow – you might be really good in one area, but you may be unaware of other contexts, other things happening, and you can become irrelevant quickly. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Upon reflection, Robyn says she wishes she would have been braver earlier on. Ultimately, her advice is direct: accept the “fail fast” concept, and if you realise where you are now is not the right fit, back out and move on. It may be time to start your private practice.
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Being a private practitioner doesn't mean going it alone