15 things I have learned by starting 6 mental health businesses

Jeff Guenther on Dec 17, 2017

Last week, I wrote about the 10 things I wish I would have known when I started my therapy practice back in 2005. Since starting this weekly blog almost a year ago, that article might have been the most popular yet. I received a ton of feedback from the mental health community about how much it resonated. Many therapists told me about how they struggled with imposter syndrome just like me when starting out. Or how much a community of colleagues, or lack of, has impacted their practice. Thank you for the feedback and the encouragement to keep sharing. Please share your thoughts with me, good or bad, when ever you feel inspired. It means so much to me!

Last weeks article, and your feedback, inspired me to think about the lessons I have learned while starting six different mental health related businesses. I thought I’d share my insights in order to hopefully encourage and educate any other therapists that are interested in creating a passive or alternative stream of income. 

A few months back, I shared 24 passive income ideas for therapists. If you’d like to view or download the full list of ideas, click here and I’ll email them to you. I have gotten great feedback on the list, but if you plan on creating one of the businesses on the list, or you come up with your own idea, the following 15 things I have learned from my mental health businesses may come in very handy. Hopefully you don’t have to learn these lessons the hard way, like I did. 

And here is a quick list of the businesses I have started:

1. It takes a lot of work

Okay some of these lessons are going to sound really obvious. Like this one. But even though I totally knew it took a lot of work to start a business, I didn’t quite understand how much work it really demanded. Even when starting a business that is supposed to be “passive income,” it takes a ton of frontend work just to get it from an idea to an actual product or service. In all of my endeavors, I have experienced dozens of moments where I have thrown up my hands in the middle of the night and proclaimed my business done because the work load was way too much. Sometime I woke in the morning and got back to work. Sometimes it took me six months to return to an idea. If you ever start to doubt that you’ll be able to get through all the work, please read the next lesson over and over again.

2. The pay off can be huge

This lesson has been my favorite so far. And will probably be yours. I mean, how can it not be?? If you do put in all the necessary hard work and your business takes off, the rewards can be amazing. Yes, you can make even more money and that can improve your life on many levels. But in addition to improving your life financially, you can actually make a real difference. It feels amazing to touch thousands of people’s lives on a weekly basis and encourage them to make a positive mental health decision. It feels awesome to help fellow therapists launch their practices and become successful clinicians. And when you create one good business, you can use those profits to make another. And another and another and another!

3. Strong emotion and/or passion is vital

There are going to be days and nights that feel like a real slog. There might be competitors in your space that are getting you down. For me, I struggle the most with simply not knowing what steps I need to take at important decision making times. In all my businesses, at least the successful ones, I had to connect with a strong driving emotion to carry me through my moments of doubt or helplessness. 

The second business I started, the part-time office rental space for therapists, there was an unlikely emotion that carried me through the entire process. I was motivated to start the business almost entirely out of pure spite. I couldn’t stand how I was treated at my first office space and I was determined to create a business that would take away business from the evil landlord that rented me the space. I was young and rebellious and this worked for me at the time. It turned into a business that has been really fun to manage and expand and I’m no longer motivated by spite. But spite pushed me through some roadblocks that I would never have overcome if it wasn’t so powerful. Thanks spite!!

4. Learning more from failure is true

Ugh it’s such a cliche but it’s totally true. I have failed many times in business. And one of my businesses, the alternative healthcare directory, is not a success and could be called a failure. I have learned the most from that project. I do feel good about my wins, but I feel far more proud of the times I have failed but have decided to push on and prevail. My failures are kinks in my armor that I display as my flaws and imperfections. It makes me smarter. It makes me more interesting. It provides me with humility. It will do all that amazing crap for you too. I promise. 

5. Burn out is real

The problem for me is that I don’t know I am burned out until I am 100% completely burned out. So now I have to force myself to take breaks even if I don’t want, because I know if I don’t I’ll eventually blow up and have to take a much longer break than I want to. As exciting as it is to create something new, remember to be healthy and take care of yourself. I have learned this lesson the hard way a handful of times and I am positive I will make this mistake many more times before I retire. That is, if I ever do retire. SEE?? I’m horrible at this!!

6. Intimate knowledge is super important

I get the pleasure of talking to many entrepreneurs in our field who have new and exciting business ideas. I frequently get contacted by people that want to bounce business ideas off of me. They aren’t necessarily looking for me to partner with them, they just want to know what I think. I love having these conversations. I have also been able to witness many of them launching their product. And 99% of the time, the product doesn’t catch on if they don’t have a super intimate understanding of how our field works. 

Mental health products or services created by practitioners who have the appropriate experience in the field have a much higher chance of being successful than those created by people who just don’t know our industry, or the specific part of the industry they are targeting. So if you launch a business, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. And if you don’t know, make sure you know people who do.

7. Marketing is annoying and super important 

I used to hate marketing with a fiery passion. I felt like it was so unfair that you couldn’t just create a great product and then have it go viral based on how useful it was. Now I see marketing as a necessary evil. But on good days I can even get a little excited about it. 

As much as you might want to avoid marketing, don’t put it off. I encourage everyone to start marketing their idea waaaaay before it even launches. It’s important to gather some steam and curiosity in the community before you launch your product so that people will be super intrigued once you share it with the world. And marketing doesn’t have to mean spending money. It could just mean writing a weekly blog and building your newsletter. Or attending conferences and networking events to spread the word and gather feedback.  

8. Quality floats to the top (most of the time (I think?))

I know this lesson sorta contradicts the previous one, but I still believe in it whole heartedly. If you create a quality product, then people will spread the word and you can be successful. Good products float to the top and are used more often. When consumers get a lot out of what you’re creating it will naturally do well. Yes, you’ll probably have to market your product a little, to get to the word out, but if your idea is good enough, it should be a success. If it’s a struggle and it’s just taking forever to catch on, you may have to scrap it and move to the next thing. 

9. Trust your team or do it by yourself

If you ask me, I can be downright amazing to work with. I’m funny, creative, smart and savvy. But if you ask the people I have worked with, they might say I’m stubborn, picky, obsessive and lazy. It really all depends on who I am working with and what the project is. And now that I have had many different experiences working with different people, I am confident in knowing that I should usually work by myself. I want to be the decision maker and it’s really annoying to compromise with other people. Am I right??

If I can make it happen, I will always lean towards owning 100% of the business and business decisions. If I need help, I will usually contract out for it so that I don’t have to give up any equity. It’s just what I prefer. However, I have two partners for TherapyDen and they are absolutely fantastic. The one reason I have agreed to this setup is because I have known these two people a long time and I trust their work and expertise completely. We share equity and have a really clear division of labor, which is why the partnership works so well. I encourage you to have that same level of trust if you decide to team up with others. 

10. You must embrace risk

Ultimately, when you start a business, you have to risk experiencing failure. We all deal with failure in different ways. Yes it makes you grow and you’re a better person because of it and yada yada yada. But it’s also a horrible thing to feel and if you feel enough of it it can really effect your identity and your mental health. You’re taking a risk by trying something new and putting yourself out there. Starting a business is a totally vulnerable thing to do. It’s scary and frightening and unpredictable. If it doesn’t go well there can be some real consequences. I’m not saying this to scare anyone away from starting something. I just want you to be prepared to be as resilient as you possibly can. And if you get through it all, you’ll be stronger and prepared for even more challenges. 

11. It takes money to make money

I took a huge financial risk when I launched my local mental health directory for Portland. I paid over $45,000 to make the website. It took me years to save up enough money. I emptied out all my bank accounts to make it happen. I knew there was a chance I’d never make that money back. And I knew I would be crushed if it wasn’t a success. Luckily it was the best business decision I ever made and I made my investment back in about a year and a half. The success of the directory has funded all my other projects.

It cost $45,000 because it’s expensive to make a website. And I wanted to make sure the website was top quality. I knew if I paid half that much then it would suffer and I wasn’t willing to take that risk. I had a vision for how I wanted it to be and I didn’t want to compromise.

You don’t have save $45,000 to launch a business. I only had to save $3,000 when I launched my office space rental business. But $3,000 was a lot of money to me at that time and it took me a long time to save up. What I am trying to say is that if you want to make a quality product, you’re probably going to have to spend a good amount of money. Don’t be afraid to do that. 

12. Be good/not evil

I kinda stole this from Google. Although they dropped the “Don’t Be Evil” motto a few years back. But I feel this especially applies to us in the mental health industry. If you create a product that helps heal people or connects them to healing resources and your mission is pure and altruistic, you’ll have a much easier time experiencing success. If you create a product just because you think there is a gap in the market and you want to make a lot of money, it will shine through in our industry and you will lose trust fast. I don’t consider creating a product just to make money “evil.” But in our industry, it’s important to have a clear mission that helps people in order to be successful and to feel good about what you’ve created. 

13. Haters are gonna hate (people will reject your product)

This is a lesson I am still working on and will continue to for the rest of my life. Like any good therapist, I blame my family of origin. Everyone in my family thinks they come up with the best business and creative ideas. They don’t. But they have no idea because they can’t take criticism and rejection. I grew up in this environment and it makes it incredibly hard to take when a therapist decides to quit my online directory because they think it isn’t good enough for them. It cuts straight to my heart and I feel really defensive. I used to struggle with this in a major way. Now I am better at tolerating it. 

Suffice it to say, there are going to be people out there that think your business is dumb or doesn’t work the way they think it should work. And maybe it just won’t work for certain people. You’ll get negative feedback. You’ll get mean feedback. You’ll want to yell back at them and hurt them because you feel hurt. Try to anticipate these feelings and take a few beats before replying to anyone. Have a plan in place for hard feedback. It’s inevitable and it’s one of the most difficult parts of running your own business. 

14. Perfect is the enemy of good

I learned this the hard way with Practice Academy, my online course for therapists looking to improve their digital brand. I delayed the launch of my online course for six months because I kept on tinkering with it. I would have tinkered until the cows came home. But my wife kept telling me it was “good enough” and I should launch it already. She was right. 

There are also things that I wish would be included in the initial launch of the new therapist directory I’m working on, TherapyDen. We are set to launch the directory in Spring of 2018. If we include everything I want, then it probably won’t launch until Winter. I know that it’s okay if the first version of my product doesn’t have 100% of what I think it should have. There is always time to grow later. But it took me a long time to learn this lesson.

15. It takes way longer than you think it will 

Possibly the hardest lesson I had to learn was that things don’t move at the pace you want them to move. Now when I start a project I estimate the time it will take and then multiply it by 10 just so that my expectations of getting it done are more realistic. 

The other problem with this is that you tend to lose your motivation when projects get stretched out. Regularly re-energize yourself by talking with friends or colleagues about how excited you are to eventually launch your new biz. 

In conclusion

Starting businesses takes a lot of energy and resilience. It’s tough stuff. But the pay off can be huge and the experience is priceless. In addition to (hopefully) creating a successful business, you’ll also grow in ways you didn’t anticipate. 

If you’re interested in starting a new business in the mental health field, download my list of 24 passive income ideas for therapists and get to work! 

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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