An image of a person's hands holding a tree sapling in a mound of dirt is used to illustrate the concept of a business model that will grow and be sustainable.

If you expect your massage business to be your primary source of income, you will need to create a foundation for a sustainable business model. Research and preparation are essential.

Whether you are fresh out of school or several years employed, a time may come when you decide to set up your own independent massage therapy business. Many therapists start with an in-home or mobile practice alongside a part- or full-time job working in another field or as a massage therapist. Others dive in with a shared space, solo room or multi-space office suite.

Regardless of size and structure, all massage-business owners can benefit from getting clear about their goals and purpose.

Before launching your practice, you need to create a business plan. The task of writing a detailed business plan can seem overwhelming, especially if you create one at the depth required by bankers or investors. If you don’t need a plan on that scale, you can start smaller by answering three key questions about your future business.

1. Why Am I a Massage Therapist?

Understanding the reasons you are a massage therapist and for being in business is important in your success. Beyond helping clients understand if you are a good fit for them, knowing this will help determine the services you offer, the clients you attract and the prices you charge.

Beyond your financial goals, getting clear on what makes you want to get out of bed each day and help people through massage therapy will help motivate you in good times and bad. Some questions to consider:

• What led me to become a massage therapist?

• How did my business begin?

• What are my values and mission?

• Why and how am I different from competitors?

In starting my career and multiple brick-and-mortar businesses offering massage, I categorized my answers to the above questions into four categories: passion, pain, mission and offer.

• Passion: I love helping others and finding creative solutions to problems.

• Pain: My own physical and mental pain, tension and stress, a back injury and female issues led me to seek out alternatives to medication and traditional Western medicine. Massage therapy and acupuncture helped me tremendously, sparking my interest in having a career in massage therapy and later, business ownership.

• Mission: I want to give people options to heal pain in a place that feels comfortable, friendly and welcoming to staff and clients.

• Offer: I provide excellent, effective, unrushed massage therapy and other wellness solutions and services in a loving, healing and peaceful environment.

Your answers will help you create a basis for your brand and professional identity, enabling you to make clearer decisions about how, when, why and where to promote your business.

2. Who Are My Ideal Clients?

A key component of a successful business is happy, repeat clients. When you know whom you enjoy working with and the audience to whom you can provide the best results and experiences, you are much more likely to attract and retain a steady, regular clientele.

Assuming you’ve set realistic expectations on your costs and offer profitably priced services and products, working with a loyal client base should allow you to meet the goals of your business, financial and otherwise.

But exactly who are these people? Basically, your target audience is going to have some common identifiers, or traits that lead them to you or you to them. This can be along the lines of such basic demographics as age, residence or income range, and can also be more nuanced and targeted. This is especially true if you offer a specialized technique or provide services for specific populations or conditions.

Commonalities of your ideal clients could include:

• Playing the same sport; for example, runners, volleyball players or football team members

• Having a similar injury or condition; for example, arthritis, pregnancy or Parkinson’s

• Being within a certain age range; for example, pediatric patients or geriatric clients

• Working within a certain career; for example, musicians or construction workers

It is also important to think about qualities possessed by the people you enjoy working with. Just as you should have a mission or purpose you are excited to deliver, every day in your business will be more fulfilling and rewarding if you are working with clients you enjoy being around. Consider the joy of working with people who love what you do; align with your business culture, style and atmosphere; and who respect your boundaries and policies. Bliss!

An excerpt from my own ideal massage client description (full version in my book “Creating Lifetime Clients: How to WOW Your Customers for Life”) captures some of that:

“My ideal clients are intelligent, genuinely nice, positive-minded people who enjoy life, learning new things and getting a great massage. They value getting weekly or monthly massages for stress reduction, pain relief and pure enjoyment. They are compassionate, understanding and loyal to those who meet their needs, win their trust and gain their friendship.

My ideal clients enjoy some conversation, are open-minded, and think of me as a professional and equal. They also appreciate “the good life”—travel, good food, wine, spas etc., but are down to earth, kind, friendly and generous. They refer freely, tip well, arrive on time and are a joy to work with in every session. Most of all they appreciate me as much as I appreciate them!”

It takes some time to understand your ideal client, so if you are a recent graduate with only a few sessions under your belt, you may not yet know who you enjoy working with and who you are good at helping. Begin by thinking about who you most enjoyed working with during school, clinic or other practice sessions. You might also consider clients who have similar issues to you or those who drew you to massage.

If you have been working for a while and want to refine the description of your ideal client, begin by surveying your regular clients to find out what they have in common with each other. Ask them to share what they love most about your work or why they would refer people to you. You’ll begin to get a picture of who you want to see more of and market your services to.

3. Where Do My Business Strengths Lie?

It is essential that you understand your needs, goals and ability to create a business structure, set practices and conduct marketing.

For example, to move toward business success, you will need to define how much income you need each month. Begin by totaling all your bills and expenses or the amount needed to replace the income you’d give up to open your business. Track expenses and come up with a total you need to be paid monthly. When you are just beginning, you will also need to factor in the supplies and equipment—table, linens, marketing materials and others—you will need to have in place before opening.

Next, you’ll need an understanding of the costs of doing business—rent, utilities, liability insurance and others—that must be met before you are paid. (I don’t claim to be an expert on budgeting or finance and encourage you to seek advice from an accountant or financial pro to help you get all the numbers on paper.)

Finally, you will want to calculate the number of services you are able to provide in a month. This may vary depending on duration, location, type of service and more. Do your best to guesstimate what a full month would look like and then back up from there. Use your answers to get a better understanding of the prices you need to charge, the number of clients you need to see and the types of marketing required to fill your schedule.

For this example, we will say your operating costs are $2,000 per month and you want to generate an additional $3,000 per month of income, for a total of $5,000 cash inflow needed per month. The maximum number of services you want to provide is 20 per week. If you charge $100 per service, you will earn $8,000 per month pre-tax (gross) income, as long as you hit your goal of providing 20 services per week.

If you instead charge $120 per service, your gross income will be $9,600 per month if you provide 20 sessions per week. This higher per-session fee could offer you a buffer in case you need to cut back on sessions at times, such as to take a vacation or if bookings are slow. At this higher per-session fee, you can provide 18 sessions per week and generate $8,640 per month pre-tax income.

4. How Should I Structure My Marketing?

Most massage professionals I know invest more time and energy into their marketing than actual cash. They do this through connecting with potential clients at free and paid events, on social media and through referral programs and internal marketing of their existing contacts and clients.

A good rule of thumb when you are first building a practice is to spend at least as many hours marketing yourself as you want to eventually spend seeing clients in the treatment room. Does this seem like a lot of hours? Maybe to the uninitiated, but in most jobs, there is a time of learning and foundation-building.

Starting your own business will require you to invest some time and energy to get it off the ground. If you have a big budget for advertising, some of your time may be replaced with strategic advertising campaigns or promotions; however, spend wisely as options abound and may not all be a good fit for your needs, clients or business. 

Numerous other considerations exist when starting a business, including location, size, equipment, staff, business structure and more. Taking time to understand these essential considerations will allow many of the others to fall into place more easily and get you on the right path to a successful opening and operation.

Felicia Brown

About the Author

Felicia Brown is a speaker, author and business-and-marketing coach for massage, spa and wellness professionals. Her newest book, “Marathon Marshall & The Dream Team Ducks Go to Boston,” co-authored by Marshall Dahneke, will donate $1 to the Massage Therapy Foundation for each copy sold. Preorder your copy at feliciabrown.com/boston-book.