Alligator Skin—Becoming a Business Owner Scale By Scale

By Debbie Roberts , LMT

Digital Exclusive

Alligator Skin—Becoming a Business Owner Scale By Scale

By Debbie Roberts, LMT

Digital Exclusive

I recently got an email from a past student that said she (and a few other therapists) had acquired a business with an existing space. Since I had owned a spa for 20 years, she wanted to know if I had any suggestions for them? Specifically, how to be successful? It got me thinking about when I first started out. It was exciting at first, emotionally draining in the middle, and now has me looking at retirement.

The development of "alligator skin" along the way has been interesting, to say the least. I think it's a natural progression when you own a business, especially when you have one for as many years as I did.

Before we get started though, I have to credit one of my clients for this clever title. On a particularly challenging day (many years ago) I had a session with a long-time client who had seen me make the transition from massage therapist to business owner. Knowing that he was a successful and accomplished businessman, I asked for his advice.

My question to him was how I should handle a business situation that had become particularly hurtful and, at the time, beyond my comprehension. Without hesitation he replied, "You just have to develop "alligator skin." I have to admit, it wasn't the advice I was looking for and it certainly wasn't something I wanted to do. But I tell you it's the only way to get through the times that are so difficult that you want to give up, and walk away from your dreams.

Kind By Nature

As a massage therapist, you probably entered this profession because you felt a call to help others. Based on my experience, I'd say you're likely a kind, open and caring individual with a great deal of empathy and compassion for the wide range of clients you treat. At this point in your career you might not have developed alligator skin, but as you move from massage therapist to business owner you'll start to pick up your new armor.

One aside for my female readers (excuse me, please, gentlemen) ladies, as you move up the professional ladder from massage therapist to business owner be prepared for backlash. That's right you'll need that tough skin to get you through some of the harsh situations you'll experience. Unfortunately, as you become more experienced and business savvy, you may be called unsavory names. But part of having alligator skin is learning not to take these things personally.

It's not my intent to depress or discourage you, only to prepare you for some of the pitfalls you may encounter. My hope is that my experience and advice will help you foresee potential problems and either avoid them, or deal with them as gracefully. And if you're willing to follow my advice you'll be off to a much cleaner start than I was, as you're about to see.

The Shocking World of Business

I'm about to tell you just how naive I was when I started out on this journey, so try not to judge me too harshly. Sadly, my teachers at school never prepared me for the difficult realities of the business world. For one thing, they never taught me about contracts. Such as, when I would need one, what should be in one, or how to negotiate them. These were things I learned the old fashioned way— through experience and, in some cases, hard knocks.

The Lesson of Contracts

Massage schools are designed to teach you the importance of touch, there just isn't enough time to cover the business of massage therapy. But that is what continuing education is all about. Go seek and find good teachers that are willing to help you develop business skill sets.

So, here's what should I have known about contracts, besides that I should have one. Unless the true landlord agrees to and signs the original sublease documents, you're sublease won't hold water. That means that after years of building a business under someone else's umbrella, you have no real ownership of the space or the clientele. How do I know this? Well it happened to me. Not just once, but twice and while renting from different chiropractors.

Inexperience is a harsh teacher. Still, you might be asking yourself, "Debbie, I can understand the first time, but how could you let it happen again?" Well that goes back to the reason I began this journey as a healer in the first place, because I'm a trusting, giving soul, which is my greatest strength and my fatal flaw—sound familiar?

What I Learned

Years ago I started with one room in a chiropractor's office. I advertised for my own clientele and soon expanded into the space next door. Word got around and before I knew it I was up to three rooms and in need of more therapists. My little business was growing, but there was one problem—I didn't own the lease.

As part of my agreement with the chiropractor, I hired a part-time receptionist and used his reception services part-time. I paid to have the insurance filed. I decorated and cleaned the bathroom. I did my own laundry off the premises. I advertised and sold gift certificates. I was helpful and considerate. And I always paid on time. I was, by all accounts, an ideal tenant. At one point the chiropractor's wife even encouraged me to develop the space into a successful business for myself. All was well in my little world, for just a split second.

Then, when the chiropractor's wife suffered some professional setbacks in her career as a physical therapist she started eying my space. Next, the chiropractor's buddy decided he wanted to have a small area to operate out of. Before I knew it everybody was viewing this intimate little space I'd created as their next business opportunity.

My last year there was one of the most painful and educational experiences of my professional life. I got downsized in every facet, from office space, to reception space, to table space. Worse yet, I had absolutely no future growth potential. I was slapped in the face with the reality that I truly didn't have anything concrete holding up my "business." I had no foundation. Yet, I was so emotionally attached to that space that losing it was like losing a child. I had developed it from infancy, through its teenage years, all the way to adulthood. So much energy had been invested into making it grow.

Denial—Not Just a River

I simply didn't know how to let go, so instead I held on tighter than ever. I put up with every single crappy thing that was happening around me. I was scared. I didn't know if I could afford to move. I didn't know if the clients would follow me if I did. And to complicate matters, I had no real records reflecting how many clients my marketing efforts had brought in and how many the chiropractor had referred. But the worst part was the betrayal of one of my therapists who started double-dealing with the chiropractor behind my back. I guess we were all afraid of something.

For a long time I was stuck in a state of disbelief. It was a nightmare and the sorrow I felt was hurting me to my core. I didn't understand how this could be happening to me after seven years of hard work there. But it was happening and soon I had to accept that and move on.

As painful as it was, this was a hugely important lesson along my professional path. So my first piece of advice to you is: do not start any rental space agreement without a clear business plan for yourself and a legally binding contract to back it up. As in all things in life, another opportunity did present itself and I moved on to yet another chiropractic office. This time I was invited in as a business owner, or so I thought.

Editor's Note: Part two of "Alligator Skin" will pick up next month with more lessons learned, and Debbie's experience being on the other side of the fence.