Maryland Therapist Details Her Journey to Owning a Thriving Business

DMV CEO sat down with Sarah Blake, owner of Blake Psychotherapy & Associates in Columbia, MD. We discussed her steps to opening a business, what services she provides clients throughout the area, and just how important it is to have a handle on your marketing.

What’s Your Background and Why Did You Start Your Business?

My background is in psychology and social work. I have a BA in Psychology from Maryland and I have a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. I knew I wanted to work with women in particular and possibly with eating disorders. So in graduate school, I did my field placement in a domestic violence shelter and the other in an eating disorder clinic. My first job came out of the eating disorder clinic internship. If I go back even further, I actually went to college for theater, on a theater scholarship. I wanted to have a backup plan. I’m always thinking and looking at all sides and the theater department wouldn’t allow me to do so. That was kind of the start of this path that I’ve taken. For 14 years I worked in a bunch of different settings such as hospitals and eating disorder clinics. I worked in three different eating disorder facilities, so I kind of kept coming back to that. Right before coming to Maryland I was working in an employee assistance program. My husband got laid off and was out of work for a year and I told him to just go and find a job somewhere. I never had problems getting a job so wherever it was he got a job, I could go and find the right place and just work there. The place he found a job was in Washington, D.C. That’s what got us here. Then my husband lost his job again. This was the point where, in my head, I needed to do something to be able to make more money. I didn’t know how long he would be unemployed. I did research and looked at what kind of spaces were out there and what they would cost. I put together what my business plan was at the time. It was my outline for what I could do and how I could do it. A month after he lost his job, I put in my resignation. The big epiphany for me came when my husband lost his job and I felt like something had to be done and this felt like the something.

How Did You Approach Starting Your Business?

The first thing I did was I talked to people who had done it before me. I had been speaking to another therapist for a couple of years, who had been whispering in my ear, about how much better money there was and how much less stress there was. It’s not less stress, it’s a different stress. The rest of what she said was true. My time is my own and I don’t have to ask permission. So I went back to her and asked her a number of questions about how she built her business. I also went online and talked to some people and learned about where people went to start their website. Where did people go to look for office space? How did people deal with money? How did people go about getting more clients? It started with just that research which I think is really important because having no business background and no real clue about what I was doing; asking for help has been the most important tool that I have utilized. I don’t think that I would have been able to go as far as I have if I hadn’t been asking those questions.

Once I did that, my next step was to find office space and figure out how I was going to afford to open the practice, and where I was going to do it. I was very blessed due to my grandfather being very wealthy and he gave all of that money he had in a trust to his mother. My mother gave me the seed money that I needed to open this practice without any debt whatsoever. It was wonderful. I secured the money and went to lots of places looking for an office. I learned just how expensive it can be. My first office was created by a woman I go to church with. She had a suite that she owned and she built out an office space for me and I paid her rent. That was a huge help to me and I think if I’d started in a commercial office building where I was renting an entire suite, I wouldn’t have made it. I needed to start small and get myself going. I had no intention of moving. It was in a good location and very accessible to a number of local highways.

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Whether you call it a blessing or luck, the place where I worked was willing to allow me to bring over any of my clients that I had from that job that wanted to come with me. That does not normally happen. People are very tight when it comes to what is theirs. They allowed me to talk to my clients, some of which I had been working with for years, and let them know where I was going and what it would look like. One of the things I had learned from talking with people is that I was not going to take insurance. If I wanted to be able to help people, I didn’t want someone telling me what to do and how many sessions I can do. Even though my boss was very willing to let my clients with me, I ended up with only 8 of them because of the insurance. I learned that I was very scared in the beginning to talk about money. These are the things I would have learned if I had business classes. All of this would have been easier if I had taken business classes. I had to learn about talking with people about money. I had to learn that what I provide for a person is truly worth what I’m asking for.

Once my office was setup and I had my 8 people that came with me, I had to start learning how to market. That is something that I’m still learning because I’m sure everyone you talk to talks about how marketing has changed. When I started the business I did a ton of marketing. I actually filled up with my practice in 3 months. At that time I was taking clients from an employee assistance program and not being paid very much. But it helped to fill up my slots and give me confidence. I decided that I was going to cap it there and not take any other EAP clients. Relationship marketing did a lot for me. Word of mouth did a lot as well. I did a lot of different things that first year. I went around to every business in the building I worked in and the building next to me and I gave out cards and let people know I was there. It was a good exercise. It helped me to get out and talk about what I was going and not be afraid to approach people. I ran a newspaper ad and got two people from that ad. One of those people is still seeing me. I learned that probably wasn’t the best way to market. I started to work on my website and my online existence. I had done some PR work when I had my previous job, which also helped me a lot because I had some skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Knowing how to Tweet and Blog, all of that kind of stuff, I brought over with me. So I did a lot of that. Once I got full, I stopped marketing. Which was a huge problem later but I had so many people calling me and I had to say no so many times. At that point I decided that I really needed to make a change. One of the things I did was I wasn’t really paying attention to marketing, because it had been wonderful. I also expanded the practice so I wouldn’t have to say no when people called.

I did, however, as I mentioned before, made a huge mistake when I stopped marketing. I needed to fix that because the phone was ringing, but it wasn’t ringing enough. I made some more mistakes and I took a seminar on online marketing, but when online marketing changed I wasn’t aware. I was doing things the old way and had hired a company that claimed to be directly connected to Google. To help build up my practice, what ended up happening is it killed us. I had two websites out there and you can’t have two websites out there and I didn’t know that. I didn’t find it out until my phone was completely dead. So I’m still undoing that. Our online marketing is being built back up from scratch and the relationship marketing has been what we have been focused on since the expansion because of the Internet issues. I highly recommend, for anyone opening up a business, that they take classes and really understand the workings of their business and the game online can change instantly.

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Once the Phone Stopped Ringing, Did You Know Something Was Wrong?

If the phone had continued to ring at the rate it had been when I expanded the suite, it wouldn’t have mattered to me. It mattered because things change. There was also a recession at that time and people were not coming as much to therapy. They didn’t necessarily to seek it out when they couldn’t pay for it. So that was in play during that time as well. Some competitors moved into the area as well. So it wasn’t just the Internet marketing – it was all of that happening at one time.

What Advice Would You Give to Entrepreneurs and Business Owners on What You Should and Shouldn't Do?

Certainly, I have talked about the education part of things. I didn’t have a whole lot of extra time. I have two children and one of them has special needs. My life outside of the office is very busy and challenging. I only had a select number of hours. A lot of people are in that spot and I would recommend before someone opens a business and looks at the time that they have and carve out time for classes and seminars. Whatever it is that has to be in your week, in your day even, not just as you’re thinking about opening your business, but as your continue to go along. Things change. As a human being, we can’t keep everything in our brain. You need to keep doing that throughout the life of your business so that you’re on top of it. I also learned along the way, I was doing everything, so when I went to reconcile each month it never worked out right. I would go right before tax time and find someone to look at it and fix it so I could submit my taxes to the accountant. I finally got it that I needed a bookkeeper. I needed someone to take that piece over. It’s not where my gifts are. I would recommend that, as people are looking at starting a business, look at where their strengths and weaknesses are and figure out how to make their strengths stronger. They also need to think about long term. People would ask what I wanted to be doing in 5 years. You have to keep with the times and you have to stick with your goals and visions and where you would like to end up. I started to write and I really enjoy it. I like to educate people and go out and do talks. I can’t do that if my main source of income comes from seeing my clients. You can’t do it all.

How Did You Come to That Realization as a Business Owner?

For me I realized that something needed to happen differently when I started to have papers building up on my desk and boxes in my office of stuff that is supposed to be mailed out. When that started to pile up and it was starting to get so far out of control, and I couldn’t get on top of it, I knew something was wrong. I didn’t have enough time. A change has to be made so I have enough to do everything 100%. I don’t want there to be stuff all over my desk. I don’t want to see if when I’m in with my clients.

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Could You Talk about the Services You Provide?

All of us here have specialties. We provide individual, family, and couples counseling. We are soon to be providing group therapy. We all have our little niches. Originally I had a design for this business. This would be a full outpatient and counseling center for eating disorders. 65% of my patient load is eating disorders. There was another company that moved in and expanded and settled faster than I did. He already had a full business idea sooner and I had to switch what I did. I provide counseling for individuals with eating disorders and work with individuals with personality and mood disorders. I have a therapist that works with addictions, trauma, grief, and loss. Another therapist also works with eating disorder clients as well and she works with individuals with Asperger’s and kids as well. I work with adolescents. She works with people much younger than I do. Between the three of us we can cover almost anything. The training that I have in eating disorders, everybody with an eating disorder comes in with additional problems. 18 years later I have seen it all. But I’m not an expert in all of it and I try to stick with what I know. If someone comes here and we’re not the right fit for them, I will find them the person who can. We also talk a lot about therapist shopping. You spent a lot of time with your therapist. We provide good therapy and if somebody doesn’t like us, or isn’t a good fit for us, we will connect them with a place that’s a good fit.

What Do You Think Makes This Area Unique and a Good Place to Own a Business?

This is a very fast area. There’s so much going on in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. There are enough people here to go into your business and make it successful if you know what you’re doing. I also think for me, in particular, people opening a business in the helping profession, because it’s so fast here there is so much stress. There is such a need for people to help other people, there is so much stress. There are plenty of people who need those businesses. You need a niche in this area because there are so many businesses that exist. You need to find a new angle, a new product, a new way to do what you’re doing that other people aren’t doing. There is just so much opportunity.

Did You Have Anything Additional That You Wanted to Say to Readers?

If you have a spark in your brain that says ‘this would make a really good business’ or ‘this is a good time for me to do it but I’m scared’ just feel the fear and do it anyway. You’re never going to know if you succeed if you just say in your head. It’s my motto. Owning a business there is a lot of anxiety that comes with it. Some months are better than others. If you have a blizzard, nobody comes in. There have been periods of thinking my business would end. So I have to experience that fear, live through that period of time, then the next time it happens I can look back at those times. Summer is a quiet time and be prepared. Do more business the rest of the year and take more time off in the summer. That’s what I’ve learned to do.

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