Many of you know Rachael Hartley through the mindful eating insight she shares through her blog ‘Avocado A Day Nutrition’ and the amazing recipes she curates as the FoodRX Feature Editor on Healthy Aperture.
After starting her career as an outpatient dietitian at a large medical center, she started her entrepreneurial journey in 2014 by opening a private practice in Columbia, SC, to help individuals nourish both their minds and bodies.
What was your big moment when you made ‘the jump'?
I can still remember when I nervously walked into my boss's office almost 2 years ago, put in my 3-week notice, and quit my well paying, government job with great benefits so I could pursue my dream of opening a private practice.
That must have been so exciting! How prepared did you feel about it all?
When I announced it on my blog, I eloquently summed it up by stating “OMGAOHTIOAFJDIAFOJESAFSHJIFNJ;A IEROR SA.”
I still kinda feel the same way. I am one of the most rational and level-headed people on this planet, not to mention, kind of a weenie that’s scared of just about everything. The idea of running my own business was terrifying, and still is. I felt confident in my skills as a dietitian and nutrition coach, but running a business?? Not so much.
Almost 2 years later, I am still no expert. Much of what I’ve learned has been through failure, not success. Still, I get emails every week from dietitians and nutrition students, wanting to know how I got here and looking for advice on how to start their own private practice. Apparently, I look like I’ve got my act together! But I’m still learning every day.
What are some of the things that wish you had known as you were starting up?
1. Get started now! No, I don’t mean go out and quit your job today. But do start taking steps towards opening your practice, building the business skills you need so it’s not so overwhelming when you finally do open up shop.
2. Learn to say no, even in the beginning. When I first started my business, I took every paid (and often times unpaid) opportunity that came my way, and found myself not being able to say no when others needed help. I was focused on making money, not building a business. After 6 months of private practice, I was overwhelmed, not all that fulfilled, and the growth of my business stagnated. Luckily, I was able to recognize that, take a step back, think about branding and relaunch with a new business plan when I relaunched my site. Since then, business has been growing steadily in the direction that I want. One thing I learned – if your reaction to an opportunity isn’t “YES!!” then your answer should be no.
3. Expect clients to have barriers. A comment I frequently hear from aspiring private practice RDs is “I want to work in a setting where clients actually want to change.” The presumption is that if someone pays money to see you rather than getting counseling for free or covered by insurance, then they’ll follow your advice to the T. While all of my clients at some level are ready to change, what I’ve learned is that everyone has barriers and at some level, is ambivalent about changing their diet. Counseling in private practice is NOT easy! It’s not as simple as telling someone what to do and expecting them to do it. You have to be prepared to coach, counsel, listen, motivate and THEN educate.
4. Don’t be afraid to sell. This was a big fear for me, and still is. But, it’s kinda essential to having a viable business. When I first started, I sold nutrition counseling sessions a la carte because I didn’t feel comfortable pressuring people into spending lots of money. I figured if they loved the initial session, they’d schedule follow ups. That happened sometimes, but mostly, clients went in expecting a total transformation with one session – not so realistic. Since then, I’ve began offering clients session packages, and it’s been much more successful for both me and clients. Remember, you are providing a valuable service and deserve to be compensated fairly for it and if clients recognize you’re providing a valuable service, they won’t have a problem paying for it.
That’s a great point about helping people understand the value of your services! I’m sure many RDs want to know how you have conveyed that value to new and continuing clients.
Marketing is still definitely one of my struggles. I get a lot of traction on my blog, but it is still most difficult for me to convert my blog readers to buyers. I think a lot of us have learned the hard way that more traffic doesn't exactly translate to more clients. I used to think there was some kind of 'threshold' to hit where it would support a full client load, but in chatting with a dietitian friend who has a blog with dozens of times more traffic than mine, her requests are still not enough to support a full virtual client load.
I absolutely love blogging - it's a creative outlet, source of income, has led to some really incredible things with my business and personal life. It helps me 'speak' to my ideal client so I find most people coming to me for counseling are the exact type of person who I want to work with. But using it as a standard way to build a practice...I don't think that works for most dietitians!
Right now, I see about half my clients virtually and the other half out of my Columbia office. For marketing purposes, it probably makes more sense to focus on one or the other – virtual or local.
The conversion to paying customers is definitely a difficult one! What are some ways that you are considering as you move forward?
Insurance has definitely been something that's on my mind. The fact that as dietitians, we are supported by insurance, is something that sets us apart from other health coaches. I also think it’s our duty to make nutrition services available to as many people as possible, of course, while being compensated fairly for the work we do. But from what I had previously learned, there was little reimbursement for nutrition in SC. After I learned that I kind of gave up on the idea.
After talking with WellSeek and Healthy Bytes, I learned that so much has changed around what’s covered and the rates were on par with what I currently charge in private pay. I figured, why not? It may be a way to get over the initial hurdle of helping clients get through the door for a few individual sessions, and a way to build a rapport that will translate into the value of how I can help them if we work together for an extended period of time.
Are there any last tips that you want to share with fellow RDs as they start out in their business?
Get training in health coaching! I cannot stress the importance of this for everyone who dreams of nutrition counseling. I think where many dietitians go wrong is with an emphasis on education, which is rarely helpful for clients. They can read a book and know what to do – it’s your job to break down barriers, foster “aha” moments, motivate and THEN educate. I was lucky to have access to two different health coach certificate programs though my last job, but if I hadn’t, I would sign up for Wellcoaches or ACE training immediately.
Thank you for sharing all that you have learned so far on your journey, Rachael! We are grateful for your kind, giving presence in our Expert community :)