Mark Hillman, Ph.D.

A Practice Is Born
by Mark Hillman

Employed as coordinator of the Veterans Educational Program in Albany, New York, and then as a high school guidance counselor for 7 years, I always had a secure paycheck and a spectacular retirement plan. But there was a problem - I was bored.

Comfortable with my counseling skill-set, I talked with a close friend who was in private practice, and he opened my eyes to the concept of running a business. This was no mental health clinic, but an actual business with profit and loss statements, medical malpractice insurance, marketing plans, advertising budgets, and stationary. After hearing everything that was actually involved in starting a business, I walked away depressed and discouraged, thinking I was taking a step toward stupid.

Naively believing in an abundance mentality rather than a scarcity mentality, I called a former classmate who was doing very well in private practice for some mentoring and he replied, "Does Macy's tell Gimbles?" Though therapists aren't supposed to hold grudges, I still hold one to this day.

With this ill-informed advice, I went back to the university library and checked out books on starting and running a business. After learning about business plans, strategic plans, marketing plans, and financial projections, I took to starting a business like a duck to water. Now I needed a mentor, but who was going to give me free advice and unbillable time? Turns out a former professor and a friend who ran a successful hair products distribution company were the two best people I could have sought counsel from. Sure, it cost me a lunch or two and sometimes a fine bottle of single malt scotch, but it was well worth it.

Next step was to find an office to sublet and have open a night or two, as I certainly wasn't financially secure enough to leave my full-time stable job. Believe it or not, I searched the Yellow Pages and looked for group practices, thinking not everyone was doing counseling full time, and found an office with multiple practices. I approached the receptionist, who was kind enough to give me the name of a practitioner who worked part-time, and I called. The practitioner was thrilled when I called and said "I would love to off-set my rent $70 per month." How cool was this-rent a furbished office for $70 per month and share a phone number. Now that this was really happening, I got nervous. I needed business cards, appointment books, folders, and file cabinets-and how was I going to find clients?!

I thought strategically. I worked in a high school 45 minutes away, so that was out. However, there was a high school nearby, so I taught in their continuing education evening program 1 night a week for 2 hours for 4 weeks. The $9.00 per hour for a total of $72 at least paid the rent, and teaching stress-management for teens brought in a lot of parents (can you say niche-marketing?). This is what people today call top-of-mind awareness. My first referrals were from my students.

By networking with the local high school guidance counselors and advertising in the Yellow Pages (yes, they work), my 1 night grew to 2, and then 3, and then 4. Working during the day and night certainly took its toll on me, both physically and personally. However, I've always believed it's not trespassing to go beyond your own boundaries, and I took the plunge; knees a-knockin' I applied for an unpaid leave of absence and went full time after 8 months part-time, and I've never looked back!

Now full time since July 1983, words cannot express how grateful I am to have had my former professor and my hair products friend as mentors. Who knows where I would be today if it wasn't for them. I never would have imagined that such great mentors for starting a private mental health practice would have come from the worlds of academia and salon products.

There's a great movie called Pay It Forward in which a young boy attempts to better society by doing a good deed for three people, asking only in return that each of those individuals performs a good deed for three additional people who are also to continue to "pay it forward." When a student for the university asks to interview me for an introductory psychology class, or when someone who is thinking about going into private practice needs a mentor, I always pay it forward.

Mentoring - it's not what we give, but what we share.

Published in the Fall Issue of Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association

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