My wife, Susan, and I are both Licensed Massage Therapists and Licensed Massage Therapy Instructors, and we are the only two practitioners in our private practice, which is located in Downtown Austin, Texas.
We specialize in pain relief through Clinical Massage Therapy, and most often through Trigger Point Therapy. In addition to Manual Therapy, we also offer Cold Laser Therapy, Endermologie, Endermotherapy, Therapeutic Taping, and the use of the Deep Muscle Stimulator.
Our clientele includes professional athletes, entertainers, musicians, and celebrities, as well as “everyday folks” who are looking for results-oriented therapeutic modalities provided in a spa-like environment.
I suppose I followed my wife’s lead into the massage industry. My wife has always been artistic, and had begun her college career as an art major, but by 1996, her vision began to deteriorate due to some retinal issues.
She changed her major to Social Science and finished her degree, we continued to operate the historic movie theater with which had been involved for many years, and then we both went on to earn our TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). We lived and worked overseas for a few years (she taught English and I took photos for The Korea Herald), but not long after we returned to the U.S. in 2001, Susan started to experience more issues with her vision.
This prompted her to consider a career in which she could flourish even if her vision continued to deteriorate, so she started to look into Massage Therapy. I was intrigued by what she told me about it, and always eager to learn new skills, I followed suit. We completed the initial part of our massage training together, and then each went on to complete our Clinical Massage Therapy training individually.
Since Susan and I have pretty much always been self-employed and have always worked together, we both liked the fact that Massage Therapy would allow us to operate a private practice and work together. But we also liked the fact that we could choose to be employees or independent contractors for other spas or clinics if we wanted. We have both worked at some of Austin’s highest rated resort spas, but have found the most fulfillment in operating our own private practice.
And we really found our calling in Clinical Massage Therapy, since this specialty allows us to directly impact the quality of our clients’ lives. Many of our clients are performers, musicians, athletes, and artists, and being able to relieve their pain and enable them to practice their craft and operate “at the top of their game” is a great feeling. Being part of the support system for these talented folks is very satisfying because we know that, in some small way, we’ve contributed to the enjoyment and inspiration of their fans and audience members.
Since having become Licensed Massage Therapy Instructors, we’ve also begun producing educational videos, e-books, audio books, and web series. This has allowed us to incorporate our other passions into our work (photography, audio / video production, writing, drawing, teaching, curriculum design, etc.)
We had a lot of fun producing the first season of a web series that Susan wrote and I produced, called “Trigger Point Ninja ™” and, of course, Susan contributes her “A Touch of Humor” comic strip to each issue of ABMP’s “Massage & Bodywork” Magazine. All of these endeavors help us stay inspired in our practice and it brings us great satisfaction to help others learn what we ourselves have spent years learning and practicing.
One concern from the beginning was whether we could muster the stamina and physical endurance of providing Massage Therapy day after day, year after year, in order to cultivate a thriving practice. Vigilant self-care, of course, is one component of this, but another way in which we have tried to ensure our career longevity is by incorporating a variety of tools & technology into our practice.
Our Cold Laser units and DMS (Deep Muscle Stimulator) units have both been invaluable in this department. These tools allow us to provide more relief in less time; provide more effective therapy; and also prevent wear & tear on our hands, arms, elbows, and other joints. Clients seek us out because of the unique combination of training, education, skills, and tools that we offer, and they literally travel from other states, and even other countries for the services that we offer.
We also wondered when we started out whether we could really make a comfortable living by providing what is essentially a luxury service. We graduated from massage school in 2006, and by the time we had both finished our Clinical Massage Training and were ready to open our own practice, it was 2008.
This, of course, was a scary time to be staring any business, and especially one that was based on providing an expendable amenity. The ways in which we overcame this challenge included specializing in clinical work, rather than relaxation massage; branding ourselves as healthcare providers; and framing our services as medically sound therapeutic modalities rather than simply enjoyable, relaxing luxuries.
Now that we have a thriving practice, we feel as though the tough economic times during which we started our practice were a blessing in that they forced us to work especially hard to provide exceptional service and a great value for our clients. This hard work is exactly what has enabled us to grow our practice and build a solid livelihood for ourselves.
Fortunately for us, Austin enjoys a very massage-literate population, which precluded the need for us to spend a lot of energy informing potential clients that Massage Therapy is a viable healthcare option, is not a sexually-oriented experience, etc. However, the flipside of that is the fact that Austin is a very saturated massage market. We have heard statistics that say that Austin is second only to Los Angeles in Massage Therapy saturation. This means that, if you hope to excel in the Austin market, you had better be very, very skilled and have a stellar reputation (two things that we have tried very diligently to do).
As I mentioned, our specialty is pain relief through Clinical Massage Therapy. Our motto, when it comes to Massage Therapy, our educational products, and everything that we do is, “Quality times consistency equals success.” I would say that the top three contributing factors to our success today would be:
- Embracing technology, both in the treatment room and in the office (online booking, a strong social media presence, a polished and professional website, an investment in search engine optimization, etc.).
- A dedication to exceptional quality, customer service, and integrity.
- A tireless work ethic.
As I mentioned, I love the ability that my specialty provides to make people’s lives immediately and dramatically better. When someone comes into my office with a debilitating pain, and an hour later, they’re able to leave feeling dramatically better and ready to get back to their work, hobbies, and life, I feel great.
And Massage Therapy as a general career provides us with a unique opportunity to act as allies to our clients. We spend a great degree of quality time with them, and get to know them so well that we are able to help them in a way that other healthcare practitioners (who spend just a few moments with them) simply can’t do.
I suppose that this is what makes Massage Therapy a holistic practice. We are able to treat our clients as whole people with full lives, families, work challenges, hobbies, goals and dreams. Our ability to talk about all of these things with them empowers both them and us to work together to try to improve their lives not only in the arena of their physical health, but also their overall well being.
There are times when Susan and I come home exhausted from having done massage all day, and we’re absolutely depleted of energy. While it’s a good feeling to have done a good day’s work, and to have helped so many people, it’s hard sometimes to muster the energy to take care of ourselves and each other after taking care of everyone else all day.
This is another reason why self-care, rest, and time away from work are all so important. We like to tell our clients that a field that has rested yields a bountiful crop. We just have to make sure that we take our own advice!
If I could change three things about my work, I would wish for:
- More time to work on video production and the ability to produce more educational products (currently, we only have two days per week to devote to these endeavors).
- The ability to take evenings and Saturdays off from seeing clients (but of course, these are among some of our busiest times).
- The ability to clone myself!
Susan and I would like to practice as long as possible, but it’s inevitable that we will start to transition into producing more educational content (producing videos, e-books, and audio books; writing curriculum for CE classes; and creating other educational content).
As I’ve mentioned, through our production company, Tiger Lily Studios, LLC, Susan and I produce and distribute educational content for other health & wellness practitioners. This takes up most of our “free time” (time spent away from our clinic). Writing, producing, filming, editing, and promoting our educational products takes a tremendous amount of time, and since we can only devote two days per week to these endeavors, it takes us a frustratingly long time to complete each project.
But we tend to steal away any time we possibly can to make little steps toward finishing these projects. Even when Susan finds herself with just a few minutes in between appointments, she’s writing a paragraph here, a few lines there, just to make some headway on her latest e-book or class curriculum. We really wish that we could make it all happen faster, but slow and steady wins the race.
One mistake that I see a lot of Massage Therapists making involves relying too heavily on others to make things happen. It’s the easy way out to simply wait around for someone else to act, and then blame that person’s inaction for the fact that progress hasn’t been made.
Partnering with like-minded allies can be a powerful advantage and allow all parties involved to get further ahead (Susan and I have certainly found this to be the case with our partnership). However, too often, we see MTs “hitching their wagon to someone else’s star,” and becoming frustrated when that doesn’t result in success.
I suppose one example of this might be MTs who get involved with a business that promises to provide the MTs with clients (whether in an employee or independent contractor situation). If the business isn’t able to provide the MT with a sufficient number of clients, then it certainly doesn’t behoove the MT to simply whine about the fact that they’re not seeing any clients.
We found ourselves in this type of situation fairly early on in our career, and we quickly decided to take action rather than play the blame game. We decided that if the spa where we were employed wasn’t able to attract enough clients for us, and we weren’t willing to donate our time to act as the spa’s unpaid marketing team, then we might as well start our own practice and put those marketing efforts into our own endeavor.
This is precisely what we did, and our efforts paid off. If we had failed to act, and had simply moped around that spa lamenting the fact that the Spa Manager was unable to provide us with enough work, then we would still be moping around that spa, underemployed, and never would have gotten our Massage Therapy career off the ground.
I would also warn new MTs about the likelihood that some unscrupulous spa owners will likely try to hire them as independent contractors when they should actually be hired as employees. The IRS makes very specific differentiations between independent contractors and employees.
Some spa owners want to have all of the benefits of having employees (having MTs on call, requiring MTs to wear uniforms, determining when & where MTs will work, etc.) while shirking any of the responsibilities of having employees (paying Social Security taxes, providing mandatory employee benefits and protections, etc.).
Such a spa may hire their MTs as independent contractors in an effort to avoid the responsibilities of being an employer. That’s not to say that hiring MTs as independent contractors is necessarily illegal; it’s just that spas cannot pay MTs as independent contractors while expecting them to act as employees. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that this practice is rampant in the Massage Therapy industry.
If MTs have any question as to whether they should be classified as an independent contractor or an employee, they can download an SS-8 form from the IRS’s website, fill it out, return it to the IRS, and the IRS will determine how the worker should be classified. Doing this may save an MT thousands of dollars in self employment tax.
We were very lucky in that we found two great Massage Therapy schools. We first attended The Lauterstein-Conway Massage School & Clinic and then we went on to study at Texas Healing Arts Institute, both here in Austin. Both schools have great reputations, and we spoke with some graduates of each school to ensure that they had had good experiences.
This is probably the best advice I could give in this area; speaking with past graduates of a school will help you understand what type of experience they had and help you determine whether the school will be a good match for you. We’ve had many prospective MTs call us to ask about our experiences with both schools and we’re always happy to talk to them about the culture, quality, and nature of the schools.
When Susan and I decided we wanted to go to massage school, we were pretty broke. But we self-financed all of our training. We worked some pretty tough, crazy jobs for about a year prior to enrolling in our initial training program, and during that time, we lived exceptionally frugally and saved up enough not only to pay our tuition, but also to keep us afloat without having to work during the nine months of training. This allowed us to focus completely on our studies without having to juggle our school schedule with jobs.
Then we got licensed, and we both started working immediately. We worked all kinds of massage jobs all over town: chair massage gigs, sports massage gigs, hotel outcalls, spa work, you name it. Once we were both working and practicing massage, we took turns attending the clinical portion of our training. First Susan went to THAI, and then I did. By this time, we both had steady work at one of the bigger resort hotel spas downtown, and were both making pretty good money there. This allowed us the stability to both be able to complete our clinical training.
Fortunately for us, we were able to avoid taking out any student loans. I know that for some folks, this is the only way for them to obtain their training. But we didn’t want the pressure of paying those loans back, so we decided to do the work up front (by saving the money up prior to school and paying for our tuition outright). The schools that we attended offered payment programs, which was very helpful too.
Prior to and during our initial massage training, we were able to arrange a very affordable housing situation, and I realize that this can be hard to come by. And, as I mentioned, we lived very frugally and sacrificed a lot in order to pay for massage school. But since most massage training programs are only about a year in duration, that’s really not that long to sacrifice for an education that will pave the way to a lucrative and fulfilling career. If you keep your eye on the prize, it won’t be hard to make the necessary sacrifices to make sure you get there.
My three points of advice for aspiring Massage Therapists today would be:
- If you want to enjoy a comfortable living as a Massage Therapist, your best path to doing so will be through self-employment (private practice). However, not everyone is cut out to be self-employed. Successful entrepreneurism requires a unique skill set and personality, which you may or may not possess. Working for someone else may be a more realistic option for you however, you are not likely to enjoy the same degree of income and growth potential if you’re an employee. This is why Susan and I have produced a series of educational materials titled the “M.B.A. (Massage Business Advocates) Series.” This series of e-books, videos, and audio books helps empower MTs to pave the way to a successful, thriving private practice. Our tag line for the series is, “Cultivating a sustainable practice means cultivating a sustainable you.” These materials incorporate our combined knowledge, gained from our many years of self-employment (much of it gained via the “school of hard knocks”).
- Realize that Massage Therapy is one of the most difficult jobs you could choose. By difficult, I don’t mean bad. I mean that massage is physically demanding; emotionally draining; and involves long hours. Succeeding in it will require working long hours; forgoing days off and vacations; providing exceptional service; constantly refining your skills; continually self-educating; consistently investing in your own education and practice; and familiarizing yourself with not only your own industry, but many others, including the tech world, the business world, and other areas of the health & wellness industry. If you’ve chosen Massage Therapy because you think it will be easy and require minimal effort, then you’ve made the wrong choice. But if you’re willing to give it your all, and continually go above & beyond the status quo, then it will be one of the most rewarding careers you can choose.
- I said it before, but don’t be afraid of technology. If you’re unwilling to embrace emerging technology, you’ll be left in the dust. I find that MTs often fear or loathe technology. I guess they tend to be more attracted to and comfortable with the organic nature of the body than technological devices and systems. But fearing technology will only hinder your career. Explore it, learn it, make it your ally, and you’ll harness a power that will help take your practice beyond what you could have ever imagined.
One prediction for the future of massage: Massage clients will become increasingly discerning as more practitioners “up their game,” hone their clinical skills, and refine their business acumen.
My greatest passion outside of massage is creating. Creating videos, e-books, audio books, and other multi-media content is fun for me, and bringing educational content to other MTs (as well as other types of practitioners) is very gratifying to me. And of course, not only do I love making movies, but watching them too!
Shane Epperly, L.M.T., L.M.T.I. can be found at www.TigerLilyStudios.com
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