A Void Found While Practicing Massage Turned Into a Business by Una Tucker

Una Tucker1. Tell us a bit more about you and your practice as it is today (i.e., are you a solo practitioner or a business owner?). If solo, what kind of an establishment do you work for, how large is it, what is the clientele like and what is the specialty offered? If it is a business that you own, kindly include the same type of relevant information that will give the reader a good idea about your establishment/practice. Please also include where you live and work.

My name is Una Tucker and I am a qualified Swedish Massage Therapist, Reflexologist and Aromatherapist. I live in the UK in the big city of London and I have a private massage practice.

I work on a referral (word-of-mouth) basis only and my client base has always been small and dedicated, which I prefer. No back-to-back appointments means that I am not tied to time and can therefore give my clients a more bespoke massage rather than a set routine to a set time.

A full body session lasts between 60-90 mins. My client base was always female (an issue I have debated on many a professional massage forum and one that I mentioned in my latest blog Kneads Must Massage Blog. Although I am also trained in Indian Head Massage and Lymphatic Drainage, my real loves are Swedish massage and Reflexology.

I also have a massage tool business called ‘Kneads Must’ Kneads Must Homepage and I have developed a range of tools for both professional therapists and non-professionals to massage with. I love my business and I am on a mission to get everyone massaging every day for a healthier way of life. That said, the one downside of running my massage tool company is that I have less time to devote to my massage practice but, hey ho, ‘(k)needs must’ – it’s the name of my company and my creed!

2. Tell us why you chose to go into massage and at what point in your life did you decide to do so? What were you doing at the time? Where did you first hear about the massage career? What factors influenced your decision? What were you looking to get out of this decision?

I have been massaging since I was 8yrs old. It just came naturally to me and word got around in my large Irish family that I was “good at giving foot and back rubs”. I was never out of work! All through my working life as a classical singer, I massaged colleagues and friends for free.

It was just something I did and, oddly enough, I never considered a career in it until a chance meeting with a colleague one evening. We went for a glass of wine and she told me that she was going to sign up for a professional massage course the next day. I asked her would she mind some company and, thankfully, she was thrilled at my interest. I signed up the next morning and never looked back.

I was in my late 30’s by then – better late than never – and I just wanted to be able to massage more regularly as it was something that I loved doing. It’s often said that a good teacher can change your life. So it was with my massage tutor, Sue. She paid me the ultimate compliment by saying that as a massage student I walked into her class “fully formed” and that all she could teach me was some A&P and a structured routine. She encouraged me to consider holistic massage as a career option and I took her good advice to heart.

3. What were some of your questions and concerns you had before further pursuing your massage therapy goals? Talk about concerns with schools and the profession itself.

I loosely paraphrase a quote from the oceanographer and conservationist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau: “The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know”. My initial massage course led onto other qualifications and the more I came to know about the industry, the more I questioned my place in it.

Coming to the industry a little bit later than most, I was not interested in 9-5 spa work or a career in the beauty industry; so I chose private practice. Qualifications in the UK can vary from full-on university degrees to simple community college certificates but they all qualify as massage therapists and that makes for varying degrees in the quality of professional massage on offer.

I personally believe that education in massage therapy needs to be more regulated in the UK (it may be so in the US and Europe, so I speak only from my experience). There should be more tuition on careers available, how to find jobs, how to run your own business, all the regulatory obligations involved, career placement programmes and how to stay safe and have a long career (i.e., there is not enough tuition on tool use for therapists and I have spoken to many therapists at trade shows who suffer from some form of work-related RSI).

Yes, you are required to do a certain amount of CPD (Continued Professional Development) but I believe the real ground work should involve the educators a great deal more, even if that means longer courses or re-testing of abilities/re-fresher courses every 5yrs or so as a requisite for keeping qualified.

4. What is your specialty and what are the top three contributing factors to your success today?

As I said in question 1, my real loves are Swedish Massage and Reflexology. I seem to have some talent for tool-designing as well, but as they say “Self-praise is no praise at all”, so I shan’t elaborate!

The main success factor for my tool-designing is also the reason why I was successful as a therapist – being perceptive (i.e. knowing what’s needed and how to make it work). Being in the H&B/Alternative Therapy industry, I was able to identify a crucial gap in the market for mid-priced, high-quality massage tools that were multi-functional AND came with lots of educational support.

So, I designed my own range of tools – after the 1% inspiration comes the 99% perspiration and any longevity in the business world is down to hard work and determination. The same applies to any working therapist, especially the self-employed ones, as it takes a lot of determination and clever thinking to find and maintain clientele – especially when you are not guaranteed a 9-5 salary with a big company come rain or shine.

Finally, for growth and staying power, one needs to be adaptable. Being able to roll with the punches and evolve with changes in industries, education, economies and public tastes means that you will grow and prosper.

5. What do you like about your specialty? What is it that you like about what you do in general as a career? Why?

Giving massage relaxes the client but I also get a great deal from it. I always feel energized and connected after a giving a good massage. Clients often ask me whether I am tired after massaging for 60-90 mins but it is often the opposite: I feel calm, grounded and gently energized.

I love the connection of helping people feel better in themselves, both physically and mentally and I love the ‘in-the-moment’ focus of massage. For example: you can’t be thinking about what you are going to have for lunch, you need to concentrate on the task in a very intense way whilst keeping your thoughts free from everyday clutter.

Do this right and it is a form of meditation in itself, which is probably why I feel so well after giving a massage. Also, being in a warm, softly-lit room with the lovely scent of essential oils and calm music playing in the background is a lot more conducive to well-being than your typical, 9-5 office job!

As a career, it’s great – if you can find and maintain that good headspace and physical balance. As I said above, great office, nice clientele and the good vibrations you get from being able to make a fellow human being feel better – what’ not to like?

7. If there were three things you could change about your work or the industry as a whole what would they be? Why would you change them? What would you change them to?

1. The Hippy Factor: The resurgence of the massage/wellness movement started with the ‘hippy’ movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s, which wasn’t just about ‘free love’, rock music and cool clothes – it was about getting back to a more natural, holistic way of living and that fabulous idealism really helped the alternative therapy industry expand into the 20th century.

Since then, the Health & Beauty industry (which now incorporates so much of the alternative therapies) has ‘grown-up’ into a very sophisticated business. Whilst we should always acknowledge the mind/body/spirit correlation, I don’t agree with the spiritual emphasis that still remains within our industry.

To me, massage is a practical answer to a physical problem. The science behind our Anatomy & Physiology studies proves the cause and effect of lifestyle on our physical and mental health. Crystals, auras, meditation, angels etc are all valid but in a more ‘spiritual’ context that belongs to a niche market and so must not be associated with the overall massage industry.

It is my opinion that the ‘hippy factor’ is what has kept the mainstream medical world from endorsing the use of alternative therapies in health treatments for so long and why some people still disregard massage as something trivial. For the record, I love hippies, they are some of the most positive and engaging people around but they generally don’t make great business people….

2. The Spa vs Clinic Factor: This is a hard one to tease out, especially as spas increasingly offer more alternative therapy treatments. In general, though, you won’t find acupuncture or Reflexology at your local beauty spa, no more than you would find a facial or leg wax at your designated alternative therapy clinic – that’s because one side of the coin is ‘health’ and the other is ‘beauty’ and at some time somebody married the two together in the one term.

Sure, it’s the same coin but a different perspective and one that can have great results (there are some excellent all round spa therapists out there) but it can also end up you getting a massage treatment from a spa specialist that is more interested in selling you the establishments branded products than working on your physical well-being with a long-term view.

3. The no “Tools of the Trade” mindset in holistic massage: This is a subject that is obviously close to my heart. When I first started selling my massage tool, ‘The Kneader’, at tradeshows (albeit on a one-woman, low-key level), I knew that therapists would be interested in it as a supplemental massage tool from the trials that I had previously done. What astounded me was the level of therapist injury I encountered.

Nearly every therapist that enquired after the tool did so by initially asking “Will it help with my sore hands/fingers/thumb/wrists?”. The therapists experiencing injury or fatigue were men and women of all shapes, sizes and ages but far too many were young people, some only qualified and practicing for a year or two. I always asked them if they used a tool to supplement the deeper moves and most of them replied that they did not.

There were a couple of reasons for this: one being that they hadn’t found a tool they liked (happily, everybody bought the Kneader after seeing what it could do); the second and main reason was they had been taught that the therapist should never break hand contact with the client and that using a tool to do deeper moves was somehow ‘cheating’ or that it broke up the energy of the massage moves.

That mindset needs to change across the board, especially as the public are much more educated re alternative therapies and so much more spa-friendly then they were 30-40yrs ago. There are now massage clinics and wellness spas all over the place and a popular therapist can easily end up doing a 40hr week of back-to-back treatments. The massage industry has grown massively and so must our therapist thinking.

Using a hand-held tool (any tool that works for you) to save your hands/joints during deep or repetitive moves is not cheating – it’s good business, just like buying the latest technology for any job gives you the competitive edge. In the massage business, that can be a great massage table, top-quality towels, oils, music or even supplemental massage tools.

You have to maintain the business and the therapist’s physical body is integral to that business. It’s all to play for, you just have to invest all you can comfortably afford mentally, physically and financially. When you lose the love of it, then you move on because it is well and truly over – the real tragedy is still loving being a therapist and wanting to do it but not being able to massage because you wrecked your thumbs on too many deep pressure moves.

8. How long do you plan to practice and what do you plan to do after?

As long as I can! I read a statistic recently that said the average massage therapist’s career lasts approximately 5-7 yrs. That’s not a long time and there are many factors that come into play with that statistic, so we must remember that it is only an average and that one size does not fit all.

We all have our own physical limitations, most of which we live and work with, but illness and/or injury can cut a career dead (please see point three of question 7 above). On the plus side, giving a good massage (especially table massage) is a bit like doing Tai Chi (i.e. gently flowing and controlled movements) and that is as good for your body as it is for your client’s and so can really help the therapist’s overall wellness.

It’s a balance between giving your best but not giving your all to each client. Get it right and you have a long career, get it wrong and you’re injured and/or burned out. My long-term goal is to build up my business ‘Kneads Must’ to an international level and then sell it on to a major player for enough money to buy a house in the country and grow even more veg and raise more chickens then we do already!

9. Do you currently have another job or business whether full time or part time? Tell us a bit more about it and how you are able to juggle that with your massage career?

Yes, indeed. If I haven’t mentioned it already (and I have!), I own a massage tool business called ‘Kneads Must’ that designs and manufactures hand-held massage tools for professional and mainstream retail use.

My journey has been a long one. In 2003, I was looking for a good, hand-held massage tool for my clients to use at home, in-between their treatments with me but I couldn’t find any tool that I would recommend as a therapist, nor buy as a consumer. There were lots of tools out there doing lots of different things well but there was no tool doing everything well – I wanted an all-round product that was easy-to-use, affordable and multi-functional (it had to do all the major massage moves, especially stroking/effleurage).

I designed my own range of tools for the body, feet, face and head, and so my company Kneads Must was born! Prior to the ‘The Kneader’ (our main body tool) going on sale in the market, I trialed it with massage therapists in the UK to make sure it was indeed a good product. They really loved it and wanted to use it as a supplemental tool in their practices because it saves their hands during deep and/or repetitive movements, and so the professional market for the Kneader took off pretty early.

We brought out our main body tool ‘The Kneader’ a couple of years ago for retail in the UK and Europe; and we are currently working on getting the Kneader into the US for retail on Amazon, as many, many US therapists have contacted me about buying the tool for their practice.

10. Are there any mistakes you made in your career pursuit that you’d like to warn other students about so they can learn from your experience and avoid it?

Not really, maybe that I came to the industry quite late but that was more fate than anything and age should not really be a factor in following your ambitions (albeit, the sensible ones!). I would recommend working for a big spa or clinic as early in your career as possible to get experience, build up stamina, make connections and to appreciate the business and practical side of our industry. Once you have done that, you can decide whether to stay mainstream or go private.

11. What would you advise someone who is looking at massage therapy schools? What do you recommend they look for and how? How do you recommend they determine whether the school is the right one for them?

I can’t really answer that one as I don’t live in the US and am not up-to-date with the educational or qualifications system there. That said, “you get what out what you put in” and that includes money, effort and commitment. Don’t go for a cheap, quick course – go for the best course you can afford and work your way up from there.

Accept that you will never stop learning your craft – being a perpetual student means that you should always be moving forward and improving upon your knowledge and technique. The better you get, the more work you will get and the more you can re-invest in your practice, be it equipment, further learning, new disciplines etc.

12. What do you recommend for someone who wants to go to massage school but cannot afford it?

Volunteer at a holistic wellness centre, to build up experience and knowledge by being around the professionals. On a basic, ground level, that individual will see massage from the business side first and be under no illusions as to what the industry requires of them. Such knowledge might be crucial in determining whether that person really wants to make holistic massage their career – and, let’s face it, it’s far better they find out after a couple days of volunteering at a massage clinic rather than at the end of an expensive and time-consuming massage course!

Being in a professional massage environment also means that they will be party to upcoming courses and possible scholarships (who knows, the centre or its therapists may opt to sponsor that person to go on a massage course if they prove their worth through volunteering). Finally, massage family and friends for practice. With the rise of the internet, there are so many informal tutorials on how to massage (YouTube is awash with them) that you could easily pick up a basic routine to start with.

Make sure everybody understands that you’re not a professional but that you want to build up a routine and see if you’re any good at it. Ask them for feedback: what were you good at and where did you fall short? Keeping it to friends and family means they will have your best interests at heart and hopefully be straight (but gentle) with you as to whether you have any ability. And don’t underrate talent, because it’s important.

In my initial massage course, there was more than one of my fellow students who were simply not talented enough to be a massage professional. Sure, they had all the equipment, they knew the routine, they looked great in the student uniform and they had great towel technique but, when they started massaging you, they just weren’t that great at it. You can’t put in what God left out…..

13. What are your three biggest points of advice for an aspiring massage therapist today? What should they do/not do? What should they think about and consider?

Don’t be idealistic but don’t get pragmatic either. It’s a business, so make sure that you allocate time and thinking space to maintaining and building up the financial side of your practice – this should at least be about 30% of your schedule. You also need to pace yourself and be disciplined with each customer, so that you don’t give too much mentally or physically in any one session.

That said, you are first and foremost a holistic therapist, so it should never just be about the money. It’s a challenge, but finding that balance is what makes a good therapist. Being too idealistic means that you may become disillusioned by the industry or give too much and/or get burnt out after a couple of years. Being too business-orientated means that you will lose that holistic connection with the practice and your clients.

I have had massage treatments that were so by rote and dictated by the clock that I felt no energy or input from the therapist. Remember, you need to be the best therapist you can be, not just for personal self-esteem but because it’s a big world out there and you will be up against a lot of competition for every client you acquire.

14. Any open thoughts / comments – anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, the massage industry, profession, future, etc? If nothing, make one prediction for the future of massage.

My one prediction would be that the massage industry will embrace the need to focus on involving the client more in their overall, longer-term care.

There is still the mindset that massage is an occasional ‘indulgence’ or a ‘treat’ rather than a regular part of a healthy lifestyle, which is exactly why I developed The Kneader for people to massage regularly at home (I always advocate that “little and often” is best).

The majority of clients still go for a massage treatment, completely relax in that room and then depart to resume their hectic and often stressful schedules, without changing the underlying structures that cause their physical and mental un-wellness. Unless there is a particular injury or issue that they are receiving a block of dedicated treatments for, clients in general can only afford the time and money to get a massage every 4-6 weeks; so by the time they return for another treatment, the same stresses, tensions, bad posture and bad lifestyle choices have put that person pretty much back to where they started from.

People achieving good massage on a regular basis at home (or in the office, in the shower, in the gym etc) means that not only will they help will maintain the good work that their massage therapist did for them in their professional sessions, they will also be more aware of their need for physical and mental wellness and accept their liability in both. Clients massaging regularly at home will not stop going for professional massage treatments, it will just make those sessions easier for the therapist to carry out deeper moves and better flow (instead of having to concentrate on over-contracted core muscle groups) and the client will benefit far more from it.

I witnessed this first-hand in the case studies I did for my initial massage course (5 sessions over a six-8 week period on each volunteer): the first session was hard work and neither myself nor the volunteer got a lot out of it; but, by the 4th or 5th session, they were like limp noodles and loving it! The volunteers were so much more relaxed that I could go deeper and slower and because of they were less contracted and more mentally relaxed (or prepared to be relaxed) by that stage, the volunteer got so much more out of the session as well.

They often enquired whether I was doing a different massage routine/moves to those of the beginning sessions; and, of course, I wasn’t. The routine hadn’t changed, but they had – they were more relaxed and that made all the difference. The regularity of the sessions really helped speed their progress along and there’s the rub (pardon the pun!) – the wonderful effects of massage, like diet and exercise, are cumulative. To be of any real benefit, massage needs to be part of a regular, healthy lifestyle (again, which is why I developed a massage tool that people could use at home ‘little and often’).

15. What is your passion outside of massage? What are your hobbies and interests which you pursue when you are not working? Tell us why you enjoy what you enjoy.

I was a full-time classical singer and still do it on a very part-time basis, so music remains a passion – it has the same effect of energizing me as massage does. I am a keen cook because I love eating food, (that’s a bit of a ‘mission with commission’ endeavor).

My husband is a country boy who got me into gardening (we grow our own vegetables and keep hens) and working with the earth to make things grow should be required of everybody, as both an antidote for modern living and a way to love the planet. I love walking, Yoga and meditation for clearing my head and my lungs. I always resolve to do more of each but there never seems to be enough time in my day…..

Una Tucker is the managing director of Kneads Must and designer of ‘The Kneader’. She is a qualified and registered Swedish massage therapist, Aromatherapist, Reflexologist with training in Indian Head massage and Lymph Drainage massage. You can reach her at her website here or on her Facebook page here.

Neal Lyons is a founding member and volunteer contributor at the MTSI Institute, an information based portal dedicated to guiding and assisting aspiring massage therapists establish a successful career in massage. Neal is a published author and has collaborated on several mobile applications that serve the massage profession. You can view his published work on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and on Google+

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