How to set up your own health and beauty business

Turning new skills into a successful business can be tough. Gareth Chadwick gives you some tips
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The Independent Online


Setting up your own business is hard enough in any industry. When the industry is as competitive as health and beauty, the challenge is even greater.

No matter how good your skills, how successful your course or how eager you are to get started, translating the hard work of training into a successful business is something that many newly-qualified professionals are unprepared for.

Some courses cover the basics of setting up a business but many do not. Even those that do devote only limited time to the practicalities of starting and running your own business. Understandably, their emphasis is on delivering health and beauty training, not business start-up support. Consequently, many people complete their training with unrealistic expectations.

"Unfortunately, it is very rarely a case of finishing your training, putting up a few flyers and watching the phone ring off the hook," says Rachel Fairweather, co-founder of Jing Advanced Massage and Training.

"Building up a stand-alone business to provide you with a living wage is a slow process. It relies on word of mouth, networking and business skills, as much as your ability," she says.

Like many successful practitioners, Fairweather began by gradually building up her practice while still in full-time employment. She started her massage practice in the evenings and at weekends, while continuing to work as a social worker in Liverpool. After a two-year spell in New York developing her expertise, she returned to the UK. She was better qualified, but had no clients, so she capitalised on her background to find temporary social work jobs while she built up another practice.

"It meant I could maintain a steady income while the business developed. As I got more clients, I reduced my temping hours, until I felt comfortable ditching the day-job," she says.

Finding enough clients is where a lot of would-be practitioners struggle. First, a few important don'ts: if you're offering massage services, don't put an advert in the newspaper unless you want to be pestered by dodgy people at all hours; don't spend money on glossy leaflets to distribute randomly around the neighbourhood; and don't underestimate how much time, effort and planning it will take to develop a viable business.

"One of the most common mistakes is a failure to plan," says Jackie Nicholls, founder of Cloud Nine Cambridge, a training and beauty therapy practice. "You need to think about who you want to target and how best to market yourself to them. There are thousands of therapists out there; how are you going to make yourself stand out?" she says.

Nicholls adds that the key is to pick a target market and focus on it, rather than adopting a scattergun approach. If you want to target middle-aged women with higher levels of disposable income, think about how you can get the message out to them.

"Get in touch with the women's team at the local golf club. Offer to do a free demonstration; introduce yourself to the captain. Developing your business is about meeting people; building a referral network," says Nicholls.

Finances often hold businesses back, particularly in the early stages. But if you want to borrow money from the bank to get the business going, at the very least they will expect to see a business plan, detailing how you plan to spend the money and how you expect the business to grow.

Writing a business plan is not as daunting as it sounds. It doesn't have to be more than two or three pages long, detailing your plans to develop the business, what you need to spend and the amount of money you expect to bring in. Most Chambers of Commerce, Business Links or even local colleges provide free or subsidised training on writing business plans, basic accounts, computer skills or marketing.

You should also consider where you want to base your business. The three main options are a home-based practice, where you treat clients in your own home; a mobile practice, where you visit clients in their homes; or hiring a treatment room.

Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. Working from home might be easiest, but it needs to be a suitable, professional environment if you want clients to come back, not a treatment bed in a corner of the room. Visiting clients in their own home takes that pressure off you - but it leaves you with little control over the treatment environment and could mean you spend half your time driving to and from appointments. Renting a treatment room in a clinic or health club (many will rent out rooms by the hour) is more expensive, but provides more opportunities for networking and piggy-backing on existing clientele.

"Ultimately, it is about finding what works for you. Building up a business doesn't have to be difficult, but you must be prepared to climb each rung of the ladder one by one," says Nicholls.

'We had lots of clients but business-wise we didn't have a clue'

Ten years ago, Helen Saville was working as a financial investigator in Abu Dhabi. Today, she is co-owner of one of London's best known therapy clinics, Oeuf Therapy Rooms.

Specialists in women's health, fertility and natural pregnancy, Queen's Park-based Oeuf opened in September 2002. It now employs nine therapists, including herbalists, homeopathists and acupuncturists. Saville herself is a cranio-sacral therapist; business partner and co-founder Emma Davies is a holistic therapist.

They met five years ago. Saville had been bitten by the therapy bug in Abu Dhabi and returned to the UK to further her training.

"My ultimate aim was to learn enough to set up my own business. I reckoned two years of training would set me on my way, so as soon as I had saved up enough money I resigned from my job, came back to the UK and spent two years doing as much training as I could," says Saville.

It was while working as a therapist in London that she met Emma, a former music industry executive keen to set up her own therapy clinic. Together, the two began hatching their business plan.

After two years of planning, researching and training they were ready to launch; but they quickly realised that running a business requires more than excellence on the treatment table.

"We were earning a great reputation and had lots of clients, but business-wise we didn't have a clue. We didn't even have an accountant for the first six months. After 18 months we realised that if we wanted the business to achieve its potential, we needed to get serious, so we got some professional advice," she explains.

The results were dramatic. In the past 18 months the business has grown by 70 per cent and has clients all over the UK and even Europe. The ultimate aim, says Saville, is to open more branches.

"One of the most important things we learnt is that it if you are passionate about building a successful practice, you can't have issues with making a profit. There's nothing wrong with making money as well as being a good therapist," says Saville.