The Interview

Allissa Haines of Massage Business Blueprint talks to CEO, Chinwe Onyeagoro, about building her business, the importance of a foundational formula and how she got her start.
 

Hey Allissa!

I’m incompetent and this is my first Instagram live. So just roll with me here.

Oh, that’s just not possible. You’re the Director of Shenanigans at Massage Business Blueprint. I’ve been looking forward to this session. So, this is The Lounge. What we do in The Lounge is talk about the entrepreneurial journey. We zero in on those things that made the biggest difference for you.

How did you stay motivated and what are you doing now to help build community? So, excited to hear your story. Let’s kick it off with just my admiration for your choice of business name, Massage Business Blueprint. There’s so much about running a business that’s art and not science, but when you talk about a blueprint, it feels like science and that’s really powerful. I’d love to hear what inspired the name for your business.

You’re either going to be really disappointed or really impressed. It came because I wanted the components of blue. My previous iteration, just writing as a massage therapist, involved something blue. At the time, I was listening to Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 album a lot and alliteration came. I’m not even kidding you. It’s because of Jay-Z.

Love it! If I had 1,000 tries, I would not have guessed. What does it entail? What’s involved in creating a blueprint for a massage business.

It’s so boring in so many ways, but massage businesses grow when you follow a foundational formula. It’s not glamorous. It’s not sexy. It’s not magical. It is communicating well who you serve and what you can do for them.

Running your business in almost a stodgy professional way, where you get a good logo, you have a decent office that’s always clean and you show up when you say you’re going to show up and you practice really good boundaries and it’s not glamorous. It’s really not hard.

The steps you actually have to take are rarely very difficult, but when you’re working for yourself, just taking those steps can be scary and arduous if you’ve never done anything like this before. A really great way to get new massage clients is to go to some kind of local networking group and go regularly. But it’s really hard to walk into a room full of strangers and introduce yourself. 

But if you offer a free back massage, that could change things. 

Yeah, I can tell you, nobody I’ve ever worked on free has then come in and paid. It is a foundational thing to create a business, especially from scratch and a service business at that. You can follow very clear steps to do it.

There is a blueprint there and it varies depending on who you’re serving. If you’re in a tourist area versus clients who will see you over and over again – weekly or monthly for years and years. There’s some pretty foundational stuff that’s not rocket science.

Interesting. Well, you’ve been in the industry for 16 years practicing as a massage therapist. Can you tell us how you got your start? Where did that process begin for you? Did you do it the formulaic way or was it super messy – your journey?

It was probably a little bit of both. I was really lucky because I knew a chiropractor and I interned at his office. After a few weeks of just massaging people for five minutes before and after his treatments, they were like, “Hey, can I get a real massage from you?”

He had a room and he let me set up, still when I graduated. But I worked there for free as an intern. At the time, the going rate for massage was $60 or $70 an hour. People paid him like $30 bucks and it kind of covered his overhead to host me. Sometimes they tipped me and it was fine, but I hustled.

My last three or four months of school, I showed up at that office two, full days a week. Even if I didn’t have massage clients scheduled, I would follow him around treating patients or I would just sit at the desk and greet people. So, when I graduated on a Sunday night, the next day, the following week, I already had five clients who had been staying with me as an intern who were ready to start paying full price, because I had prepped them for that.

That’s awesome!

Yeah, it grew from there, but I could not walk into a doctor’s office or a networking group or anything like that and introduce myself. I’m not capable of that. I’m an introvert. So, because of that, I got really good online before online was really popular.

Oh, interesting.

So this was 2005. People had home computers and stuff, but Facebook wasn’t really a thing yet. So, I was one of the first massage therapists in my area to have a website and to start using email to connect with people and creating an email list. Because of that, my recruitment and my retention were really good. I was good at staying in communication with clients.

I was good at building those relationships and handwriting thank you notes that got sent in the mail to clients after their first visit. And handwriting thank you notes to anybody who sent me a client. Yeah, it was super cheesy, but I combined that old school warmth with being capable online.

Yeah, wow.

And now it’s like mandatory, right? It’s hard.

Now it’s like the price of entry. We work with a variety of solopreneurs at PocketSuite. It’s always interesting to see where people start their entrepreneurial journey.

One of the things we have learned is that not all solopreneurs are gung-ho, “I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” Some folks were actually reluctant entrepreneurs. They are like, “if there was someone that would hire me to do this work, I’d gladly work for them.” For instance, with dog trainers there are no big corporate dog training enterprises.

If you want to be a dog trainer, you’ve got to be ready to be an entrepreneur. So, many are in some ways, reluctant entrepreneurs that ended up being very successful. When you think about the massage therapist entrepreneurial journey, what is the psychographic profile? What’s the typical mindset of someone who says, “Hey, this is the path I’m going down.”

It is such a huge range. I have colleagues who worked in corporate hospitality. And so, they had a very business-minded approach, because massage is often a second or third career for people. I came to massage in my thirties. I had people in my class who were in their fifties. And at the same time, I had a woman who had just graduated from high school.

So, it’s a really broad spectrum. I have colleagues who maybe had office jobs for a couple of years and then stayed home to raise children and the kids were in school and they were ready to come back and start working, but wanted to work. I think this is the key. They wanted the flexibility to decide when they worked. That is one of the reasons that massage is a fantastic career for parents or for people caring for family members in one way or another. That flexibility to determine when you work is huge.

Interesting, one of the things that we’re always trying to do is de-mystify the solopreneur path. Oftentimes, people feel like it’s super scary. Maybe some of the uncertainty does lead to fear, but it’s potentially an incredible lifestyle. As you said, lots of flexibility.

They’re many folks on the solopreneur journey that are earning six figures. In some cases, seven figures as solopreneurs. Can you talk to us a bit about the solopreneur math in the massage industry? When you think about the typical income that massage therapists earn and what it takes, how many days a week do you typically work? How many folks are you seeing a day to really be able to live that great lifestyle?

I have a really hard time with marketing teachers who sell programs and advice that say things like, “You can make $100,000 a year or more doing massage.” Because you can, but they’re talking gross and they’re not talking net. If you’re earning a hundred and something thousand dollars a year gross, but your expenses are $75K, you’re not really doing that great.

So, you can earn a lot of money doing massage, if you are physically feeling good enough to be giving 20 to 25 or 30 massages a week. You can do way less than that and employ a staff of massage therapists. It’s hard to find good massage therapist employees, because they’re really great and responsible massage therapists. They’re off working for themselves.

There are certainly wonderful therapists who are employees because they don’t want the responsibility, but that’s tricky. I did pretty well for several years doing massage between 16 and 22 clients a week was what I considered a full time. That was about 35 hours of actual effort a week growing my massage practice.

I rented a large office space with four treatment rooms and I sublet out to lots of other therapists. So, they supplemented all of my operating expenses. I could take home every penny that I earned doing massage. You can do massage part-time and easily knock out $25 to $35,000 a year that you’re taking home. You can do it full time if you’re good at running your business. If you’re good at keeping your operating expenses low, you can absolutely take home $60 to $80,000 a year. If you’re running your business like a business, that’s challenging.

That’s a high bar.

It is challenging in a caregiving profession, too. And that can be fun.

Can you talk to us about what that bar is? How do you distinguish someone who’s running their business like a business versus someone who’s running it like a side hustle or not like a business?

I can talk about that all day. Can you, off the top of your head, give an average of your gross and net income every month? Are you paying yourself weekly, bi-weekly, monthly? Are you paying yourself the same amount? Are you giving yourself a salary?

That’s not a deal breaker, but are you paying yourself regularly? Are you keeping your schedule structured or are you making a lot of exceptions? Like, “Oh, that client pulled their back out. Of course, I’ll go in at eight o’clock on Sunday morning for them.”

Or, “Oh, this client couldn’t come at three o’clock, but I’ll stay late and they can come at 7:30 tonight.” Are you taking time off? Are you becoming best friends with your clients and attending their graduations and weddings and birthday parties? Dual relationships are going to happen.

I have several, I am not throwing stones here, but do you manage them in a way where that person can still come into your massage office, pay you for a massage, and you shut your mouth and you don’t gossip during their massage. You give them a massage. Can you create that friend-client barrier so that it doesn’t become a problem? Those are the big ones. Really, like boundaries and knowing your money, I think.

The vast majority of solopreneurs are all about the relationship, not necessarily about the money. 

Really good boundaries prevent burnout and they prevent resentment in your business. I think that’s a big factor in separating your emotions from the running of your business. Of course, you should have feelings and enjoy your job and enjoy your clients, but when you let those feelings determine your financial success or your happiness, that’s a problem.

What would you say are the top two or three reasons for folks who are starting off as massage therapists not getting over the hump?  Not being able to really cross over and make a living of it?

I’d say our massage schools do not have time to put really good business skills in their curriculum. So, they come out of school and they have these hands and they’re ready to massage. But they don’t know how to converse with the client who’s trying to push a discount.

Or they don’t know how to identify the kind of client they want to see and speak to that person. I complain about this all the time. You can go to most massage websites and see that they do Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, hot stone massage, and maybe a pregnancy massage.

Which is awesome, but your average person doesn’t know what Swedish massage means. What it means to the spa down the street is different from what it means to me. I don’t want to see that. I want to go to a website and I want to know that massage therapist can treat my headaches. That’s what I want to know. I don’t care what they call their massage. Somewhere on that homepage, I want to know that they can handle my neck pain and my migraines.

That’s a great point.

Not knowing how to identify who you really want to treat and not knowing how to speak to that person, on top of not really having the business skills. I’d say those are the big three things.

You’ve built this community, Massage Business Blueprint, and it’s interesting because on the one hand, it feels like a service, on the other hand, it feels like a community. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a part of your community? How do people show up and how do they emerge?

Oh, it’s so great. So, Massage Business Blueprint was born out of my local group of colleagues. We always went to each other for advice. How are you handling this gift certificate sale? How are you doing this? We all have a lot of the same questions.

Then when I started meeting massage therapists all around the country, they all had the same questions. So, I started answering them online, which became like a blog. We needed a place to gather. And someone would ask me a question about, I don’t know, insurance billing, I don’t do that.

So, I’d go ask a friend and then I’d have to get the message back. So, it became a community where people would pay to become a member and we have premium members. At that time, we did the community through a Facebook group. Now we use Mighty Networks, which is awesome.

So, we have this community of, I don’t know, a couple 100 massage therapists, just asking each other questions. On top of that, we’ve created foundational resources. I love the word foundational, which are like, how to niche your business. We’ve got articles and we’ve got a video tutorial for every foundational portion of your business.

What’s important on a website? What do you need to know when you join a networking group? We are just finishing our money management module. Of course, a bunch of other ones I can’t think of right now. But people can join Massage Business Blueprint and it gives them access to this community where they can ask all of these other therapists with tons of experience in different things, how do I do this?

How did you do this? Today, we answered someone’s question about the copy for her new website. She’s changing her niche and she wanted to change her copy. So, we all went in and gave her tips about it. How to make it clear. Same thing with her logo. She needed to change the colors on it to make it feel more calm. She put a post up and got like three or four bits of feedback in an hour or two and went on with making her website.

Like a mastermind group, right?

It is exactly that. Yes.

That’s so awesome, wow.

It’s so nice because we tend to have a real, high-level of refined massage therapists. There are not people in our community who are fighting about essential oils, which is totally a thing you find on Facebook.

Everybody is so kind and even when someone asks a question and they’re like, you know that they’re totally wrong. They’re not saying, “Oh no, you’re doing that wrong.” Everybody finds a really gentle way to say, “Well, in my experience I found,” instead of “No, you’re wrong.” It’s lovely. It’s so warm and fuzzy.

I like that. So, as you think about the future, what are you most excited about? When it comes to Massage Business Blueprint and the way forward?

It’s a weird thing to be happy about and be smiling about, but coming out of this pandemic we as a culture in the United States are becoming so much more aware of how mental illness, how generational trauma has an impact on our body and our nervous systems. Just how you see the word trauma all over the place now.

People recognizing PTSD and complex PTSD and how massage and bodywork can treat that, it is so exciting. A couple of years ago, I switched to mostly treating people with anxiety and depression. There is no shortage of that work.

There is no shortage of other healthcare providers referring to me for that work. So, it’s fulfilling to know that we’re finally getting recognized for something that we’re best at. Our best research and data in massage is about how massage can treat anxiety.

Wow, I had no idea that massage can be used to treat depression.

So, that’s happening and seeing how many massage therapists are full-time, long-termers like me. When I became a massage therapist, the dropout rate was like, maybe you’d have a three or four-year career. I was in a class two years ago and I was the baby in the class.

At like 14 years experience, I was the baby. There was one person who had been in it less time than me. It is so exciting to have colleagues in their fifties and sixties and seventies who are still working. So, I think that massage as a long-term career is so much more possible now than it was 15 years ago when I started.

That’s awesome.

It really is.

You’re creating a community of inspirational folks who can help show people the way and support them and celebrate them.

Absolutely.

So Allissa, I could talk to you for days. We’re going to obviously have you back on, in this part of the Lounge, we do a lightning round because we want to understand just what your lifestyle is like, celebrate you, and keep an eye out for you in the future. So, I’m going to ask you a lightning round set of questions. Just answer off the top of your head. What is your favorite show? What are you streaming right now?

I’m watching really old reruns of Girlfriends.

Oh, you’re kidding.

… with Tracee Ellis Ross.

I love it. So, I’m sure you’ve traveled around the world. What’s your favorite vacation spot?

I haven’t traveled very much. It’s embarrassing, but I spent a month in Tucson several years ago and it turns out that’s where my partner went to grad school way before I met him. So, we’re planning a vacation to Tucson next year.

Nice. There are a lot of great spas there. A mission moment that you had this week?

I had a client who has not seen me in a couple of weeks because she’s in the middle of getting, probably, her third cancer diagnosis since I’ve known her. I had her give me a call and give me an update and tell me how she will be back as soon as she can surrounding her treatment because I have helped her through the last two rounds.

Wow.

Yeah. It’s so neat to be a part of people’s lives at their best and sometimes at their worst.

All their life milestones. Words to live by. Favorite motto, saying, quote.

Take more naps.

Nice! On that note, where should we be looking out for you? 

Yeah, massagebusinessblueprint.com has our blog. We also have a podcast and that is available in all of the podcast places. Look for Massage Business Blueprint. We’re at like episode 360 something at this point. We have been publishing, at least, once a week for the last six years. If you have a question about your massage business, we’ve probably answered it. If we haven’t, you email me, I’ll answer it.

Allissa, it has been a joy to talk to you. Now I know why you are the Director of Shenanigans. PocketSuite community, stay tuned for more opportunities to connect with the Massage Business Blueprint community. 

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