The Lounge Q+A: Laura Allen Clayton, Massage Therapist
There's a difference in what we want and what we need.
Laura Allen Clayton
Have that gratitude for what it is you do have. And number two, get a plan B. Number three, write those things down. What is it that I want? What is standing in my way? What is there that I can do to remove those obstacles?
Laura Allen Clayton
PocketSuite Massage Therapist Pro
Massage Therapist Pro Laura Allen Clayton is a massage therapist, massage business owner and massage educator in North Carolina. Her multiple lifetimes of experience across many industries makes her a great asset to the PocketSuite Pro community. Laura talks to CEO, Chinwe Onyeagoro, about buying a restaurant at 19, going on to have 3 successful restaurants, leading and coaching massage therapy and more.
Laura, I’m going to kick this off by just saying wow. For folks that don’t know, Laura Allen Clayton, she’s an institution in the massage business.
Notorious is probably more like it.
That too! She’s written more than what, 12 books and counting? She has her own continuing education classes, so she’s actually helping to get new massage therapists trained and licensed. She has hundreds, hundreds of amazing rich authentic blogs posts about how to get into the field. What to do in the field?; How to build a great life in the field?; and really How to delight your clients in the field and help them? From basic wellness and relaxation to managing and battling cancer. You’re going to hear directly from her, but I just want you guys to know that we are in the presence of massage therapy greatness.
Thank you so much, but you’re actually in the presence of more massage greatness, because I see Angie Palmiere is on here.
We’ve got the whole crew. Laura, can we start off with where you began your journey in this career, and then how did you get to where you are today? There’s no roadmap for all the things you’ve done. So start with the beginning. Where did you begin?
Massage therapy was my midlife crisis. I started my working career when I was 13 washing dishes in a restaurant. When I was 19 and stupid, I bought the first one.
Wait, you bought the first restaurant?
I bought a restaurant when I was 19. Of course, everybody’s a dummy when they’re 19. I was. And that one was a miserable failure. I went on to own three more over the next 20 years and they were all very successful. But when I opened the last one in 1993, I told my partner, I said, “You better be ready to buy me out in five years, because I’m getting out of here.” And she said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know, but it’s not going to involve standing on my feet for 100 hours a week anymore.”
So when year number four rolled round, I started reminding her of that fact and I don’t think she had believed me up to that point, but I finally convinced her that I truly was going. So the owner of the massage school that I ultimately ended up attending used to eat in the restaurant all the time. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would still work because I’m not going to sit around. So she was out there in the dining room the day that I made the deal to sell out. So her school was only two miles away from my house and I had been over there before to get massaged in their student clinic, so I just walked out there and I said, “I need a job.” I said, “I can type or file or sweep the floor.”
And went, “Will you cook for me?” And I told her the big fat lie that I would. I think one time in five years I scrambled an egg for her. That was probably my contribution cooking for her. But in 1993, I believe it was, a friend of mine had asked me to go with her to this class In Healing Touch. I had never heard of that and didn’t know what it was. She said, “Well, you have to take a partner. I’ll pay if you’ll go.” So I went. And so from that point forward, I took some more bodywork and energy classes here and there. And when I asked the massage school owner for a job, she looked at me and she said, “Are you dead serious?” She said, “I actually am looking for an administrator for my school.”
So she hired me. I took a couple of weeks, little reprieve there in between work. I was out there working after two or three days. I was seeing people come into the clinic looking all stressed out and an hour later, walking out looking like, “Ah.” And I thought that really has to be the best job in the world, helping people feel better. So fortunately, she had a weekend program for people who worked. So I worked for her through the week and I went to massage school on the weekends. The second day that I was working there, she said, “Oh yeah, you can teach business and marketing.” I just looked at her like she was crazy. I said, “I’ve never taken a class like that in my life.”
She said, “No, but you’ve had a very successful service-based business for 20 years.” She said, “This is all about service. That would not be allowed nowadays, but the massage board had not yet gotten up and running whenever I joined. It was actually in progress. So I actually taught business marketing and ethics, and I was qualified to do that. I taught that to my own class in massage school. So I stayed there working for five years and continued to be the administrator and taught classes. After I had been there for five years, a couple of massage therapists that I knew asked me to go into business with them and open a private practice. So I discussed that. My husband at the time, who is deceased now, we were together for 25 years. I blogged about his cancer experience and my caregiver experience a lot while we were going through that.
So we discussed that and we went into business with him. He actually was a carpenter by trade, but he had a massage therapy license, too. We had done this correctly. We talked about this for a long time and we actually had a contract drawn up with these folks and everything. We had made the agreement that if we were having a profitable business, that we would share in those profits, and if we were losing money, we would share in the loss and all that. Almost from day one, they did not do anything they had agreed today. I was getting very incensed about that. I called my mentor who had been a mentoring massage therapist for a long, long time. She said, “Well, what do you want to happen? Do you want them to leave?” I said, “Well, yes, if they’re not going to carry on.”
I mean, they weren’t showing up, and they just weren’t doing any of the responsibilities that we had agreed to split up. So she said, “I know it’s hard for you to keep your mouth shut.” She knows me very well. She said, “I know it’s hard for you to keep your mouth shut,” she said, “But shut it.” She said, “They know they’re not doing right.” She said, “Believe me, this is all going to come to a head in another week or two.”
So sure enough, they walked in the door one day, burst into tears at the same time and said that they had made a mistake and that they wanted to move to Florida. I live here in North Carolina and that’s where our business was located. So on their way out the door, they said, “We know that we’re responsible for half of the bills here for the next three years. Don’t worry, we’ll honor that.” My husband helped him pack up. I told him when they drove away, I said, “Give them time to get home and call them and tell them that they are released from the whole thing.”
I said, “I really just want their energy out of here.” So the moment they left, we had rented space in a very nice professional building, and I had four treatment rooms there and little old me, because my husband was doing his carpentry work. So I immediately got another massage therapist and she got saturated, and at that time, I was still doing massage full-time in addition to handling the administration of the business. So we got two more to come in there. Within two years, the adjoining suite of offices became available, and I took that over also. Then in 2008, during the worst part of the recession, that suite of offices became available, and I called up the landlord and I said, “I want that office.”
I said, “Here is what I can afford to pay you for it. Will you take it?” It was substantially less than what the rent was because it was a nice new building. It was on Main Street in our town, but you could not buy a parking spot on Main Street in our town. This place was just far enough south of the main drag that it had its own parking lot, so that was a big plus. Plus the town I live in, Main Street is a historical district. All of those buildings are way over 100 years old. They’re not good with handicapped access and all of that stuff. So even though I could’ve gotten a place a lot cheaper up there, I didn’t want it on account of that.
I ended up having a dozen practitioners busy in a town that has 4,000 people and our county is actually the largest county area in North Carolina, but it’s very rural. We have three towns and I wouldn’t even call them towns. The three towns are towns, but then there’s a lot of little tiny communities that have a service station and a church or something like that. The population of the whole county is only 65,000 people. And I kept the 12 folks busy there.
Busy in that space is unreal.
Well, I enjoyed it. Actually, I closed that business in 2016. My previous husband had been diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and right after he successfully finished that treatment, he suffered an aneurysm and that just knocked him down. So we had a very hard time with his help. I was trying to be his full-time caretaker. In 2015, I actually hired someone to run the office and I would pop in, but I basically had someone managing it for me. It was suffering from the lack of my presence there, because even though I had a very competent manager, and she was very personable, I had established that business and people in town knew me and all that kind of thing. I just felt like it was going downhill without me being there. I thought, I really don’t need this headache. Excuse me.
Laura, let me pause there. First of all, you’ve just shared three lifetimes with us. I want to acknowledge how precocious you were at 19 to buy your first business and then three more. The way you talk about your journey, and I’m seeing comments as we talk, it’s so authentic. It’s raw, it’s open, and it’s helpful for people who are on the journey and are going through the natural ups and downs of entrepreneurship, but don’t feel like there’s anyone they can talk to about it. To hear your story, the way you’re telling it is actually really heartening.
Well, thank you. You know what? We have all definitely had the ups and downs in the past couple of years due to COVID now. When I stopped, when I ceased my own practice there, I actually continued to pay six of my former employees for 18 months to continue honoring the gift certificates and packages that we had out there. I left our website up for that period of time and our Facebook page. I begged everybody on Facebook, please share this so that everyone knows where they can go get their gift certificates honored and all that kind of stuff. I accepted it.
I’m not surprised that you taught ethics. I mean, to honor those gift certificates, to recognize that that’s an outstanding liability, and to basically take that on yourself, to carry that weight, is huge. It’s huge.
Well, ethics is my pet subject. One of my books is The Educated Heart, which was originally authored by Nina McIntosh. Nina was one of my mentors and a friend of mine. She had made Lippincott sign a contract before she passed in 2010 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She made them sign a contract that I would get to author the future editions of the book, so I’ve written the last two editions of it. Ethics is my love. It’s my favorite thing to teach and my favorite thing to write about. I have written two business books and I enjoy sharing that knowledge. I think I sort of had an upper hand just because I had been self-employed in business for a long, long time before I went into the massage business.
The past couple of years have been challenging. Now in 2015, actually, before I closed my business, I accepted a job with Soothing Touch, which is a national, big massage manufacturing company. I accepted the job as their massage division director. They have another division called natural, which they have a lot of stuff that is in health food stores that’s not necessarily massage related. They manufacture everything. All of their stuff is vegan. So they’re a very popular company. They offered me a job. I stayed with them for three years. I was working remotely. That company is in New Mexico. So I periodically make a trip out there. I got to work from home and that was very good while my husband was coming to the end of his life. It was very good that I was able to work at home and be with him.
He passed away in 2017. So a few shakeups happened at Soothing Touch. I decided that I wanted to leave. I had to sit around for a while and figure out whether or not I could afford to leave, but I just thought, well, money’s not everything. I always tell people, “I’ve lived in the same old house for 35 years.” It actually was a church, had been a church when I bought it. I think I bought it when I was 27, I believe I was. So, I always say, “I can’t leave. This shack is paid for.”
So after I left Soothing Touch, I focused on writing and revised all my textbooks and everything. Then CryoDerm offered me a job. Initially I was their vice-president of sales and marketing, and now I’m the president. They’re in Florida. So I also get to work remotely from home for them. I’m spoiled by that and I was kind of fortunate that COVID was not really a big change in my lifestyle, on account of that. But I’ve always loved doing massage. Even though, near the end of my business, I had let go slowly of all of my personal clients and turned them over to other massage therapists, and my longest standing client who had been with me since I was a student in massage school, she used to get massage from my clinic.
When she passed, I thought I’m going to give it a rest. So out of the blue, my hairdresser, who has cut my hair for years, and she had always worked for someone else. She had opened a very nice little day spa in the next town over. It’s only about 10 miles away. She had opened a little day spa and she called me in a panic one day. She said, “I had a massage therapist here.” And she said, “She just announced to me today that she’s leaving tomorrow to move.” She said, “She’s moving.” She said “She’s got clients on the book. Is there any way that you would take care of those?” And so I told her that, I said, “Well, if they don’t care that it’s going to be me instead of her.”
She said, “No, they won’t care.” I ended up making a deal with her to stay there. I said, “I will only see a few people a week, because I have a job.” I said, “This is no longer my primary job, but I would love to keep my hand in.” So I made it very plain to her that I would not be trying to build a business down there. I said, “If you want more than that, just let me know at any time. I’m not going to be insulted if you say I’ve got a therapist that wants to work full-time,” because she only had one massage room. She also had an aesthetics room and a nail room and all of that stuff down there.
She was happy with that. So I saw about two or three clients a week. I actually stopped before our governor told massage therapists to shut it down on account of COVID. I started encouraging other people. I contacted all of my clients and I said, “I’m not giving up my license or anything, but I don’t feel that this is a safe time right now.” The majority of my clients were elderly people and some of them did have health challenges. My mother is 82 years old and I’m not her caretaker. My mama still doesn’t have to have a caretaker, but I do accompany her to doctor appointments. She’s immune compromised and I have remarried. My husband is immune compromised and I didn’t want to risk bringing anything home to them. I stopped doing massage and a few weeks later, our governor stopped people from doing massage.
It’s been a challenging two years for everybody, but it has affected massage in a pretty major way. So I know that PocketSuite has other folks on board other than massage therapists. You want to tell us who all you have there? I have noticed you have a lot.
Yeah, too many industries to list, but generally beauty, health and wellness, pet professionals, therapy and life coaching, home service professionals, those are the big categories of entrepreneurs that we work with. You’re right. Massage therapists were one of the industries where you couldn’t move to a virtual service delivery model in the way that other industries were able to make that shift. You can talk to folks, encourage them, and maybe coach them to massage themselves, but there’s nothing that replaces your touch.
That’s very, very true. Everyone has been affected. I’m the administrator of a Facebook group of massage therapists. It’s the North Carolina Facebook group. I have seen all the posts and comments from people on Facebook in general and LinkedIn. I have heard from people about all the challenges that they’ve had. For me, being that massage was no longer and had not been my primary source of income in five or six years, it didn’t affect me financially or anything like that. But I live way out in the country, live kind of isolated anyway, but my husband and I are both musicians. I’ve played in somebody’s band or another since I was 14.
Well, in public, I will play the guitar or the keyboards and the harmonica. I’ve got a few more instruments that I will only play sitting on the porch, but I stopped going out to play music. I also stopped going out to hear music, because on weekends when I wasn’t playing, I would go out and hear friends. So it just all kind of came to a dead halt there except going to wherever was absolutely necessary. I did see people who lost their income. Now, after the government stepped in and offered this pandemic help and that kind of thing, I saw that most people became okay. But a lot of them were suffering from that touch withdrawal. I’ve always thought that I gained as much from being a massage therapist as I ever gave to anyone.
I think there are people that don’t want to be touched, but I think a big percentage of us like that human touch. So I always had, even there at the day spa where I only had a few clients, I really liked those folks. My favorite client was a retired minister who was in his late 80s, and I was amazed at all the metaphysical stuff he was into. So we had some very interesting conversations in the massage room. But I think people missed that social connection and they worried about their clients. Now, I think some folks took it to the extreme. I saw one therapist in our massage group who said, “My clients are going to be suicidal if they can’t see me.” I thought, well, I don’t know whether you’re delusional or just have a really high opinion of yourself.
I know that everyone has had a difficult time. I still see a lot of people who are concerned about the fact that they’ve had to raise their prices, because even when the governor did open it back up, people were still having to pay for masks and taking less clients because they had extra sanitation to do. So it was stressful, and still is for some people. I do still see people on social media that are saying that their practice has fallen way off. It’s affected the industry on the whole.
This reflection around where we’ve been is one that we’ve been both challenged by and encouraged by. Hearing the stories of people who have weathered this storm, that we’re still somewhat in, but are finding our way through it. One of the questions that I have for you is “Given the life that you’ve led, given the way you talk with a steady hand in spite of whatever ups and downs may come, do you have any advice for massage therapists today, who are living in a new world with new expectations about how they’ll conduct business and how they’ll support their clients through uncertainty?
Oh, thank you. Well, you know something, I actually included a journaling feature in both of my business books. The question is, I encourage people, and you don’t have to buy my book, just get out a sheet of paper.
Buy the book. Buy the book.
Write down what is it that I want or need to accomplish? What is my goal? Then write down, what is standing in my way? Then sit there and write down what you can do to remove those obstacles? It may require some changes on your part. In order to do that, I’ve actually seen very few people, and I do interact with thousands of people on social media. I do see very few people who say that they were getting out of the massage business all together.
I have seen some that could not afford to pay their rent and their office space, so they switched gears and started doing mobile massage, or started doing massage at home, or maybe they had been a sole practitioner and they decided to share space with someone else. So I always advise people to have a plan B. If this mess here hasn’t taught us all that we need to have a plan B, I don’t know what does. I mean, it’s just so evident that things can change in the blink of an eye. I mean, it doesn’t take COVID, it doesn’t take something of that magnitude to affect you. One of my friends came in one day and a water main had burst.
I mean, her entire office was flooded and she was a very busy therapist. She had a load of clients. And the town says, “Well, it’s probably going to take us two weeks to get all this replaced.” So she called people up and said, “I can see you at my home for the next few weeks.” Getting a plan B together is a really smart thing to do because you never know what’s going to happen. One of my philosophies of life is that we’re not guaranteed the next breath and so make the most out of what you have. I think my goal in life at this point is serenity and happiness. I’m not rolling in money, but my needs are met. You know what I mean?
There’s a difference in what we want and what we need. So we’re fortunate, if you’re watching this, I hope that you’re fortunate enough that you have a roof over your head. You have food to eat and clothes and hopefully have medicine that you need or whatever you need. But we don’t need all the things that we want. So I’ve been on a mission now for about 10 years to purge and every month or so, I’ll spend the day going through closets and bookshelves. I am a childless woman. I’ve never had any children. I think who’s going to deal with all this mess when I die?
My mom always used to say, “Never let your possessions possess you.”
That’s right. So I think that’s a big deal of number one, have that gratitude for what it is you do have. And number two, get a plan B. Number three, write those things down. What is it that I want? What is standing in my way? What is there that I can do to remove those obstacles?
Laura, you may not be rolling in money, but you’re rolling in legacy. I mean, you’ve single-handedly trained generations of massage therapists, inspired them, and continue to inspire them. So thank you for your work. There have been so many people who have joined this IG Live who have been listening in and are excited by your story. Where can people find you, follow you, and continue to learn from you?
Well, my website is lauraallenmt.com and links to all of my books and classes and all are on there. I’m very bad at using Instagram. I opened an Instagram account probably a couple of years ago and I think I’ve made two posts on it the whole time. I am a Facebook person. Now I have two Facebook pages. I have one that’s just Laura Allen, and actually my personal page now says Laura Allen Clayton. I discussed this with my husband before we married. I said, “Well, all of my books are published under Laura Allen Clayton.” I mean, excuse me, under Laura Allen. And the articles that I write, I have a regular column, my ethics column in Massage & Bodywork magazine for, I don’t even know how many years, the last four or five years.
I said, “Professionally, I’m known by Laura Allen,” and that doesn’t bother him at all. But on my personal Facebook page, I changed that to Laura Allen Clayton. Now there’s probably a couple thousand massage therapists on there, and anytime one sends me a friend request, I just say, “Well, this is my personal page. You’re welcome to be here. You will have to look at the pictures of my dogs, hear my music, hear me playing music, and listen to my political rants. If you don’t want to do that, then you can like my page at Laura Allen MT on Facebook.” I said, “There’s nothing posted on there except massage related posts.” So I also use LinkedIn and one of my tasks that I do for CryoDerm is to keep up their social media. So I do much better at CryoDerm’s Instagram than I do on my own. I take care of their websites.
Well, Laura Allen Clayton, you are magical. Thank you so much for sharing with us, telling your story. I honestly could talk to you all day. We will definitely have you back to go into some of the specifics of your time as a massage therapist, massage business owner, massage educator. So please, for folks listening in, follow Laura Allen on Facebook, reach out to her on LinkedIn, and certainly check out her website with her online classes. Thanks everybody, for joining. Thank you, Laura.
I appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me.