North London Music Therapy was launched on 5th November 2018, partly because I figured Bonfire Night would be an easy date to remember. In the following six months I began learning on the job how to exist as a start-up enterprise, and how to offer clinical work with integrity and meaning at the same time. Here is how I have started parenting this unwieldy, erratic and increasingly sprawling child, and how I have found love and support for it in the most unexpected places.
Like many that have gone before me, I quit a job that was making me unhappy and decided it was now or never. While I had some work still (I have a small remit for the Guildhall, a singing teaching business and a regular professional singing engagement) I decided, five years in to music therapy, that I was ready to define the clients I wanted and the sort of work I wanted to do – on my terms.
I’m interested in mental health that exists in our communities. In children, it’s usually called social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, but for adults it’s less defined – I suppose the closest term would be the worried well. Apart from the Nordoff Robbins Open Access Service I couldn’t find another music therapy provider catering to this market, especially for adults (although if your music therapy business does this, then get in touch! Let’s share good practice!).
In its first six months of trading NLMT has a website, a Google strategy, a blog strategy, a future plan for social media, and – most importantly – has begun working with the type of client I was hoping to attract. Referrals so far have been for children and adults with mental health conditions that manifest in a myriad of ways, and work has begun both with independent clients and for a contractor who may choose to provide several referrals in future. I am hiring space in Highgate from where individual sessions are run.
The biggest challenge was starting entirely from scratch: no referrals, no waiting list. I felt this was a real opportunity to define my client base by thinking carefully about how I would get my referrals, and so I spent some time thinking about my ideal client. I went into detail: where they live, where they go shopping, what their family setup is like, where they socialise, where they might feel they need help with some aspect of their life. That made it easier to work out how to advertise, and where.
Now much of the groundwork has been laid, next is to build the referrals list! This means expanding advertising, maintaining GDPR-compliant records, and spending lots of time talking with potential clients and potential commissioners. This is the exciting stage, because who knows who will want the type of music therapy NLMT is offering, so who knows where we will end up…
It’s also the thing that’s been keeping me sane so far. Another challenge has been making effective use of my time as a freelancer, keeping motivated, managing without colleagues. It very much feels like there’s always another job to do, but scheduling regular meetings with music therapy contacts and people in business – nothing formal, just getting out of the house and going for coffee – has given me people to bounce ideas off and also some structure to my day. My husband, friends and family have also been the most fantastic support and I am lucky to have them around me.
How is it feeling?
So far, so good. Scary, but good. I sometimes can feel quite vulnerable, putting myself and my vision for how I would like music therapy to be out there. At the same time, building a business and watching it grow is so gratifying, and I feel the satisfaction on a deep personal level. Even initial signals that the clients I would like to attract are willing to consider music therapy feels very rewarding – the worried well feels like a relatively untapped market where there is great need for an alternative creative model of therapeutic help.
It is a challenge to make sure there is time away from it too, to give time for ideas to percolate and see what stays feeling innovative and exciting.
But best of all, NLMT’s first sessions have been fascinating, creative and wholly representative of the clients so far. What an adventure. Here’s to the next six months, and beyond.
Some practical things I’ve learned
- You don’t have to be a limited company – you can operate as a sole trader using a trading name. Not only did I feel like I’d saved a few hundred quid once I’d worked that out, the whole thing felt less daunting. I was advised by an accountant that a limited company is only worth it once I’m earning over a certain threshold – which, in my mind, made it an option for the future when I was ready.
- There are loads of brilliant free resources for small businesses. The Prince’s Trust exists to cater to this exact market, if you’re under 30 like many music therapy graduates are these days. Google have loads of SEO cheat sheets, and don’t forget about gov.uk – brilliant for business info as well as tax. I got the accountancy advice for free through the Musician’s Union: every member is entitled to a free consultation with their approved company. It’s worth mining existing memberships and networks to see where perks and opportunities are. Speaking of which:
- Never underestimate the power of trade. I can’t yet afford to hire a branding consultant or a filmmaker for my business, but I have both. Why? Because I offered singing lessons instead of pay. It helps that all three of us sing in the same choir, but if you have a similar network full of connected people who can help, take them out for coffee and see how you can work together. I’m beta testing a branding course for No Bull Business School (an absolutely fantastic resource for small businesses), meaning I get the course content while it’s still in development and offer detailed feedback instead of paying. Saving money while doing CPD!
- Don’t worry if you don’t finish your business plan. Mine’s still not finished yet. It felt a bit too abstract before I could put real numbers in. Start it off – it helps you define exactly what sort of client groups you’d like to target, and in what timeframe – but it takes time and it’s ok to come back to it later.
- Doing things other than running the business is helpful. Start and end times to the working day help. Taking weekends and holidays while *not looking at your bloody emails* helps (an Out of Office message also helps!). Carrying on with my side hustles has also helped me – I could see that I was generating income, meaning my savings haven’t totally dwindled away and it’s allowed me to be more forgiving with NLMT and accept the right clients at the right time, rather than just chasing money out of necessity.