Michael Fulwiler On The Business Of Counseling

Kristi Cash White: Hello again. This is Kristi Cash White, and this is the podcast, Are Your Notes Finished Yet? Conversations For Today's Mental Health Professionals.

I am happy to introduce to you today Michael Fulwiler of fulwilermedia.com. Michael is a sought-after advisor, strategist, copywriter, creative director, and digital marketer with over a decade of experience in the mental health industry.

Michael is a great cheerleader and advocate of counselors as they grow their practices, but also just for the profession in general.

So today, Michael and I are going to talk about that intersection between mental health work and that business side of the practice — something that we're not all necessarily great at. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Fulwiler Media on Instagram

Thank you, first of all, for coming on. It's really nice to meet you in person. I feel like I know you just because of Twitter feel like I'm one of the many in the flood of people that you talk to every day, but the name of this podcast is actually, "Are Your Notes Finished Yet?" Which, totally inspired by you.

So for those of you listening, on Twitter, Michael prods us gently with love and humor to make sure we're getting our notes done every day. Are your notes finished yet, thank you for coming on and I'm really interested. You are a marketing specialist, correct?

Michael Fulweiler: That's correct.

Kristi: Okay. What path brought you to be working with counselors?

Michael: Like most paths, it hasn't been a straight one. When I was in college at the University of Washington, I interned at the Gottman Institute in Seattle. And that was really my first introduction to therapy and the mental health space. And when I graduated, I came on full-time and at the time this was 2012.

So 10 years ago now, and the Gottman Institute was much smaller than it is today. It was very much a family run business, less than 10 employees. Worked out of a small office doing just under a million dollars a year in revenue. And by the time I left eight and a half years later, we'd grown to 30 employees.

We'd moved to an office downtown with a view of the water. And we were doing over $10 million a year in revenue and I had built out a marketing team. And so it was really just such an amazing opportunity for me coming into the field, really through the kind of the business side, not as a therapist, myself, but was able to work with therapists every day, both as customers and as colleagues, I had the opportunity to travel around the country with the Gottman's going to clinical trainings, conferences.

I was able to go on a book tour with them. And so I really got a front row seat to the work as someone who is outside the field. what I saw during those eight and a half years therapists that were really good at being therapists, but they weren't great at running their own businesses, marketing themselves.

And so I saw a need. And when I left the Gottman Institute, I started my own business to help therapists really business professionals.

Kristi: That is so true. When I started my private practice a long time ago I remember thinking almost angrily why did they not train us at all in the business side of how to be therapists? I was organized, so I had that going for me, but when it came to how to market, but then also how to do things like collect payment. I'm sure I lost thousands of dollars in my first years because people would come without their wallets and I'd be like, oh, okay, next time. And not having any kind of framework for how do you set up a business. So I totally see that. That's not generally our strength as a whole.

Michael: Yeah. In graduate school therapists, aren't taught business skills are not taught marketing skills that the system is really set up for therapists to graduate and then go work for an agency or a community mental health clinic, or a group practice. And, take on 80 clients get paid 15 to $20 an hour.

It's really built on the back of that labor. And that's something that we're seeing now in the tech industry are these therapy apps that are really trying to leverage a gig economy, business model pioneered by Uber and applying that the mental space. And so that's one reason why I feel so strongly about supporting mental health professionals because we have seen in the last two years, especially, more people speaking out about mental health. I think it's becoming less stigmatized. Going to therapy is becoming more normalized. All of those things are great, but what you don't hear are those same people also advocating and speaking out on behalf of mental health professionals.

And I feel like their voices get left out of the conversation.

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Kristi: Yeah, I think there's this also this misconception that therapists are just raking in the big dough, cause I think there's this idea through media that like, New York therapist making $350 an hour. That's not the average. That's not the typical where, like you said, a lot are doing things with these online companies or other where they're making yeah. less than $20 an hour, maybe.

Michael: Yeah. The average starting salary for a therapist, with a master's degree is something like 40 - $42,000 a year.

Kristi: Right. Which is much more like an educator, or, definitely not like people might think.

So, how did going from the Gottman Institute where you help them grow into this multimillion dollar company — how do you apply what you learned there individual companies or small companies?

Michael: Yeah, I'll say that I learned a lot from making mistakes and they gave me the opportunity. They gave me the opportunity which I'm really grateful for. I think at the end of the day, business in any capacity is about people. And that's something that whether you're a company that's doing $10 million a year in revenue, or you're a therapist in private practice, that's doing, 50 to a hundred thousand dollars in revenue, you really have to understand who your customers are. And as a therapist, that means who your client is. Who do you serve? Do you have an understanding of that and how does that show up on your website? How does that show up in your marketing? And a lot of my work with therapists is not really about marketing. It's about understanding who their target audience is because once you understand who your audience is and who you're serving, everything else falls into place.

Kristi: So, What do you see right now as the biggest hurdles for therapist are the roadblocks that keep therapists from the business that they could have.

Michael: Yeah, I think a lot of it is confidence, believing that, if I take this leap into private practice or if I leave my agency job I'll, I'll be able to find work somewhere else. And, therapy has never been more in demand. And so it's actually a very good time to be a therapist.

And there's also opportunities to generate income outside of traditional therapy work. I work with a lot of therapists who also are authors, who are creators. They have a podcast, they have a YouTube channel. They work as a consultant to anywhere from, large enterprise organizations consulting on employee mental health, to consulting with mental health tech startups, and helping them to think about how they're building out their product. Not to mention speaking opportunities, training opportunities. There's a lot of ways I think that therapists can build their businesses that they may just not be aware of. And so that's been a big focus of the newsletter that I write "Therapy Marketer", which the whole premise is to help therapists grow their businesses.

And so I've been fortunate to interview therapists, who've grown their business in nontraditional ways.

Kristi: Okay. Looking at a therapist beyond just their nine to five, or they're sitting down with clients, you're looking at what their whole brand is how they want to be out there

Michael: Yeah.

Kristi: community.

Michael: If a therapist only wants to see clients, that's fine too, more power to them. I just think it's about, unlocking that opportunity for folks that if they feel like they're not say making as much money as they would like to be, or they're feeling burnt out and, they want to see fewer clients, but they have bills to pay.

There's there are other opportunities to generate income.

Kristi: Nice. So from kind a business growth perspective, what advice would you give counselors who are considering going into private practice?

Michael: Yeah, I think just believing in yourself, that's a big thing.

Michael: And that can take some self work and it can take some time. But I think for me, the best thing that I've done for my career was betting on myself, From an outside perspective. I left my well paying full-time stable job as chief marketing officer of the Gottman Institute with nothing lined up.

I knew that I wanted to help mental health professionals. I also knew that I wanted to work with mental health startups in some capacity, but I didn't really know. How, and I think I, like I could have waited on my heels and try to figure it out while I was still, at the Institute, but I think just by taking that leap and really like believing in myself that, I would figure it out.

I am where I am today. And so I also recognize like that comes from a place of privilege that, that I was able to do that.

And I think the other piece of advice that I would give is to, to ask for help. I've been very surprised by how willing people are to help how willing they are to make introductions.

When I first started my marketing business, I had no idea what my business model was going to be. I didn't know what services I was going to provide. I didn't know how much to charge. So I just reached out to other business owners and asked if they would jump on a call with me and people were happy to do that. And because people did that with me, that makes me want to do that for others. And so I'm always happy if I can be helpful to do so.

Kristi: Thinking back to when I started my private practice, it was really as simple as somebody else saying to me, "Why don't you just do this, you can do this". And it had never occurred to me, honestly, at that point in my career to go into private practice, it never occurred to me that I could do that.

And so having that person who just says, "here let's, let's look at how you can do that". And really was within like a two hour conversation that I ended up with this basic plan for how to get started. And once I did, I found it not to be nearly as scary as I thought it was going to be. Like you said, counseling's in in demand demand.

I think it is interesting that our field, as a whole, generally doesn't do well with self-advocacy. We don't know how to sell ourselves.

So I love that you come along and say, no, you can do this. Is that your experience with counselors?

Michael: Yeah, I think that there's a lot of resistance to marketing feeling like I need to promote myself. I need to sell myself. I think that comes from a place of bad marketing and being a consumer of bad marketing because, nobody likes to be sold to.

The way that I think about marketing is not about selling yourself. It's just letting people know who you are and what you do, because there are people out there who are looking for what you offer, but if they can't find you, you can't help them. I talk about this idea of being a lighthouse and that as a lighthouse, you put out a signal right into the world, whether it's through digital marketing or more traditional marketing, putting out your ideas, talking about who you are and who you can help, and that's going to attract people to you.

I think like the more that you can put your ideas out into the world, which now through social media, there are much fewer barriers to do that. You know, the more that you're going to just attract like-minded people.

Kristi: Which is exactly what it feels like you have done being infused, especially where I see you is in Twitter. Just in daily conversations and not just conversations, but building relationships with counselors that you have, this large group of people who look to you for fun and encouraging and intelligent conversation.

And so then when it comes time for them to need something that they're like, oh, this guy has that to offer. And can easily then turn to you. Is that part of your marketing plan?

Michael: Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, going back to business, being about people, it's also about relationships. And when I started my own business, I had contacts and my immediate network, but I really wasn't that well connected. And so I had to figure out how to develop a pipeline for myself to get clients and to get work.

And so I picked Twitter as a channel in order to build relationships and just let people know what I do and, I'm selling myself. I'm just letting people know, "Hey, if you need help with marketing, I'm here". I'm also like happy to provide as much advice and value as I can for free. Because that's just, what I can offer and, if people want some extra help, great.

Kristi: I think of you as our cheerleader, honestly, I just find you so encouraging and I appreciate it. I show my husband, your tweets very often. He knows who you are now. It feels like, "oh yeah, Michael!" — we have you on a first name basis around here. so you've done that very well.

Making people feel valuable, which then in turn, makes them want to join with you in relationship and business potentially. So how is business?

Michael: It's good. It's good. It's been a lot of experimentation, trying different things, different types of services. These days, most of my work is with companies in the mental health space, more so than what therapists, although I still do some projects with therapists initially I was providing more "done for you" services.

And so I was, building websites and running social media channels. And I found that to be very time intensive on my part. And when it got to the point where my schedule was full. So I was, bringing in someone else to help. That meant that I had t o pay that person as either a contractor or an employee.

And then, have margin on that, which then drove the price up for a therapist often what they need is someone just to help them to get started, help them to build a [practice].

Michael: these days I'm referring a lot more of that work out and operating on kind of more of a strategic advisory level. But I do have ongoing relationships with therapists where we're meeting kind of in a more consulting capacity.

Michael: once a week or once a month, and just talking about their business and how things are going and helping to guide them.

Kristi: I saw that on your website that you have definitely a waitlist, if people are interested in talking to you.

Kristi: And that is the case for therapists right now. I know most therapists, there's a wait list of two to three months to get in, to a counselor these days.

It is like you said, a good time. It's a difficult. To be a therapist just for more of that, like personal side, as you've gotten to know therapists over the years, and especially these last two years, what do you see? From the, that perspective of not being a therapist, but seeing the conversations, how do you feel like therapists are doing right now?

Michael: I think that the therapists are struggling. It's been really hard. And that's one reason why I do lean in to humor on Twitter, because if I can make a therapist laugh through a meme or, like a joke about doing their notes and it brings a smile to their face and can, make them forget a little bit, for a moment.

Then that means everything to me. I think whatever we can do as allies of mental health professionals to help the better because they really do need help.

Kristi: Yeah. It is a tough time. But boy, I'm thankful for Twitter actually these days because I'm not in the office. office closed in March, 2020, and hasn't reopened its doors. So been remote for the last two years and miss those water cooler moments, just passing in the hallway or dropping by a colleague's office.

And so Twitter has become that for a lot of us, that's the place where we in and we say, "boy, I'm having a really hard day". So it's nice, like you said, to hear a joke, to be encouraged. "Have you done your notes?"

"Are your notes finished yet?" I don't know if you intended for that to go where it went, but...

Michael: no, I did not. That it started. It started with a meme that I made and the meme was of someone standing on a beach and there was like a huge wave coming from behind that they didn't see because it was from behind them and the wave was, "leftover notes from 2021." And the person was a therapist in 2022.

And so I put that out and it got circulated and I saw that it made its way to Instagram and it was shared. So it was on to something there. And then — totally organically — therapists started tweeting at me when they finished their notes, reporting to me that they were done. Yeah. And then someone said, I was like the office manager for Therapist Twitter, which I thought was really funny.

Kristi: I tweeted yesterday that I had stayed caught up on my notes all week and I put your name there. And I was like, no, don't put his name in. He doesn't need to hear from all of us personally, but it's true now we think of it. We're like, oh, we need to tell Michael, we need to get somebody to say "good job!".

You did what you wanted to do. So appreciate that. All right. Thank you so much, Michael, for your time today. Again, I appreciate what you do. I think your work is invaluable and I hope this has been an encouragement for who may be thinking about private practice or just thinking about the goals and dreams they want to have for their business, that there are good options out there where you can actually get paid well for your work.

Michael: Yeah. And there's, a community of both therapists and non therapists who are here to support you as well. And my DMs on Twitter are open.

You can message me. You can contact me through my website. I'm really here to help.

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