Surround yourself with an exceptional team that expands the skill set of your practice. Your biggest asset as a business owner is your time and there are simply not enough hours to continuously grow your craft and your business. Bringing on associates or team members with different skill sets not only creates a more holistic model of care delivery, it expands your reach. Most importantly it provides you the freedom to work within your personal zone of genius.
As a part of our interview series with prominent medical professionals called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Highly Successful Private Practice”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Sutherland.
Melanie Sutherland is a physiotherapist and the founder of Body Co. Health & Wellness and Melanie Sutherland Healthcare Inc. She has grown her companies from being a part-time solopreneur to highly successful multidisciplinary healthcare practices focused on family health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
As far as physiotherapists go, I had a pretty exceptional beginning to my career. I got my start working in a high profile sport medicine clinic with elite, professional and Olympic athletes. I excelled in the high performance environment and quickly escalated into building and managing industry leading clinics. Being exposed to these incredible opportunities early on fostered a true love for the business side of healthcare and a passion for team leadership.
When my husband and I decided to start a family, I knew that 16-hour days and working on the sidelines of sport would be difficult but I was not prepared to give up on my career growth. I set out to find something that would marry my ambition with the flexibility to be present for a growing family. I was disappointed to find very few positions met my criteria in the private healthcare industry, so I decided to create something for myself. Retrospectively I think I was always working towards building a business on my own terms. I founded Body Co Health and Wellness so I could balance life and work without compromising excellence in healthcare. I’m very proud that as the company has grown we are forging flexible work opportunities for others and the result has been a prospering business with a team committed to serving our community.
I’m a huge fan of mentorship throughout one’s career. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?
I owe much of my success to the generosity and knowledge of others.I’ve been lucky to have several mentors along my journey. Whether it has been for strategy, mindset or developing a stronger business acumen, investing in mentorship has been instrumental in taking my business to the next level. For the last few years I have been working with Dr. Meghan Walker, an absolute force in female leadership in the healthcare space. There are few business mentors that truly understand the rigours of regulated healthcare and Meghan navigates the rules of the industry with an outside of the box lens that helps practitioners stand out in a crowded market.
My biggest take away from my work with Meghan is that confidence in business is not a given. It is a lag result of consistent courage. So many of our successes are built on the backs of multiple failures so if we want to succeed we can’t be afraid to fail. We need to embrace the courage to keep putting ourselves out into the world and try new things.
What made you want to start your own practice? Can you tell us the story of how you started it?
I started my own practice so I could build a business on my terms while balancing the needs of a growing family. Health practitioners generally don’t have business training as part of their schooling but in previous positions, I had the experience of being part of the startup process. Helping other people build their businesses gave me insight into what worked and what did not. I didn’t have a big corporate budget so I opened up a single room practice rented from a local gym with a 9000 dollars loan. I started by working two evenings a week so I could trade off child care with my husband. I focused on building strong community relationships and providing outstanding customer service and care. I realized quickly that I could better serve my clients by broadening my services and hours to better address their pain points. That led me to organically building a team who could meet that need. Over the last 6 years we have grown from a one woman show in a tiny rented room to a multi-disciplinary team of 14 forecasted to hit seven figures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There have definitely a few bumps in the road. Probably the biggest turning point came when I was working as the director of a new satellite clinic of a prestigious company. On paper it looked like a dream job and my husband and I ended up relocating so I could take the opportunity. It was a huge chance to learn and invest in ownership for the first time. I honestly had the feeling like I had finally made it.
Just over a year into the job I became pregnant with my daughter and it was very clear that there was little room for family priorities at my level. If I wanted to lead I would have to make a choice between time with my daughter and my commitment to the company. It was stressful at the time but retrospectively I am so grateful for the experience. It is what ultimately led me to starting my own business and shaped how I lead as a female entrepreneur and mother. I evaluate my opportunities much more carefully now and place a lot of importance on the culture of our company and how we treat our team.
Because it is a “helping profession”, some healthcare providers struggle with the idea of “monetization.” How do you address the business aspect of running a medical practice? Can you share a story or example?
I’m not sure if you are really a healthcare provider if you haven’t had this internal struggle at some point in your career. I’ve worked diligently on my money mindset and as an industry I think it is something we need to address.
When we undervalue our worth, we limit our impact. Our complacency as a profession with being overworked and underpaid is a quick recipe for burnout and negatively affects the quality of care we provide to our clients. If you want to be of service to your community, compensate your team well and retain top talent you need to know your numbers and have the stability of a profitable framework.
This was never more true then when we expanded our practice. We were literally bursting at the seams of our existing space but everything on the market either required considerable renovations or was more expensive then we could afford. When the perfect property became available, we had to raise our prices just to afford rent. Five months into our new lease the pandemic hit. We were forced to close and when we re-opened the costs of running a safe and compliant business soared. For the second time in 8 months we raised our rates. I was terrified of the response from our community but in reality we did not have a single complaint. Clients valued that we took the necessary actions to keep them safe and the new more expensive space has allowed us to offer more services in a home that reflects the quality of care we provide.
Managing being a provider and a business owner is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?
It often feels like more of a juggling act than a balance. So many business owners are the primary revenue generators in their business but that limits the time they actually have to work on the business itself and support their team.
For me, the relationship between the two roles came to a head when there were just too many balls in the air. It was impossible for me to keep a full caseload and grow the business while staying true to my core value of work life balance. When I finally got over my own ego and saw that my team was more than capable of managing our clients, it allowed me to slowly step back from client care and focus on the business side of the practice. An amazing thing happened, revenue increased and the practice grew. Most recently I have completely stopped seeing patients in a one to one capacity and instead run our community care programs. It is far less of a clinical commitment. I touch the lives of many more clients and I have the time and energy to support the health and growth of the company.
From completing your degree to opening a practice and becoming a business owner, your path was most likely challenging. Can you share a story about one of your greatest struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
Definitely. I rented my first space for Body Co from a local gym. A few years into establishing the business, the building we were housed in was bought by a developer to be transitioned into condos. We were told we had anywhere from 2–3 years before we would have to vacate the space. While we were in the process of looking for a new home, the gym that we were renting from declared bankruptcy and despite the fact that we had always paid rent, I was told that we might be locked out of our office at any given moment. As I was negotiating a new temporary lease, the gym started to liquidate all of their assets. There was actually a day where I had to pay and plead with the liquidator to let us keep the toilets while he was simultaneously selling off the floor and ceiling tiles.
It was a crash course in leadership under fire. I had to abandon some substantial limiting beliefs, trust my team enough to be honest with them and ask for help. It forced me to believe in myself enough to know we could do something bigger and better. That experience taught me that with enough resolve, action and innovative thinking I could get through just about anything. Sure enough months later the pandemic hit. The lessons we learned during that time of upheaval forged the resilience not just to survive but to prosper through incredible challenge. To be honest, I’m still amazed we made it out of that situation with our full team and all of our belongings.
Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. What are the 5 things you need to know to create a thriving practice, and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Surround yourself with an exceptional team that expands the skill set of your practice. Your biggest asset as a business owner is your time and there are simply not enough hours to continuously grow your craft and your business. Bringing on associates or team members with different skill sets not only creates a more holistic model of care delivery, it expands your reach. Most importantly it provides you the freedom to work within your personal zone of genius. My first hire after I started the business was a massage therapist. Our clients loved having access to more than one service under one roof. We expected that. The more surprising result was that our patients got better faster. When clients could see us both, their treatments were more effective. It has become the basic premise of our business and we now offer a more complete patient service and turn out raving fans willing to recommend us to their friends and family.
- Invest and outsource your knowledge gaps. As a business owner it is very tempting to make yourself a Jack of all trades. While I think it is important to understand what is going on in your business, it is not essential that you master everything. When you have a limited or growing business acumen, sometimes your greatest strength can be understanding your weaknesses. Part of our growth strategy is to use paid digital advertising campaigns. I tried my hand at Google ads but it was time consuming to learn the basics and I was wasting money by throwing mud at the wall hoping that something might stick. I finally gave in and hired a specialist to manage our digital strategy. Our ads are now effective, drive regular leads to our practice and have a healthy return on investment.
- Develop leadership skills and mindset. I don’t believe that leadership skills are innate. I believe they are earned and learned. Leaders need to be able to make tough decisions, have hard conversations with compassion and create opportunities for their team to shine. It involves taking complete ownership of the failings of your business while sharing wins generously. Often it means listening before speaking. For me that took time and practice. To help build these skills I spend a lot of time masterminding with other thought and business leaders. I love to absorb their knowledge to bring a broader perspective to my own leadership style. I’ve learned to be open to constructive criticism from others so I can be more effective in the delivery of my own. Most of all, I believe I can always improve as a leader and am committed to lifelong learning in this department.
- Be adaptable and think outside the traditional healthcare box. One on one care is the most expensive form of healthcare delivery with a ceiling to how many people can be treated. Traditional manual and procedural care limits the reach of who we can care for by geographical boundaries. If you want a thriving practice you need to be willing to draw outside of the lines. The bulk of our practitioners excel at manual care. When the pandemic shut down our brick and mortar practice, we had to pivot quickly to virtual care just to keep the lights on. It felt clunky and uncomfortable at first but we quickly realized it was an opportunity to reach people who now had more choice in their care provider and create a more robust form of treatment. Virtual individual and group care are now part of a regular hybrid model we offer at our clinic. It has minimized cancellations, introduced us to new clients and made revenue more reliable. Last month, we posted our best month ever while still operating in a lockdown scenario and scaled back in person appointments.
- See adversity and failure as an opportunity to learn and develop a more resilient business. I used to tie failure in business to my self worth. Now I understand that it is a crucial part of success. Success is built on over 10,000 hours of hard work and a million small decisions. Not all of those are going to be right but every single one of them is going to be an opportunity to learn. That is the beauty of failure. The strongest leaders are willing to risk failure, fail fast and fail often in the name of growth.
When in-person therapy was shut down, I acutely felt the failure of putting all of our practice eggs into one basket. Losing hands-on care pointed out that we were susceptible to external factors and didn’t favour community building. It forced us to look at other complimentary verticals of care and led us offering virtual based community care for teens, women during pregnancy and women looking to improve their health acumen. All three cohorts have demonstrated significant improvements in clinical outcomes and health attitudes. These programs have created flexibility for our practitioners, increased revenue but most importantly help us future proof our business against unexpected challenges.
As a business owner you spend most of your time working IN your practice, seeing patients. When and how do you shift to working ON your practice? (Marketing, upgrading systems, growing your practice, etc.) How much time do you spend on the business elements?
This used to be very imbalanced for me. I would work on the back end of the business early mornings before my family woke, late into the evenings and on weekends and spend my office hours treating clients. The bigger the business grew, the more demands there became on my time and the more untenable this schedule became. It was out of alignment with the reason I created the business and I wasn’t giving my clients my best energy.
Over the years I’ve stepped back from clinical care and four months ago I traded individual care completely for 4–6 hours of community care a week. I spend the remainder of my time marketing, building community, expanding our referral network and promoting our brand. I love the business side of our practice and I feel it is where I can make the most impact so for me it is not a sacrifice. There is no way to grow a business if you are only working in it instead of on it. If growth is one of your goals, there will come a point for every business owner where they need to choose between stepping back or outsourcing the work. In my case stepping back has been the best decision for both myself and the business.
I understand that the healthcare industry has unique stresses and hazards that other industries don’t have. What specific practices would you recommend to other healthcare leaders to improve their physical or mental wellness? Can you share a story or example?
Set boundaries and stick to them religiously.
I used to think that being available to everyone at any time was the best way to grow the business. I was afraid that if I wasn’t reachable or if I didn’t get back to someone right away that I would lose the business or not be viewed as a responsible leader. The truth is that it actually exhausts your capacity to lead well and creates resentment toward your time and team.
Early on I didn’t believe anyone else could convert potential clients as well as I could. I insisted on having the clinic phone forwarded to my cell phone. It was disastrous. I took phone calls hiding from my children in the bathroom, I took phone calls during beach vacations and I answered calls on Sunday evening at 9 pm. It was impossible to get anything done because I was constantly interrupted and I was never truly present in my family life. I finally handed over the reigns to my more than capable office manager and set up a communication system that honoured my time.
I have an automatic responder on my email that clearly lets people know when I respond to emails. My administrative team handles and triages all of the phone calls so I only get the ones that absolutely require my attention. We have a slack channel set up for team rapid fire questions but everyone is encouraged to put it on privacy mode outside of work hours. I set aside an hour for physical activity daily and reserve family time during which I completely shut off my phone.
Have we lost a client lead because I’m not available 24/7? Likely. Do the clients, colleagues and team members who work within this framework get better outcomes and attention from me? Absolutely. Boundaries may feel difficult but they have become the truest form of kindness I know for both myself and those around me.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
In my office, I keep a card with a quote from Winnie the Pooh that reads “To become a butterfly you must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
When we moved into our current location, I took a big risk. Not just a financial risk but also the risk of really stepping out of the shadows of other people and standing firmly on my own two feet. I’ve always been very conscious of what other people thought of me and feel extremely responsible for my team. Potentially failing on a bigger scale and letting people down was terrifying but staying the same and never realizing our full potential felt scarier. I had to come to terms with giving up my comfort zone and face my fear that I was not good enough or worthy enough to succeed.
That quote reminds me that growth is uncomfortable and every time you ascend to a new level of success you are going to have to give something up to make room for something new. Never once has that been easy but when I stand in our beautiful space, when I count how many people we have helped and know that I’ve done it on my terms, it really does feel like the freedom to spread my wings and decide which adventure I will fly to next.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We have a very active blog on our website https://bodycotoronto.com that highlights the work we do in the clinic and community. You can also get a glimpse into my work, our community programming and the beautiful chaos of my life as a mother and business owner on our instagram page which can be found at https://instagram.com/bodycotoronto.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success and good health!