Starting a Practice

How Dr. Justin Dodson Started a Private Practice on His Friend’s Couch

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March 25, 2024
March 25, 2024
Heard

Private practice was a part-time gig for Dr. Justin Keith Dodson, LPC, whose main focus was work in the non-profit sector. But when burnout loomed, he realized treating clients one-on-one was his true calling.

This is the story of how Justin overcame financial doubts and administrative hurdles to get his books in order, plan for the future, and build his dream practice.

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An early course correction

Justin thought he was going to become an attorney. That was the plan during his freshman year of college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, when he built his course schedule around prerequisites for law school and traveled participating in mock trial.

But one fateful meeting helped him change bearings.

“My advisor was the head of the Psychology Department, and he and I got to talking,” Justin said. “Honestly, in that conversation, he said, ‘You know, you’re going to be a therapist.’”

“I knew that I had always been that person my family and my friends could lean on and talk to,” he continued. “So, well, why not make this a career?”

It was a natural choice, he said. He was excited for the courses he’d be taking as part of his education in psychology. After he completed his Bachelor’s Degree, graduate school beckoned.

The picture of success

After completing his Master’s in Counseling in 2013 and Doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision in 2019, Justin went into nonprofit work, something he said many therapists do as a way to “get their feet wet.” He had no intentions of starting a private practice.

“My belief was: That's not consistent money, you can't really earn a living,” he said.
“That's for people that are in their mid 50s and 60s who have established a career.”

He didn’t have a therapist’s license, and didn’t plan to get one. After completing his PhD, he said, he was done with studying and taking tests. 

Plus, Justin said, he didn’t need it.

“I actually wasn't going to get my license because I thought that my path was going to be in nonprofit leadership,” he said. “That's what gave me the desk and title in the office and influence. And that at that time, I thought that was success.”

The seven year itch

Eventually Justin’s employers asked him to become licensed as part of the requirements of his job. He went ahead and did it. 

It had been nearly seven years since Justin completed his requirements for licensure and finished school. His work in nonprofit leadership was leading to burnout, but he didn’t realize it yet. It took a conversation with colleagues to help him see the writing on the wall.

“I had some women in my corner that just said, ‘Hey, when do you plan to leave this job?’” he recalled. “‘This brings you so much stress, and it doesn't seem like you're getting what you need here.’”

They had a point. But he still didn’t think going into private practice would be financially sustainable.

Until he took a moment to crunch the numbers.

“One day, on the way out of the door … I did the numbers really quick. I said, ‘Well, hey, if you charge this much per person, and you see this many people a week…’”

It all added up. He could make a living in private practice doing what he loved, helping folks one on one. Now all he had to do was figure out how to launch his practice.

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How to start a private practice on your friend’s couch 

He knew he needed a separate business entity if he was going to start earning income outside of work. So Justin took the DIY approach.

“I opened my LLC on my friend’s couch,” he said. “I bought her Asian food.”

“She walked me through the steps, because she had already done it,” he continued. “And in August 2020, I formed my LLC.”

It was a bare-bones operation, with no accounting or back office setup. “I had nothing in place,” Justin said. “I just knew I had the skills to be a therapist.”

He took a casual approach, seeing clients occasionally after work. Between August and the end of the year, he said, he’d made $1,200.

The DIY approach

Justin’s early accounting solution was basic, but it got the job done.

“I started with an Excel spreadsheet, and every client that I saw would have their initials and how much they paid me,” he said. “The spreadsheet was really helpful because it helped me track money coming in and money going out.”

He registered for an EIN the same day he set up his LLC, and wasted no time opening a free business checking account.

“I showed up, and I had a couple of hundred dollars from the work that I had done,” he said.  “And that's what I deposited into that account.”

Justin said that, for the next two years, the DIY approach was enough to keep his bookkeeping up to date and give him the info he needed to file taxes. But when the opportunity to go full time presented itself, he knew he needed a professional solution.

Going full time and all in

“I knew what it meant to be a therapist,” Justin said. “I didn't know what it meant to be a business owner.”

Justin’s client list was growing, and in December of 2021 he left his nonprofit job and became a full-time private practice therapist. He knew he needed a better accounting solution, even if he wasn’t exactly sure why. 

“Everyone says, ‘You need an accounting system, you need a bookkeeper,’” he said. “But no one really explains the importance of why. It's almost like telling a kid to be good, but not teaching them how to do it.” 

His first experience with a professional bookkeeper was frustrating.

“She wouldn't show up to meetings, her responsiveness wasn't great, I didn't really understand the documents that I was looking at,” he said. “Once she missed another meeting, I stopped working with her.”

By this point, Justin had switched from spreadsheets to QuickBooks. And looking back, his financial records were in different formats at different points in time. “All over the place,” as he put it.

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The hunt for a good bookkeeper

Justin had a business coach who urged him to research three different bookkeeping solutions and get quotes from them. But Justin was wary of working with another bookkeeper because his first experience had been stressful.

And he found the three or four bookkeepers he spoke with had trouble wrapping their heads around how a private therapy practice worked. 

“They didn't speak the language,” he said. “So they were asking me, ‘Well, what is this? And what is that?’”

On top of that, he needed to get his books—stored in Excel and QuickBooks—cleaned up and consistent with whatever system his new bookkeeper planned to use. And it was going to be expensive.

“A lot of the bookkeepers that I had been talking to were charging thousands of dollars to go back and clean up the books from that first quarter,” he said. 

As a fledgling solo practitioner, it was an added expense he could hardly afford. And it looked like getting his new bookkeeper trained on the workings of his private practice would be labor intensive.

But then Justin found Heard.

Trying out Heard 

When Justin found out about Heard, he said it was a “no-brainer.” Not only would Heard handle all his current bookkeeping and accounting tasks for him, but they wouldn’t charge him hundreds of dollars to clean up his past bookkeeping.

Plus, Heard specializes exclusively in helping therapists.

“They already knew what Psychology Today was, and Alma, and some of the other tools that I used to run my practice,” Justin said.

First impressions are important. And it was Justin’s first impressions of Heard—during his onboarding call—that helped to seal the deal.

“During my onboarding session with Heard, Memphis had a really big storm,” he recalled. “So power was out everywhere.”

It was a while before he could find somewhere to plug in and connect to his onboarding session. 

“I was maybe 15 minutes late to my onboarding session,” he recalled, “and I just knew that the person was not going to be there.”

 

“He could have hung up and sent me a message and rescheduled,” Justin said. But when he finally managed to connect, his Heard contact was still waiting, and ready to lead him through the process of setting up—storm or no storm.

“That meant a lot to me,” Justin said.

Finding the right fit

“Graduate school teaches you how to become a therapist,” Justin said. “They don’t teach you how to run a business.”

Justin said the support he got from Heard helped him to understand how his bookkeeping and tax filing worked, and what day-to-day financial admin would look like for this practice.

“That was one of the last pieces to the puzzle to make sure that I had a business that felt good to me,” he said. 

Once he got into the swing of it—learning how to read financial reports for his business and make decisions based on the data—Justin started to see tangible improvements to his new private practice.

Like a new office, for starters.

“Honestly, it's enabled me to secure a better office space,” he said, “because I have my Profit and Loss statement. Everything is listed clearly. So I can clearly go and say, ‘Well, how much money did you bring in last month?’” That gave him the power to plan for the future while keeping on top of tasks in the present.

And the future is looking bright.

Going for growth

Thanks to his own hard work and some help from Heard, Justin is now a full-time solo practitioner. His client list is substantial, his income is steady, and he’s able to do the work that he loves. 

“My career started working with adolescents. I worked for nonprofits working with children and families,” he said. “And I've worked with medical students, and I've worked with college-aged students. 

“But now in my practice, I specialize in men's mental health,” he continued. “So all of my clients that I see, I exclusively cater to adult men.”

He added that, “A lot of practices or entities don't really cater to what men need. We just expect men to be okay and to be strong. And I really want to reshape that narrative.”

Now he’s making plans to expand his practice.

“I have two therapists that work with me, and I'd like to have at least two additional therapists, with the ultimate goal of expanding my practice to have two locations,” he said. “I would love to have one location that's all therapy for adult men, and then another location that has other therapists.”

He said he hopes to have more control over how many in-office hours he works, while increasing his revenue.

The big takeaway

Without an accurate and efficient way to handle bookkeeping and accounting, it’s hard to plan for the future while steering a steady course in the present. Justin said that, if there was one message he wanted to impart to new solo practitioners, it was the importance of getting your financial house in order. 

“You need an accounting and bookkeeping system. From day one. You need to be paying your taxes from day one, and saving for taxes from day one,” he said.

“Gather information about different resources, but use the ones that other therapists are telling you to use, not just ones that are being marketed on your Facebook page.” 

He said that running your own private practice is hard work, but if you have the support you need, it’s a rewarding journey.

“A good friend of mine who’s a therapist said it best, recently,” he noted. “She said, ‘Your business shouldn't feel like a hustle. But you have to hustle to run your business.’ And that's exactly where I am.”

This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult their own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post.

Dr. Justin Keith Dodson, PhD, LPC is the owner of Navigating Courage Counseling & Consultation. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, he specializes in working with adult males through individual therapy, one-on-one coaching, and group coaching.

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