TTE 23: Lessons From 3 Months Into Private Practice with Sara Dungan
Sara has over 25 years of experience working with children and families. So, what did she do after opening her private practice only 3 months ago? She niched down into working with families and children through the pain of divorce, applying her years of experience to helping her grow her private practice quickly.
In this episode, we go over the important lessons Sara has learned from only 3 months in private practice and provide guidance to all new private practice therapists out there to help them gain traction quickly with their business.
If you’re new to private practice, this is one episode you don’t want to miss!
Best Marketing Move for Business
- Signing up for Brighter Vision
Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Rising Strong by Brené Brown
- Sara’s Website: Sparrow Counseling
Previous The Therapist Experience Episodes Mentioned
Thanks to Sara for joining me this week. Until next time!
TranscriptClick here to read the Transcript
Sara: Perry, I am so honored to be here. Thank you so much. Yes, I am definitely ready.
Perry: Alright. We are so excited to have you here, Sara. Sara has over 25 years of experience working with children and families. She is currently building a private practice called Sparrow Counseling with a focus on helping families through the pain and disappointment of divorce. Sara holds a bachelor’s in political science from the University of California, San Diego, a master’s in secondary education from University of Alabama, Birmingham, and a master’s in education, counseling, and marriage and family therapy from the University of Montevallo, Alabama. During her practicum and internship Sara served as a counselor for abused and neglected children, and their parents at a local advocacy center. As well as a grief counselor to families in a local grief center. She’s a certified parenting coordinator which is a court-appointed counselor that helps high-conflict divorcing or divorced parents resolve their issues outside of the courtroom. She is also a divorce and family mediator with a specialized training for domestic violence victims who want to use divorce mediation instead of litigation. In her practice her focus is co-parenting counseling for the whole family, as well as working with blended families as they try to navigate the challenging, yet rewarding aspects of building a family. Sara, I gave a little overview of you there but why don’t you take a minute, fill in the gaps from that intro and tell us a little bit more about you personally, and about your practice?
Sara: Well, first of all, I feel so particularly honored to be here. I am an associate licensed counselor, I graduated just in December of last year so I’m only three months– I actually launched my private practice in April.
Perry: Congratulations, Sara.
Sara: Thank you. So I’m really only three months in to my private practice, and the way I got here and the way I got into my niche was, I’m a single mom, I went through a divorce myself a few years ago and this, going back to graduate school and getting my master’s in counseling was part of going and getting a second career. And it’s just been quite a journey but it’s been so fun and just so enlightening and it’s brought so much– I’ve learned so much personally and professionally in this journey that it’s just been awesome.
Perry: Sara, three months into your private practice. So often we hear from therapists who are just getting started or even have been in the field for many, many years that, well, I don’t want to focus on niche. I want to help everyone. Because if I’m in a niche then what happens if I miss on referrals? What happens if people aren’t going to refer to me because I only focus on this specialty? Why is that you decided– You have such a clearly defined niche, and this is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak with you. You’ve just gone to private practice but you have such a clearly defined niche already. Why is it that you made a decision from the get go to be so specialized in your private practice?
Sara: Well, I think going through the divorce process I was kind of thrown into this place that I never thought I would be. And going through a divorce and meeting with attorneys and talking a language that you don’t understand while experiencing the depths of grief and watching your children go through grief, there’s just a huge fog that you’re walking through. And when I started realizing how under-served the population was and how confusing it was when I went to graduate school I really focused on children of divorce, and every time there was a paper to write that was the topic I chose. So as I started doing my research I just realized this is a population and this is a place that really needs help. And I think counselors are particularly afraid of this place because of the legal aspect of it. They don’t want to be called to court, they don’t want to have to testify. And it is scary. It’s definitely a scary aspect of the process, but this is a second career for me, it’s a calling and when I think about the kids that are thrown into this I just feel like, if I don’t do it, who’s going to? So I feel kind of called to this work.
Perry: So, from a personal admission statement, you have a really strong calling to working in this specialized field. How do you feel like it’s helped you from a business perspective though, to be so–? Or hindered you, perhaps, to be so specialized in this particular market?
Sara: Okay, well business-wise I really wasn’t sure that I was going to go into this market. And it wasn’t really until I started listening to– This is going to sound like a shameless plug, but until I started listening to your podcast and really– I mean, I just tell people. It’s like coaching podcasts.
Perry: Thank you.
Sara: Yes, it is. And it’s coached me in a business sense of how to be okay with picking a niche. And that that is going to be okay to trust that process. So I think at one point somebody said, it may have been you, “The riches are in the niches.”
Sara: Yup. I love that quote. I’m trusting that. I believe it, it makes sense to me and I believe in this work. So I feel like I’m going to trust that process.
Perry: You know Sara, there’s so many great little nuggets here that I want to expand upon. One, going back and thinking about your bio that I just read, I know exactly who Sara Dungan is. I know exactly what Sparrow Counseling does. If I was in Birmingham, Alabama– Your practice is in Birmingham, is that correct?
Perry: If I was in Birmingham, Alabama and I knew somebody who was going through divorce the first person I would refer them to is you. That makes it so much easier for you to market yourself. You know who your target clientele is, how to reach them, and people know how to refer you. Whereas if you were just a generic marriage and family therapist for example, out here in Boulder you can throw a stone and hit like a dozen of them. But I know who Sara Dungan is, I know what Sparrow Counseling does, and so that way I know how to refer to you. The other thing is, you can hear it in your voice, you can hear the passion coming through. Your mission statement was so clearly defined. So not only do you specialize in this but you’re passionate about it. And that passion’s going to allow you to serve your clients better. It’s going to allow them to have a better experience with you, you’re going to be happier working with them, and the passion is emanating from you. And it’s so strong that you can easily understand, yes, Sara loves working in this community and she’s going to do a fantastic job working with this community.
Sara: Oh, thank you. I mean, the passion for me is the kids of divorce. And when I bring in two co-parents that do not like each other and have made a whole bunch of stories up in their heads about each other for the last two or three years because they’ve been fighting it out in court, and have not sat down and had a conversation, I ask one of those parents to bring in a picture of their children. And I put that picture on the coffee table and I use that as a grounding force for them when things get out of hand to say, you guys, this is really my client. You guys are just here but the client I’m working for are your kids. And I try to use that as a place to bring them back, to ground them that kids are my client and the passion is these kids that are so stressed out. I mean, they don’t enjoy holidays, they can’t enjoy transferring back and forth, every other weekend. Their life has been disrupted now for the rest of their lives. Parents move on but the kids have to figure it out for the rest of their lives, negotiate holidays, birthdays, everything. So it’s really the kids that drive that passion.
Perry: And when you put that photo on the coffee table, what’s the response from your clients? How do they– Do you see in their body language some shift often?
Sara: Absolutely. And often I’ll bring the kids in after a few sessions and say, mom and dad have been coming in, which their eyes get real big because they can’t believe mom and dad are actually sitting in a room together. And I show them their picture, and I say, we’ve been talking about you and how to help you get through this and how to help mom and dad get along. And they, I think, really appreciate that. And there’s a lot of tears get shed from those kids, and they’re so full of anxiety because they feel so caught in the middle. So that’s where the passion comes from, Perry.
Perry: You know, I’m thinking about my kids. I have a three-year old, and a nine-month old. And just I couldn’t even imagine the stress and anxiety that a divorce would put them through. Anyways, going back. You mentioned that a lot of people are a little intimidated by working in this specific niche because of going to court. I’d love for you to share with our audience what it was like for you the first time that you went to court?
Sara: Well, I haven’t actually had to go to court yet.
Perry: How are you going to prepare that morning? Because I’d imagine it must be pretty intimidating.
Sara: Yes. I am going to get a lot of consultation. I have a number of really good friends who are attorneys, I also know several certified parenting coordinators that I can call and consult with. But at the end of the day what I would be doing is just getting the facts of what I’ve experienced from the parents. I’m not necessarily giving a custody recommendation. I’m just giving the facts of what I’ve seen in my counseling room. And then the judge is ultimately making the decision.
Perry: One thing we found that therapists really struggle with, particularly in the early days– You’re pretty green here. Three months into your private practice. It’s marketing themselves. What are some of the things that you’ve done to market yourself, to get your practice off the ground? Some of the most effective ways that you’ve marketed yourself so far? And why do you feel like they’ve been so effective for you?
Sara: Okay, well again it’s going to be a shameless plug but, I mean three months in when I was looking to build my website I was back in January, I was looking at different things and I found you guys. And I liked what you guys did, and you were running a special in January which I was like, I’m totally going for the special.
Perry: That was a no-brainer then, right?
Sara: Yes. It was a no-brainer. So I signed up for the special never knowing that I would get these podcasts which just catapulted me in terms of my profession. So for me, I do think one of the single best marketing moves I made was signing up for Brighter Vision. I think the other thing was, I think just being teachable. And I guess that’s part of the podcast is I love to learn. If I can just talk about some of the podcast, what I’ve learned from some of the people. I feel like I have friends all over the country now. Because when you’re in private practice, and especially me, I graduated three months ago, so I don’t have professionals that I’m really able to talk to. So listening to other professionals in Private Practice, it’s so encouraging. And so my first one I listened to was Mercedes and she was talking about her internal journey. And that just resonated with me so much, that she said that being an entrepreneur you’re going to go on an internal journey. And at that moment I really was. I was discouraged and I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. And hearing her just made me kind of shift in my thinking like, okay, this is just part of the process, trust the process. And then I think what I really appreciated about the podcast too was the vulnerability that a lot of these professionals have shared about their story, which is giving me permission to be more vulnerable as a counselor with my story. I’m really vulnerable personally, but professionally I wasn’t sure. In school they kind of tell you to put up those walls, but I think this culture wants authenticity. And I really liked Kelly Kitley. She was so authentic, and so personal. And I loved listening to her story. So that just gives you the permission to be more vulnerable. The other one, I got to talk about is Eddie.
Perry: Oh yes, the MBA in 50 minutes for therapists, right?
Sara: My big takeaways from the podcast that I really loved was Eddie and Ron Gad talked about therapists doing their own work. And Eddie is a 30-year professional, and he said, when you’re looking for therapy you should ask your therapist how much therapy they received. And you should believe in the service they provide. And Ron Gad talked a lot about that too. And I so believe in that. And I think so many counselors are so guarded and don’t do their own work. And I was like, yes, Eddie. That is awesome. I totally agree with you. Thank you for saying that, thank you.
Perry: As a therapist I do feel like it’s important to be vulnerable to your clients. They want to relate with you. It’s a delicate balance for sure.
Sara: I think it’s not necessarily being vulnerable to the clients. It was just refreshing to hear professionals being vulnerable with other professionals. That’s what I liked.
Perry: And their stories are just so authentic and the entrepreneurial journey that you’re going to go on is a long one and it’s got its twists and turns, and ups and downs. But even for you here Sara, when you put that photo on the coffee table, you’re making your clients get grounded again and realize what they’re there for. And having been through that experience yourself, you can relate with what they’re going through. And that makes them trust you more I would imagine and trusting the process more as well.
Sara: Absolutely. And divorce is a process that there’s no way around it. It just breathes bitterness and selfishness because you have to go in protecting yourself. So it’s just, I get that. I get where people are coming from, for sure.
Perry: So Sara, you shared so much great advice, the stories, and the journeys, and the struggles that you’ve seen your fellow therapist go through. And being just three months in you understand entrepreneurship can be lonely. Starting your own business can be lonely and having these podcasts there to help motivate and inspire you, I’m so glad that the Therapist Experience has helped you so much. Even to redefine your entire marketing mission and your business mission, and get that so clarified. I so hope that other people listening to this will take that advice and really focus on nicheing themselves in a way that they can better service their clients, better service themselves, and better service their business. So you went to school to become a therapist, not to get your MBA, but along the way, three months ago, you decided to open your own private practice, you went straight into private practice. What’s the one thing that you wish you would have learned in school about starting your own business that really would have helped you get off the ground in these first few months here?
Sara: Okay, well, there’s I’m going to say two things but I’m just going to say first, one thing real briefly is I wish I wouldn’t known it would have cost as much money as it did because I did not realize how much money it would cost.
Perry: Do you mean starting a business and all the costs associated with it?
Sara: Yeah, plus graduating from school you have to get all your licenses and a new office and office furniture. There’s a lot of upfront costs, but I think now internally my struggle is as an entrepreneur– I was a stay at home mom for fifteen years and I was married to a very successful entrepreneur, and I watched him struggle with being a part of the family, but also being a part of being an entrepreneur. And now I’m an entrepreneur and I have a very hard time shutting things down. It’s exciting, you want to build your business, you want to just keep going. And I can’t seem to turn off my computer at times. And I wish that the school would have talked about how to create more boundaries in life, because I see now that pole that he often felt with family and building your business. And at one time I was very judgmental about it but now I really understand it as an entrepreneur and I feel the tension between my kids going mom, mom, and the tension of, wait a minute. Let me just send this last email.
Perry: It’s so challenging and I don’t think there’s anything that can really be taught. I think it’s, for me personally, the biggest shift for me is I used to work out of my house and when Brighter Vision was just getting started it was just me in my house working out of an office and I could never turn off. I’ve worked from my newborn son wake up 4:35 AM, I’d bring him to my wife and I start work then, And I’d work till about 10:00 PM. And you just can never shut it off. And I think for me personally, when I moved outside of the house and got an external office and also a desktop computer. I don’t use my laptop. I have a laptop just for travel but I never use it. Having a desktop computer allows me to turn my computer off at the office, I have a desktop computer at home as well. So this is the space now. If I’m going to– Having to go into a room, turn on a computer, sit down on a desk, it puts you in a work zone. Whereas, oh, let me just open my laptop, send this quick email. Oh, let me just open my iPad or iPhone. And iPhones hit a whole other dimension to that. But let me just open my laptop and do this quick thing. It pulls you away. So for me personally, having an external office and using desktop computers instead of laptops has been very effective for me to disconnect.
Sara: That’s really good, I like that.
Perry: It’s been effective for now. Of course I’m just as guilty as any of us of, oh my God, I need to send this quick email. Oh, let me just respond to this support desk ticket. But it’s been an effective strategy for me personally.
Sara: And I think I heard you say Perry, when you wake up you don’t check you email, you walk down and see your family.
Perry: Uhh, yeah… Hahahahaha.
Perry: You know, iPhones make things more complicated. I do try and not respond to emails at all anymore outside the office. I really try and limit emails, interactions, everything to just office, unless there’s a major fire. Then obviously I have to do what’s necessary. But I do try and limit things, and keep my phone in a different room and just– When I’m at home trying my best and hardest to be with family, but it’s challenging, it’s tough.
Sara: It is. There’s a tension that you just feel constantly. But at the end of the day, I think what I realized is I know the person I want to be is I want to value my relationships. That’s always the person I want to be, is value the relationships I have in my life which are my girls, and my friends, and my family. But I’m definitely feeling the tension.
Perry: And I don’t think it gets any easier unless there’s like strict boundaries. That for me personally was what was really effective. Getting those strict boundaries in place to understand this is work, this is non-work. But again, there’s always that pole, there’s always that pole, oh let me do this. If I dedicated another half-hour here, how much more effective this will be? It’s tough, that’s certainly true. Alright, Sara. So now we’re going to move into the final part of our interview. The part we like to refer to as Brighter Insights. And I love this part because we’ve been having this great conversation and I’m sure people have pulled out so many great gems and motivation, and inspiration from it but what this allows us to do is just distill things down. Get things in these nice, clean little sound bites where we can use your experience to help other therapists be inspired motivated and excited in growing their private practice. So Sara, are you ready?
Sara: I’m ready.
Perry: Alright. What or whom inspired you to become a mental health professional?
Sara: I would say my story really inspired me and I went through counseling, through all parts of my story, and so I would say just the story of my– I’m a sexual abuse survivor, I’ve gone through a divorce and received therapy through all that and just that has been– Being a wounded healer is such an honor to walk through with people. So I would say, my story.
Perry: You know Sara, I’m looking at your website. I have it pulled up in front of us and I love it. I think personally, what I would recommend is we want to make your mission more clear on your website. We want to– Right now it says, bravely overcoming while rediscovering hope. I think we want the focus on the kids, because that’s what’s going to pull people in. That’s what’s going to pull your target audience, a mother who sees the struggle that her children are having going through divorce, coming to your website and focusing on how you focus on children, and how the children are your clients. And that helps people get through divorce. I think that would really help your story and help you grow your business more. And get your story and your mission integrated into your marketing even better. Because, speaking with you here, you’ve got such a great story, such a strong mission. We want to incorporate that as best as possible everywhere.
Sara: Okay, that’s great. Thank you Perry, I appreciate that.
Perry: Of course. Sara, what is it that you do to clear your head and get a fresh start in your day?
Sara: Well, I’m a Christian and I believe in the power of prayer and in this work I need a higher power that I can give control over to because there’s a lot of things out of my control. So I do pray but then I also have to move so I exercise and I have a few friends I walk with that I’ve known for about 20 years. So we walk about twice a week and that keeps me really grounded, to walk with my friends.
Perry: Walking can be so meditative and to have people be able to talk with. I know my wife and I, we take our family for a walk at least once a day. We try and do twice but it’s kind of hard with a nine-month old. But getting out on those walks and being able to just talk about things and disconnect from technology is so effective for me as well as an individual.
Sara: Yeah, I agree.
Perry: What are some of the tools that you’ve used to leverage the power of technology in your private practice, so that technology is no longer a hurdle but instead an asset for you?
Sara: I use Simple Practice.
Sara: I do Quick Books, I have signed up for Joe Sanok. He’s Practice With Practice, or–
Perry: Practice of the Practice?
Sara: Practice of the Practice. So I’ve just signed up for his webinar I’m doing right now, learning about blogging, and that has been really helpful because I don’t know anything about blogging but I’m learning. I use Nozbe as an online kind of checklist.
Perry: Nozbe? Never heard of that before.
Sara: Yeah. It’s N-O-Z-B-E. It’s an app and it’s kind of a way to write down reminders and checklist. I like it a lot. And I use EverNote. I have a Facebook page. I’m playing with Instagram but Instagram is more pictures so I don’t know how Instagram really plays with therapy but I’m playing with that. I’m interested in ZinnyMe, you know, Kelly and Miranda?
Perry: Oh yeah, definitely. They’re great.
Sara: On the podcasts, a couple of your people talked about videos on websites. I fully think that’s a great idea so I’m really interested in that. I’m talking to a digital marketing firm right now to get some extra help on just digital marketing. And I learned about a VA, a virtual assistant. I had no idea that that even existed.
Perry: They’re so great, aren’t they?
Sara: I mean, I’m just talking to one to find out what they do. I mean, there’s so much to learn and it’s so exciting. So fun.
Perry: Sara, so you have a whole slew of great resources there. How do you balance learning and growing? I know that can be a pretty big struggle for entrepreneurs as well.
Sara: I mean, that’s the tension Perry. That’s the tension I feel, is there’s so much so you have to kind of distill down. I think what I like to do is play with what I like, like I’m playing with Instagram. Is it going to work? I don’t know. So I’m going to–
Perry: Yeah, test and see, right?
Sara: Test and see. I’m going to take what I like and leave the rest. So I kind of just see what works for me. I’m going to try blogging. I think blogging makes sense but I don’t know if it will work in my daily rhythm but I’d like to try it and see.
Perry: Sara, what’s the quote that you hold near and dear? Something that has helped formulate your perspective on life or has motivated and inspired you?
Sara: I would say Brene Brown. I love Brene Brown. So personally the quote is, “There’s no greater threat to critics and the cynics than those that have learned to fail because we have learned to rise.”
Perry: Love that.
Sara: And then professionally, I would say, “You have to spend money to make money.” And, “The riches are in the niches.”
Perry: Perfect. Sara, if you could recommend one book to our audience what would that book be?
Sara: Rising Strong from Brene Brown and then for my business– When I was looking online on Amazon in December just trying to find something Lynn Grodzky wrote Building Your Ideal Private Practice. And that was really helpful and I refer back to that often.
Perry: Sara, last question for you here. If you moved to a new city tomorrow, didn’t know a single soul, and all that you had with you was 100 dollars and your computer to start a new private practice, what is it that you would do on your very first day?
Sara: Okay, well I am an extrovert so I would definitely go to a coffee shop. I loved it when people always said that on the podcast. I’m like, that’s me. I’m at the coffee shop. I think I would buy business cards but then I think I would be looking and finding people in my niche, which would be divorce, and I would buy them cups of coffee and I would find out what– I want to be teachable and I want to learn from them. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I want to find out what they’re doing. Tell me about the community that you live in, tell me about the people and I want to know more about this city and how to help this community. So I think it would be more personal relationships initially before I moved into technology. While I think technology is important I want to learn with personal relationships first.
Perry: Fantastic That’s just so key to– Personal relationships, referrals are building blocks to any successful business.
Perry: Well Sarah, any parting advice for our listeners?
Sara: I guess the two things that I’ve learned the most is just to be teachable. I just love talking to people and gathering information. And also do your own work and get in the trenches yourself and figure out your own junk, because you can’t really help people if you haven’t figured out your own junk. At least I think so. And I think it takes a great deal of courage to even walk into a counseling room. So if you haven’t done it yourself then I think you’re asking people a lot for them to do it and you haven’t done it yourself.
Perry: I agree wholeheartedly. Sara, where can our listeners find you to connect and learn more about you?
Sara: Yeah, my website is www.sparrowcounsel.com and you can email me at email@example.com.
Perry: Great. Sara, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to be on the Therapist Experience podcast. I had such a blast speaking with you, Sara, and all the right resources you mentioned here can be found at this week’s show notes over at brightervision.com/session23.
Sara: Thanks, Perry. It was fun.
Perry: I had a great time, Sara. It was so much fun and thank you again.
Sara: Thank you.
Perry: Thank you so much for tuning in today. If you have a question for us you can email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and, of course, if you’re interested in launching a website please don’t hesitate to reach out to Brighter Vision. We are the worldwide leader in custom therapist website design. For just 59 dollars a month you’ll get a website that’s as unique as your practice is, unlimited tech support so you never deal with any of those headaches yourself, and complementary SEO so people will find you online. That does it for today, thanks again for listening and we will see you next week.