September 2012 Issue
Finding and Furnishing Your Office Space — These Tips Will Help RDs Take the Next Step Toward Entrepreneurship
By Faye Berger Mitchell, RD, LDN
Vol. 14 No. 9 P. 16
Author’s Note: This article is the second in a three-part series about how to start your own nutrition business. In the first article, I discussed the pros and cons of starting a private practice and the skills and personality traits you need to succeed. In this article, I provide strategies to find office space and review the types of office space available as well as the furnishings and equipment you’ll need. In my final installment, I’ll discuss ways to market your services and build a client base.
Remember Karen, the young dietitian from the first article in this series, who always wanted to start her own nutrition business but wasn’t sure she had what it takes? Well, after evaluating the pros and cons of starting a private practice and assessing her strengths and weaknesses, Karen has decided to go for it. She’s ready to take the risk and enter into the often-daunting world of entrepreneurship.
Although she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and jump right in, Karen will need to make many decisions. She’ll need to find a great location for office space, evaluate the space available, and furnish her office with the necessary equipment before a single client can walk through the door.
Before the Search
The first important decision for anyone starting a practice is to find office space. There are so many options from which to choose and many things to consider. However, before you look for space, you’ll need to determine where you want to practice.
Location can make or break the success of your practice. Ask yourself these important questions:
• How far do you think people are willing to travel to visit your office? If you live in a suburban area, more than likely people are used to traveling longer distances to access healthcare services than those who live in a city.
• Do you want or need to be accessible by public transportation? Is parking available? If you’re located in a more suburban or urban area, parking and traffic can become an issue and possibly deter potential clients.
• Are there other healthcare practices in the area from which you can receive referrals? If so, consider selecting a location close to these offices.
• Do you want space in a traditional medical or office building or is storefront space appealing and affordable?
When looking for office space, consider the following logistical issues to help narrow your choices:
• How much space do you need? Will you be seeing only individuals or will you need space to accommodate families? If you plan on seeing groups of people, more space is required.
• How much storage space do you need? This is particularly important if you plan on sharing or subletting an office.
• Is the office space accessible to everyone, including those who are handicapped? Is there an elevator? Are bathrooms available? All these issues must be evaluated.
• Will you need a waiting room? How large of a waiting area will you need? If you’ll be seeing patients back to back, a waiting room with ample space is essential.
Maintaining an office requires plenty of behind-the-scenes work, so consider the following:
• Will your rent include office cleaning or will you have to arrange for it separately?
• Will grounds keeping and snow removal be included in your rent?
• Will security services be provided? Will patients have to sign in at a front desk or have an access code to enter the building? Security is particularly important if you’ll be seeing patients after normal business hours.
• Will maintenance be included in the rent? If so, is the staff readily available?
Conducting the Search
Once you’ve evaluated and answered all the above questions and understand what you are looking for, you’re ready to begin searching for office space. Several possibilities exist, from the traditional to the nontraditional. Some options include renting, co-leasing, subleasing, a home office, and a traveling office. Initially, it will be important to keep your costs down, so carefully analyze the cost benefits of each.
This is the most traditional but the most expensive type of office space and the one option that requires the largest commitment. On the flip side, you’ll have the flexibility to decorate and furnish the office so it reflects your unique style. Renting requires signing a lease and committing to remaining in the space for a certain period of time, usually for a minimum of one year. Some new practitioners feel renting is too much of a risk, not only because of the time commitment but also because it’s more costly. Moreover, a security deposit of an extra full month’s rent is usually required up front.
Co-leasing is still renting, but it allows two or more professionals to pool together their resources. All parties involved sign the co-lease rental agreement and have equal say in all office decisions. They also share liability, so you’ll need to carefully review the language of the lease. Many times the co-lease agreement is written in such a way that if one person defaults on the rent, the other is responsible for the entire payment. Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure all parties agree on work schedules and how to divide expenses, as well as furniture layout and office décor.
Many private practitioners find subleasing the most viable option. While it’s still renting, subleasing can entail a shorter-term commitment because it is often possible to work out a month-to-month subletting agreement. This option involves finding a professional who is already leasing office space but has an available office on certain days of the week or certain times of the day. Many private practitioners start by subleasing an MD’s or a psychotherapist’s office on his or her day off. This type of arrangement doesn’t allow you to furnish or decorate the office, and it’s important to determine where you can store your belongings when you’re not there.
Probably the most affordable and least risky option is practicing in a home office. Should you decide to go this route, it’s essential to have designated private office space in which to see patients. A separate office with a private entrance and a waiting area is the best-case scenario, but it’s possible to partition off a section of a room for your office. Consider your comfort level and the security issues of having strangers enter your home. Check zoning laws in your neighborhood to determine whether seeing clients in your home is legal, and carefully consider whether you are the type of person who can stay focused on work while at home.
Some RDs decide to forgo the formal space and make home visits. This is a viable option, but there are some issues to consider. You’ll need to factor in travel time as you set your rates and think about security as you travel to unknown neighborhoods and homes.
Furnishing Your Space
If you decide to practice in a formal office, you’ll need to find furnishings for your newly leased space. (If you sublet an office from another professional, he or she already may have the furnishings needed.) Choosing décor can be fun and exciting. It also can be costly, so it’s important to do your homework. When choosing furnishings, think of your patient population. Do you plan on seeing families, couples, or children? If you plan on seeing families or couples, make sure you have adequate seating. Purchasing a couch to accommodate families is a good option. If you’ll be seeing kids, consider buying some kid-friendly seating and decorations as well as setting up a small play area equipped with toys to keep them occupied while waiting for their appointments.
Certain standard equipment is necessary for running a successful practice. You’ll need a computer, a fax machine, a photocopier, and a telephone. If you’re subletting, you’ll need a laptop and a mobile phone. You also have the option of sharing equipment with your office mates. Shop around for the best prices before purchasing office equipment. Another tip: Consider using electronic medical records (EMRs). You can find electronic charting systems created specifically for RD practices. Look for advertisements in trade publications or ask colleagues for recommendations for electronic charting systems.
Just as you’ll need standard equipment, you’ll also need basic office supplies such as pens, pencils, paper, tape, and paper clips. You’ll also need business cards, stationery, and general business documents such as accounting and client/patient information forms, fax cover sheets, and invoices. Many office software packages provide templates for these types of forms. However, you’ll also need more specific forms for private practice, such as nutrition assessment, HIPAA, and billing forms. It’s possible to purchase forms specific to RD practices. The Nutrition Entrepreneurs Dietetic Practice Group (www.nutritionentrepreneurs.org) has a products and services listing on their site where you can find forms and other products. If you decide to use EMRs, some of these forms, such as billing and nutrition assessment forms, won’t be necessary because they’ll be built into the electronic system.
Evaluate Your Office
Finding, equipping, and furnishing your office space should be a fun process. Once you’ve completed these important steps and have all your forms and supplies in place, imagine your first patient walking through the door. Consider the process from the initial phone call to the patient paying for your services. Envision each step of the process to ensure you’ve covered every detail. Once you’ve completed this exercise and feel comfortable with every step from start to finish, congratulate yourself for your hard work. You’ve made a great deal of tough, important decisions to get to this point. Now, it’s time to start marketing your practice and establishing a patient base!
— Faye Berger Mitchell, RD, LDN, is coauthor of Making Nutrition Your Business: Private Practice and Beyond. She’s helped thousands of dietitians nationwide start their businesses through her workshops, speaking engagements, and Be Your Own Boss Starter Kit.