Dream Bigger

Why Opening a Massage Therapy Clinic Could Be a Viable Career Path for You

By By Bob Benson

Many massage therapists in the early stages of their career assume the professional paths open to them are limited: start a private practice; work in a chiropractic, physician, or physical therapy office; or work as an employee in a franchise or independent massage therapy practice. Most new therapists never consider opening a clinic structured around a collaborative, team-based approach to massage. But this can indeed be a viable career option, and is for a growing number of therapists. I spoke to one of these therapists, who runs a successful massage therapy clinic, about the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges in creating and running this type of organization.

The therapist-owner described in this article is a well-known figure in the massage therapy field. Out of respect for this therapist’s desire to not make the focus of the piece about her, but rather about the business platform and the opportunities it offers therapists, the names of the clinic, the therapist-owner, and the quoted individuals have been altered. The stated facts and quoted words, however, are accurate. 

Humble Start  

It started simply. In mid-career, Natalie Davidson found massage therapy. Perhaps more accurately, it found her. She fell hard for how powerful massage could be in helping people deal with muscular pain. Davidson became a sponge for knowledge and a zealot in sharing that knowledge with others.
Davidson’s private practice began modestly in a small, rented downtown office in the city nearest her childhood country home. She had no five-year plan and no grand expectations, just a desire to earn a living while helping clients improve their health.
She certainly had no inkling her simple Bodywise Wellness practice would evolve to one day provide a comfortable living for 19 therapists, operating principally out of an owned clinic facility with eight treatment rooms in an environment characterized by a burning desire to learn, an atmosphere of professional exchange and respect, and a shared passion to solve diverse client challenges.
That transformation did not occur overnight. Davidson’s drive to solve client issues, coupled with her steady commitment to educate other health professionals about how massage therapy could contribute to community health, led to an ever-expanding client base. Hiring another like-minded therapist was the logical solution. And then another.
Over two decades, the practice became what it is today, now serving 8,000 clients, most of whom visit when they have specific issues needing specialized assessment and therapeutic work. A fluff-and-buff casual stop for one-time clients Bodywise Wellness is not.
Here, largely in the voices of the therapists who provide Bodywise Wellness its character, is a portrait of what the organization values, how it operates, and the results it produces.

The Mission  

Davidson had a decent idea about what she wanted to accomplish and kept imparting that general vision to associates, but a formal mission statement emerged only gradually. Ironically, the nearby arrival of a national franchise massage clinic five years ago usefully motivated Bodywise Wellness to clarify its mission statement and to make sure that mission drives the business.
Even today, while Bodywise Wellness therapists do not parrot back standard mission-statement verbiage, it’s clear that each of them embraces the same core principles. Davidson herself says, “I am here with a mission to help people deal with pain, to bring soft-tissue benefit to the community. It’s about getting results and making a difference in people’s lives.”
Therapist Ed Biasucci adds, “We are different and unique. We listen to people, work with them to find the source of a physical problem, and then provide intentional work.”
“We deal with the specific needs of each individual client; we don’t apply a standard, formulaic massage,” Judith Taylor says.
“We also work to educate the public as to how massage therapists can help them with their pain,” Pat Collins says. “When you are in pain, we want you to think of our clinic first.”
“We have a relentless pursuit of excellence,” Karen Montgomery notes. “Each of us works at raising the credibility of our profession—with the medical community and the community at large.”

The Work

While the clinic does not refuse a new client seeking a relaxation massage, “That is not what we are about,” Davidson says. “That does not maximize what we can offer. More often than not a new client exhibits muscle tightness or a holding pattern suggesting the value of specific work. We encourage new clients to commit to at least three sessions. We also encourage them to try more than one therapist in order to seek a good match and to enhance their confidence about getting work from someone else when their primary therapist may not be available.”
Biasucci’s take: “Ours is a therapeutic focus. We are here to address clients’ pain. Here, it is about much more than massage. We help people who fall through the cracks of the health-care system.”

Work Climate

What is strikingly apparent at Bodywise Wellness is a pervasive commitment to continuous learning. Mentoring runs through the clinic’s veins. There is an expectation that every therapist will work to become more knowledgeable. That is the spine, the unity of purpose that distinguishes this clinic. Employees say that Bodywise Wellness is a place where learning is not only valued, but expected. That focus on education ensures that the clinic’s therapists can address the needs for each unique client. Says one employee: “Our leader fosters an atmosphere of continuing growth.”
Davidson is centrally responsible for creating this climate. She sets the tone by staying up to date on research, handling a significant client load, providing frequent voluntary evening instruction, and being available for quick consults when a fellow therapist is presented with a perplexing fresh challenge. When queried about how she became so knowledgeable, Davidson says, “I learn a little bit from every single client I treat.”
Her fellow therapists appreciate these qualities. “I like to be around people who are motivated, inspirational, and high energy … and that’s our leader,” Collins says. Taylor adds, “She also constantly tells us how appreciative she is of our being here. It is wonderful to work at a place where gratitude is expressed for your work.”
Another important aspect of the Bodywise Wellness climate is a unified sense of service, both to individual clients and to the community. As Biasucci says, “We are here for reasons beyond ourselves.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Bodywise Wellness has very little in the way of formal approaches to team building or conscious work climate improvement mechanisms—just two company social occasions a year, no regular staff meetings, and informal rather than highly structured performance reviews. Surveying of customers is limited to first-time customers; they are sent a postcard seeking feedback three days after their initial session.
Yet, the clinic staff displays obvious closeness and frequent professional interaction that, as Biasucci says, “adds to the appeal of being here.” Taylor adds, “A lot of counseling and offering of second opinions goes on in the break room.”
What also comes through is strength of numbers and diversity. The kind of career fulfillment and stimulation offered by Bodywise Wellness is harder to find in solo practice. Somewhat typically, Nancy Albertson describes her initial reasons for joining Bodywise Wellness as, “I was attracted to come to work here because of the more complex problem-solving challenges offered by this clinic.” Once there, she and others come to prize how much they learn from colleague interactions. “I am really grateful I ended up here,” says Montgomery. “My advice to others: don’t be afraid to leave an unsatisfying or limiting massage therapy work environment.”

Community Relations

Davidson has an appreciation that clinic success is dependent on a thriving, economically healthy, and visually and aurally stimulating community. After all, few people in a dying community feel they can afford massage therapy. Efforts by Davidson and numerous other caring citizens have helped keep Bodywise Wellness’s hometown vital, inclusive, and optimistic. Massage therapy, still newer in acceptance than many other health disciplines, also needs community exposure and explanation. Civic engagement opens doors to educate citizens about massage.
Davidson has consistently embraced such opportunities for community engagement over two decades. She seizes every chance to educate about the benefits therapeutic massage can provide. She is careful in each presentation to acknowledge what she does and does not know about the benefits of massage.
Neither is she shy about saying, “Our clinic has saved the community’s health-care system hundreds of thousands of dollars—through solutions performed at reasonable cost in our clinic setting, avoiding hospitals and surgery costs for dealing in an alternative way with soft-tissue injuries. If massage therapy is going to have an enduring impact, it will be based on economics. When economic benefits become recognized, respect for the work of individual therapists can follow.”
Bodywise Wellness also performs its full share of support for community institutions, especially those engaged in artistic and scientific endeavors, whose activities may seem less directly connected to clinic success but support a vibrant community. Bodywise Wellness employees notice. “In this community, I feel proud of the work we do,” Montgomery says.

The Product

Word-of-mouth recommendations from Bodywise Wellness’s 8,000-strong loyal client base permit a modest advertising budget, while keeping bookings full. Typically, there are no openings for prospective clients calling in hoping to schedule a same-day massage session.
Clinic fees are reasonable, especially considering the quality of assessment and therapeutic work provided. Sessions range from 30 to 90 minutes. For a 60-minute session, clients pay $65 for work with a therapist still progressing toward full certification, and $70 for a certified therapist. Tipping is neither encouraged nor discouraged; many customers do tip and 100 percent of tips go to the therapist who provided the work.
Bodywise Wellness has a compensation structure that therapists describe as generous and fair. “People here make a good living. I net roughly double what I did in private practice,” Montgomery says. “I feel well compensated for what I do,” Taylor says. In 2017, total pay (including tips) for the five therapists working the most complete schedules averaged $48,250 for their clinic work. Therapists still working toward full certification earn $36 per hour-long session, and fully certified therapists (a majority) earn $42.
The only drawback to this pretty picture of scheduling flexibility and generous pay is a thin array of fringe benefits. The primary offering by the company is a Section 125 cafeteria plan that enables pretax treatment of qualified expenditures for health and welfare of employees and their family members.
Despite these thin benefits, typical of most massage therapy organizations, the many positive elements Bodywise Wellness provides its therapists has led to stunningly modest therapist turnover—merely 7 percent a year from 2014 through 2017.
In 2017, Bodywise Wellness generated approximately $900,000 in revenue. As a corporation solely owned by its leader, looking at an income statement line labeled “profit” may not be meaningful without also considering how much in salary the owner draws. At Bodywise Wellness, the owner has elected to take a quite reasonable five-figure salary commensurate with the leadership responsibilities shouldered. She also earns compensation for client work she performs.
Integrating these compensation, facilities, and session-pricing decisions, Bodywise Wellness earns approximately 5 percent profit before tax. That result is highly respectable. The company’s/owner’s earnings level has been highly consistent, including right through the 2008–2010 recession and the subsequent arrival of national competition.
It is obvious that the driving force is not owner profit maximization. Rather it is to provide a good living for loyal therapists, to keep services affordable for community clients with varying incomes, and to contribute toward improving the massage therapy profession. Ask Davidson about economic success and you are unlikely to get an economic answer. “What drives success is passion and commitment to service,” she says. There is considerable honor in this model. No wonder Bodywise Wellness employees display considerable pride about their contributions and choose to stay.
What resonates above all at Bodywise Wellness is authenticity. Honesty in describing the benefits and limitations of the work performed. Genuine respect for learning and the valued contributions of each employed therapist. Fair compensation. Collegiality and support. Individual client attention coupled with intentional work to address pain. Living the talk. Appreciating the community in which work is being performed. It is a model from which each of us can learn.


This clinic operates in a modest-sized metropolitan area in the American heartland. It is a community with a relatively stable economic base and mostly reasonable living costs.
Why feature it? Both the clinic owner and I desired to illustrate what is possible and to encourage others to create similar establishments. While many massage therapists derive satisfaction from individual practice, work in a chiropractic or physical therapy office, or affiliation with a national franchise organization, those are not the only career choices within the massage therapy profession.
We hope graduating therapists will look more broadly into career options. For those readers already on a conventional path, might you summon the courage to consider a different model? This profession could use more Natalie Davidsons. She and I both would be exceptionally pleased to see individuals with an entrepreneurial spark, a passion to teach, a drive to help address client pain, and a desire to lead to consider forming their own clinic—modeling important aspects of Bodywise Wellness. Such an enterprise, incorporating an atmosphere of respect and collegiality, can be immensely rewarding for a founder and a team of therapists alike. Most important, such an enterprise offers immense benefits for clients in need of improved body health.

Behind the Scenes

• The main clinic is open 71 hours a week.
• 15-minute breaks are scheduled between client sessions.
• The front-desk role is pivotal, handling all scheduling and client payments; the primary front-desk person has been with the clinic for over 20 years and has built wonderful rapport with clients.
• Therapists enjoy almost complete scheduling flexibility.
• Approximately 50 percent of appointments are made by phone, 10 percent online, and 40 percent at the front desk while a client is paying for a just-completed session.
• There are 22 people on the payroll, 19 of whom perform massage therapy.
• The clinic provides all linens and lotions; sheets are laundered on site.

Of note, treatment rooms are generously sized: most are 10 feet wide by 12 feet deep, with ceilings 9.5 feet high. Each of the veteran therapists has their own primary room with an allowance to choose wall coverings and décor. The resulting personalized rooms still look professional, but also reflect warmth and individual personality.
Supplementing the main clinic are three small satellite programs. These programs feed entrepreneurial appetites ingrained in several therapists. In essence, Bodywise Wellness is providing an opportunity for several of their therapists to create a new business under the protective umbrella of the mother ship.

Bob Benson is chairman of Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.