From the November 2000 issue of Startups

In this 24/7 world, stress reigns. That's why there's never been a better time to become a massage therapist. All those stressed-out bods with tense muscles and jittery nerves need calming.

There are currently 145,000 massage therapists in the United States, according to Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP). And that number is on the rise. "The field has been growing exponentially for the past 15 years, and there's no sign it's slowing," says Steve Olsen, a massage therapist in Fargo, North Dakota, who is also spokesman for the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA).

Massage is now a $4 billion industry, making it an important segment of alternative health care. "More people are embracing massage as a way to maintain and improve their health," notes Steve Hirsch of Natural Healers, a resource for prospective students of alternative medicine schools based in Seattle.

That's precisely why Tara Lewis, 27, of Easton, Maryland, got into massage. "People's views of health are changing, and massage is a big part of alternative therapies," she says. Lewis, mother of a 3-year-old, opened her business last year when her daughter started preschool. "Massage is something I can work around her schedule," she explains.

Flexibility is a major draw. Not only can therapists make their own hours, but there's also a myriad of settings where they can practice: from home or from an office; through a hotel, spa, hospital or health club; and in high-traffic areas, such as airports. Darren Main, 29, a massage therapist in San Francisco, tried most settings before finding his niche, working from home. "And I don't make house calls," he says, noting the difficulty he had when he used to navigate San Francisco's notoriously steep streets with his massage table.

Scott Clark, also 29, works from an office across from a hospital in Houston. It's a setting that suits his pain-management-focused practice, one he developed in an unexpected way. On the road to becoming a chiropractor, Clark found himself attracted to massage and decided to trade back-cracking for back-rubbing. "I got an incredible reception from people immediately," he says. "They'd crawl in and then walk out happy."

Getting Started

Each state, and sometimes individual counties, has different requirements, but most areas require 500 hours of training. Tuition for massage school runs about $5,000 but can cost up to $15,000. While that might sound high, it's possible to get financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants and loans to cover the costs. Lewis, for instance, got a bank loan of $5,000 to pay for school in Baltimore.

Clark had saved up money and applied it toward his education and supplies. Then, when he decided to open an office, he got a personal bank loan for about $5,000. In the early years, Clark, who now works solo, opted to share an office with another massage therapist to keep costs down.

Fortunately, though, the startup costs for massage therapy are minimal. You'll want to get liability insurance; most massage therapists get theirs by joining organizations like the AMTA or ABMP. Rates vary, but you can expect to pay about $250 for membership per year. Aside from that, the main purchases needed are a table, linens, oils and CDs. The total investment for Main: around $1,000. For Lewis, even less. She earned money for the miscellaneous expenses by waiting tables and bartered with her mother for a massage table in exchange for massages.

Although most massage therapists do not work with chairs, which cost a minimum of $300, those who do on-site work should get one. Even Clark, who has always worked from an office, invested in a chair, a decision that paid off early in his career. "I used to drag it around with me and give people sample massages," he says. "It was a great marketing tool for my services."

Building Your Client Base

Be aware that it takes time to build a client base. "People aren't going to flock in the minute you leave massage school," says Les Sweeney, executive vice president of the ABMP. He suggests contacting everyone you know first.

You should also approach doctors and other professionals in the area. Main sent letters to local doctors, offering them a quick, free massage so they could test out his services. Today, much of his work comes from physician referrals.

Advertising, particularly targeted ads, also work well. Main, for instance, reached out to the gay community in San Francisco. "I advertised in the gay papers, saying I worked with people with HIV," he notes.

Clark uses postcards to get his name out there. "I found that business dropped off when I wasn't sending postcards," he says. "It costs pennies to send them, and I get a big return from the investment."

Figuring Out the Rates

You'll make the most money when you work for yourself. However, that's not the most secure route. That's why many massage therapists fresh out of school start by working for spas, health clubs and hotels that already have built-in client bases. But you pay for that security: Establishments will typically take a cut of 30 to 50 percent.

The typical rate for massage is $40 to $60 an hour. One way to build a client base quickly is to charge less than the going rate when you're first starting out. Main, for example, charged $35 per hour at first and worked his way up to his current rate of $60.

If you multiply $50 or $60 by eight hours a day, times five days a week, the income potential looks good--real good. But that's not how massage works. "Nobody does 40 hours or they'll burn out. It's physically demanding work," explains Sweeney. "Full time is generally 15 to 20 client contact hours per week."

Besides, there are plenty of other things massage therapists need to tend to. "I do massage for about 15 hours a week, but I really work 50 hours a week," says Clark, noting the "hidden" chores like finances, paperwork and washing linens that take up the bulk of his week.

Scared that you might charge too little--or too much? Check out The Price is Right for info on how to get your prices right on track.

The Purpose of Massage Therapists

Massage therapists are all too aware of their counterparts in the sex trade. One way to head off any misconceptions about the kinds of services you provide is to be upfront on the phone. "If I suspect the caller is looking for something other than what I do, I ask if their doctor knows they're coming for massage and ask what they hope to get out of it," Main says. "The questions screen them out."

Another tactic is to work only with referrals, as Lewis does. "I pretty much know everyone who calls," she says, "and they know what I do."

In the end, the bottom line is that massage therapists are there to make lives easier. If that appeals to you and you're not looking for big bucks--the income typically ranges from $20,000 to $100,000--then massage therapy might be for you. "You have to want to touch people on a deep level," Main says. "You're not going to get rich doing this, but you'll make a living helping people and having a great time."

Brain Food

Work It Out

If you thought massage was just massage, think again. According to ABMP, there are 156 different types of established bodywork techniques. Here are 10 of the most popular:

  • Accupressure
  • Ayurvedic
  • Deep Tissue
  • Hellerwork
  • Myofascial Release
  • Rolfing R
  • Reflexology
  • Shiatsu
  • Soma
  • Swedish

If she had her druthers, Andrea C. Poe, a freelance business writer, would spend more time on the massage table and less at the keyboard.