Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in mental wellness but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Erica Murphy, Founder of The Way Forward Therapy, located in New Orleans, LA, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
My business, The Way Forward Therapy, provides 1-1 therapeutic services to adults struggling with anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. The majority of my clients come to me because they're struggling with things like overthinking, worrying, self-consciousness, work stress, relationship anxiety, perfectionism, people pleasing, poor boundaries, low self-esteem, emotional overwhelm, and exhaustion from burnout. My goal is to help them learn how to quiet their harsh inner critic, rebuild trust in their instincts, and move forward in their lives with a renewed sense of confidence, ease, and joy.
Tell us about yourself
To be honest, it was never my intention to become a business owner. But then COVID happened, and there's nothing quite like the trauma of a global pandemic to force a perspective shift. I think most of us can agree that COVID forced us to analyze what we truly care about and stand for. Who and what matters most to us. And how we want to be living our lives. At that time, I was working a 60-hour work week, managing others in a high-stress environment, and working within a nonprofit system that continued to oppress, disenfranchise, and monetize the very people it claimed to be helping. And I realized that I couldn't do it anymore.
What's more, I didn't want to. And while I knew I'd identified what I didn't want for myself, I hadn't yet figured out what I did want. The idea of choosing a different avenue when it came to my job felt vague and slippery, and I struggled to find a new path forward through the murkiness. During this time, I had multiple people suggest that I start my own therapy practice. This was a suggestion I almost viscerally rejected as out of hand. I had an idea in my head of what a private practice therapist, and a business owner, were like. And in my mind, I didn't line up with that idea at all. I had no business or marketing background, had just discovered I have ADHD and hadn't yet figured out how to effectively work with my neurodivergent brain, and had recently cleaned out my savings, making a cross-country move from New York City to my hometown of New Orleans - so it wasn't like I had financial padding to support me if things went south. Oh, and I was emotionally exhausted and drained from the global trauma we were all enduring. You know, the usual. Not exactly an ideal time to start getting all laissez-faire about the privilege of a consistent paycheck.
I found myself asking questions like, is now really when I want to take the risk of giving up a stable job with benefits? Or What happens if I don't get enough clients to support myself? Or, oh God, what happens if I don't get any clients at all?? But eventually, I came to realize that it was becoming psychologically painful for me to continue working for other people and their agendas. I was getting to the point where I could no longer stomach the toxicity or incompetency. And I knew I had to make a choice. So I chose to leave. But I didn't do it all at once. I did it in increments.
I started my therapy practice while I was still working full-time at my New York-based job. I began by taking on just a handful of clients, allowing myself to get my feet wet and work out the kinks of wearing the dual hats of a brand new business owner and therapist. And eventually, when I got word that managers were expected to return on-site to work - I told them I wouldn't be one of the managers returning. I went full-time with my therapy practice, The Way Forward Therapy, and it's one of the decisions I'm most proud of. I founded The Way Forward because I wanted to provide my skillset in a way that felt true and honest to me. One that aligned with my values and beliefs and allowed me to feel a sense of pride and integrity at the end of each day. I also wanted to provide a type of therapy that broke many of the white, patriarchal, and capitalistic norms that had been imbued into the western notion of psychology.
Most of those norms resulted in therapists who presented like robots - calm, emotionless, and rigidly formal. I didn't want to hide my humanity behind a mask of objectivity and formality that denies the very essence of what it means to be a person, flaws and all. Instead, I wanted to embrace the human parts. Especially the parts that previously would have been labeled as flaws to be fixed. I truly believe our humanity and the connection it provides is how we do the work of therapy. And that belief is what keeps me coming back each day.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Being able to run a values-led company that allows me to provide services that are in alignment with who I am as a person. It can be really difficult to find a balance between being a business owner and looking at the bottom line of profitability - while simultaneously also being a healthcare provider engaging in mission-oriented service. I think there's often this narrative in the service-oriented business arena that you have to choose between ethics and money. It's so internalized in the therapy field specifically that we're not allowed to make decent money. If we are, we're somehow betraying our values or our clients. But unfortunately, what I've seen is that the recipe of "take as many clients as you can, whenever or however they need you" + "charge them as little as possible" often results in therapists and mental health workers burning out from the overwhelm of years spent serving too many clients while not making enough income. And before they burn out enough to actually step away (IF they step away), that interim time sees a significant dip in the quality of service provided to the clients. I realized that one of the most effective things I could do for my clients was to care for myself, be honest about the value I bring to the table, and then monetize it accordingly. This has proven to be a successful strategy that I believe will provide for a long-term sustainable business model that can only grow from here. I am extremely proud of the fact that I can lead a heart-based business that puts its clients at the forefront while also allowing me to be financially successful. I love my life, I love my business, and I love the clients I get to work with. I can't think of any bigger accomplishment than that.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Ironically, the hardest thing is also the best thing: being your own boss. On the plus side, you get an astounding amount of freedom and autonomy to do things in the way that feels right for you. On the downside, it requires an immense amount of discipline, clarity, focus, and adaptability. You have to know exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what you want. You have to be constantly orienting and reorienting yourself back to your North Star - whatever is guiding you to your eventual destination and goals for the business. All while simultaneously being able to discern when you need to detach, pivot, and adapt to a brand new plan or strategy that's going to get you better results. It's a constant balance of knowing when to stay the course and persist - versus recognizing when you're trying to force something and that instead, what you need is to cut your losses and adapt. In short: being a business owner requires constant evaluation and discretion, which is an immense amount of cognitive labor and mental energy. When you have a boss, they provide you with your agenda. You know what you need to accomplish, how, and when. And when you're done with one task, you move on to the next. You know that your paycheck is coming in regardless so long as you do your work. There is a formal "input work = receive a paycheck." But when you're a business owner, there's no guarantee that the work you do will have a return. For example, you could spend months working on an online course - and when you launch it, you get 0 customers and $0 (which may or may not be a hypothetical situation I can relate to...). But that's the risk of being an entrepreneur. You're constantly taking the risk of investing your time, money, and energy into tasks and things that may or may not pay off. You can't know for sure. You just have to take the leap, trust your instincts, and be ready to get back up if it doesn't pan out.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Find your Expanders. An expander is someone who lives, thinks, and behaves in a way that expands what you believe to be possible for yourself. Expanders can be anybody - mentors, therapists, bosses, coaches, friends, family, etc. When I started my business, the first thing I invested in was brand consultation. My coach was an immediate expander for me because she helped me to see what was possible for myself at a point in time when I was too overwhelmed to see it for myself. Not only do expanders help you continue growing and adapting (which is crucial for any business), but they also provide a great shot of motivation and inspiration to keep you going.
- Reflection Time. A really important part of starting, running, and growing a business is prioritizing time to actually sit and think about the business. What's working effectively? What are the gap areas? How could things be more streamlined? Are there any pieces that need to be cut out? So many people avoid this reflection time because taking time to process doesn't feel like a tangible investment and because they've never been taught how to actually utilize the time productively. But reflection time is one of the most important and impactful things you can do for your business and for yourself. Without reflection time, you're just reacting all the time rather than being intentional about what you're creating, where you're headed, and whether or not it's working.
- Take Breaks. Do you know that feeling of frenetic, overwhelmed feeling you get when you have a million things to do all at the same time? Yeah, that's a surefire sign that you need a break (and also reflection time - see #2 on this list!). It may sound counterintuitive to step away right when you feel like you need to be doing more. But that sense of internal urgency is exactly the reason why the most effective thing you could do is to simply pause. When we are operating from a space of chaotic reactivity, we are not thinking clearly or intentionally about where our time, energy, and efforts are being focused - which results in a LOT of wasted time, energy, and effort! So whether it's a small break like taking 20 minutes to sip a hot beverage and then re-establishing your focus list for the day before doing anything else, or a large break like taking a vacation and shutting work out completely - breaks are required for us to be at optimal capacity. Humans are like computers in this way. If you run 24/7 without giving yourself time to charge, you will eventually crash. And before you crash, your performance will significantly suffer on the way down. Breaks are not a luxury; they are a necessity.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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