After a long business career, and many years working in her father’s company, Shirl wanted to strike out on her own. The memory of one amazing massage led her back to school and to opening her own private massage studio, where she loves to relieve her clients of pain and stress.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Newark, Delaware with an entrepreneurial father, who owned his own company in the sound production business. He raised a family through the thick and thin of developing his business, in the days when mothers stayed home to take care of their children. Being the oldest of three children, I was destined to work for my father at an early age. I was told that I could babysit or work for him to earn money, and chose the latter; this gave me a chance to spend time with him, since he worked a lot of nights given the nature of his business.
Working in my dad’s company, I found music and performance exciting, and decided to pursue music education in college at the University of Delaware. But after graduation, instead of finding a job in the schools, I decided to accept my father’s offer for a full time job.
Fast-forward through a marriage, two children, and a few moves, I was always looking for entrepreneurial opportunities. I worked for Princess House Crystal, Mary Kay Cosmetics, launched a cleaning service, and took some odd jobs as a secretary. A change of marital status took me back to my home state of Delaware and reaching out to my father for work again. He gladly took me back as an employee. At the time, in 1992, I was in my late 30s and raising two boys on my own.
When did you decide you needed to make a change?
Since this was a small family business, the daughter of the owner was an interesting position to be in. One drawback was that my father was always in charge (which I now understand) and I was always feeling like the child. After coming home very upset from work for years, I decided it was time to plan a move that would allow me to just have my father be “a father” and not a boss. My dad was aware that I was going back to school for massage therapy, but I’m not sure he realized that I’d eventually leave his employment.
That decision to look for another job was not easy to make since I was a single parent who needed a full time income. What gave me the confidence to do this? It was a book my son gave me called Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch. Although this book may be controversial in the Christian faith, it enabled me to think about my next act in life.
What is your next act?
I am the owner of Body, Mind & Spirit Massage Therapy, a full-service private massage therapy studio located in Newark, Delaware. We offer a range of services including Swedish, Deep Tissue, Pregnancy, Infant, Orthopedic/Sports massage, Reflexology, and other body treatments to provide our clients with complete relaxation every time they enter this private studio.
My clients range in age from college students (a few younger) to 90 year olds. Many tend to start thinking about their health and the benefits of regular massage therapy in their 40s, therefore the nucleus of my practice are clients in their 50s and 60s. The majority of my clients are professionals who are often stuck behind a computer for eight or more hours a day. This can lead to a variety of ailments and physical issues, along with coping with work stress. Neck, shoulders, and back are the prime candidates for massage work.
I enjoy the fact that I can customize my massage sessions to meet the needs of my clients each and every time I see them. I use all the “tools in my toolbox,” so to speak, rather than concentrating on only one type of massage technique for my business. The main reason for this is because every person’s body is unique in how it responds to massage work. Therefore, I feel a multi-disciplinary approach is the best way to work with my clients.
I make new clients feel comfortable, with my knowledge and in my space, and take a personal approach by listening to their needs that day. The best part about my work is seeing the difference in the temperament of my clients from the time they walk into my room, often in pain, to the time they leave, with a smile on their face. It is amazing how reducing stress and pain can change a person’s outlook on life.
Why did you choose to become a massage therapist?
Figuring out something else that could support me and my children was the most difficult part. I needed to find a rewarding job that required a minimal investment of time and money, while I continued to work full time (at least for a while). The first thing I thought about was my music education degree I had received over 20 years ago, but I soon realized that it would take too long for me to get my teaching certificate. Besides, I wasn’t thrilled about starting a teaching career at this point in my life.
Next, a nursing career came to mind since I liked the idea of helping people feel good, but that would require 4+ years of schooling while I worked full time—not feasible! All of a sudden, I thought about how I had felt after receiving my one and only massage, a surprise Valentine’s Day gift from a boyfriend in my past. I don’t remember the therapist’s name, but it happened to be at a personal studio in the therapist’s home. I also remember the feeling of human hands expertly sending me into a dream state of complete relaxation. I decided to figure out how I could do that for other people.
How did you get started toward your new goal?
My first step was to investigate massage schools to determine if the time and cost were feasible. I found that I could go to massage school for one year, at night and on weekends, and become a licensed massage therapist.
I started by looking for massage schools in the Yellow Pages—yes, I am from that era. At the time there were only a few choices in my vicinity; I went to open houses for two schools conveniently located nearby. I tried a chair massage at one school and later attended a student clinic to receive a discounted table massage. I ended up attending the Delaware School of Shiatsu and Massage Therapy, which has closed since then.
I wish I had consulted established massage therapists prior to choosing the school and feel that I ended up being a successful massage therapist in spite of the shortcomings of the educational approach at that school. While the teaching skills of the instructors could have been better, most of the shortcomings came from the owner who lacked professional business and organizational skills. Sometimes the teachers wouldn’t show up or were ill prepared. The owner herself was trained more in the Eastern (Asian) methods of Shiatsu and was good at her craft but didn’t have very good teaching skills. Also she didn’t seem to know how to run a business from a monetary end, which I believe was the reason the school eventually closed.
I would like to believe that the business skills I received through my father’s company had a lot to do with my success. Thanks Dad, and may you Rest in Peace since you left this Earth in 2014.
In September 2000, at the age of 45, I took the leap and started the yearlong process of becoming a licensed massage therapist. The school was independently owned, with very small classes. There were only three students in my specific program of bodywork, which involved deep tissue techniques—one ended up dropping out, so only two of us graduated. Everyone in my class was over 40 and was pursuing some sort of second career, therefore I fit in comfortably.
The program lasted a year and consisted of Anatomy, Physiology, hands-on technique work, and clinical sessions, together totaling 600 hours.
Studying science was new for me. The most challenging part was the Anatomy section; the brain definitely functions slower with age. At the same time, the subject matter was truly exciting. Later in my career I had the opportunity to do a full body dissection, which was the icing on the cake for me. Seeing everything under the skin in person can’t compare to the printed pictures in Anatomy class.
The hands-on work was also interesting since I wasn’t someone who automatically touched and hugged everyone around me. The fact that I was rubbing my hands on someone I just met in school felt strange and intimidating for a short while but, after trading places on the massage table during class, I started to feel at ease with my peers and my purpose. I certainly liked the fact that I not only gave a massage, but also received one, especially after working eight hours at my day job. I never wavered from my goal and eventually became used to using my hands as a tool.
As expected, the first time I had to give a full body massage, I was a little nervous about remembering the protocol. Since I have OCD tendencies, I wanted to be sure I did everything perfectly. Later, I came to the realization that the client really doesn’t know what is right or wrong as long as the therapist’s hands relay the confidence behind them. This became apparent when I was on the receiving end from fellow students. I could tell which ones had the touch of confidence and which ones didn’t.
The initial yearlong program covered the basic strokes used for relaxation and some deeper massage techniques used in Western cultures along with some beginning Shiatsu training, which is a technique that was developed in the Eastern cultures. I gravitated towards the more marketable techniques in the Western world. After graduating, I was able to build upon the basics by taking continuing education classes, such as Myofascial Release, Orthopedic Massage, Lomi Lomi (Hawaiian massage), Hot Stone massage, Bamboo Fusion, Reflexology, Infant massage, Massage Cupping, etc.
There are a few modalities in massage that require a full certification before one can legally offer them to their clients. Some of these are Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Bowen technique, and Manual Lymph Drainage. So far I have not pursued any of these for my practice. I have concentrated my studies in the orthopedic area and prefer to take my classes with the “masters in the industry,” which means I will travel a long way to take a class with a particular teacher in order to get my education from a top teacher in my field. These masters include Whitney Lowe, James Waslaski, Erik Dalton, Ralph Stephens, and John Barnes.
How hard was it to juggle work, school, and home?
At the time I began my massage training, I was raising two teenage boys alone. That was somewhat of a blessing since they could take care of themselves in many ways and there wasn’t a need for childcare. Since I have always been a person who likes to keep busy and not sit around, I didn’t feel too much of a strain managing work, school, and parenting, as long as I had a schedule to work with. I tend to be very schedule oriented and need to plan ahead.
How did you go about building your own massage practice?
Given my entrepreneurial spirit, I gravitated to opening my own private practice rather than working for someone else. But I needed to figure out a way to build my massage practice while providing for my children. So I started working with massage clients on the side while continuing to work for my father’s company, but soon realized that I would never be able to be successful in my massage venture unless I could devote more time to it.
This is where the difficult decision came into play. I needed to quit my full-time job at my father’s company and find something that was flexible and part time. As it turned out, the small family business my boyfriend Dirk Lord (now my husband) worked for needed part-time help. The job was somewhat flexible and gave me enough money to pay for my health insurance along with more time to take on additional private massage clients.
Of course, building a full-time practice takes several years. Luckily, within a few months, I found out about a steady massage gig working 15 hours a week at a local corporation. The only drawback was that I was working at sub pay through another massage company who had the contract with the corporation.
Once again, I needed to take another leap of faith to pursue this massage career full force. I quit my part-time job in order to devote myself to the massage field. I got involved in women’s business groups and started promoting myself publicly as a massage therapist, which only helped grow my passion for massage and for helping people. I was able to build my private practice to the point where I could quit working the 15 hours a week for sub pay. I was able to make just as much in 4-5 hours of private clients. Because the work is physical, it was important that I find a way to work smarter.
It took about five years for me to see the doors opening more easily; I was gaining clients with less effort marketing myself. Part of that came when I finally launched my business website, and the other part was letting my faith lead me rather than money. I found that, in addition to my website, the passion I showed when talking about my business demonstrated a confidence that resulted in attracting more clients. As soon as people found out I was a massage therapist, in most cases, the next question was, “Do you have a business card?” I must have given out thousands of business cards. I always made sure I carried them in my purse and car. In one instance, while driving, someone saw my car sign on the rear window and pulled up next to me at a red light and asked if I had a card to hand to him out the window! It pays to be ready at all times.
Now, 14 years down the road, I still have my first client and most of my long-term clients feel like family. I am so glad I was persistent in looking for my niche in the world and that I continue to enjoy making people feel good. I always look forward to seeing them again.
What advice do you have for women considering reinvention in midlife?
Do some serious soul searching and be determined in whatever you decide to do, even if you aren’t 100% sure this will be your final career. Surround yourself with positive, happy people.
Be willing to step out of your comfort zone and continue to be confident in yourself. Put yourself “out there” when striking up a conversation with someone and mention your career. Always have business cards ready, but don’t push them on everyone. Show your passion for what you are doing and most likely you will be asked if you have a business card.
Don’t let your age get in the way, as age is only a number. Have a youthful attitude toward life.
What advice do you have for those thinking about becoming massage therapists?
If you are considering a career in massage, receive at least one massage, but ideally more, so you can see what it feels like to be on the other side of the table. I would recommend that you investigate the local massage schools in your area by physically visiting them. Find out if their class schedule will work with your present situation.
Be sure the school you choose is nationally accredited, which means your diploma will be accepted for licensing in other states, if you move. Refer to the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation to find which schools are accredited.
The American Massage Therapy Association is a great professional organization I would strongly recommend joining since it is nonprofit and has chapters in each state. They provide liability insurance and also allow you to connect with other therapists in your area.
Keep your skills and license current by taking continuing education classes. For a full therapist’s license in the State of Delaware, you are required to take a minimum of 24 CEU’s (Continuing Education Units) every two years in order to renew your license.
Take care of your health. Physically, for my age (60), I am in excellent health. I attribute that to good genetics since I don’t follow a regular exercise routine. I am somewhat conscious of eating healthier foods but chocolate is my weakness. So far, I have not had any long-term physical issues from doing massage work. I got an electric lift for my table several years ago, which made a big difference in how I felt after giving many massages in a row. I can now adjust the height of the table within a massage session, as needed.
I allow 30 minutes between client sessions, time for my client to get dressed and book the next session, and time for me to get a bite to eat as needed. I usually do fairly well at a daily maximum of six massage hours in a row without a significant break, but my preference would be three massage hours in a row. Once again, having a private practice gives you the opportunity to control the flow of clients in order to meet your physical limitations.
Always practice what you preach to your clients by receiving massages yourself. You would not believe how many therapists don’t remember the last time they received a massage! I receive massages on a regular basis, every two weeks. I trade services with several colleagues of mine.
I strongly believe that other therapists are not your competition, but your allies, because you never know when you will need them to help you with your business. After being out of commission with a broken arm for five months, in 2013, those therapist friends came in handy and filled in for my clients so I could continue with my business after healing. Also, you can use those therapists to share knowledge and trade for massages.
Always be a mentor for other therapists who are starting out because, remember, you were there at one time. I still remember my first mentor, Nina, who was someone I wanted to emulate. She may not have realized she was my mentor, but what I liked was her professionalism with a private practice, her willingness to share her ideas with other therapists and to give emotional support and encouragement to therapists just starting their career.
If you are working for yourself, learn to manage your time. I decided to block schedule my clients in order to allow larger blocks of time for personal use. I work Monday through Friday, with day and evening times, and Saturday mornings. I have always kept Sundays as a day of rest from massage unless I volunteer for a special event. Having control over my schedule is the best part of being a sole proprietor. I have the flexibility of scheduling around personal appointments and commitments, such as taking time with my 94-year old mother.
Think carefully about your studio location. I am not sure if having a studio in one’s home would work for everyone and I would only recommend it if you can provide a separate professional looking space and can maintain a professional attitude from the moment a client enters your home. Also, it’s important to feel secure with how you screen clients before they arrive, in order to feel safe. I have never felt insecure with a client entering my home since I have circumvented any possible disreputable clients through a telephone conversation prior to them booking a session.
In the massage world, you will no doubt encounter clients that are not clear about what a professional, therapeutic massage is all about. As I mentioned above, I try to weed out these types of clients before encountering them in person but, once in a while, an awkward situation with a client arises. Have I ever fired a client? The answer is YES! Thank goodness nothing extreme on the physical end but rather signs and verbalizations that were leading towards wanting an unscrupulous kind of massage mainly associated with massage parlors. All in all, keeping a very professional approach in the massage room usually circumvents this behavior.
You can make a decent living being a full time massage therapist, but you may need to look for ways to supplement your income while building your practice. Luckily, the hourly rates for massage are on the higher end of the scale so a 40-hour “hands on” massage week isn’t necessary in order to receive a decent income. Besides, a 40-hour week in massage would quickly lead to physical burnout. A 20-25 hour week at $60-$70/hour could provide a full time salary, but this isn’t usually realized for a few years in a private practice since it takes a while to build a steady clientele. That is why many therapists decide to supplement their income with other work in order to receive financial security. This is where perseverance and persistence comes into play, along with excellent business skills.
I can’t emphasize enough how important business skills are to a massage therapist who wants to open a private practice. Find some business or computer courses at a local community college or an extension program at a local university geared to people who are over 50 or retired. In my state, we have a lifelong learning center associated with the University of Delaware. SCORE is a source of business advice that connects entrepreneurs with mentors to help you build your business.
Think carefully about your pricing. Initially, I determined my rates by visiting spas in the area and picking up their brochures. For the first few years, I charged different rates for different techniques, like deep tissue work and hot stone massage. I decided to change my rates to strictly charging for my time once I developed a larger arsenal of techniques through further education and could integrate them into one session. This made more sense to me, rather than having a client ask for deeper work within a session and then inform them of the additional charge.
Set expectations with family and friends. Being a massage therapist, one would think they would expect free massages. I have always told my immediate family that I would never charge them for a massage but they would need to book a time just like a paying client. So far, many of my family members haven’t taken the time to utilize this free service. As for my husband, I will admit that he doesn’t receive a significant number of massages from me, mainly due to the fact that he sees how hard I work with my clients and he feels bad asking me to do more once I am finished for the day. I leave it up to him to take the initiative to put himself on the schedule when he really wants a massage. He always receives his massage, just like my clients, in my massage office. I prefer to always keep my massage world professional no matter who is receiving a massage.
I will say that one thing I hate to hear is “I am here if you need someone to practice on,” meaning they would like a free massage. After 14 years of massage work, I don’t feel I need to practice in order to perform massage but rather perfect specific techniques. The only person I would work with in order to perfect a new technique would be another massage therapist.
You are welcome to contact me directly (see contact info below) if you want to talk more about pursuing a career in massage. My entrepreneurial father always said “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” I am so blessed to have found a career that fits that picture. I was approached by a local reporter for and article targeting various careers in our area. Here is a link if you want to find out more about my responses.
What’s next for you?
In addition to being a dedicated business owner, I am a caregiver for my elderly mother and also nurture a 10-year marriage that started when I was just turning 50. I also strive to maintain a healthy relationship with my two sons, Gabriel (33) who lives in my household and Joshua (31) who lives in Sweden, in addition to my stepson, Ryan, who lives an hour away with his wife and newborn child.
I am not sure if another full time career will be in my future but I have always had an interest in photography, so I might like to perfect that craft and possibly develop it into something that will help people preserve memories in their life and for generations to come.
Contact Shirl Lord, LMT at Shirl@bmsmassage.com or (302) 453-8151
BODY/MIND & SPIRIT MASSAGE THERAPY, LLC
1215 Janice Drive, Newark, DE 19713