Doula work and business work are very different skills. Sometimes the same person has talent in both, but often those who have natural inclination for the nurturing of doula work struggle with making it a sustainable business. Since the DONA training provides little, if any, business advice, and the organization that does do business advice, ProDoula, is too cutthroat for many doulas tastes, it leaves many doulas figuring it out by trial and error. I’d like to help you avoid some of the common business mistakes I’ve seen new doulas make:
1. Selling the concept of doulas instead of selling yourself as a doula. I see this one all the time! By the time a prospective client hits an individual doula’s web site, they already know what a doula is. They already are somewhat familiar with the benefits of a doula. They probably already know they want a doula. They’re looking for *which doula to hire* at that point. So don’t make your marketing materials be convincing someone to hire a doula, convince them to hire YOU.
2. Not focusing on a specific target market I know, I know. You’re willing to help any mom who wants to hire you. Remember that having a target market does not mean you can ONLY work in that target market. It’s a means of focusing your marketing time and budget on a specific group you’d like to work with more often. Maybe that’s moms who live near you. Maybe that’s moms who share your interest in the outdoors. Maybe it’s moms who have had a cesarean before and are planning a VBAC. Specializing and having a target market will make you very appealing to that target market. Chances are you don’t have time and money to effectively reach every single pregnant person around you. How can you best reach those you would love to work with?
3. Not creating a great web site I’m amazed at how many web sites I see that are missing critical information – things like the doula’s name and location! And many new doulas start out with a site on a freebie place like Wix or Weebly that makes it impossible to be well ranked. You can get your own site up and running for about $60 and a couple hours of work. Participants of Utah Doulas in Training get free guidance in setting up their site. The internet is the #1 place that people go to find a doula. Make darn sure that your site makes you look good and connects you with parents looking for a doula.
4. Taking births far away I see doulas all the time who live places like Springville but list themselves as taking clients in Cache County. That’s a good 3 hour drive *each way* in good weather! Might not be possible at all in a blizzard. It is a lot of time and gas. The odds of missing a birth that far away are pretty high. Not to mention that drive home can be very unsafe if you’ve lost sleep for the birth. Refer out, and doulas too far away to come to your area are likely to make referrals to you.
5. Being desperate for clients It saddens me to see new doulas online underbidding each other when someone posts they are looking for a doula. Or who say things like “I’m trying to start a doula business and really need clients, so I’ll do it for free!” If you don’t value yourself, no one will. If you do value yourself, others will see you as having value as well. I’ve also heard from new doulas who have fallen for sob stories about how poor the parents are and how they have no money for a doula, only to find the parents have hired and interior decorator and bought a $3000 crib.
6. Not knowing how to price I recently polled a bunch of local doulas and asked them how much it cost them out of pocket to attend a birth. I noticed a trend: The busier, successful doulas were able to immediately share a number. The doulas who were struggling answered with “I’m not sure.” or “I’ve never tallied it up.” The very first thing to do when running a business is to know what it costs and charge more than that. Add up all the costs, and you’ll be surprised at what you didn’t realize you were spending!
7. Mingling business funds and personal funds Along the same lines, I strongly encourage all new doulas to open up a bank account just for their business. Having all business income and expenses come in and out of that account can be shockingly eye opening. I often hear doulas say “I can’t do that, I’d run out of money in the business account.” Yep. Exactly. You should be running your business with at least a little cushion to keep the account open.
8. Not having backup, reliable childcare, or transportation I see the posts on Facebook often. “HELP! I have a client in labor and my mom is out of town and no one to take my kids! I need someone to do this birth for me!” – Sometimes I see those posts when I get up in the morning and they have been up several hours – when everyone is asleep or already at a birth! Have a backup doula arranged ahead of time, have backups for child care, and have good, reliable transportation 24/7. On a few occasions in my doula career, I’ve had to rent a car when mine was broken down and I had a client due. It painfully cut into my profit for that birth, but I needed to be able to go. (Tip – locals can get a cheaper rental if you rent away from the airport, and tell them that you’re having a car repaired and they can cut out the tourist part of the taxes, too!)
9. Thinking “I’m not in it for the money” Doulas have caring hearts. It’s what brings us to this career. And initially, we think that the warm fuzzies are enough to keep us going in this job. Unfortunately, that can’t last forever. Doulas find that their partners have little tolerance for the hours and demands of doula work at the hobby level. This is especially true if the family is financially supporting the work. Sometimes doulas find that their life circumstances change and their families suddenly DO need income from their work. I’ve seen it happen to a few local doulas over the years. Divorce, car accidents, etc. can make things change on a dime. Another thing to consider is that all women who are doing doula work should be able to earn an income for their work. Rich women undercutting those who need to earn creates a situation where only the rich can be doulas. If you set out to empower women through your doula work, remember that your actions can hurt the women who are doulas as well.
10. Trying to be all things to all people A friend who is an IBCLC has expressed frustration to me that too many doulas try to help their clients with breastfeeding when they don’t know what they are doing. This has postponed the parents getting help and made things far more difficult for the mom. Some new doulas will tack on childbirth education as extra prenatals, and have no training or expertise in childbirth education. Doulas will post on Facebook looking for solutions to their clients’ medical issues. While it’s nice to feel like the expert, it’s far better to remember your scope and make appropriate referrals. If your client has a medical issue, encourage her to talk to her care provider and help her brainstorm an approach and a list of questions. Better to make an appropriate referral than to fall flat or make things worse in an area where you have no expertise. I find that when I make appropriate referrals, my clients are happy with the results and those referrals tend to come back to me from other professionals.