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Starting a Massage Business

Massage Therapy Jobs: Chains vs Your Own Practice

massage business Dec 15, 2023

Right after massage school, I went looking for my first job and found a position at a salon in the Reston, VA area. My employment terms were simple: 10% off the top, and then a 60/40 split on the rest, and I kept my tips. Just for a quick reference point, that meant I was making about $38 for each 50 minute massage, plus tip.

I was self-employed, but had a problem: my self-employment looked and felt an awful lot like working for a boss.

In 2003 I met my husband-to-be, who was a marketing manager for a big web services company.

It didn't take long before he started asking lots of pointy questions:

  • What does the 10% fee pay for?
  • Who owns your client records?
  • What are the day and time limits for room access?
  • Are you allowed to market yourself using the Spa's name?
  • How is your income reported on your taxes?
  • What is the most money you can make at your desired work schedule?

The answers won't surprise you. And it didn't take long for me to want to make better answers for myself.

By 2005, I had my own practice with 4 treatment rooms and a dozen massage therapists who worked for me, and who enjoyed doing it.

The Challenge With Massage Business Types

Unless you're working for a chain like Massage ***y, you're probably self employed. But there are a million ways to be self employed and a million ways to get paid as a massage therapist. Like my early career, you can do a split. But you could also rent a room for a flat fee every month. And there are plenty of ways to organize booking and scheduling that still fit the self-employed model, but many are dangerously close to working for someone else…working for a wage.

So for our purposes here, we're going to compare owning your own practice to working as an employee for a chain.

Each path comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, ranging from income considerations to work-life balance, the autonomy of being your own boss, and the potential for long-term success.

Let's dive in and do some serious reflection…

Massage Income Comparisons

When it comes to income, there are noticeable differences between working for a massage chain and running your own practice. Massage chains usually offer a stable paycheck with a fixed hourly wage or a set commission for each session. A steady (stable) income may be really important, especially straight out of school, when you won't have a book of clients.

Not worrying about the fluctuation of client bookings is a big plus.

But - and this is a big BUT - this fixed structure might limit your potential to make more money, especially if the chain imposes a commission cap, which they often do.

On the other hand, owning your own massage practice opens the door to greater income potential. As the sole proprietor, you set your rates and retain all earnings after covering expenses. This gives you the opportunity to command higher prices based on your skills and experience, potentially leading to more substantial financial gains over time.

However, the onus of attracting and retaining clients falls squarely on your shoulders, and it may take time to build a steady clientele that supports the income you desire. You will need to develop some new skills:

  • Massage Advertising
  • Social media marketing
  • Business skills (all the real stuff they don't teach you in massage school)
  • Website design
  • Appointment system integration
  • All kinds of business decisions

You're going to have to learn these things to feed the revenue machine that is your business. Make no mistake, there is a lot to it, and you'll have to maintain some drive especially in the first 6-12 months when you're getting started.

Case in point: For my first year, I was bringing sheets home with me every day. Just think about that for a minute… Every day I had two duffle bags full of used sheets that I brought home, put through the wash, and then brought back to my space. It never ended. I finally broke down and got a service. Looking back I still can't believe I did that. Maybe it was subliminal preparation for having three kids!

Work Life Balance as a Massage Therapist

This is a big one. Achieving a healthy work-life balance is a concern for every professional. I feel like Massage Therapists - even more than most other health care workers - have a strong pull toward wanting to heal. This translates to inward healing, not just for our clients. Every single Massage Therapist I know focuses intensely on self care. Work-life balance is one of the reasons massage therapy attracts the type of people it attracts.

It's a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Working for a massage chain often comes with more predictable hours and a set schedule. This is great for people who prioritize stability and routine in their lives. And a huge positive, is that massage chains usually handle administrative tasks like scheduling, massage practice marketing, and customer inquiries, allowing your to focus solely on your craft, and only during working hours.

In contrast, running your own massage practice demands a higher level of commitment and flexibility. Sure you have the freedom to create a schedule you like, but you're also responsible for all aspects of the business, from booking appointments to marketing strategies.

The ratio of running my business to actually working on clients is about 50/50 for me.

The autonomy from your own practices blurs the lines between work and personal life. You may find yourself sitting on the couch at home working on many evenings. Client outreach, payroll, dealing with your landlord, and on and on.

Striking a balance becomes crucial to avoid burnout and maintain a fulfilling personal life.

Being Your Own Boss vs. Working for an Employer

I learned in the first month of having my own practice that it is much harder to face yourself after a lousy job than to face a boss. Way harder. This really took me by surprise.

For this reason, owning your own practice really does come down to personality type. 
**If you have trouble with self reflection and motivation or drive, owning your own practice may not be the right choice.**

Massage chains provide a structured environment where most decisions are made - and implemented - by someone else. This alleviates some of the pressure of business management and decision-making. It allows you to focus solely on being a therapist.

However, this structure might limit your creativity and personalization, as chains often have standardized protocols that you're required to follow.

Owning your own massage practice grants you the authority, actually the responsibility, to shape every aspect of your business. From the ambiance of the treatment room to the choice of massage techniques, you have the creative freedom to create a unique experience for your clients.

Moreover, being your own boss means that you have the ability to implement changes and adapt strategies quickly without going through layers of corporate hierarchy.

Long-Term Success

Both paths have their pros and cons. Working for a massage chain can provide a stable income and benefits, making it an attractive option if you're after stability and fewer responsibilities. But the growth ceiling is lower compared to owning your practice, as chains often have a predefined career ladder with limited room for advancement.

Owning a massage practice offers the opportunity to build a legacy and create a brand that is uniquely yours. With dedication and a strong marketing strategy, you can build a loyal clientele that sustains your practice for years to come. However, this path requires continuous efforts to adapt to industry trends, maintain client relationships, and manage the challenges that come with entrepreneurship.


Twenty years after I started my journey as a massage therapist, I have a wellness center with 8 treatment room, and have a variety of other therapists working with and for me. So I have made my decision.

The choice between working for a massage chain and establishing your own practice boils down to your personal preferences and career aspirations. While working for a chain offers stability and a supportive team environment, owning your practice grants you the freedom to shape your business according to your vision and potentially earn higher income.

Both paths have their own set of challenges and rewards, and ultimately, the decision should align with your long-term goals, values, and willingness to embrace either the structure of a chain or the autonomy of entrepreneurship.

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