Now The Practice Is So Successful, She May Hire An Employee

This article is brought to you in partnership with Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute.

OWNER
Michelle Castor, 34

BUSINESS
Agua y Sangre Healing, a therapeutic wellness studio, specializing in massage therapy, self care and relaxation, pre and post-natal massage and herbal remedies.

LAUNCHED IN
2013

FULL TIME?
Yes

FUNDING
Self-funded initially when her business was part time. To go full time, Michelle took a microloan from RMMFI after she completed the organization’s Business Launch Boot Camp program. (Read more about that in our conversation with one of the Boot Camp creators.)

BEFORE BEING AN OWNER:
Michelle earned a degree in psychology from the University of Kansas. She moved to Denver after graduation and worked in a residential treatment facility for troubled teens. Other jobs included working as a bilingual paraprofessional and a substitute elementary school teacher in Denver Public Schools and a family services worker at a Head Start preschool program. She supervised kids at an after school program and was a private nanny. She also worked for the 2010 Census and spent a summer working on an organic farm in Alaska.

HOW IT ALL STARTED
Michelle is the oldest of four kids and says she was always the family caregiver. But none of her jobs in the psychology field were as fulfilling as she hoped they would be. Looking for a hobby, she happened on an herbal class Denver’s Botanic Gardens that highlighted the medicinal properties of different plants.

Not only did she love the subject, but she met several people she said “really meshed with my values.” She then got connected with an herbal healer and massage therapist who introduced her to touch therapy.

She was so inspired she enrolled in the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado and launched Agua y Sangre just a few weeks after graduating.

HOW SHE DID — AND DIDN’T — SPEND HER MONEY
Michelle was working five different part-time jobs when she started her business, so she lived off those paychecks and considered any money coming in from massage “a bonus.” The first treatment space she rented with a wellness collective was beautiful, she said, but the building was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Not exactly the perfect environment for relaxation. “It’s a wonder anybody came,” she added.

She applied to and was selected for RMMFI’s Business Launch Boot Camp, which requires tuition, and through that process, she created a strategy to slowly quit one part-time job at a time and go full time with Agua y Sangre. She also found space to rent at a new location and has gradually been improving it, including new interior paint, audio systems that allow her to meld soft music with relaxing nature sounds, and – best of all – a heated pad for her massage table.

MOMENT SHE FELT IT WAS REAL
After completing the 12-week RMMFI Business Launch Boot Camp program, each boot camper has the chance to speak at the graduation ceremony, and Michelle vividly remembers that night.

“There’s this huge crowd of people, and they’re all supporting me,” she said. “And this isn’t even all the people who support me. The overwhelming emotion of that time was really powerful… I have all these people behind me, even though business ownership at times feels lonely and isolating, there’s still a huge community of people who are here to lift me up.”

Many people in the crowd signed up for her e-newsletter that night and some even scheduled appointments. Michelle said she left thinking, “Yes! I can definitely do this.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE
Michelle says her biggest surprise is how the business “has shaped me in my personal life.”

“As a queer woman of color, I wasn’t given all the supports in life,” she said. “My dad told me I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as much as other people.” His words helped give her drive and work ethic, she said, but she also sometimes felt underprivileged and meek, wanting to “take a back seat to others’ wants and feelings.”

“I was so flexible and always saying ‘Oh, everything’s fine,’ even when it wasn’t really fine. Business ownership has made me better about setting boundaries.”

She points to the cancellation policy she put in place for Agua y Sangre to discourage no-show clients or last-minute cancellations. She says she feels empowered when she decides whether to enforce it or waive it, depending on the circumstances.

“Seeing who I am now; it’s so different than a few years ago,” Michelle said. “I’m that much happier. I’m still not super confident about saying no, but I’m figuring it out.”

SOMETHING SHE’S STRUGGLED WITH
“I worry a lot,” Michelle said. “There’s a lot of fear around failing, and it’s a little numbing. Fear has made my business stagnant. Out of fear, I don’t post new services or things on social media. I wonder if people are going to criticize me, and it slows things down. I don’t want to give in to that this year. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake.”

SOMETHING SHE LEARNED IN RMMFI BUSINESS LAUNCH BOOT CAMP
It was in Boot Camp that Michelle said she first believed Agua y Sangre could be her full-time job.

“The way RMMFI teaches makes owning a business so accessible,” she said. “It’s not like reading IRS documents. It feels like it interweaves into what you’re already doing naturally.”

She also said she’s grateful for all the other business owners she met through RMMFI. “It feels good to have people you know in a similar boat,” she said.

She keeps in touch with many entrepreneurs from her Boot Camp class and others in RMMFI’s Post-Boot Camp program. They and RMMFI staff encouraged her to offer special multi-massage packages and raise her rates when her business reached a certain level last winter. She’s currently sharing ideas about best practices for hiring and hoping to take on her first employee in the coming months.

BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OWNING AND WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE
“The difference is how fulfilled I feel,” Michelle said. “In past jobs, I didn’t always feel respected or well paid for my time. Then the work itself became daunting really soon. In owning my own business, I don’t have those challenges. I’ve brought in a certain clientele, and I really enjoy seeing them all.”

Another perk for Michelle: making her own schedule. “I was never a morning person,” she said. But she had to report to one of her past jobs at 7 am and was always running late. “Now, I really like being able to schedule clients when it fits.”

BEST ADVICE TO BUSINESS OWNERS JUST STARTING OUT
“Clear your schedule to do some work, and be open to learning new things,” Michelle said.

One thing she suggests – and something she only recently feels like she’s mastered – is carefully considering your business’s target market of customers. In theory, anyone could be a massage client, but of course, “everyone” is not Agua y Sangre’s true target market. In fact, as Michelle has realized, her clients aren’t even ‘all people who want massages.’

“I don’t promote my business too broadly to body builders and people who want sports massages,” she said. “And not so much for people who need specialized massage rehab after something like a car accident. In general, I work with many people who are caregivers, who do emotional labor, or people of color or LGBTQ people.”

Michelle admits it took her awhile to hone in on her business’s true target market, but now that she has she’s grateful for the process. “I feel like I’ve attracted clients who were meant to be part of the practice,” she said.

RELATED: Michelle is just one of many inspiring small business owners we are meeting through Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute — including the organization’s founders themselves. Check out more of these Real Owners’ stories in our special series.