Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
I graduated in 2011, seven years ago now, and started working in a community health position. I moved across the country for that and then came back and worked 9 different casual dietitian jobs, then landed a more permanent position in private practice working for someone else. It wasn’t really working out and I felt like I could do something a little bit different—something possibly better. I started a small business called Correct Nutrition and after working for a bit, I had the opportunity to purchase some small clinics. I then bought another large practice a few years later, Sunshine Coast Dietetics. After that, I started up Fuel Your Life in October 2016 and it’s just gone bananas. We now have 35 dietitians and are in every state in the country other than the Northern Territory. That’s pretty much my career in a nutshell. Outside of that, I did a lot of sports dietetics because I’m an Accredited Sports Dietitian as well. I’ve worked with the Australian lacrosse team, travelling with them to Japan and helping them with the World Championship in Denver. I have also worked with some National Sprint Champions and other medal place getters in the same realm.
Fuel Your Life sounds like it’s the biggest part of your career at the moment, and it’s having the largest impact on the population. What are some of the reasons you can see for its success in comparison to other dietetic businesses?
I think with Fuel Your Life in particular, it was about a meaningful collaboration with other allied health professionals. I had the opportunity to pitch a large allied health company and built the relationship from there, scaling very quickly across Australia. We developed a unique service delivery program to optimise the results we could get the clients. As a result of that, it’s gone to what people would see as out of control really; in terms of the scale of what we are now and how good we are going on an individual practitioner level with clients. Outside of that, we’re getting good word of mouth recommendations from those results.
I guess the biggest focus for us is about the practitioner first and mapping the organisation to them rather than the other way around; trying to support them as much as we can and providing opportunities for professional development in their areas of interest, grow the business in their areas of interest and so on. I think remuneration is also important so paying them to do marketing and things like that that help grow the business is important. I know other companies I worked for, I never got paid to do that—it was off your own bat. Obviously money is an incentive for some people (not for everyone) but it always helps to push you along a little bit and give you a little bit of extra motivation. If you know that anything you do, whether it’s successful or not, you’re going to get paid for it the thought process for them becomes “why not”, instead of “why should I”.
So ultimately I think the combination of the collaboration with allied health, unique service delivery and then trying to support staff as much as we can—they’re pretty much the reasons why it has been so successful in a very short period of time.
You’re known for being pretty vocal about the dietetics industry as a whole. Is there anything that you personally would like to see changed?
Really? I’m known for that? I don’t think there’s necessarily anything I’d like to see changed per se, it’s more other people allowing it. I think the industry is kind of stuck in this very boring place. Dietitians don’t really have the best reputation in the community. They are thought of as people that recommend salad, no alcohol ever, and no cheat days and all of that stuff. Or that we are getting money from corporate industries and we have all sold out. I just don’t think the industry as a whole does very well in terms of marketing ourselves to the general public; all dietitians are aware of this.
Some of that is not due to lack of ideas in our industry, much is due to the restraints that are put on practitioners in terms of what they’re allowed to do and say. But outside of that, I think we’re just in an industry (nutrition and health) that is highly competitive with very vocal advocates that are in competition with us. A lot of people that don’t have qualifications such as different #fitspo people on social media and characters like Pete Evans that just have such a big following and can say what they want. But dietitians don’t seem to have a voice in terms of the industry. I think we just need to have more of a voice that differentiates us from this robotic, boring industry which seems to be what people see us as. Do I have all the answers? Hell no. But I am going to use what ever voice I have the change people’s perceptions of dietitians, that’s for sure.
So it’s partly due to regulations, but do you also think it’s a lot about how dietitians act on social media and in the public eye?
Well, we have regulations and I think we should always stick to the regulations that we have. It’s very important. But I think they probably need to be reviewed and updated to allow us to be more competitive with these people. Especially in private practice where you are in direct competition with a lot of these people, and a lot of the people I speak to who own private practice businesses feel that you’re shackled and handcuffed and you can’t really do much about it, which means that a lot of the businesses fall apart. People can’t survive. They start losing clients and they can’t keep their business running. I just notice something needs to change and it’s needed to change since I graduated, and I know I’ve spoken to a lot of dietitians more senior than me who have felt the same way, a lot of whom thought about getting out of dietetics just because of those restraints.
Do you think being able to use client testimonials would be a step in the right direction?
I think so, to a point. Testimonials would be really good, but going as far as before and after pictures and that kind of thing, I’m pretty against that level. But allowing at least some feedback and people being able to publicly tell others about it. With 2018 dubbed as the “Year of Video”, if we’re able to actually get clients to give testimonials about the experience that they had, I don’t see how that would be damaging to our profession. There will always be people that abuse it, but if we could use them at some level at least we would have the opportunity to take down the people that don’t have any qualifications in nutrition; those that beat us every day.
Inside of the regulations that we do have, do you think there’s any common mistakes that most dietitians are making with their marketing?
The common mistake is that everyone says the same stuff. Everyone presents this evidence-based nutrition, “That’s what I provide,” blah blah blah. I don’t know about anyone else, but my eyes glaze over when that happens; when people start spouting and sharing about healthy eating or the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating #borefest. It just doesn’t capture the attention of the public and most people would be aware (those who take note of what’s happening in the marketplace) a lot of people are interested in those fanatical type of statements that we’re not able to say. And that’s completely fine, but I think people just need to be able to market themselves better rather than thinking being “evidence-based” is what’s going to set them apart. We’re all evidence-based; we’ve just got to individualise the marketing a lot better.
It’s hard to give a sweeping statement about the industry because I think some dietitians do it well, but as a whole, we’re not doing ourselves a great service in terms of our marketing because a lot of it comes across as boring. Like I said at the start, it’s just part of our industry and I don’t really know what the answer is other than on an individual level everyone trying to be a real person while also being a dietitian.
I read a physiotherapist website today and the big selling point was that they were evidence-based, and I thought, “Yeah, I expect that. You went to university and you’re a physio.”
Yeah, but then at the same time, I don’t know whether not having it would be a bad thing either. I don’t mind if people say they’re evidence-based, but it can’t be thought of as the differentiating factor to get people in the door. You need to try harder.
As a side note, social media is pretty important these days. People need to be keeping up with changes to these platforms. For example, paying attention to the new Facebook updates which are reducing the reach that businesses/brands get organically. This will probably affect a lot of people’s businesses. Even with our company, we had a Facebook strategy planned to roll out in January and that had to be completely scratched because Facebook has changed and that’s going to constantly happen across all platforms. You need to stay abreast of these changes and I think because most private practice dietitians are struggling, they don’t really have the amount of money that’s necessary to spend on that, nor the amount of time (or skills) to invest in learning every possible alley to then implement it.
In 2016, you had a post on LinkedIn titled Why You Should Quit Your Nutrition Degree, which went viral among dietitians. I heard a lot of positive reactions to it, yet I’m sure it’s also rubbed a few people the wrong way because it’s a pretty controversial topic. Is there anything you wanted to say about that?
I think it’s a controversial headline; whether or not it’s a controversial article I would probably argue. It pretty much came to me from the fact that I was sick of seeing graduates come out and not get a job. So many just thought that coming out of university there were going to be ample jobs and there just wasn’t. They update their LinkedIn profile and they’re working at a retail or a hospitality job after a year out of university. How can our industry allow it? And that’s why I wrote Why You Should Quit Your Nutrition Degree, because there’s very few jobs. I know my business has created a lot, but in terms of a graduate job, especially hospitals, if you’re being a dietitian to work in a hospital you better be freaking awesome because they’re few and far between. That’s why I wrote it, to protect people that didn’t really know what they wanted to do.
The disclaimer at the end of that article says that if you are super passionate and this is all you’ve ever wanted to do, then do it—don’t stop. But for those people who just don’t know what to do; they like food, they want to learn about being healthier and then they do nutrition and dietetics—stop because it’s going to end badly. Save the $40–60K worth of university fees and go do something else because the industry at the moment is saturated. No matter where you go, there’s saturation. Even though people are gaining weight and there’s more obesity and diabetes, it doesn’t mean people are going to pay to see you. They’ve also got nutritionists and social media people giving away their free meal plan, which—as we know—is probably just generic information that they provide. They might do it for two weeks and then they’ll never do it again, but they’re more likely to try ten of those fad-diets than pay $100 to come and see an actual qualified dietitian unfortunately. Some people just aren’t up for it and I guess I was just putting doubt in the minds of those who weren’t sure already to save them from what’s coming.
I wasn’t aware of the lack of jobs until I read that article, so I’m sure it did probably save a few people.
There are a few positive comments on the actual article, but I had far more privately. Because most of the time people don’t want to associate themselves with something that is telling people to quit the profession, but I got a lot of private messages from dietitians who are currently working and studying, and those that had just graduated. A lot of dietitians, any time anyone ever asks them about, “How’s the profession? My kid wants to do that,” or “Do you think I should do it?” We all just say, “Hell no. Do something else.” If you want to help people, if you want to help them be healthier, try something else. It’s just not the profession to get into. If you want to learn about nutrition, do an online course. You don’t need to be a dietitian and work in the profession to learn more about it. If you really, really love nutrition and dietetics and that’s all you can ever see yourself doing—do it—I’d love to hire you when you finish. But otherwise, run.
For those who are just like you mentioned and really love nutrition, but want to start their own business at some stage: What recommendations would you have for that person if they were still in uni or were a new graduate?
I guess it’s the climate that we’re in at the moment where everyone wants to start their own business; entrepreneurship is booming. Everyone says, “Yeah, I’d like to start my own business.” I don’t know why people think that. I think some people think of work-life balance—everyone’s talking about that—but I would say you get less work-life balance if you run your own business. You can definitely work for people and still have work-life balance. In terms of advice, first out: definitely don’t do it straight out of uni. While you’re trying to learn how to be a dietitian, you shouldn’t be learning how to run a business. Unless you have run a business previously, maybe you’re a mature-aged student or maybe you’re a prodigy and you were doing stuff when you were young, I would just advise against it because there is a very steep learning curve, especially in private practice. Universities still do not prepare you for it. Some are trying, but most don’t. So, when you come out, you’re going to have to learn all the admin side, all the regulation side, how to write GP letters effectively, how to do the financial aspects, how to do your tax, what to monitor, what not to monitor, how to do marketing—all of that stuff while you’re also trying to learn how to treat people. And you’re putting their lives in your hands. That pressure combined with starting a business and that pressure, it’s going to break most people, which is why I tell people not to.
As well as that, you can’t usually do both well when you first start. So, you’re either going to be a poor dietitian and make dietitians look bad, or you’re going to run your business poorly and you’re going to run yourself into the ground or run it for a loss for an extended period of time. Neither is a good outcome. But if you do want to, I would definitely say work with someone else first and learn. You are using them a little bit, but most business owners are aware that that’s going to happen. And just learn whatever you can from them about how things are run and learn how to be a dietitian first until you’re comfortable and confident. Then, sure, go and try and start your own thing.
But if you go and do it, try and find an area where there are little dietitians or less competition and then you’ll be more successful. Get everything sorted before you start. Make sure you’ve seen your accountant, talk about the different needs of your business and what your plan is. Plan everything in advance. I always like to say plan for absolute success and also devastating failure. Make sure you’ve got a back-up plan. What if you do it and it fails? Do you really want to re-mortgage your house to try and do this? Do you want to have to move back to your parents? You need to have a back-up plan if it doesn’t work because—I don’t know the exact statistics—but I think half of small businesses fail in the first year and that’s outside of dietetics. I would say more than that in dietetics fail because a lot of people get out, they try and do both, they realise how hard it is and then they go and work somewhere else. A lot of them, which is ‘why you should quit your nutrition degree’, do that because they can’t find a job. They don’t start a business because they want to; they start it out of necessity. And then they do that, run it into the ground, get three months experience and then go and try and get a job again because now they’ve got three months experience. So, I see why people are doing it, it’s just a terrible way to go; for the individual and the profession.
At the end of your career, what legacy and impact would you like to leave behind?
That’s a massive question. Honestly, I get so much more joy and satisfaction out of helping practitioners than what I do growing the business. I want my legacy to be about having people work for me and thinking of that as one of the best times of their life—or at least of their career—that I/my business was able to help them in X, Y, Z number of ways, that we supported them through different life situations and provided a flexible workplace and work/life balance. I want that to be the legacy. We did a staff survey at the end of last year and several people said they felt more supported than they ever have, some even said it felt like a family, and then almost 90% said they want to stay with the company for as long as possible. I can’t explain how good that makes me feel, how accomplished that make me feel.
Outside of that in terms of a personal achievement, I have no desire to be famous, but I want to be the best dietetic business owner in Australia. That would be one of the big goals. I want to be known for not only just being the biggest, but also having some of the best private practice practitioners, that get the best results for their clients. That’s the biggest goal for the company and one that will probably take us a while to achieve, but I would love for us to be the market leader and help others become part of that. In turn hopefully help the industry as a whole and improve the reputation of dietitians in Australia.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to wrap up the interview?
As a parting statement, in terms of business, I think I have done well because of my work ethic (number 1), but also because I approach things and look at things differently than others. I have been able to come up with innovative solutions to common problems that have allowed us to be more successful at scale. If you are reading this and you want to be different, don’t try and do what everyone else is doing. Whether that means starting your own business and doing it that way or working for someone else who you know will be able to support you and challenge you and keep you interested long term. I think there are jobs out there that are like that and people can just progress through the ranks (our company for example 😉). But if you’re going to start your own business, figure out exactly what you want your life to look like and then make sure that your work ethic matches your ambition. I will see you at the top.