Make your own mark: The Hills Massage startup story

Michelle Rimmer has run a successful massage therapy clinic for almost twenty years. Michelle, who is a former nurse, sat down with Cliniko to share how two big and unexpected setbacks changed the course of her career, leading her to look inward at who she was and what she wanted—and go for it.

Doug Pohl·

Michelle Rimmer, owner of Hills Massage

Originally, we wanted this story to explore the thought process of someone who’d made the leap of faith to open their own practice, and share some of the considerations that helped them get there. There are always insights worth sharing behind every startup practice story.

But Michelle’s story wasn’t quite what we were expecting.

We lined up an interview with Michelle Rimmer of Hills Massage in Kalamunda, Western Australia because she has experience working for someone else and herself. She started out as a massage therapist for a corporate massage company before launching her own remedial massage practice.

Interestingly, Michelle didn’t have some elaborate decision-making process for going starting her own practice. She didn’t agonise over the pros and cons or even spend much time weighing her options.

Instead, she relied on her instincts to lead the way and focused on the personal characteristics that mattered most to her: autonomy and compassionate care.

She’s now approaching two decades as a massage therapist and 18-years as a practice owner, and says it’s her feisty independence and genuine desire to help others that have made it all possible.

‘I like to be able to go in the direction I want,’ she said, ‘not what someone else wants. I’m compassionate and like to help people, so [private practice] allows me to make decisions that make a mark.’

Autonomy and compassion

Although she doesn’t consider herself a risk taker, Michelle and her husband Alec (now her practice manager) made some adventurous moves in the past. They decided to explore the world and left Australia for the US not long after Michelle, a registered nurse at the time, had major back surgery following a workplace accident. They had their daughter there, and then chose to head off to the UK for another change of scenery before finally settling down back in the Perth Hills.

It was in England that Michelle first began learning about massage. Massage had helped her recover from her surgery so she thought she would pursue it as a hobby, and took a course. Things didn’t get serious until after moving back to Australia. She began working toward her qualification and joined a company that offered 5-minute chair massages in office buildings.

Michelle loved the work, and she was good at it. But the job had some limitations that didn’t sit well with her.

The biggest issue was that five minutes in a chair wasn’t adequate for giving people the real and lasting benefits their bodies needed. Michelle wasn’t able to help people heal, and that bothered her a lot.

She also didn’t like having to follow the company’s rigid schedule, agenda, and rules. Her independent streak was too strong to be constrained by short-sighted management and red tape. In the end, her boss gave her the ultimate push to set off on her own - she fired her via text! Michelle’s boss had had previous massage therapists who’d quit and taken clients with them, and had become uneasy that clients had been increasingly asking for Michelle.

Michelle established Hills Massage in 2003 as a mobile business and began lugging her table around the outskirts of Perth to as many clients as she could get her hands on (pun definitely intended).

Things got off to a slow start. Michelle struggled to get her name out there and build a client base. She gave it her all, passing out pamphlets, running newspaper ads, posting on community boards, and anything else she could think of.

In the end, though, word of mouth gave her the best results. People told their friends and family about Michelle because they knew she genuinely cared about their health and she made a real difference in their lives.

It’s that level of care that eventually got her an invitation to work within a physiotherapy clinic. She was still her own boss, free to run her business the way she wanted, but now she got to do it all from one location.

This is when things really began to take off. She was busier than ever with referrals pouring in, and Michelle quickly found herself needing more room to grow her practice. In 2014, Michelle relocated to her very own clinic location, and business has been booming ever since.

Challenges of private practice

Michelle says her single biggest challenge as a practice owner was building her team. It’s taken her 10 years to find a dependable group of qualified therapists who are genuinely passionate about helping clients heal.

Over that time, Michelle discovered that hiring decisions should be based more on someone’s personal character than on their experience. ‘I have learnt to choose people that align with your ethics and values and morals’, she said.

And now that she has a team she loves, Michelle aims to keep them. She said it’s important to create a working environment that people want to stay with.

Everyone is paid well and treated fairly (her team are employees, not contractors). She takes them out for ‘reward dinners’, offers multiple workshops each year, and pays them to train.

Michelle knows to take care of herself too. Actually, when we had our video call, she was on holiday at the beach, taking one of her periodic breaks. She’s learned that occasionally stepping back from the work can actually increase her energy and productivity in the long run.

And it’s no wonder she needs the rest. Running a busy practice is tough, and there is no ‘punching out’ for an owner. Michelle has to manage the team, the finances, the marketing, and whatever else comes up, all while watching out for new therapeutic techniques and opportunities for growth (she’s pioneering Yomassage in Australia!).

Staying on the cutting edge of the industry has become an important part  of Michelle’s role in the business. There is always something new to learn, and it’s up to her to keep the practice current.

Hills Massage practice manager, Alec Rimmer.

Practice Manager, Alec Rimmer.

Benefits of owning your own practice

As a business owner, Michelle has the freedom to guide how her practice supports the local community. She and her team offer free massages at the Esther Foundation, a nearby recovery center for women. It’s a cause that’s very close to Michelle’s heart, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to help.

She also has a voice within her community—and people listen. During the 2019/2020 bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic, Michelle created a ‘pay-it-forward’ scheme that allowed community members to make donations toward helping others continue their therapy when money was tight. She spread the word and the community responded in a big way, making it possible for their neighbours to heal despite financial challenges.

Creating a paperless business is also very important to Michelle. She loves that Cliniko makes it easy to use digital patient forms, treatment notes, health records, and invoices. She also put up a blackboard by reception for the team to make quick notes during the day, instead of using paper.

As the practice owner, achieving a paperless business ultimately falls on her shoulders, and Michelle welcomes the responsibility. She figures, ‘Gen Z is trying, so why shouldn’t Gen X be part of it too?’

The reception desk at Hills Massage

Is private practice right for you?

Michelle says the best way to choose your path is to first look inward. Examine who you are and what you want. Decide what you find most appealing about private practice and if you think those benefits make all of the work and effort worthwhile.

If you’re leaning toward starting your own practice, Michelle warns that money can be tight in the beginning, with no guaranteed income. But the rewards of private practice for someone who is hungry for more can be second to none.

However you go about making your decision, Michelle advises not to overthink it. ‘Go with your gut,’ she says. And remember that there is no perfect path. Just focus on giving great care to your clients and staying true to who you are.

Author information

Doug is a writer. When he's not banging on the keyboard, you'll probably find him listening to old Willie Nelson records or chasing chipmunks on a mountain trail.

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