Katie Altneu studied and worked in economics and finance. She liked it. She just did not love it. Trusting something else was out there she quit her job and went to India for a year. When she returned with digestive problems that Western doctors were unable to heal she sought a local acupuncturist to help her. The experience would not only completely change her health but her life and career.
Here is a bit of her story.
Tell me a bit more about the path from economics and finance to acupuncture.
My path has been quite a windy one. I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics, studied at the London School of Economics and worked for several years as a financial analyst in Palo Alto, California. I liked economics. It actually inspired me in the beginning, as sort of a way of explaining the world around me. Working as a financial analyst I got to research industries, companies and trends which was interesting to me, but I just felt it wasn’t going to be my life’s work. I knew I wanted something different. My mom always drilled into my brothers and me the importance of meaningful work. I had no idea what ‘meaningful work’ meant exactly, and it probably means different things to everyone. Maybe it has something to do with doing work that is in line with one’s values or utilizing skills and abilities that you really like about yourself or are proud of. I just knew there was something bigger and better for me.
So I took a leap, quit my job and traveled to India where I studied yoga and Eastern philosophy. I first discovered the healing power of Oriental Medicine when I suffered from digestion problems after returning from travel. When my doctors couldn’t help me, I tried acupuncture and was amazed by the results and became a strong believer in the power of holistic medicine. I enrolled in a four-year master’s degree program and voila, here I am today – loving sharing the same successes with my patients. In the end, I feel like acupuncture chose me instead of the other way around.
That is a pretty brave move to quit your job and go to India for a year.
Yes. I was really scared. In retrospect, I worry that it may have been selfish of me. My poor mother, I do not think she slept the whole time I was there. I went by myself, which I think was especially scary for my mom, but it was something I really wanted to do. It was scary to quit a great job. That was the hardest part. It was a leap of faith that I could find something more interesting.
You always hear – life is short, seize the day – which I agree with, it’s like – what are you waiting for? From another
perspective, however, life is long, hopefully. We are given this gift of time and we should try to do something really meaningful with it. We should try to do something that makes us come alive and not just plod through each day to pay the bills and come home to watch TV. It’s never too late to be what you might have been. I feel really passionate about that.
How did you get to the point of opening your own business?
Opening my own business was something I was excited about from the beginning of my first days back in grad school. My parents, I think, thought pursuing acupuncture was ‘wasting’ my college education and experience, but you are never wasting your experience or education. You are always taking it with you. I think my background is a huge asset to me now. Most new businesses do not survive five years, especially acupuncturists who are, as a generalization, not the most business savvy, but that fact just inspires me even more to succeed.
Are there differences in the struggles from the very beginning compared to now?
I think in the beginning I felt insecure about people’s reactions and judgments to what I do. I worried that the cards were stacked against me. Overcoming skepticism about this medicine is still a challenge. I mean, sticking needles in someone to make them feel better does sound crazy. That said, I think this medicine is absolutely amazing and grounded in a lot more science than the ‘woo-woo-hippie-ness or holier-than-thou zen-ness’ that would personally make me uncomfortable as a patient.
Now I feel this medicine is being received really well. The more successes I have and the more patients I see, the more confident I get every day. Now my biggest challenge is probably learning to walk away from work at the end of the day. I try to make up for what I see lacking in Western medicine. I believe patients deserve the time to express their concerns and tell their stories, receive a clear explanation and experience the most attentive and compassionate care possible. I think I’ll always be learning from my patients and the vastness and richness of this medicine. Sometimes it’s hard to step away from that and not think about my patients in the middle of the night.
What have you found as far as good ways of marketing yourself?
I find the best marketing is meeting and talking to people. I put ads in the paper and got nothing from it. The best marketing I have found is to have a booth at my local farmers market and just talk to people, answer questions about their ailments or the medicine, and let them see that I’m a regular person. Building those connections is the best marketing for me, in addition to word of mouth referrals of course.
Do you use social media?
I use Facebook and Twitter, but more to create a community for current clients than as a marketing tool. I use it as an educational tool and an inspirational page. I love the idea of creating more of a community with my business and Facebook really allows me to do that. I connect my blog to Facebook and people can respond and comment on the blog posts. It is about sharing experiences. It is a challenge. It is hard to get people to comment and to truly engage. Every time I write a post I have this fear that people will not respond to it, but I just have to get over that. People have been responding really well.
One of the fears I hear about a lot is the fear of earning less money. Is this something you were concerned with?
Yes, now the money I can make is limited to the hours I put in and to the number of patients I treat, so there is an upper end to what I can make. According to my business plan and projected growth, it should take me three or four years to get up to the income level I was making before as an analyst. But right now it is going well; at eight months in business I have met my year goal posts, so I’m feeling optimistic. My business plan gives me comfort – seeing concrete numbers and knowing that it is attainable. I can make a good living with this profession; it just depends on how hard I work. I am having a lot more fun with this [than what I was doing before]. The change was worth it. For me, as long as I can afford to eat well and travel some, I do not need millions of dollars. I would rather enjoy what I am doing.
Do you have advice for others who want to start their own business?
I teach the business class to acupuncture students at the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I am constantly drilling into my students the importance of really thinking through your strategy and being realistic about the time and investment it is going to take and planning for that. And as I said above, having a plan can be very comforting. It is also important to have some faith. We can get so bogged down by the what- ifs and the delusion that we have so much to lose, but I think following your heart is the best way to go.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about owning your own business?
I think people think if they owned their own business and were their own boss, they could make their own schedule and work less than 40 hours a week and not have to do the stupid tasks they don’t want to do. But that is so not true. It is a lot more work. It is hard for me to stop working at night and I have to wear all the hats. I am not only the acupuncturist, but I have to be the expert in marketing, bookkeeping, organizing, and I even do the cleaning. You can’t be above cleaning the coffee grounds when you’re the business owner. Owning your own business is not as glamorous as it sounds.
I write quite a bit about people who cure themselves of illnesses Western medicine has said are not curable. I am interested in your experience with this.
I see that a lot and I love it. Most of my patients are here as a last resort. They have tried everything Western medicine has to offer, and they may not be sure about acupuncture but are willing to try it as this may be their last hope. I believe pain and disease are not simply an inconvenience but rather information: our body’s way of telling our brain that we’re doing something it doesn’t like. It is your body calling for help and just taking a pill to silence that call does not necessarily service you. I feel really passionate about that.
I have seen women who have been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome and told they can never have children, I have seen those women get their periods and get pregnant. I have seen people with fibromyalgia gain more energy, have less pain and have a more vibrant life. I have seen digestive issues such as IBS or acid reflux really transform in people. I actually think the digestive system lies at the heart of many illnesses. When you transform someone’s digestion you can transform so many parts of their health. It is really inspiring to watch people’s lives change.
I think acupuncture is amazing. I went from practically not being able to walk to snowboarding in three sessions. I am a believer.
That is great to hear.
What about mistakes you have made?
I am still making them. I am so hesitant to feel ‘salesy’ or that I’m boasting or lecturing, that I can miss opportunities to share the medicine with people because I’m shy. It’s also hard for me when I know acupuncture could help someone, but they struggle to afford it. I worry I am hurting my business by giving so many people my ‘family discount’.
Do you have advice on how people who are starting out in business should decide on pricing?
This can be tricky. You need to factor in your costs – including materials, overhead, education and training – as well as what you think you should get paid for your time, but I think the price should also feel right to you. I think our relationship with money is so complex and interesting. I like to think of money as an energy exchange. I saw a study that showed that dental patients who paid at the time of the service had a better health outcome than those who did not pay at the time of service. I think people paying and showing appreciation for that exchange helps them in a way and I think both parties should feel good about that exchange. If you feel taken advantage of and you are not getting paid what you deserve that can affect the treatment. Conversely if you are charging too much that can also affect treatment and the health outcome. It should feel like a fair exchange.
What about surprises along the way?
It is a little funny, but every time a patient comes in and they feel better I just feel like, “Yay!!!! You feel better!!!!” I’m just constantly amazed and shocked by this medicine.
Anything else you would like to add?
In terms of advice I think a big thing is trusting in what you have to share and trusting your knowledge. After studying for four years I wanted to go get more advanced training and study psychology or counseling. I could have been in school forever before I felt like I could trust in the knowledge I had to share. People should not underestimate themselves and [they should] remember you don’t ever stop learning.
To learn more about Katie: www.thepointdenver.com/.