Originally posted 2011, updated February 2015
I've recently had the chance to visit with a couple people interested in becoming doulas, and I love being able to pass on the tips I've gathered from my own doula mentors and from experiences over the last few years.
* There are several options for certification programs, with varying requirements and prices. I went with Birth Arts for a variety of reasons, and I've been very happy with the program. I've learned more recently about Birth Boot Camp Doulas training program and I'm impressed with all I've heard and read about it thus far. Their ongoing support and extensive training and resources (to include business & marketing, videos, headshot, etc) has nothing I've seen that can compare with it.
Doulas are trained and certified, but they are NOT licensed. There is no one governing organization for doulas, and multiple groups offering certifications. Their programs vary so it's up to you as the doula to research those options and find the best training program for you. Some doulas have been around for years & are fantastic, but they began certifying with one group but no longer maintain certification. Their reasons vary - some have developed a different philosophy than their certifying organization, some no longer want to pay the annual fee and deal with the paperwork and proof of ongoing education (though they are still doing the ongoing training.) Others have such a strong reputation in their area and are mentoring other doulas are don't feel that they need to stay certified officially to be offering their services. However, this is ENTIRELY different than some of the new doulas I'm hearing about beginning their training & quitting without completing it but presenting themselves as certified doulas. (I'm horrified I need to even include this but I've been hearing about it happening more and more.) Do your training, and then be completely and entirely honest with parents and your birth community about whether you are trained, certified, etc. Honesty should be assumed, I'm sad that it's even a discussion about whether doulas are being dishonest about their training.
* Pick a business name. You'll need it for everything, from your business cards to your website to listing yourself with Google Places. Started pondering now, it can be surprisingly hard to decide! Google names you're considering and if one you have is taken, consider variations. Be careful you don't take something very close to the name for a local doula - that can cause some unpleasantness and you don't want to start off on the wrong foot with your doula community.
I have to reiterate this as I'm in a doula group and of the 9 of us, four have local doulas or birth related groups who have tried to take our names or an incredibly close variation of it. Talk about setting yourself up for a rough start! Especially when it's a well established birth professional in your community - if you are a doula then don't just look at doula names, look at midwives, placental encapsulators, birth photographers, etc. DO NOT USE A NAME SIMILAR TO SOMEONE ELSE'S! They will not be happy with you, nor will their connections in the birth world and it will damage your reputation before it's even begun. A DBA (doing business as) document is filed only at the county level in my area and it protects one name, but not close variations of it. Setting up an LLC protects your name at the state level (more on those later, they require talking with an attorney and CPA to get some of my questions answered!) But in a nutshell - do your homework and don't try to use anything remotely close to someone else's name. Many doulas use their own name for their doula business. An upside - no one is likely to take your name! In hindsight I've sometimes wished I had gone this route as people tend to refer to me by saying, "Go hire Heidi!" vs. "Go hire Better Birth Doula Services."
* Having a website can be a big help - in fact I would say it's crucial. There are free options for hosting and you can even set up a blog to just get yourself started. Buying your own domain name (renting it, really - there's an annual fee) is as cheap as $15/year. That gives you rights to that name, but you'll still need a website hosted somewhere. You can either have a business page (all your info, no updates needed) or a business page and blog (or just a blog, of course!) I like the blog option because I think people interact more with your page and are more likely to return to your site if you have extra info and updates. The more people interact with your site, the more likely they'll remember you and refer others to you! As you can see I set up various pages within my site to have my business info, and then here I can post blog updates whenever something comes to mind. I also like having a photo gallery, though that brings up photo release issues.
(More on that later, too - nutshell: DO NOT USE ANY PHOTO THAT YOU DID NOT TAKE YOURSELF and have a signed model release from the people in the photo OR have written release from the person who owns copyright, and that is NOT the subject in the photo unless the photographer gave them written release of copyright. It can't be just a written release to use/print the image, but they actually GAVE them copyright which is another issue. You can be sued for copyright violations by using images without the photographer's permission.)
* Create a business Facebook page, get yourself a business page on Instagram, etc. It's simple, easy, and a great way to get your name out there. Here's mine and once you get 25 "Likes" you can have your domain changed to have your page name (instead of the weird number URL showing.) You can post updates, share links from others, and link back to your website. However, don't rely on this for your sole website as Facebook is constantly limiting how many of your subscribers actually see the page and are pushing their ad sales. Many people are also not on Facebook at all, so it restricts your access to potential clients. Here's my Instagram for examples of stuff I post there related to business. You can also set up a Pinterest account - here's my work one. But don't let yourself get overwhelmed by social media - I've got a post on that, too.
* List yourself with Doulas.com and Doulamatch.net, which are both free. You'll want to keep your calendar updated there, the more recent your activity on the site the higher you'll show up in their search results.
* Connect with other doulas! My doula mentors have been invaluable - I'm so thankful for their willingness to share their wisdom. I personally am more likely to refer people to the doulas I know, so when I cannot take a birth I'll share names of other options. I've also gained clients through other doulas referring them to me. It's important to find a doula to back you up, too, so get to know your fellow doulas!
However, don't just assume that all doulas share your philosophy and practice as you do, or you may end up getting burnt. Be very clear up front with any back up about what payment will be and when it will be handled, and DO NOT go on doula boards searching for a back up for your laboring mom last minute and send a stranger to your client's birth. Please, just don't. (More on back up situations later!)
* Connect with the local midwives, OBs, birth centers, and childbirth classes. Ask if you can leave your business card there. (Even better if you leave it with a treat!) Every childbirth class instructor I've spoken with has been very happy to let me come sit in on their class (which is part of your training requirement.) Every time they've also invited me to introduce myself and explain the role of a doula. While you are a student and offering discounted services you can find many willing clients through these classes! Plus the other birth professionals are more likely to refer parents to you if they've met you in person and gotten to know you. I've also gained doula clients in this way, and it's always nice to hear that someone spoke highly of you to a new client.
* Order business cards. I got 500 from Vista Print for around $8 (without their text and the back, and that included shipping.) You'll want to have these to share with prospective clients, leave at birth centers and childbirth classes, etc. I purchased mine before I was certified so I simply listed myself as a "Birth and Postpartum Doula." By the time we meet the parents always know that I am certified, and it saves space on the card to leave that part off anyway! Update: I've since switched to the mini Moo business cards with my photos on one side and business info on the other.
* For my required readings I was able to get all of my books from the library (local or interlibrary loan), borrow them from the birth center or other doulas, or pick them off of Paperback Swap.
* Gather ideas for your doula bag, as this is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from new doulas and I have several posts/photos in my Tips for Doulas subscription program on this topic.)
* Stalk pregnant women! I'm kidding, don't do that. For my training program I needed to attend and receive evaluations from five births. I was fortunate to have some close friends willing to let me come practice being a doula with them, but it's also good to work with new people. The dynamic to start from scratch with a doula client vs. working with someone you know well is very different. I think it's good for doulas to charge something for a birth they attend, even if it's just a token amount. We all value things when we make a sacrifice for them, and committing financially seems to make people take things more seriously. I've fortunately never had this problem, but I've heard from other doulas who offered free services and then had problems with clients taking advantage of the situation or the opposite, not even calling them when they went into labor. For a doula needing births for certification and putting in time and effort to establish a relationship with someone during the pregnancy, not being called to the birth can be very disappointing. If someone has paid for your services I think that's less likely to happen! Being a doula has very real costs, from your investment in training to your supplies, paperwork, website hosting, gas for visits, babysitters, food while away from home, parking fees, etc. Even during training I think it's wise to charge enough to cover your own expenses, and to increase your fee with each birth as you feel more experienced. (Update: I think it's wise to determine what your goal fee is for that first year - what do you feel you are going to charge as a certified doula? Then offer a discount off of that fee during your training. Just as an example, rather than starting to offer your services at $300 then eventually doubling your price I think it's wise to set your fee at $600 and offer a 50% discount off your certifying births. It prepares people to understand your eventual price and to establish what your value is, rather than thinking a doula is worth "only" this lower fee.)
I'll add more as I think of other tips I've learned!
If you are interested in reading more helpful posts like this then subscribe to my tips for doulas. Here are some testimonials I've received from birth professionals about how helpful my Tips for Doulas subscription is. Any questions? As always I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for stopping by!