After getting a bachelor’s degree in human sexuality from Brown University and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies Vanessa Marin launched a career as a sex therapist with a twist: Instead of meeting clients in the sometimes-intimidating setting of an office, she talks to them via video chat. She chatted with Pacific Standard—via Skype, of course—about writing as branding and why her model works.
Was becoming a therapist always the plan?
It was. I remember thinking at a really young age that sex was really interesting and that people were not comfortable talking about it. We weren't really religious in my family, and sex wasn't a horrible taboo thing, but I could tell my parents were super uncomfortable about it. Our version of the talk was, "Hey, do you have any questions?" It was very obvious that I wasn't supposed to ask any questions. I was 11 or 12 years old, and I realized that I had a lot of questions, that I was really curious. I wanted to know how it worked and why it was embarrassing. I knew that I wanted to help people feel less embarrassed about sex in some way.
It took a really long time for me to figure out how to do that. Sex therapy is a pretty young field. There are a bunch of people who do it, and there's no regulation around it. Anyone can call themselves a sex therapist and set up shop. I bounced around for awhile. I thought I'd be a doctor, an OB/GYN, and take a more medical approach. I took the pre-med track at Brown. I started looking at the MCAT and the applications, and I realized I really didn't want to do that. I went back to the drawing broad and thought psychology made more sense. I would have a counseling background and approach it from that perspective.
How did you build a client base when you were first starting out?
It's definitely tricky. I knew that I wanted to do a combination of working with people one-on-one and then just education in a larger sense. When you go to graduate school, you're focusing on getting your hours for licensure, so I wasn't really doing anything other than seeing clients. Fortunately, I was able to do a couple internships that were a lot more focused on finding clients, doing marketing, and creating policies. I was forced to learn how to do all that stuff on the go.
When I graduated, I really started to think about what I wanted the rest of the business to look like. Working one-on-one with people takes a lot of energy. It's not something you can do for 40 hours a week. At that time, I had to figure out how to bring my other interests in. It took me about a year to start to flesh out what I wanted it to look like. It's still evolving a lot now.
You do video sessions, which seems pretty ingenious. Is that unusual in the field?
I think most people tend to prefer to work in person, especially if they have a counseling background. I was getting a lot of people who would contact me, set an appointment, and then they would flake out or just not be ready. I knew it was intimidating to come into an office, meet a stranger, and start talking about the most personal details of your life. I felt confident that once I could get them in my office, I could make them feel more relaxed. But it's a huge hurdle to get them there. I always liked using the video chat format on my own, so I started playing around with it with clients who were already established. People feel more comfortable. They can be in their own space. It worked so well that I don't have an office anymore.
How many of your clients are repeat versus new?
It's a pretty good mix. I'd say about a third of my clients at this point are repeats, and two-thirds are new. I structure my first session as a pretty deep dive, and then I build during subsequent sessions. There are a lot of people who have a couple questions or need help with this one specific thing. We'll dive in, and then I'll send them some exercises. For a lot of people, that's what they need. Some people will come for a couple sessions, and then I have some clients that I have been working with for a couple years.
You also offer email coaching and self-study programs. How does the revenue break down?
The self-study is probably more of my revenue than from individual sessions. Maybe like 55-45 or 60-40.
Did you expect that?
I was hoping for it. I wanted to have a place where people could educate themselves. The female orgasm program is the most popular. I had worked with so many one-on-ones around orgasming, and I was saying a lot of the same stuff. I really wanted to put out a comprehensive guide. I didn't see anything out there like that: Here's what you need to know about having an orgasm, alone or with a partner. I definitely was hoping that people would catch on.
It started as just getting my name out there. I pitched a couple of pieces to a few websites in the hope of getting a little bit of traffic coming into my website. I was getting really good responses to what I was writing. I started getting offers. Bustle was the first one to contact me. It's turned into a really great relationship. Lifehacker has an Ask an Expert series, so I did one of those, and then they reached out to me a little bit later and asked if I'd do a regular sex and relationship column. They've been super fun. They are both totally different audiences. I never intended to be so much of a writer, but it's worked really well.
Is this something you'll be doing in five or 10 or 20 years?
I'll definitely be involved in it for some way for the rest of my life. Being able to pursue a lot of different types of projects and work with it in a lot of different ways will help me stay engaged and excited. I'm always going to be excited about working with people and sex. It's not a topic that gets boring ever.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.