I didn’t set out to be an online nutrition coach. And I sure didn’t set out to launch an entire company like Stronger U Nutrition.

At the time I got my first client, I was the human-resources manager at a company with no connection to the fitness industry. I had no idea what to charge, how to deliver meal plans, or how to turn my passion for helping people into a business.

I left my job a year later. By then I had 350 clients. Today Stronger U has 69 coaches who’ve worked with more than 30,000 total members. Our coaches include 23 registered dietitians. One has a PhD in nutrition and exercise science. Many others started out as personal trainers. And about half of them started out as members.

What they all have in common: They know people need help with their diets, and they want to help them.

If that describes you, and you think you can be an effective nutrition coach, either part- or full-time, here’s the best advice I can offer.

Step 1: Define your market as a nutrition coach

Long before anyone paid me for nutrition coaching, I was “that guy” on Facebook. I wanted to help people, and I shared advice anywhere and everywhere. There was no strategy to it. It was just something I felt compelled to do.

As I said in this article, I had ideas about nutrition I thought people weren’t getting from other sources. So I leaned in. I engaged with people and encouraged them. And instead of focusing exclusively on how to solve problems, I talked about how to head those problems off.

What I didn’t do was target a particular type of client. As I saw it, most of them had the same general goals: Lose some fat. Look better. Feel better.

People’s issues are pretty much the same. Same cravings, same life events, same confusion about what’s healthy and what’s not. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 65-year-old guy, a 25-year-old woman, or anyone in between.

So that’s my first piece of advice: Don’t narrow your market.

Don’t put out a message that turns anyone away. Don’t promote yourself as a coach who’s only interested in helping one type of client achieve one type of goal.

However, you also have to consider how you’re going to convince those clients to do enough to get results. You’ll be more effective with some clients than with others. Their success may eventually narrow your market to people who look at before-and-after pictures of those clients and see themselves.

But it’s usually a bad idea to narrow your market before you know for certain who’s interested in your coaching, and who’ll have the best results.

READ ALSO: How to Find Your Target Market for Personal Training

Step 2: Earn nutrition coaching credentials

You don’t need any education or credentials to get started as a nutrition coach, just as you can become a personal trainer without studying anatomy or physiology, or even earning a personal training certification.

But why wouldn’t you want to? Why wouldn’t you want to know the fundamentals of human metabolism and energy balance? And why would clients trust you if you didn’t take the time to earn some kind of credential?

I got my first nutrition-coaching certification from NASM. It didn’t offer a lot of guidance on how to coach, but it gave me a solid foundation in nutrition science.

You can pass some online courses in a weekend, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do. Take your time and absorb the material. Give yourself several months with a self-guided course like Precision Nutrition Level 1, which I’ve taken, as have most of our Stronger U coaches.

READ ALSO: Do Trainers Need a College Degree to Be Successful?

Step 3: Build credibility as a nutrition coach on social media

You can’t just wake up one morning and announce, “Okay, I’m certified. Who wants my help?”

I mean, you could, but you can guess how well it would work.

So while you’re working on your certification, you also need to earn credibility and trust. There’s no single way to do it. Some advocate for a specific diet or system, like Paleo or keto or intermittent fasting or whatever people are interested in at the moment. I went a different direction, with no fixed or branded diet.

Your first step is to figure out where your potential clients are. They probably aren’t on TikTok or Snapchat. And they probably are on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook is best for building communities, and Instagram is best for getting exposure and expanding your reach (for now, anyway).

Participate in communities where people can get to know you, and where you can be genuinely helpful. People want to work with coaches they know and like. You never want to be an intruder who pops in to offer unsolicited advice or hawk your services.

READ ALSO: How to Build an Online Following from Scratch

Give advice that gets the right kind of attention

How you present yourself matters. Nutrition knowledge isn’t visible. At least not the way people can look at your pictures and videos and see how strong you are, or how much muscle you have.

Maybe some people will give you more credibility if you’re jacked, especially if you’re offering advice on how to get the result you’ve already achieved. Same with someone who’s lost a lot of weight and is trying to help people do the same.

But for most of us, it’s not that simple. You need to look like someone who follows your own advice (because you do follow your own advice), but your biggest advantage will come from how you share information and offer help.

A few suggestions:

  1. Be prepared for negativity

No matter what platform you’re on, or what community you’re in, one thing is guaranteed: You’ll get pushback on just about everything you say. The people you’re trying to help have heard it all before.

Moreover, the best advice you can offer tends to be simple, but your potential clients don’t trust simple advice. They think they have complex problems that require complicated interventions. You’ll see the same issues over and over again, and almost every time, the person you’re trying to help believes his or her problem is uniquely difficult. But you can’t come straight out and say that.

  1. Speak to the individual as well as the group

Talk to people like you’re in the same room with them. Don’t lecture or cut and paste study abstracts to make your points.

At the same time, remember that you aren’t alone in the room. You aren’t just talking to the person who asked a question or requested your advice. You’re talking to everyone on the thread, everyone in the group, and everyone who will ever see that post. It could be hundreds or even thousands of people over the following days, weeks, and months.

  1. Stay out of food fights

Don’t engage in conversations to score points or put someone down. You aren’t helping anyone reach their goals, and you aren’t helping yourself.

And don’t let other posters pull you into those conversations. Block, mute, or unfollow people who start pointless arguments or get rude or belligerent.

Avoid imposter syndrome

For many new coaches, your biggest fear is that an expert will jump in, tear your answer to shreds, and humiliate you in front of the entire group, including all your potential clients.

Three ways to avoid getting big-footed:

  1. Don’t offer answers that would be easy for an expert to tear apart

Avoid black-and-white assertions, and never present your opinions as fact or your anecdotes as data.

  1. Show humility and empathy

If you come off as an arrogant know-it-all, others will jump at any opportunity to knock you down.

  1. Let the Wookiee win

If you’re afraid your reasonable, well-intentioned advice will be savaged by the group’s resident bully, find another group.

Some groups are set up to be a specific expert’s forum, or to advocate for one type of diet, and if you’re at odds with that person or that diet, you don’t belong there.

If it’s just some rando who’s dominating a group or an expert’s comment threads, and there’s no way to avoid interacting with him or her, you can report the person, or just find another place to share your knowledge and advice.

READ ALSO: How to Get Over Feeling Like a Fraud and Boost Your Confidence

Build an archive

When you write a great post, or give someone a helpful, detailed answer in a comment, save the link in a spreadsheet, arranged by subject.

Subjects can include weight loss, body composition, macros, supplements, fasting, fad diets, and dozens of others.

Since you aren’t sharing this archive with anyone else right now (although that could change down the road, if you hire an assistant or bring in another coach), you can organize it any way that makes sense for you.

Just make sure you understand it, because the more your business grows, the more valuable this content becomes. Your archive not only provides you with a trove of answers to common questions, which you can update as you learn more and refine your approach. It also gives you a database of topics for future content for your articles, posts, newsletters, and podcasts.

READ ALSO: Can Personal Trainers Give Diet and Nutrition Advice to Clients?

Step 3a: Set up your nutrition coaching business

Everything I’ve discussed so far sets you up to coach clients when you’re ready. But sometimes, as I learned, clients come to you before you’re ready for them.

If you’re already working independently as a personal trainer, online or in person, this part is easy. Just add nutrition coaching to the services on your website, and make sure your insurance policy covers your new venture.

But if this is a new business for you, you need to do four things before you accept money from your first client.

READ ALSO: Create a Personal Trainer Business Plan in Six Steps

  1. File any paperwork you need to get started

If you don’t know what paperwork you need to file in your state or province, contact a local business lawyer, or look for help online from a service like LegalZoom.

  1. Open a business bank account, if you don’t already have one

And if you don’t have a good accountant to help with your finances, find one. Don’t wait until your taxes are due!

  1. Get liability insurance

You can usually get it through a professional group or certifying organization. Or, like me, you can go through a local insurance broker.

  1. Set up a website

The current Stronger U site has hundreds of articles and gets 100,000 visitors a month. But I started with a simple, cheap Wix site, which I set up myself.

Your site needs to tell potential clients four things:

  • Who you are, with a short bio and a simple, friendly photo
  • What you offer, and how much you charge for it
  • Where they can follow you on social media
  • How to get in touch with you

That last one is the most important. It should be super-easy to get in touch with you. And when someone does, you need to respond super-fast.

READ ALSO: How to Start a Fitness Blog

Step 4: Take on your first nutrition coaching clients

Ideally, if you’re helping someone online, there should be a natural transition to them showing interest in your services, followed by another natural transition to you asking for the sale.

But it’s hard. I know I still struggle with it.

And that’s just at your end. Consumers also have trouble assigning value to your time. They have conversations all the time, and with a few clicks have access to all the free advice the internet has to offer. Why should they pay you for things they don’t value?

Look at it this way: If you were offering tangible items, like cookware or supplements, nobody would expect you to give them away. You have to think of nutrition coaching the same way, as a product with value that people should pay to receive.

There’s a fine line between showing interest and concern for someone and giving away your professional services for free.

Even when your business is up and running, you have to be careful about giving away too much. Think about how a paying client will feel if they see you giving the same attention to someone who’s not paying for your time. In those cases, you’re better off giving the non-client links to articles, posts, or comments that help to answer their question, but don’t replicate the service your clients pay for.

READ ALSO: 11 Top Trainers Talk About Their First Personal Training Client

Onboarding your first clients

Onboarding offers your first chance to wow your new clients, to let them know you’re taking care of them.

So right after you send a new client their first program, send a text to let them know you’ve done it, and to check their inbox.

After that, it’s in your best interest to do whatever you can to help them succeed. I believe in giving clients constant support. Nutrition coaching is different from personal training, where you have clients who work out three or four times a week. Your clients eat three or four meals a day.

And it’s a lonely process. That’s a big reason people fail on diets. So if you’re my client, I want you to know I’m always in your pocket. I’m going to let you talk to me when you want to talk to me. I’ll answer as quickly as I can.

In my experience, few clients will overwhelm you with their need for support. And the ones who get the support they need, without worrying about whether a question is dumb or feeling guilty about taking too much of your time, will get the kind of results you can showcase to attract future clients.

Finding more clients

Some coaches will read what I just said and consider it a green light to invest all their energy in their clients, who’ll be happy to take all the energy you have.

But you have to do more than that. As Jonathan Goodman likes to say, doing a great job is just half the challenge. You also have to make sure people know you’re doing a great job.

The success of your clients will certainly help you there. Sharing my clients’ results on my personal Facebook page, with their permission, usually generated new leads from their friends and followers.

To turn those leads into clients, you need to follow up. Few people will buy a package the first time they show interest. Checking in on them will show you care, and also remind them of the problem that led them to contact you in the first place.

And don’t forget about former clients. When a client finishes a contract and decides not to renew, encourage them to stay in touch with you. Invite them to stay active in your Facebook group, if you have one.

If you don’t hear from them, or see them participating in your group or responding to your posts, reach out to see how they’re doing. A simple text might convince someone who’s struggling without your guidance to return to you.

What about paid marketing?

You don’t have to spend money on marketing if you’re willing to put yourself out there in groups where you can help people.

And if you don’t want to put yourself out there, you’ll probably find that paid ads and promoted posts don’t bring you many clients.

Final thoughts about online nutrition coaching

When you take care of people, you’ll have more people to take care of. That’s why, to this day, 99 percent of our client base at Stronger U comes from word of mouth.

As I said at the beginning, I never set out to become a nutrition coach. I just wanted to help people. Something I did for free turned into a job, and then the job turned into a business. But if the business went away tomorrow, I’d still find a way to help people.

Does that sound like you? If it does, you just may have a future as an online nutrition coach.