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Beginnings

New owners weigh in on the hardest part of their business … starting it.

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They say that starting is the hardest part. If that is true, then these ECPs—whom we asked to share their businesses’ origin stories while they are basically still happening—should have it pretty easy from here on out, right?

Kidding aside, if you’re curious about what happens in that space between idea and execution, we’ve got the perspectives of four new business owners who implemented different models and priorities as they got off the ground. From business plans to securing financing, from what they’d do differently to advice for others looking to branch out on their own, read on for all the fascinating details.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Julia Laval and Anissa Laval
Cutting Edge Optics, Berkeley, CA
Opened: November 2018

We are a mother/daughter optician duo and opened Cutting Edge Optics in November 2018 located in the charming Elmwood community on one of Berkeley’s busiest streets, College Ave.

Julia also owns Montclair Optical in Oakland. Montclair Optical boasts a long history; it has been in business for 42 years and passed down through several generations of opticians in our family for the last 35. Montclair Village has its own lab and Julia has been the technician in charge of cutting all lenses for the last few years.

I have been an optician for the last nine years. I learned my skills from my mother; observing the techniques needed to succeed in the business. If not for having seen first-hand how to correctly understand lenses, prescriptions and frames, my climb into the business would have been much steeper. I’ve worked under enough doctors to understand how not to run a business, enough that I knew I was ready for this adventure.

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We opened Cutting Edge Optics because of our passion for opticianry. We are bringing true optical knowledge, new techniques, and unique, fresh brands to Berkeley. As two opticians with genuine love for this profession, excellent service comes naturally to us. We take our time, offering personal attention to every customer, and supplying a broad yet original selection of glasses to guarantee the perfect fit, customized in every way: from color and lens shape, to the glasses-buying experience itself.  

The shop was previously owned by an optician who was ready to move on. The decor was entirely white. Our aesthetic is based on a New York studio loft. When we took over, we painted and put up a gorgeous plant wall as the focal point. It pulls in the green, sustainable and eco-friendly aspect of the neighborhood, fitting these values into our urban aesthetic. The large windows create an airy, inviting feeling. We play music from all over the world, including Africa and Central and South America. We even mix in a little French rap.

This store has an extensive business plan. After more than 30 years of success in Montclair, it was natural to apply those guidelines to Cutting Edge. We are very serious about the buying process and making sure we don’t overspend on frames. Optical businesses fail in one category: how big their eyes get when a rep walks in verses how much they have in their bank account. It should never be a race to rush patients in the door just to cover your costs month to month.

Julia knew from experience what was needed to financially support the business and get it off the ground, and Anissa knew how to deploy social media and advertising to generate a buzz before the doors even opened. Before Day 1 our Instagram had over 700 followers and we gave hour to hour updates and sneak peeks. Business has been busy from the first day.

We constantly push ourselves to keep our patients informed about what we’re doing next. Social media gives us a platform to align brands with specific people. Every brand introduction and major event is published online. Photographer Dione Green (@Dione.Green), who took our photos, is key. We also advertise a lot with the Elmwood community newsletters.

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Business, especially starting cold, can be a waiting game. When you revamp an established business, you’re going to deal with customers who are accustomed to the old way, the old prices, and the old frame selection; these loyal customers can take a while to warm up to changes. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is not swaying to please everyone.

Annisa (l) and Julia Laval have brought true optical knowledge, new techniques and unique, fresh brands to Berkeley, CA, with Cutting Edge.

In terms of advice, make a detailed guideline to how you want to financially run your business and stick to it. Our way is to make a frame board. Our frame board details how many frames can fit into a section and how much money we are willing to spend on that section. You may think more is better but picking the right frames for customers is smarter than having as many as possible. Listen to your gut, not the rep! For example, if I’m buying 60 pieces of Garrett Leight, I need to ask myself how much I’m spending and how far they will get me before I have to repurchase. Then I need to consider what happens if 35 percent of those frames don’t move. I cannot purchase Caroline Abram just for its beauty, I have to consider who is going to buy these frames and is it worth having the same frame in three colors.

Also, have a social media advisor. Social media is the new Yelp. Without a visual aid to generate intrigue for customers, you’re doing your business a disservice and damaging its ability to grow and make profit. Social media is a digital lasso for new customers.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
We wanted to open as dramatically as we could. Our doors and windows were covered then we did a large reveal online and on the Elmwood community site. We were met with overwhelming support.
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We have had to break up with many vendors and bring in new brands.
Has the business made you cry?
Of course! If a business doesn’t make you cry, you’re not working hard enough.
Would you have done anything differently?
No.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
A customer who had been looking for frames for over three years left with six. She later came back with three friends who all purchased.
How long did it take until you felt like were gonna make it?
Instantly. Business grows if you control money flow. Everything else comes easy.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Never. You have to be confident in your ability to succeed.
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
We sit in the office every time we feel overwhelmed and say: “There’s no way we are going to fail.”

 

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GOING HOME AGAIN

Erika E. Mabus, OD 
Muncy and Laporte, PA
Opened: September 2018

I established my corporation on July 26, 2018 and officially signed closing documents on Sept. 6, 2018. I purchased it from an optometrist who had been practicing in the same location for the last 20 odd years. It’s 12 miles north of where I grew up and 25 miles south of where I live now. It was well-established, privately-owned, and one of very few independent offices in my area. I believe in private practice optometry and I am excited to officially be practicing in that capacity. 

I’d been contemplating my own practice since graduating from optometry school in 2013, and the timing just felt right. The optometrist had plans to retire soon, so it’s been a nice way for us to transition patients and give me time to pick his brain on the business aspects. 

I spent months going over the financials with an accountant and business advisor, as well as a lawyer with expertise in accounting and business acquisitions. I was surprised at how long it took for lawyers to go back and forth to on the contract’s terms. The retiring doctor and I began the process in April 2018 and finalized it September.

I secured financing through PNC Healthcare Business Banking and have been extremely happy with the help I received before, during, and after the purchase. I contacted a few smaller local banks, but they asked for high down payments or collateral; PNC made it simple and easy. 

I made a business plan, but just as everything in the world evolves, so has my idea of how my practice should run. I am happy with what I have accomplished in the last seven months of ownership, but I am always striving to do better. Currently, I am considering a consultant for more accountability and to keep myself on track, but also to help me achieve my future goal: comfort with the cost of new technology to set my office apart. 

Part of the appeal of private practice in a rural area is that patients feel at home. My team greets every patient by name and in the exam room I always try to make at least one personal connection. I recently saw an older patient I thought may have patronized my grandfather’s business years ago. We reminisced about the time he and his father spent in my grandfather’s hardware store. 

Taking over from an established OD where she grew up was Dr. Mabus’ way to ownership.

The retiring doctor and I put up a photo in the waiting area with a note welcoming me to the practice. I advertised with local high school sports teams and drama club programs and T-shirts. I also contacted the local newspaper for a “spotlight on business” article which brought a lot of business to my new location without any cost to me. 

The day we signed the agreement there was a full book of patients and it’s been that way ever since. Keeping the same staff with the retiring doctor still seeing patients has been a huge help. Patients are getting used to the idea of another doctor and they get one final visit with their previous optometrist. I opened a second location cold in January and I am just now starting to have a full day of patients there after a few weeks of one to five patients a day. 

I am happy with the quality of medical eyecare I provide, but I’d love to incorporate more advanced dry eye treatments. It is one of my personal passions, since I experience it myself. I also hope to become more skilled at specialty contact lens fittings to differentiate myself and complement my dry eye treatments. I thought I would be ready to jump in and purchase more equipment the first year, but now I hope to do so in year two. 

If anyone else is thinking of purchasing or starting their own practice, I would recommend getting an excellent set of advisors: a good lawyer, a competent accountant, and a business advisor. Having people to help is huge. My other advice is to integrate yourself into your community. Patients love to make connections with you, and that’s easier if you go to the same restaurants, know the schools, join the same gym, or shop in the same places.  

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
I brought in two new independent frame lines that focus on sustainability — TOC lunettes Monkey Glasses and David Green Eyewear
Have you had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
Not yet, thankfully. Has the business made you cry? e Not yet! But I have had a few sleepless nights since September
Would you have done anything differently?
I would have set up my website sooner, which is still not complete.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
I still see patients at two other retail locations on evenings and weekends. When I tell them I have two private practices, they tell me that they are excited to see me there next year.   
 
How long did it take until you felt like you had it under control?
About three months, although there are still times when I feel like I’m lost with the business aspects. 
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Not yet. Even when I am working seven days a week because I know in the end all the hard work will directly benefit me, not someone else.
What do you do to overcome doubt?
I breathe. I meditate. I trust that I am enough. I work hard, so I know that I’ve done everything I can. 

 

FROM BIG BOX TO BOUTIQUE

Mitch Peterson and Kelsey Keltgen, OD
SEEK Eyecare / Victoria, MN
Opened: February 2017 (Soft), April 2017 (Grand)

My wife, Dr. Kelsey Keltgen, and I cold-opened our practice in early 2017. We chose a new building in downtown Victoria, MN. We were the first and are still the only practice in Victoria.  

My wife, and high school sweetheart, had been practicing for about six years prior to opening SEEK. She worked as a paid hourly doctor right out of school and filled in at other practices on the side. After that she was a lease-holding doctor at a big box optical. I have a diverse background, from working on my family farm to starting a few successful businesses. I was even a bouncer and drove semi-trucks in college. Our unique backgrounds make us a great team. She is one of the most passionate ODs out there.

We both worked six to seven days a week to pay off our personal debt. So, when we were ready to open our dream store we were financially able to do so. We wanted to open our own practice because no one was doing what we wanted to do: offer a state-of-the-art practice that provided comprehensive exams with an approachable retail space. My wife wanted to be able to take a preventative approach that would be more beneficial to patients.

We did a ton of research. We used our experience to develop a patient experience that picked up where a lot of practices fall short. We had to figure everything out from scratch. None of us knew how or where to purchase frames … What lenses or lab to use.

We developed a very in-depth business plan with multiple options to pivot with if things didn’t pan out. We have adhered to the majority of it. The only major change is that we had to adapt due to how fast we are growing. We are hitting our goals for years four and five in year two.

We secured a build-out loan fairly easily due to our favorable debt-to-income ratio and self-financed the operating side. The most surprising challenge we encountered was that construction was always four months behind schedule due to more than 35 inches of rain the day we broke ground. We had to meet frame reps at a coffee shop.

Insurance credentialing was a huge project that my rock star wife handled. Start working on that the second you can. We are involved in the community, volunteering and sponsoring events. I’ve used unique marketing avenues to get our brand out. Constant logo use and branding is important to my marketing plan. Since we previously leased at a corporate big box practice, the patient base was ours. We posted on social media each step of the build-out.

Business was crazy when we opened. We had so much local support and we both have large families; they were some of our first patients. The support from our friends and family has been amazing.

Over time, we have gotten very precise in how we operate. We have brought in more high-end eyewear than we initially planned. The biggest learning curves have been on the optical side: we’re more particular with our frame purchases; we make sure the product is great and the rep is even better; if they aren’t, we get rid of them.

Our advice is don’t over-extend yourself. If you aren’t financially and mentally prepared to do everything yourself, wait a few years. Write up your dream business model and find the patient base that fits it. Don’t let anyone or anything push you to start cold. You have to be all-in. We have zero regrets and love working as a wife and husband duo.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
The night before we turned the OPEN sign on, we sat and had a beer in the front office after a month of 100 hour work weeks.
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We are break-up free on the patient side. We have had to let a vendor or two go.
Has the business made you cry?
It has been an emotional rollercoaster but I think the only tears have been tears of joy.
Would you have done anything differently?
e Nope.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
When publications like INVISION contact us to share our story. It reassures us that we must be doing something right.
 
 
How long did it take until you felt like you were gonna make it?
Once the first patient came in the door I knew we had created something special.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
e No success comes without mistakes. It is how you move forward and learn from them.
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
We work through everything as a team. If there is any doubt we talk it through between the doctor, Rachel and myself. Keeping each other in check keeps confidence high.

 

CROWDSOURCING SUCCESS

Jason M. Klepfisz, OD
Urban Eyecare, Phoenix, AZ
Opened: August 2017

We opened Urban Eyecare in August of 2017 to bring comprehensive care and independent eyewear and specialty contacts to an underserved area, and also hoping that bringing these services would springboard future growth.

I spent the better part of three years jotting down notes on all the little aspects of private practice and optical that resonated with myself. I wish I could say it was all fun and games, but there was a lot of monotony: Which slit lamp has the best optics? Manual vs. automated phoropter? White-gray flooring or gray-white? Pricing out the optical. The best advice came from those that have gone down this road before, those that are currently practicing, and those looking to hang up their own shingle.

I come from an Indian Health Services background, having completed residency in a rural community. This continued in a geriatric setting for years when I returned to Phoenix before deciding to open my own office. The biggest challenge we faced when opening, and one that changed our overall goal, was getting credentialed on medical insurance panels. We pivoted to focus on our retail experience, seeking harmony between a medically and optically oriented office. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the materials and craftsmanship as much as I have.

To make ourselves stand out, we push brand-awareness social media campaigns and provide adjustments and free cleaner to anybody who walks in. We exhibit local artists in our office.

We got the word out through trial and error. We started with our online presence. I also hand delivered letters to about 250 local businesses on a 100-degree spring day. We called local businesses and found ones who allowed us to deliver gift bags to their employees. We took every health fair opportunity available. Every bulletin board, coffee shop and college building we could leave flyers, we did, even handed them out on the street.

Business was great when we opened. The problem was we lost our optician just a few days before opening. I had no previous experience with optical and my staff were untrained in the area. In our first week, we slowly built up a pile of lab orders ready to be placed but nobody to place them. Fortunately, by the end of that week we found a wonderful replacement who has been our rock star ever since!

The main lessons we’ve learned are, firstly, to check out eyewear in person before buying. With our limited window to purchase frames while opening, we carried some brands we were less than thrilled with over the course of the year. We shed about half of the brands we started with and are much more careful in our choices now.

Lastly, my advice is to follow your dream! Don’t feel the need to take over somebody else’s problem office because starting cold is too difficult. Create something unique, a place that patients want to go, rather than a place they reluctantly need to go. Create an experience that makes people want to come back.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
Adding a fourth doctor day per week. It was wonderful to spend another day in my practice rather than working for somebody else. 
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We have unfortunately had to drop a few vendors. The beauty of ownership is we can choose to work with brands that complement us and our mission, to grow together.
Would you have done anything differently?
I would make design changes for our next office. A doctor who owns a large chain once told me that you always like your first office the least, but each one after gets a little better.
How long did it take until you felt like you were gonna make it?
It’s still day by day, even though we are turning a profit. The days with 16 patients make me feel like the king of the world, while slow days make me feel like tomorrow is never going to come. I don’t think I’ll feel like it’s completely under control for a couple more years.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Never!
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
Wake up happy every day and excited to go do my dream job at my dream office!

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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PR In The DIY Age

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Traditional PR used to be one of the few ways — other than paid advertising — for a small business to get noticed. But increasingly, public relations means finding your own voice through traditional media channels, visibility in the community, and social media.

“Today, there are so many ways that you can get noticed that do not require going through mainstream media,” says David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules Of Marketing & PR. “You can create your own original content in a blog, or images, or videos. The whole world of public relations is open to us with the tools we have available.”

The first step, according to Scott, is to ask yourself, “How do I best reach my potential customers?” Start with the idea of who you are trying to reach and then figure out how you can understand and reach them.

Scott says keeping up with media requires a lifestyle change. “It can become … transformational to your business, but you can’t do it just by dabbling,” he says. “It takes time.”

Dr. Selina McGee, OD, of Precision Vision in Edmond, OK, gets this. “I could make PR my full time job, but who’d have time to see patients? Consistency is king. I am active and visible, even went so far as to participate in a local “Dancing with the Stars” — I was one of the stars. The PR game has to have a goal, and a consistent roadmap to get there, or you can wind up in the weeds with a lot of money spent.”

It’s also easy to get so wrapped up in social media and online reviews, that you forget your basic people skills. Take on social media with enthusiasm, but don’t do it at the expense of traditional media channels or of building relationships offline.

“Local talk and referrals,” are where it’s at for Elevated Eyecare in Denver, CO, according to Heather Harrington. “Word of mouth has brought us more business and the most loyal patients we could ask for.”

In a nutshell, PR should be both your bullhorn and your buffer. As author Ed Zitron writes in This Is How You Pitch: How To Kick Ass In Your First Years of PR, you need both to get out the good news about your brand and to protect your reputation.

HOW TO EARN LOCAL MEDIA COVERAGE

Get to know local media representatives, says Lydia Baehr, a PR professional in Houston. “Remember, with PR, you can’t tell the media what you’d like them to say. They draw their own conclusions. The best thing to do is get to know them. If they can count on you to have a good story idea and you are easy to work with, they will get in touch with you.”

Becoming the eyecare authority in town has worked for Chicopee Eyecare in Chicopee, MA. “My partner and I are the go-to experts on eyecare,” shares Dr. David Momnie. “I was interviewed on a local morning TV show when we had the solar eclipse two years ago and I am one of twenty health care leaders asked to write an article about the next decade for healthcarenews.com (see “Vision 2020”).”

Dr. Adam Ramsey of Socialite Vision in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, is also no stranger to the TV cameras. “I have done a few TV news station spots over the years and they’ve interviewed me in store a few times as well. Most recently, when my billboard went viral and piqued their interest.”

Especially in small markets, the TV and print media are always on the lookout for stories that are positive and community-minded and once you get to know the reporters, it makes it easier to pitch story ideas. The best way to do that is to send out at least one press release per month and always be prepared to go on camera.

HOW TO TACKLE REVIEW SITES

The time to prepare for a bad review is before you get one, Scott says. If you are regularly active and responsive on review sites, you can build a good reputation for customer service and create a following. “If you are reviewed on a particular review site, where you have zero positive reviews and a negative review comes up, that can affect you. But if you have a lot of positive reviews and a single negative review comes up, I think that’s a good thing. It shows that the reviews are real. If they are all positive it can be looked at as fake, as being too good to be true.”

“If you’ve done a good job online and somebody says something negative about you for whatever reason, others will come to your defense and say, ‘Oh, this person isn’t really like that,’ or ‘I love their products.’ That can only happen if you are already active and present on that network.”

If bolstering your number of reviews is task number one, take a cue from Bee Cave Vision Center in Bee Cave, TX: “We do a Google review sunglasses giveaway every quarter and it’s really increased our reviews,” shares Gayle Bergthold.

HOW TO PULL OFF A PR-WORTHY PROMOTION

Well attended, high-traffic events can be a business-building gold mine. Most places have some event that brings people and media out. To boost impact and lower costs, find businesses and vendors to partner with.

Golf draws impassioned supporters and Dr. Texas L. Smith of Dr. Texas L. Smith & Associates in Citrus Heights, CA, knew that when the PGA came to town he needed to be there. “I teamed with a local Lasik surgeon at a Senior PGA event and worked with Alcon to give away contact lens solutions,” he shares. “All the people that came to our booth wore contacts and many were interested in discussing Lasik surgery and what was new in contacts. I got new CL patients and co-managed those patients that got Lasik surgery.

“The ophthalmologist paid for the booth, Alcon supplied the solution, and I gave out eye charts with our name on them. It was a three day event with thousands of people paying several hundred dollars to attend. Many of them had vision insurance to cover their eyecare. It was successful beyond my wildest imagination. Best PR event I’ve ever created,” he concludes.

INVISION’S Tips for Writing a Press Release

  1. Be yourself. Be real. Be honest.
  2. Explain who you are and what you do.
  3. Make it easy for the reporters. Include quotes and photos in case they aren’t able to do an interview.
  4. Include all the information — who, what, when, where, why — especially about events.
  5. Include a way to reach you directly.
  6. Spellcheck!
  7. If you’re not sure if it’s news, ask, so it won’t be mistaken as an advertising pitch.
  8. Follow up. If you say you can send additional information, do it, and do it quickly.
  9. PR is not as scary as it seems.
And make the most of advertising partnerships, too, to connect to editors. If you advertise regularly in any local papers, magazines or radio shows, ask your ad rep to arrange a meeting with editors and reporters in the style, health, and business departments. Let them know you can be a resource for information about shopping trends, retail, eyecare, health, entrepreneurship or small business.

10 TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR IMAGE WITH DIY PR

MAKE THE MOST OF 2020. 2020 is the year of vision and that right there is enough to hitch a media pitch to. No doubt that’s a reason otherwise PR-shy Modern Eyes in Austin, TX, has switched up their approach this year. “We usually do minimal PR but 2020 will be different,” offers Dr. Sonja Franklin. “We are participating in the Google Wellness Color Expo which spotlights minority-owned businesses and where we’ll get to market to Google employees.

WRITE A HELPFUL/FUNNY BLOG. “Business owners make the mistake of writing about their own products and services, but consumers are looking for information that’s going to help them or be funny or interesting,” says David Meerman Scott. Do blog, says author David Newman in DO IT MARKETING, because blogging is forever. A blog continues to sell your company and your value day after day and year after year.

USE REAL PEOPLE’S PHOTOS on your website, preferably happy clients, says David Meerman Scott, to give your site and your business authenticity.

RESPOND IN REAL TIME TO COMPLAINTS. Be prepared to respond immediately to customer complaints or feedback. “It used to be you had time to react, to respond slowly,” David Meerman Scott says. “Today, when someone says something, they expect a response RIGHT NOW, not tomorrow and not even this afternoon. If you are quick, you have an advantage.”

RESPOND TO REVIEWS. Listen and respond to everyone, says Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local. If you see a negative post, rather than freak out or ignore it, react in the most constructive way possible. Respond publicly, indicating you are going to solve the problem privately. Remember it’s never too late to respond. If you have a lingering complaint you initially ignored, go back and answer it NOW and do your best to resolve it. Most visitors to Yelp or Google won’t even notice the gap in time between complaint and response.

GO AFTER THE KIDS. “We live in a community with four high schools, so we do our best to participate in as MANY things as possible,” says Dr. Cynthia Sayers of EyeShop Optical Center in Lewis Center, OH. “Yearbook ads, sponsorships for sports teams, little league, local parades, etc. When the parents see your brand over and over and know you support their kids it makes you someone they refer to friends.”

PARTICIPATE IN ALREADY HIGH PROFILE EVENTS. The best strategy is to become active in your community,” insists Pam Housley of Texas State Optical of Nederland in Port Arthur, TX. Participate in health fairs. Work with your local Chamber of Commerce. Run or Walk in support of fund raising efforts.” And of course, make sure the entire team is wearing matching shirts, jackets or hats (all three even) with the name of the business clear and easy to read. For the modest investment in gear the ROI in visibility is immeasurable.

FIND PARTNERS. It is never too late. That’s the lesson Jennifer Leuzzi of Mill Creek Optical, in Dansville, NY, learned with last summer’s event “Wine Glasses and Eyeglasses” after 23 years in business. “We are adjoined to a small coffee shop and she made treats and let me use her tables to set up three companies to display trunk show style. It was an overwhelming success and everyone had a blast,” she reports. “We heard about it for weeks after and had people stop by saying they heard about it and want to be invited next time. It was a great injection of excitement to our store and a nice boost of revenue.”

THINK OF SOCIAL MEDIA LIKE A COCKTAIL PARTY, says author David Meerman Scott. “Do you go into a cocktail party and ask every single person you meet for a business card before you agree to speak with them? Do you try to meet every single person, or do you have a few great conversations? Are you helpful, providing valuable information to people with no expectation of getting something in return?

PROMOTE GOOD PRESS ON YOUR WEBSITE. A website is not like a business card. Websites are organic and need to constantly be updated, Baehr says. “Share the links of the press you do get. Have a press room on your website, to which you can refer journalists or bloggers looking for images that are ready to go. Invest in great photography.”

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22 Ways to Close the Gap Between Knowing and Doing For Eyecare Business Leaders

Actually implementing change (rather than merely talking about it) is one of the more frustrating aspects of business management.

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There’s a chance you’ve stood here before: on the cusp of a new year, pledging to yourself that this time, things will be different. You’ll implement those best practices you’ve read in business books or heard at trade show seminars. You’ll knock your inventory into shape, bring your marketing up to date and fire up your staff. Come the end of 2020, you’ll be sitting atop a thriving business practice that will not only ensure your future is financially secure but showcase your business acumen. Only the odds suggest it’s not going to happen. Numerous surveys done over the last three decades suggest that at best you’ve got about a 30 percent chance of succeeding in implementing such change. It’s more likely that in a year, you’ll find yourself pretty much where you are now, doing things much the same way as you always have.

The inability of most businesses to effectively implement change — even when they know what needs to be done — is one of the more curious and frustrating aspects of business management. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, two Stanford Graduate School of Business professors, famously coined the term “the knowing-doing gap” to encapsulate the divergence between what corporate best practices and management science say managers should do, and what they actually do.

The knowing-doing gap afflicts businesses of all sizes and in all sectors. And despite increasing awareness of the issue, companies are getting no better at closing it.

Some businesses mistake talk for action; they perfect their plans and presentations, yet follow-up is feeble. Still other businesses get locked in the past, sometimes because their identities are too strong to adapt. A great many workplaces are cowed by an intolerance of mistakes that discourages feedback and paralyzes initiative. Conversely, some organizations are just too comfortable, creating a situation that no one genuinely wants to disrupt.

Many, if not most, enterprises rely on faulty yardsticks of performance, favoring financial benchmarks that are easy to track but that do not truly capture the drivers of transformation.

One thing that can torpedo even the best-laid plan is the unknowability of the future. As Mike Tyson succinctly put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s impossible to know what lies ahead. Markets, staff, and customers don’t react the way you expect, and most change programs lack the agility to deal with the unexpected chain of events that may be set in motion.

To be sure, change is hard. It’s difficult to get other people, like your staff, to do what you want. It’s often as tough to get yourself to follow through on a commitment you’ve made on December 31. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Hollywood movies are often about change and redemption, and often the trigger is a rousing speech by a dying uncle, wounded comrade, or aging sports star. In the real world, influencing people’s behaviors requires a lot more than words. You need to make what is often perceived as undesirable desirable, you need to harness team spirit, and you need to offer rewards and make it structurally easy for the person to carry out the changes through routines and skills training. You need to hold people accountable to the new ways on a day-to-day basis, and you need to be prepared to pivot and change approaches when something is not working. Finally, you need to be ready to communicate your message over and over again.

In the pages that follow, we will provide tips and ideas to set you in motion on your year of change. There’s a good chance you will know many of them. That’s the thing about the knowing-doing gap. The secret is to invest in as many as possible, celebrate any progress that you make and keep moving forward.

22 Tips to Close the Knowing-doing Gap

1. Get Staff Buy-in

To succeed, a change strategy must, at least in part, be shaped by the people who will execute it. They are the ones doing the work, so they need to be involved from the beginning. Moreover, they are best positioned to codify experience into usable rules, which they can phrase in a language that resonates for them (creating such in-house terminology is often one of the first steps in building a successful company culture). And besides, they may actually have some good ideas to share. “Often the best strategies don’t come from the top of the organization. The frontline can be a well of ideas. New ideas pop up from the pressure of trying to solve a problem for the customer,” says Robert Simons, author of Seven Strategy Questions: A Simple Approach For Better Execution.

2. Be a Little LESS Positive

Positive thinking has its place, especially when it comes to conceiving goals, but when it comes to achieving them, it can actually be a hindrance, says Dr. Gabriele Oettigen, a New York University psychology professor who has been studying the effects of positive thinking for over 20 years. “When people only think about a positive future, they’ve already attained this future in their minds, so they have little motivation to actually act on it,” Oettigen recently told The Atlantic. In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, she recommends a procedure called mental contrasting — that is, examine the barriers that stand in the way of us actually attaining that goal and map out detailed strategies to deal with them. “Visualizing the desired future and then imagining the obstacles can actually help us be more successful than positive thinking alone,” she says.

3. Be Outright Negative

Postmortems are useful, but even better is if you can take action before your dear project dies. Hence, the increasing popularity of pre-mortems. The process is simple: Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that it’s already over. Everything went as badly as you could have feared. Now: why? Asking the question this way, explains the psychologist Gary Klein, has an almost magical effect. It removes the pressure from those who are worried about seeming disloyal by voicing concerns; indeed, it turns things into a competition to find ever more convincing reasons for failure. “It’s a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s-advocate thinking without encountering resistance,” Klein says. According to Klein, using prospective hindsight can improve people’s ability to predict the reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent.

4. Put Staff’s Skin in the Game

There’s another reason you want to involve your staff: When people feel the ideas were partly theirs, they have skin in the game and feel accountable for the plan’s success. It wasn’t just the boss’s idea. “People do not change their minds through being told, however open and inclusive the communication may be. It is an oft-forgotten feature of human nature that if you want to influence someone, a good start is to show they have influenced you. If you are open to others, others tend to be open to you. Influence comes through interaction,” write Alison Reynolds and David Lewis in What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being A Better Leader.

5. Identify Your WIGs

To win any war, you need to pick the right battles. In their book The 4 Disciplines Of Execution, Chris McChesney, Jim Huling and Sean Covey call these targets “WIGs”, short for Wildly Important Goals. A WIG can make all the difference, but will require you to commit a disproportionate amount of energy to it. “In determining your WIG, don’t ask ‘What’s most important?’ Instead, begin by asking ‘If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?’” they write.
The truth is that it is hard to do more than two or three big things at a time, no matter how large your organization. “Saying no to things that you really want to do is the telltale sign of a good planning process,” the investor Fred Wilson recently told a recent INC founder conference.
The final benefit of a WIG is clarity. According to some studies, only 15 percent of employees at corporations actually know their organization’s most important goals — either because there are no goals, or they have too many goals. A WIG will ensure everyone is clear on what critical activities provide the greatest leverage to achieving that goal.

6. Play Planning Poker

One of the main drivers of resistance to a change program is when staff don’t feel they have been heard or the amount of additional work they may be asked to do is not acknowledged. A fun way to show you’re interested in your employees’ perspectives is Planning Poker. It goes like this: Each staff member gets a set of numbered cards and the manager describes the new task or role they will be asked to do under Program Revamp. The employees then choose the numbered card that represents the amount of effort that they believe will be required to achieve the outcome. As the cards are revealed — some with high values, others with lower values — it quickly becomes apparent who’s not on the same page. “Planning Poker sparks productive discussion and speeds up clarification of what’s expected,” says Dave Bailey, a business coach and tech entrepreneur.

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7. Create Small Steps

Set big, ambitious goals. Just be sure to add deadlines for the small concrete steps that will get you there. In his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer suggests taking almost absurdly tiny steps, day after day. It enables you, in Maurer’s words, to “tiptoe past fear”: our monkey-brain, it seems, is fooled when we tell it we’re embarking only on something minuscule, and it stops putting up resistance. By making your steps too small to fail, you and your staff can make those initial, small changes on which to build a new way of working and doing business.

8. Be Clear About Everyone’s Role and Place

Gary Neilson, a consultant with Booz & Co., which over the last decade has surveyed over 1,000 companies for a strategy study, says failures can almost always be fixed by ensuring that employees truly understand what they are responsible for and who makes which decisions — and then giving them the information they need to fulfill their responsibilities. With these two building blocks in place, structural and motivational elements will follow.

9. Six-Week Sprints

“Agile planning” should be viewed as a series of box sprints with the objective of moving forward, testing the waters, learning, and refining the strategy based on the results, says business coach Dave Bailey, who recommends six-week stretches. Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, authors of the 12-Week Year, recommend a longer period, as the title of their book suggests. The exact number isn’t important, just so long as the stretch is long enough to allow your team to make significant progress on a key front, yet short enough to stay focused. The problem with thinking of life in annualized 365-day units is that a year’s too big to get your head around, Moran and Lennington argue, and there’s too much unpredictability involved in planning for 10 or 11 months in the future.

10. Try a Brainwriting Session

Traditional brainstorming sessions have a rather spotty record. This is because only one person can speak at any one time and it is easy for some personalities — and their ideas — to dominate, so few good ideas are actually generated. A new study suggests something called “asynchronous brainwriting,” whereby participants rotate between eight-minute individual writing sessions and three-minute group sessions to read over each other’s ideas. The researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington found that participants using this method thought of an idea every two minutes on average, a much higher rate than more traditional brainstorming sessions.

11. Use the Right Metrics

How should you measure progress toward your goal? According to Pfeffer and Sutton, companies with huge knowing-doing gaps tend to measure things that don’t really matter, such as hours worked, rather than overall customer satisfaction. Or lag indicators rather than lead measures. It’s the data on lead measures (for example, number of phone calls or mystery shopper scores if your goal is greater customer intimacy) that enables you to close the gap between what you know your team should do and what they are actually doing.
It’s also important not to overemphasize traditional performance such as sales, which can impair execution in another subtle but important way, says Donald Sull of the MIT Sloan School of Management. “If managers believe that hitting their numbers trumps all else, they tend to make conservative performance commitments.” Trying new things inevitably entails setbacks, and honestly discussing the challenges involved increases the odds of long-term success.

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12. Don’t Substitute Talk For Action

Substituting talk for action is perhaps the most common way businesses fall into the knowing-doing gap, say Pfeffer and Sutton. Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and setting goals, they don’t actually implement anything. Systems can help. One system that’s currently popular online goes by the name “No Zero Days.” The idea is simply not to let a single day pass without doing something, however tiny, towards some important project.

13. Enough Talking Already… Launch!

To overcome resistance, launch new initiatives with a lot of hoopla, following through immediately to sustain momentum, and singling out those doing good work for compliments (in addition to raising morale, it sends a message that management is watching closely.)

14. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

People play differently when keeping score. “Great teams know, at every moment, whether or not they’re winning,” say McChesney, Huling and Covey in The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

15. Praise More

Most of us have our favorite method of trying to influence people’s behavior: pass a law, threaten a consequence, offer a training program. But it’s too simplistic. It takes a combination of personal, social and structural influences to get people to change. The first thing that needs to be done is to ensure that vital behaviors are connected to intrinsic satisfaction, such as associating what we’re doing with a sense of greater purpose (“These are our customers’ most important moments”). The second is the social environment, such as making people accountable to the team, and finally come the rewards, such as bonuses. A big part in all of this is feedback. Many managers act as if praise is a finite resource. It’s not and lack of recognition is usually the No. 1 complaint among staff.

16. Use Fear Judiciously

There’s a good chance that your desire for change is linked to the disruption going on in the marketplace, and few industries are being “disrupted” as drastically as the retail industry. Andy Grove, the former Intel chairman, liked to say that fear — fear of the competitor, fear of failure — was essential to fueling a desire to win in the marketplace. But fear is often counter-productive. In business, Pfeffer and Sutton report, managers who try to lead through fear cause paralysis more often than action. And trying to motivate yourself with fear is like screaming at a child, “Do something, dammit!” You’ll either freeze up or act in an impetuous way that makes things worse.

17. Craft Simple Rules

Ultimately, it’s detailed execution at the employee level, and not strategy, that gets things done. And execution requires rules. Rules set boundaries (as in inventory buying), assign priorities, tell you when to fold (that staffer not paying her way), and “how to” do something (as in, “Every initial interaction with a customer must end in an open-ended question.”) In Simple Rules: How To Thrive In A Complex World, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt make the case for — as the title of their book indicates — keeping it simple. There’s just too much information in the world for a rule to address every situation. And besides, while specificity may make frontline employees’ jobs easier, too much eliminates their need to think and diminishes their sense of ownership. Most customer-facing situations in business are generic anyway and have a standard solution (or an adaptation of one). They don’t require the intervention of the boss. This has another big benefit — it frees you up to focus on the decisions that are important and move the needle. As for how to devise those Simple Rules, Sull and Eisenhardt have some simple guidelines: Users suggest the rules, data trumps opinion, and give the rules a test drive.

18. Deal with Dissent

It’s possible, and even likely, that some of your frontline employees will voice objections to your strategy. They may think the leaders have chosen the wrong approach or have decided to play in the wrong space. If this happens, listen carefully and sincerely. “Every failed strategy had people on the frontline who expressed concerns,” says Simons. It’s a manager’s job to allow bad news to bubble up to the top of the organization. Simons urges though that once those concerns have been heard and dealt with, then people need to fall into line with the agreed strategy, regardless of their opinion. For those who seem determined to play the game of “Yes, but” (offer a solution, and they’ll find a reason to reject it), the right response is to refuse to play along, because their real motive is to prove the situation is irresolvable. Break the cycle by agreeing sympathetically. Or ask: “What do you plan to do about it?” says the entrepreneur Trevor Blake in his book Three Simple Steps.

19. Take Care of the High & the Low

Humans typically don’t like change. And the two groups most resistant tend to be the lower performers and — surprisingly — high performers, says Neilson. The low performers because they fear they will struggle, and the high performers because they have found a way to succeed in the existing system, so they tend to see the problem as other people needing to get it together and be effective. As a result, change seems like unnecessary overhead that is liable to get in the way of their actual work. “Essentially, low performers need to know the ‘what’—what the expectations are in the new order of things — while high performers need the ‘why’ of the change explained,” Neilson says.

“Before you try to introduce any kind of ‘performance management’ to a team, the first step is to bring in standards, support, and accountability. Once you have that, you can clearly communicate where people need to develop, give low performers the help they need, set them up to be successful, and if it still doesn’t work out … let them go,” he writes in Results: Keep What’s Good, Fix What’s Wrong, And Unlock Great Performance.

For high performers, it will be hard, but it will be extremely effective, so take the time, he counsels. Hone your explanations on them, hear them out, and work to earn their trust. They usually wield outsize influence in the workplace. Once you have their support, other employees will quickly get on board.

20. Aim, Fire, Do

The traditional top-down approach to business strategy has been “Plan-then-Do.” The organization would invest heavily in creating a detailed plan that specified roles for all employees based on how the market was expected to react. Should the plan falter, employees would invariably be faulted for failing to execute, leading to demands that the plan be followed even more closely with ever greater micromanaging. The results were rarely pretty. An alternative approach popularized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their bestseller In Search Of Excellence was a “ready-fire-aim” go-to-market strategy. This agile, test-and-learn approach, which has become the standard in Silicon Valley, is better suited to today’s volatile environment. Instead of thinking of strategy as a linear process, consider it as inherently iterative — a loop instead of a line, in which the situation is constantly reassessed: Plan, do, assess, replan, redo. “Success requires identifying the next few steps along a broadly defined strategic path and then learning and refining as you go. This approach makes execution easier and increases the odds of delivering great results,” says Michael Mankins, co-author of Time, Talent, Energy: Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.

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21. Do Retrospectives

In addition to the daily meetings, it’s important to end the six- or 12-week sprints with retrospectives, which bring together staff to gather answers to three questions:

  • What’s working well?
  • What’s not working well?
  • How can we improve?

Note that retrospectives require psychological safety that may mean cultivating a new set of skills at the top, including empathy and transparency, that build trust. Improve your process every cycle.

22. There is No Finish Line

Lurking behind most schemes for transformation is the unspoken notion that change is something you achieve, once and for all. But it doesn’t work that way because a day when everything is “sorted out” never arrives. If you continuously stare at the gap between where you are and where you think you should be, you’ll exist in a space of debilitating discouragement. Instead, observe and appreciate how far you’ve come. Sure, you aren’t where you want to be, but you aren’t where you were, either. “Treat strategy as evergreen. The best companies see strategy less as a plan and more as a direction and agenda of decisions,” says Michael Mankins in a paper titled “5 Ways the Best Companies Close the Strategy-Execution Gap” in the Harvard Business Review. Focus on getting better rather than being good, and before too long, you might find that you’re actually pretty great. Not only does this encourage you to focus on developing and acquiring new skills, it allows you to take difficulties in stride and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

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Stealing Time

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Are you harried each day, knowing that you have more to do than fits in 24 hours? Do you find yourself wasting time through the day, constantly distracted and interrupted, wondering what you set out to accomplish in the first place?

One of the best pieces of crowd-sourcing advice by INVISION’s Brain Squad is to take a minute to put that stuff rattling around in your brain in some sort of order. “Create a schedule with strict time cutoffs … and stick to them,” says

Leisa Lauer of Dr. H. Michael Shack in Newport Beach, FL. “It is always more efficient when you balance your inside- and outside-the-office activities. There is really not very much that cannot wait until the next day.”

  • But do get those lists out of your head and onto paper. Dave Allen, the time-management guru and creator of the Getting Things Done system, estimates people keep 100 hours of distracting undone stuff in their heads. Allen advocates creating lists and then coming up with “next actions.” The danger with this is you can become so obsessed creating lists you lose focus on that important thing you wanted to devote all your energy to. Our take? Make focusing on one thing at a time your No. 1 philosophy, and use systems like Allen’s GTD to support you.
  • Also, list your to-don’ts. Jim Collins, author of Good TO Great, wonders whether you have a “stop doing” list. Think of all the harmful, unproductive behaviors you engage in … and put them on your list. Let your “stop doing” list help you focus on the things you need to do.
  • Delegate stuff that’s not mandatory for an owner to do, says Maury Kessler, OD, of Eyecare Plus Scottsdale in Scottsdale, AZ, and Ted McElroy, OD, of Vision Source Tifton in Tifton, GA, who goes so far as to say: “1. Delegate 2. Delegate 3. Repeat.”
  • Treat information consumption like an addiction. Begin by silencing those notifications to allow better productivity, says Tina Smrkovski of Reed Optical in Claremont, NH, and deleting games off your phone like Dr. Erika Tydor of Shoreline Eyecare in Shoreline, WA. Next, block time for communication. You may even consider scheduling email, social media and IM collection during limited periods of the day. If so, you could have “Open for Email” hours listed in your email signature. And try this tip from Dr. Robert M. Easton, Jr, OD, in Oakland Park, FL, to keep on top of social media: “Outside the office, I go to the gym and respond to social media posts in between sets.”
  • Pretend you’re 2, and just say ‘no’. “For the next two days, do as all good 2-year-olds do and say ‘no’ to all requests,” suggests Timothy Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek. “Don’t be selective. Refuse to do all things that won’t get you immediately fired.” In this case, the exercise is designed not only to eliminate things that waste time, but to get comfortable with saying “No.” “Potential questions to decline include the following: Do you have a minute? Want to see a movie tonight? Can you help me with X? ‘No’ should be your default answer to all requests. Don’t make up elaborate lies. A simple answer such as, ‘I really can’t — sorry; I’ve got too much on my plate right now’ will do as a catch-all response.” Jim Williams of Eye to Eye Optometry in Mexico, MO, agrees, “Saying NO is the most important lesson one can learn. Sometimes I feel that I say no too often, but it is a good habit to have.”
  • Force yourself to complete a task: Stress sucks, but it can be motivating, writes Kristin Wong on lifehacker.com. If you’ve ever put off a project, then miraculously finished it in record time, you can probably relate. Contrary to popular belief, stress does not make you perform better, but you can steal something useful from it. Entrepreneur Dan Martell calls this a “forcing function.” He writes: “A forcing function is any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result. A few times a week, Martell brings his laptop to a co-working space or coffee shop and leaves his power cable at home. This gives him a few hours of battery life to get stuff done. “That’s when I slam through a bunch of emails, get some serious planning done or design some new product features. There’s something magical about a three-hour forced completion work session.”
  • Chunk it. To save you a few minutes a day and take back some control, try “chunking”. This refers to completing similar types of work at the same time. For example, you’ve got calls to return or accounts to chase up: Set aside a block of time to get them all done in one focused hit. It’s a better use of your energy than bouncing randomly from one management task to another.
  • Slow down, says Nichole Montavon of Oskaloosa Vision Center in Oskaloosa, LA. “If I’m going at 150 percent, I make mistakes, then I’m spending more time fixing those mistakes.” Rick Rickgauer of Vision Associates in Girard, PA, subscribes to the same philosophy. “I take a deep breath and realize I don’t have to burn the wick at both ends … which often results in mistakes and more work to get things done.”
  • Don’t manage time, manage tasks and do the important work first. “I don’t manage time, I priority manage. If a task takes an hour, it still takes an hour. I do the tasks in the right order and allow the time to manage itself,” says Adam Ramsey, OD, Socialite Vision, Palm Beach Gardens, FL. Susan L. Spencer of Council Eye Care in Williamsville, NY, buys in to this approach too. “I prioritize everything and only focus on what must be done now!”
  • To that end, limit daily goals. From The 4-Hour Workweek, “There should never be more than two mission-critical items to complete each day. Never. It just isn’t necessary if they’re actually high impact. If you are stuck trying to decide between multiple items that all seem crucial, look at each in turn and ask yourself, “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”
  • That flies in the face of our belief that multitasking gets more accomplished … But it’s OK to combine simple activities. Like Kim Hilgers of Monson Eyecare Center, Owatonna, MN. “I love organizing frames while the patient is looking for their frame … It looks like I’m trying to find just the perfect frame for them but I’m satisfying my OCD need for organization!”
  • Practice the art of non-finishing from The 4-Hour Workweek. “Starting something doesn’t automatically justify finishing it. If you are reading an article that sucks, put it down and don’t pick it back up. If you go to a movie and it’s worse than The Men In Black reboot, get the hell out of there before more neurons die. More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times better than finishing it.” Ivy Elaine Frederick, OD of New Castle, PA, is a fan of this approach. “Don’t feel like it all has to get done today, just do a little bit at a time and you will catch up.”
  • Cut to the chase. After hanging up, have you ever looked at the “duration of call” display and thought, “10 minutes! I really can’t afford to waste that kind of time…” If so, consider these tips from business consultant Jo Soard to improve your phone efficiency: Get to the point. If you’re the caller, say: “Paul — hi, I need two questions answered and I know you are the only person who can help me.” If you’re receiving the call, cut to the chase with the reliable: “Hi Lynn. Nice to hear from you. What can I do for you today?” And to avoid never-ending phone tag: Leave short instructive voicemails, telling the person you’re chasing the purpose of your call and what you need. That will equip them with the information they need to respond promptly.
  • When all else fails … hide. “I hide in my office and pretend I’m ‘on a call,’ shares Cynthia Sayers, OD, of EyeShop Optical Center in Lewis Center, OH.

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