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We spoke to five eyecare business owners asking them to tell us about their experiences as a one-person-band and why they decided to give fiercely independent a whole new meaning.

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SMALL BUSINESS IS the backbone of the United States and while all solopreneurs are entrepreneurs, not all entrepreneurs are solopreneurs. In the United States around 81% of all small businesses are non-employer firms — those where the owners are the only employees — and according to research by the Federal Reserve, they employ 17% of all working Americans.

The rate of new business startups in the U.S. had been declining. That is, right until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, entrepreneurship and solopreneurship are on the rise. Today 41.8 million people identify as a one-person company contributing over $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy, and this number is expected to increase to 45.6 million within five years.

Optician-owned businesses lend themselves pretty seamlessly to solopreneurship, but it’s not without its challenges. We spoke to five eyecare business owners asking them to tell us about their experiences as a one-person band and why they decided to give fiercely independent a whole new meaning.

For starters, they love being the master of their own domain. In 2020, 76% of independent workers said they were very satisfied with working independently … and apparently the hours can’t be beat. “I open at 10:00AM and like coming in and opening the store by myself with no one else around,” says Julie Uram, owner of Optical Oasis in Jupiter, FL. “It’s a nice way to start the day low key and very casual. I love being in my little bungalow with myself. I know where everything is and I know how everything operates. I never really was into the big businesses or chain offices; I have a little cozy space here that I truly enjoy.”

That tracks with national stats. To be exact, 82% of independent workers report feeling happier working alone than they did for traditional companies.

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“There really is no typical day, that is one of the great things about being an entrepreneur,” shares Norma C. Brown, owner of ProVision CT in Hartford, CT. “My workday generally starts around 6:30AM before I even leave the house. I could be checking emails, reviewing lenses, writing up jobs from the day before, or preparing to transport goods. I see clients between 11AM and 4PM. Once I close the store, I can be found writing up jobs, dusting and cleaning, etc. before leaving to go home and have dinner.”

As Brown explains, one of the characteristics of solopreneurship is being a jack of all trades. They’re management, quality control, customer service, sales and cleaning crew all in one. “The greatest challenges are time management and coordination,” adds Brown. “I am responsible and accountable for bringing everything…together. This entails individual sales, coordinating clients, repairs, adjustments, troubleshooting, lens laboratories, coordinating frame reps, frame purchases, deliveries, marketing, social media, and much, much more.”

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And though they do create their own hours, those hours are often long. “I get to the shop 20 to 30 minutes before I unlock the front door to listen to messages, answer emails, sweep the walk and water the flowers (or shovel snow),” says Jenni Leuzzi of Mill Creek Optical in Dansville, NY. “Then I turn on the lights and say ‘It’s a beautiful day for a beautiful day!’ For the next eight to nine hours I greet patients, make appointments, answer the phone, educate patients, sell myself and sell glasses, dispense glasses, hold a few therapy sessions, do a few repairs and adjustments, edge a few jobs, then close the door. After that, the next half hour is closing out the day’s receipts and depositing checks along with cleaning surfaces. Then another half hour of placing orders and edging jobs I didn’t get to in between patients. Some nights I’m so tired I think I’ll catch up tomorrow … which usually ends up with me staying four to five hours after I close the next day. Then I go home and do bookwork while I eat dinner. The weekends include cleaning, building maintenance, and decorating for seasons.” There is no clocking out and leaving work at the office when you run your own show.

But there is a ton of flexibility and … “the freedom to run my business any way I choose, without having to run things past anyone else,” explains Coyote DeGroot of Lab Rabbit Optics in Chicago, IL. “I can turn on a dime and switch things up instantly. That approach was key for any business to survive the pandemic: adapt or die.”

And then there is staffing. “Staffing” You ask? Yup. “There are zero staffing issues, personality conflicts, zero gossip, and the other issues that larger businesses face,” states Brown. “I really have a management team of one — myself!” And that can sometimes get them into trouble. “Staffing is a problem, but I just spend more time at work and problem solved,” laughs DeGroot. “But sometimes when I come up with a dumb idea that any sane co-worker would have instantly shot down, I do it anyways because I have no filter.”

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“If you’re sick it’s tough to find someone to work for you,” admits Leuzzi. “If I’m not working, I’m not making money. Also there are times that you are very busy and have several people in the store at one time. Often they help each other out but there are those few customers that get irritated that you’re not completely and totally focused on them.”

Which brings us to likely the best part of solopreneurship: the relationships. When you’re going it on your own, relationships — with patients, customers, other business owners and your community — are just as, if not more, important, and often deeper and more authentic.

“I do enjoy getting to know my customers,” says Uram. “We become friends and I do from time to time do things with them outside of my business. I have made a lot of friends in this business.”

“I am intentional about surrounding myself with successful and positive business owners and individuals who are able to answer my questions and provide support,” shares Brown.

Adds Leuzzi, “I belong to the Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and a couple subcommittees of the Chamber. I have a box of get well, sympathy and thank you notes because I know my patients so well. I create a professional yet very friendly atmosphere and I feel that gets lost in a big business. My patients trust me because there isn’t someone breathing down my neck saying ‘sell, sell, sell!’”

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Having built a career in service journalism, Dee has been covering the eyecare industry for over a decade. As editor-in-chief of INVISION Magazine, she is passionate about telling independent ECPs stories and can be reached directly at [email protected]

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