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ECPs share the most important days in the history of their business

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Life often presents us with definitive, formative and hairpin moments that shape all our experiences — the good and bad — from that point on. Marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a graduation, the loss of a job, can all drastically change the direction of our lives in a near instant. The same sorts of seminal events can happen in a business. We asked ECPs to share the most single most important day in the history of their business and how it affected things to come. Read on to hear their stories.

D’Ambrosio Eye Care | Lancaster, MA

THE DATE: October 2004

The day D’Ambrosio Eye Care moved out of a hospital suite and into its own, free-standing facility was the practice’s very own big bang.

“We exploded,” is the still-vivid recollection of director of optical services Jocelyn Mylott.

There are all kinds of innovations, from the incremental to the dramatic, that you can apply to your business to boost growth, but few changes have as much potential to instantly turbocharge your performance as a change of address. In D’Ambrosio’s case it was a matter of recognizing that they had reached the limits, in terms of growth potential, of their existing site, tucked away as it was in a larger building.

“We had rented a suite in the hospital and we had outgrown the space. Thinking back we had about three ODs and the MD owner; and now we have at least double the capacity,” Mylott says. And the growth didn’t stop there — now that they can accommodate more patient traffic, they have added new computer software and HR, and brought in a large number of new staff. “This was all back in 2004. It was the start of our growth in general.” It wasn’t long after their move that D’Ambrosio expanded to three locations — soon they’ll be at six and counting.

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Kenneth D. Boltz, OD | Dublin, OH

THE DATE: MAY 16, 2016

Ask Ken Boltz, OD, why the day he opened his solo business after three decades in group practice was the most important day in the history of his business and he’ll rattle off three reasons: “Much simpler, more enjoyable and much more fulfilling.”

“Opening a brand new office allowed me to get back to what I enjoy most,” Boltz says. “Helping patients see their best while getting to know them personally, forming a stronger long-term bond with them.”

As he was preparing to open, Boltz visited a number of offices, looking for ways to improve upon methods, equipment, floorplans, etc. “Opening a new office allowed me to take all that I had learned and do it even better. New equipment — a computerized phoropter, improved retinal imaging, new OCT and more. We attended both VEW and VEE to select the frame vendors we wanted to do business with. That allowed us to focus more on independent frame vendors that were unique and that our patients love.”

And, freed from the constraints of design by committee, Boltz seized the opportunity to design his waiting room to look more like a living room than a doctor’s office. “My new office is much more enjoyable, simpler and easier.”

But for Boltz, reflecting on a key turning point doesn’t mean he’s content: “We continue to look for ways to improve every day. I love what I do and hope to continue to practice for many more years.”

 

Eye Care Pavilion | Davenport, IA

THE DATE: March 1, 2015

An office move is enough to make an impact on a business, but what happens when that move coincides with a major staff overhaul? Jason Stamper, assistant manager at the Eye Care Pavilion, can tell you. The most important day in your business becomes “when our office moved to the opposite side of town. Our clientele changed, as well as 75 percent of our owners/doctors. Two decided to retire when we moved, and another retired just six months later.”

A change like that could seriously handicap a business, but Eye Care Pavilion saw it as an opportunity. “We had been at the previous location for almost 30 years. It was a beautiful older building, but was in bad need of an update. While our new location is smaller, we’re much more efficient with the space.” Now each doctor has two exam lanes and because they relocated close to a lot of medical practices, they’ve seen a noticeable rise in their medical visits.

But what about the patients? “Overall the reaction was good,” says Stamper. The move was only 6 miles but some didn’t migrate at first. “Now in our third year, we are starting to see many who left come back.” And the practice is building on that momentum: “We started advertising on TV again…and we also partnered with a local pro sports team as their official eyecare provider.”

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Hudson River Eye Care | Tarrytown, NY

THE DATE: August 7, 2013

“My most important day was the first day we opened our first private practice,” says Larah Alami, OD. “It’s like the day your first child is born, you can never go back to your previous self.”

In fact, Alami remembers that time well. “For six years, I worked in a variety of private and commercial practices.” But as an employed OD, she didn’t see much of the optical and business sides. “As a business owner, I’ve come to love frame-buying, learning about…lenses and coatings, learning how to bill, and generally being the office manager of our practice.”

She loves the things other business owners may not be so fond of. “Every day, I wake up excited to go to work. Beyond the typical patient care, I spend…hours in the optical and working on the managerial side of things, and I love it,” she shares.

That’s not the only place she is bucking the trend. “One of the things that drove me to go into practice for myself was working in too many mediocre practices where the owner was solely concerned with profit,” she explains. “The employees didn’t care, the equipment was broken or missing, the office hadn’t been renovated in 20 years, there was no focus on quality products or service, and the general atmosphere was depressing. I take pride in creating a happy, modern workplace that serves both employees and patients.”

 

Dr. Texas Smith and Associates | Citrus Heights, TX

THE DATE: SUMMER OF 1980

Texas Smith, OD, at Dr. Texas Smith and Associates likes to keep things simple so he can focus on what he does best — using his more than 50 years of experience to provide top-quality eyecare. And there’s one day in the long history of his practice that stands out; a day when things got dramatically simpler: “The day we went all cash. Exam and half on products prior to any orders. I have no accounts receivable.”

When patients ask whether he accepts credit, Dr. Tex explains his agreement with Bank of America, “We don’t do credit and the bank won’t fit glasses or contacts.”

Dr. Tex says that many years ago he had an employee that had worked for a local dentist. One afternoon she asked why he had accounts receivable, since his fees were much lower than dental charges, half of which were collected on the first visit and the balance upon completion of the dental work. “That day I changed my office policy to payment for exam and one half optical fees prior to ordering Rx,” says Smith. “The majority of our patients pay the whole bill on the day of exam.”

“I have no accounts receivable, no employee time spent billing, no patients sent to collection,” says Smith, adding: “By the way, you lose the money and the patient when they go to collection.”

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HD Optical Express | Lansing, MI

THE DATE: November 5, 2014

Here’s a “greatest day in my business” recollection that generously recognizes the heart and soul of any successful practice — the staff. When Dr. Daniel Nash, OD, purchased HD Optical Express in 2014, things got off on the wrong foot when he discovered unpaid bills left behind by the previous owner. However, says Cassie Nash, “With hard work and sacrifice, it only took a few months to start generating enough income to be able to hire Elizabeth Nagy, an ABO-certified optician.”

Things started looking up almost immediately.

“Elizabeth,” Cassie says, “is intelligent, positive, courteous, and responsible; she delivers quality customer service that significantly contributes to the HD Optical reputation and legacy. Dr. Nash is a wonderful optometrist who cares greatly about his patients, and finally the optical side of our business matches the quality of his eye exams.” In particular she cites Nagy’s ability to educate patients on lens options, which has boosted upgrades and sales, and led to an increase in overall patient satisfaction. “Hiring her taught us that having a well-rounded and educated optician on the front lines is just as important as having a great doctor,” Cassie says.

 

Rockford Family Eyecare | Rockford, MI

THE DATE: Mid-February 2016

Here’s one to warm any OD’s heart. The greatest day in the life of Rockford Family Eyecare? That’s easy, says owner Dr. Theodore Sees: “The first day we had a full day of appointments and they all showed up! As a new office [the practice is less than four years old], I still remember that day and it feels like it has stayed that busy since then,” says Sees.

Basically, this was the day the team at Rockford exhaled and started to think of themselves as having arrived. Adds office manager Melanie Turos: “We felt that this was the most important day because it meant so much to both the doctors and the staff, both those who worked at the office from opening and those who had joined the company as we grew. It changed the way we approached business because we started looking at our office as an established office rather than a new office.” Rockford Family Eyecare, she says, had always tried to schedule both new and established patients, “but now we needed to brainstorm new ideas for growth within the office.”

Sees reports that growth remains rapid and staff is trying to keep up the best it can. “It has been so wonderful to watch our business’s growth from the very beginning!” he says.

 

Eye to Eye Optometry | Mexico, MO

THE DATE: Thanksgiving 1999

On that day Jim Williams and his wife, Dr. Kristi Williams, drove by a building for rent. “The owner met us and we signed a provisional lease,” shares Jim. “That was the start of our own business.” Most surprising about the Williams’ story is that they hadn’t been planning it. “We hadn’t been actively thinking about opening our own business, but the cards all fell into place,” he says.

“I was working as an independent contractor for an optician office,” adds Kristi. “The owner was getting older and wasn’t interested in investing in the space. He suggested if I wanted changes, I should buy the office and do it myself. It sounded great but scary as well. So, we bought the practice, but not the real estate. We outgrew that space in about five years but made do until the right opportunity presented itself.” Which it did that fateful Thanksgiving.

Last year brought a further evolution. “We moved into a larger space that we own, designed and did a lot of the work ourselves,” says Jim. “I’d like to say we would have done this sooner. Or should have. But we were really fortunate to have been offered this opportunity. It was worth the wait. We have a great staff, business, and patients. We are living the dream!”

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Visualeyes Optometry | Sherman Oaks, CA

THE DATE: April 20, 2017

“Moving into my new office space a year ago was my most important day,” says Visualeyes Optometry’s Lee Dodge, OD. “It marks the success we have had and moving into a larger space that we can grow into represents the success that is yet to come.”

The new address is less than a mile from the space they had occupied since 2006, but it is light years away from how they used to practice. “I have double the space, so I have more room to expand and the optical is larger, so we have more frames,” explains Dodge. He also has more exam rooms, doctors, patients and staff. And his patients? “They love the new space, except for one. There is always one,” he laughs. “I’d say all of them migrated. Maybe 99 percent? We even got a few old patients back that stopped going to our old place because of the parking.” Win!

 

Bright Eyes Vision | Hartsville, PA

THE DATE: August 2016

Sometimes it’s the bad days that shape your business. That was the case at Bright Eyes Vision when they were faced with a patient who did not understand her insurance and tried to blackmail them to give her contact lenses for free or face a negative Yelp review.

Dr. Sue Miller explains: “This patient had an insurance plan where their contact lens benefits were different if the lenses qualified as “selection” or “non-selection”…she needed astigmatic lenses, ‘non-selection’ at that time.” After Bright Eyes put her lenses in she refused to pay and made the threat. “We are a cold startup and reviews are even more important to us, but so is not being blackmailed,” explains Dr. Sue, who practices with her daughter Dr. Heather. The patient had a friend put a negative review on the business’ Facebook page and Yelp.

Bright Eyes responded to both reviews at length and now has a contact lens agreement that everyone who wants contacts must sign. A hard lesson learned but “we have not had an incident since,” says Dr. Sue.

 

Eye Candy Optical Center | McMurray, PA

THE DATE: June 19, 2009

“The day I found out the business was for sale, I said “I would like to buy it,” says Dr. Monika Marczak. That was followed by a cold sweat and a cry in her car. But she knew she wanted to preserve her team and that everything would fall into place. She purchased what is now Eye Candy Optical Center in August 2009 and has had the same team since — there has been zero turnover!

The previous owners were already negotiating with more experienced ODs. “Because I came into the game late, I only had two weeks to present a Letter of Intent. I went to all the banks, I begged, I pleaded, and they all said no,” she explains. “A patient knew the president of S&T Bank, who…took a chance. It was because of people’s trust in me and my vision that I was able to obtain the loan.”

“It was the scariest decision but the ride has been nothing but exciting,” she exclaims. And she has the support of that long time staff. “They know that my first instinct was to save their jobs, not own my own business.” But she is also quite pragmatic when it comes to their longevity. “My payroll is higher than industry standard and I provide medical insurance and 401K match so it’s difficult to leave me!”

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 21 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

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For the third year in a row, Safilo has looked to trusted eyecare professionals to star in its American Eyes campaign for its Elasta and Emozioni collections.Their latest testimonials are from Peter Tacia, O.D. and Heidi Dancer, optician, of Alma, MI, talking about two best-selling collections: Elasta and Emozioni.

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Cover Stories

Get ‘Em Young

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Transforming the medical side of your practice is obviously not a step to be taken lightly, particularly if you’re looking at expanding your treatment of children. The challenges are many, but the rewards can be great, personally and financially. To help those of you thinking of boosting your optometric offerings for kids but wanting to know what that could entail, we assembled an impressive panel of experts in pediatric eyecare, and its related specialties, for a rundown of the main areas you should be looking at. If children are the future, and the future is now, what are you waiting for?

Specialty
PEDIATRICS

EXPERTS:
Dr. Dominick M. Maino, professor, Illinois College of Optometry/Illinois Eye Institute, associate, Lyons Family Eye Care, Chicago, Il; and Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford, OD, Bright Eyes Family Vision Care, Tampa, FL

ASSOCIATIONS OR GROUPS AVAILABLE:
College of Optometrists in Vision Development (covd.org); Optometric Extension Program Foundation (oepf.org), Binocular Vision, Perception, & Pediatric Optometry (BVPPO) Section of the American Academy of Optometry; Optometric Extension Program (OEP) Foundation

Dr. Don Teig

TRAINING OR CERTIFICATION NEEDED?
Dr. Maino:Not necessarily needed but a residency in pediatrics/binocular vision would make you stand out from the crowd. A Fellowship in COVD would do the same thing.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford:Generally, yes, additional training is beneficial outside of typical optometry training. A one-year optometric residency in pediatric vision care is an excellent way to become specialized. Beyond that OEP offer courses that cover the clinical care of infants and children as well as the practice management of the specialty.

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT OR TOOLS REQUIRED?
Dr. Maino: Yes, but most ODs have much of what they need already.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford: The retinoscope is standard equipment, but many optometrists are not comfortable with it. Practice! Also, the pediatric-sized trial for refraction and probing refractive error without a phoroptor. A digital randomized visual acuity chart with movies for fixation and pediatric option acuity symbols. The Lang stereo test is a simple tool for assessing stereopsis without polarized glasses. Prism bars and loose prisms for binocular testing. And toys, finger puppets for entertaining little ones. They make a little booster for exam chairs that are perfect for kids who are independent enough to not sit on a parent’s lap but are still small.

Matt Oerding

ADDITIONAL EXAM LANE OR TESTING SPACE NECESSARY?
Dr. Maino: Not unless you are doing developmental vision/vision perception testing and in office VT.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford: Not necessary. It is common to have one exam room that does have a few extra items for kids, but it can be used for adults as well, so it doesn’t really require extra space.

ADDITIONAL MARKETING REQUIRED?
Dr. Maino: Definitely. You need to get the word out about your expertise in this area. Use social media.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford: Very smart [if you do]. Add children’s specialty services with info and descriptions on your webpage so patients can find and learn about them. Informative displays about children’s vision are an inexpensive and easy way to raise awareness. Networking with referral services is very effective.

HIGHER AVERAGE REIMBURSEMENT OR REVENUE PER PATIENT?
Dr. Maino: Yes. You often need to not only do a comprehensive examination but also a sensorimotor assessment and other testing as well. Frequent follow up appointments are often necessary.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford: For typical children’s primary care, the reimbursement is somewhat lower because they often do not need glasses or contacts. However, specialty services such as myopia control and vision therapy are significantly more because they are often higher-end self-pay services.

Dr. Dominick M. Maino

IN SHORT:
Dr. Maino: When I work with my optometry students, I always tell them that a smile is the best piece of equipment you could have. You must be genuine. You should keep up on the current research in this area and be ready to take that extra step. You are not just working with a pair of eyeballs, but also with the child and the whole family. It is fun, challenging and fiscally rewarding.

Dr. Bonilla-Warford: Working with children is so fun. It is very rewarding to see them grow and develop and to know that you are helping them reach their goals, whether it is in school, sports, or overcoming symptoms. However, it can be challenging. You have to be honest with them in a way that they can understand. Children will not hesitate to tell you “I don’t like you! I am never coming here again!” If staff sets the tone so the child can feel that you are on their side, you will be amazed how much clinical information you can get from them at very young ages. Knowing when to stop or change a particular test or activity is essential. Most importantly, have fun! And get good at retinoscopy.

Specialty
MYOPIA MANAGEMENT

EXPERT:
Matt Oerding, co-founder/CEO, Treehouse Eyes, Bethesda, MD and Tysons, VA

ASSOCIATIONS OR GROUPS AVAILABLE:
“The International Myopia Institute provides evidence-based treatment guidelines for this specialty; American Academy of Orthokeratology and Myopia Control (aaomc.site-ym.com)

TRAINING OR CERTIFICATION NEEDED:
No. Any optometrist can technically perform pediatric myopia management. However, specific CE/education is required to become proficient at the various treatments proven effective. These are currently orthokeratology lenses, multifocal soft contact lenses and atropine.

Dr. Charlene Henderson

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT OR TOOLS REQUIRED:
Yes. A practice must have a good topographer as a highly accurate map of the cornea is critical to success. Additionally, a device to measure axial length is highly recommended.

ADDITIONAL EXAM LANE OR TESTING SPACE NECESSARY:
No. This can be done within an existing exam lane or space.

ADDITIONAL MARKETING REQUIRED:
Yes. Currently pediatric myopia management is not covered by vision plans, so it is a private pay procedure. Due to lack of parental awareness of the risks of progressive myopia and the availability of treatments, marketing is critical to generate interest. At a minimum marketing to existing primary care patients via email, newsletter and in-office marketing is required. To gain new patients for pediatric myopia management, social media, PPC and PR are all proven techniques.

HIGHER AVERAGE REIMBURSEMENT OR REVENUE PER PATIENT:
Yes. Because this is a private pay procedure and children are likely to be in treatment for several years, the revenue per patient is significantly higher than a typical optometry patient. Fees vary widely, but typical is $2,000-3,000 for the first year of treatment.

Dr. Pauline Buck

IN SHORT:
Pediatric myopia management can be an incredibly fulfilling specialty when done correctly, as you are helping a child see better today and reducing their long-term risk of serious eye diseases associated with progressive myopia. Offering these services can generate significant patient/family loyalty to the practice, as treatment typically lasts several years and successful patients are proven to be great referral sources to others in the community.”

Specialty
VISION THERAPY

EXPERT:
Dr. Pauline Buck, Behavioral and Developmental Optometrists, Miami, FL

ASSOCIATIONS OR GROUPS AVAILABLE:
The College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD); Neuro-optometric Rehabilitative Association (NORA); Optometric Extension Program (OEP); College of Syntonic Optometry (CSO).

TRAINING OR CERTIFICATION NEEDED:
Post-graduate training is very much needed. A new graduate from optometry school has the basics to begin a vision therapy program. Yet a successful vision therapy doctor will stand on the shoulders of their predecessors by learning what has already been learned. COVD and OEP provide training. OEP has regional seminars. COVD has state study groups and their annual meeting. Mentors are provided to assist when there are questions.

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT OR TOOLS REQUIRED:
Yes and no. Bernell is a great resource of vision therapy equipment. There are many computer-based programs as well. However, I know many experienced doctors who have used something as simple as a stick and a straw to illicit a change in their patient’s visual system. This ability comes back to the training. When you really understand the system, you can make changes using just about anything.

Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford

ADDITIONAL EXAM LANE OR TESTING SPACE NECESSARY:
Again, yes and no. Yes — the functional vision evaluation is done in the exam room using the phoropter and equipment that is standard to the profession. No — I have an entire room, ‘the play room,’ dedicated to the testing of physical performance. How do the eyes affect a person’s ability to perform an everyday task? I also have another room for the testing of classroom skills, which contains a desk, slant board, and a lot of paperwork.

ADDITIONAL MARKETING REQUIRED:
Yes. ‘If you build it, they will come’ doesn’t work. I have gone out in the community and lectured about vision therapy. I have spoken to therapists, doctors, teachers, parents and other professionals about the visual system and how it can affect performance. Those individuals eventually become referral sources. I am constantly practicing my elevator [pitch] of what I do.

HIGHER AVERAGE REIMBURSEMENT OR REVENUE PER PATIENT:
Yes. Most optometrists will see a patient once a year for their annual or several times throughout the year for care of ocular disease. When a patient is doing vision therapy I see them for their annual, their progress evaluations every 10 weeks, and weekly for the therapy sessions.

IN SHORT:
Vision therapy is understanding the nuances of the development of the visual system, how it can change behavior, and how it can alter a person’s performance. It can benefit children and adults with brain injury, children with difficulties in the classroom, individuals with autism and down syndrome. When all other professionals have told a person that there is nothing else to do for their condition and they come to me for a glimmer of hope, I offer the potential for change. When their symptoms decrease and their performance improves, those are the moments of my greatest job satisfaction and I am thankful that I have a ‘tool box’ large enough to have made that possible.

Specialty
SPORTS VISION or VISUAL NEURO-COGNITIVE TRAINING

EXPERTS:
Dr. Don Teig, founder/CEO, “The A Team” High Performance Vision Associates, Hollywood, FL; and Dr. Charlene Henderson, Blink Eyecare and Eyewear, Charlotte, NC

ASSOCIATIONS OR GROUPS AVAILABLE:
Dr. Teig: This niche or specialty has always been referred to as “sports vision” but more recently as ‘visual neuro-cognitive training’ given the attention to the impact concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has had on sports. I also often refer to it as ‘high performance vision.’ I am the founder and executive director of ‘The A Team’, High Performance Vision Associates (highperformancevisionassociates.com), there is also ISVA (International Sports Vision Association, sportsvision.pro).

Dr. Henderson: High Performance Vision Associates and the AOA.

TRAINING OR CERTIFICATION NEEDED?
Dr. Teig: Yes. I provide a 16-hour course with certification (ultimateevents.com.) I also travel to provide this training. ISVA is working in conjunction with me to develop a certification program.

Dr. Henderson: It is necessary to understand the sports you are working with and how vision plays a role in success. Sports vision training by people who have pioneered the concept is invaluable. We went to Don Teig’s Sports Vision training weekend, and Fred Edmunds Xtreme Sight sports Vision training weekend. They are both excellent. We also did several Sports Vision AOA courses and read all the books out there.

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT OR TOOLS REQUIRED?
Dr. Teig: Yes. The A.M.P. System (Achieving Maximum Potential), an immersive virtual reality technology; Senaptec, a digital testing and training instrument; NeuroTracker, a multi-object awareness trainer; FitLight motion and light sensors; and Quick Board, an eye to foot training tool.

Dr. Henderson: Yes. When we built our new building, we added lots of exciting equipment like Vision Coach, Fit Light, Senaptec, and the Bassin anticipation timer among others. We still use traditional VT equipment like Marsden balls and flippers and balance boards. The athletes like the bells and whistles of the digital devices.

ADDITIONAL EXAM LANE OR TESTING SPACE NECESSARY?
Dr. Teig: Yes. At the very least a room that is 10′ x 12′ is a must.

Dr. Henderson: Yes, for testing space. You need room to swing or jump or dribble a basketball, for example.

ADDITIONAL MARKETING REQUIRED?
Dr. Teig: Yes, by all means! Internal marketing with videos, pamphlets, etc., in your office and external marketing through social media, TV, radio and print.

Dr. Henderson: Yes. Internally tell all your sports-minded patients. All our patients walk by our sports vision room. You should reach out to teams and clubs and let them know what you do.

HIGHER AVERAGE REIMBURSEMENT OR REVENUE PER PATIENT?
Dr. Teig: Yes! A typical Sports Vision patient can generate revenues of up to $3,000 each if they complete an eye exam, a Sports Vision Workup, a Sports Vision Training program of 12 weeks minimum; specialty contact lenses or sports eyewear and goggles.

Dr. Henderson: Yes. Sports vision training is an additional service not covered by insurance. So, it is up to you to set the fees you think are fair for your time for the evaluation and then training sessions.

IN SHORT:
Dr. Teig: Having been a pioneer in this field for almost 40 years, I can confidently say that sports vision is both emotionally and financially rewarding beyond belief. However, it doesn’t happen overnight and requires continual hard work. That being said, if you love sports like I do, it’s well worth the ride.

Dr. Henderson: It can be really rewarding if you have a passion for sports and working with highly competitive people. The niche does require training, equipment, space and active marketing. So, it will not just fall in your lap. But it is a great way to help people achieve their goals and use our skills as vision experts.

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Cover Stories

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.

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.

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.”

 

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!

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Cover Stories

How to Keep Your Inventory Ultra-Fresh With an Aggressive Dog-Dumping Strategy

Noteworthy ways some ECPs have found to move their moldiest inventory.

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Woof … You may have loved a particular frame or collection but that was no guarantee your customers would. So, how do you offload the bad picks, the misfires, the ones that silver-tongued sales rep talked you into ordering? … Return to sender? Massive discount? Strip them for parts? Here are some of the more interesting ways your ECP peers dispose of their dogs.

BLOWOUTS, BUNDLES and BOGOS

When it comes to clearing out unsold frames, returning them is probably the most common option, but many ECPs fail to factor in the expense. As Annette Prevaux at The Visionary in Allen Park, MI, points out, “There is an expense to return frames and it is passed on to the practice… I am surprised at how little is really taught about frame buying and the cost of returns.”

Most ECPs will be familiar with options such as standing discounts (a “junk drawer”), periodic clearances, value packages and the tried-and-true BOGO (buy one, get one free), or offering a special price without warranty. Remember that offering stock as freebies or incentives tends to work best with lower-cost frames. Jocelyn Mylott at D’Ambrosio Eye Care in Lancaster, MA packages stock lenses with discounted frames to sell them off. “We use these frames to fill the board space for all the vendor back orders as we board manage,” she says. Smart move, as it fills in unsightly holes in your board and gets eyes back on this malingering product.

Accepting insurance creates additional possibilities. MK Vision Center in Forest Hills, NY, uses unsold stock as insurance-covered frames. Explains Kaleena Ma: “We usually try to sell through our unsold inventory by using them as insurance frames for the plans that give allowances for the frame.”

When it comes to using sales and discounts to clear inventory, the Vend retailing blog suggests keeping the following in mind: Try to turn sales into periodic events with a few “bells and whistles” so you’re creating new customers or building loyalty. Always use sales as a way to gather customer information, and remember to mix in a few good sellers as loss leaders.

REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY

Where some see dogs, others see gold. Dr. Selina McGee of Precision Vision in Edmond, OK, dares you to “Mark it up — way up. That way everything else looks less expensive and it’s very exclusive. If you sell one, then you cover more of your investment.” (Our hunch is this would work best with luxury frames that aren’t moving.) Doreen Erbe at Snyder Eye Group in Ship Bottom, NJ, urges you to “Make that collection into a really cool display. Everyone will think the frames are new.” This is good advice; re-merchandising can breathe surprising new life into old stock.

STAFF CHALLENGE

Nikki Griffin, owner of EyeStyles Optical and Boutique in Oakdale, MN, offers this memorable advice: “Dogs become the ‘steak-dinner frame.’ If you sell that puppy I will buy you a steak dinner.” Interestingly, food also seems to be the prime motivator for hungry sales staff at EyeShop Optical Center in Lewis Center, OH, where, explains owner Dr. Cynthia Sayers, “If a staff member sells that dud I buy them lunch.”

DONATE TO CHARITY

Your unsold merchandise can be a force for good. Lions Club is renowned for its eyeglass-recycling programs Charitable donations entitle you to a tax write-off. For a detailed “how-to” of donating stock to charity, of “Gifts in Kind,” check out the column Gary C. Smith, president and CEO of the National Association for the Exchange of Industrial Resources, wrote for INVISION in December 2017: invisionmag.com/041903.

SWAP IT OR SELL IT ON

Their proximity to the Mexican border gives Carrera Optical in McQueeney, TX an interesting option: selling unsold frames to opticals in south Texas that see large numbers of patients from Mexico. These customers are looking for a level of quality they believe can only be found in the U.S. Says BJ Chambers, “We sell multiple frames to several shops; sometimes these opticals are on credit hold to the frame manufacturer and cannot purchase directly.”
Some vendors will buy back any competitors’ frames that aren’t selling. Europa will pay you to take back another vendors’ frames, provided you have or set up an account with them. Dr. Zachary Dirks at St. Peter and Belle Plaine Eyecare Centers, Saint Peter, MN, reports: “We have some reps we have good relationships with that will exchange product for theirs.”

And here’s a channel right under your nose you might not have thought about. Julie Uram at Optical Oasis in Jupiter, FL on occasion gives unsold frames to a friend who puts them on eBay. Remember that using online marketplaces can be time consuming, as you’ll likely have to set up pages and jump through some other hoops.

THERAPEUTIC RENTALS

Those in the therapy niche take note: Dr. Pauline Buck at Behavioral and Developmental Optometrists in Miami, FL turns non-sellers into loaners that therapy patients can take home temporarily. “Concussion patients may often benefit from yoked prism base lenses. By … creating glasses in bases up, down, left or right — as well as a few base-in for individuals with convergence insufficiency — I can rent or loan them out.” Patients sign an agreement; if the glasses are not returned, Buck bills them the full price.

a gram OF PREVENTION…

Of course, you should always be monitoring inventory, but it’s important not to let your reps slack: “Keeping the frame rep responsible for shipping the top sellers in each frame line is one way to make sure the dogs never get dumped in the office,” counsels Leisa Lauer at Dr. H Michael Shack in Newport Beach, FL.

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