Opening a practice is a complex process that poses new challenges for even the most seasoned ODs, but that doesn’t mean that new grads can’t tackle those challenges head on! We spoke to Dr. Allyse Curry, OD, a 2012 graduate of Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada about her experience opening her practice as a new grad and all of the hurdles and victories that came with it.
Practice owner vs. associate
Upon leaving optometry school, Dr. Curry found herself drawn toward aspects of optometry that exist outside of the exam room. In the few years after school that she was working as an associate, she began to observe how owners were marketing their practice, how they worked to attract new patients, and how they decided to purchase new equipment. “I also began to see a lot of things that I was discontent with that, as an associate, I didn’t have a lot of say in…” But her transition to owner did not happen overnight!
The first step requires a lot of preparation and background work. Dr. Curry spent time deciding whether she wanted to open cold
or buy an existing practice; having an existing patient base, set of tools, equipment, and presence was hugely beneficial for her. She also had to consider the location and community that she would be establishing the practice in, and it was nearly a full two years of research before she was ready to commit.
Finding the right fit
Because she had never worked at the practice as an associate, she had to work a bit harder to ensure that it was the right fit
for both her and the previous owner. For Dr. Curry, one of her biggest questions was identifying the patient demographics as well as getting a sense for the overall culture of the practice.
On the other side, she also had to have a firm grasp on the practice’s financial situation and if she felt there was room for growth as it stood. She did (and continues to) see the promise in the clinic, but “...there is no perfect clinic out there, and at the end of the day you have to make some compromises and find something that’s the best fit for you.”
Getting over the hurdle of understanding, discussing, and managing a practice’s finances can be one of the most difficult aspects of taking the plunge into practice ownership. In order to see the full picture, you have to incorporate ownership into your own finances. What are your financial goals? Preplanning and budgeting can help you to decide if practice ownership is the right step. Dr. Curry recalls that at the beginning “...the income that I generated was less than I would have working as an associate...”
Getting off the ground
“It was definitely challenging at the beginning.” Learning to navigate financial as well as legal complications on top of the uncertainty of the future of your own business can make starting up feel impossible. Dr. Curry’s best recommendation for overcoming this is to learn and keep learning. Explore as many options as you can, ask as many questions as you can, and eventually, you will feel equipped enough to take the risks that you need to.
Even with the time and energy spent researching and studying, the process still took Dr. Curry nearly nine months to fully complete the process of buying the practice. Once that was complete, however, she became the full owner. Some practice owners may opt for a slower transition out of their role and might seek to work as an associate for some time, but in this case, it was a cold cut sell.
“It was a little overwhelming at times not having that transition or mentorship,” says Curry, but patients and other staff were understanding and she was able to build up her confidence as the proud owner of her own practice.
Can I open a practice as a new grad?
Dr. Curry is living proof that new grads can become fantastic owners, even if they are worried they “don’t know enough.” For those interested in practice ownership, firstly, know that your fears are valid. Though it’s hard to admit, there will not be a point where you can feel totally, 100% confident in taking that next step, but by speaking with others, finding mentors, and making use of your resources you can brace yourself for taking the risk.
As you search for mentors, Dr. Curry recommends “...talking to people that are at different stages of their career.” She started speaking to owners who had been running their practice for twenty or thirty years but quickly realized that their experience is wildly different than hers. Extending beyond that, she found other ODs who have owned their practices for a few years and even folks outside of the industry that helped her to look with a fresh set of eyes!
The future of private practice
It’s clear that the optometry industry is changing
. With large scale corporatization and private equity groups laying claim to small, private practices, there’s a concern that private practices may vanish. Dr. Curry recognizes that fear, but “I think that my commitment and my motivation can help to see me through.”
She sees the change happening, but ultimately, her focus has remained on patient care, and she has found support across the industry. She again cites her resource network and mentors as sources of inspiration and has developed relationships with her lab and contact lens reps who have provided other supports for her as a new owner.
Making your new practice your own
Purchasing a practice from someone else will require you to put in extra time to make it your own. That process is a long one and will come about over the course of hundreds of incremental changes including some changes to:
- Exam length
- General clinic policies
- Making changes to warranties
And in the months immediately following the purchase, there likely won’t be much room at all to make those changes as that time has to be used to acclimate to ownership and get a handle on existing systems and processes. This is okay!
“I felt like I couldn’t make a lot of changes because I didn’t understand the process from the beginning.”
While managing systems can be time intensive, it is equally as important that you take time to get to know and work alongside staff members. Dr. Curry was able to work with existing staff members who stayed on board, and learned how to properly manage that team
from both her own staff and others in the industry with that key management experience.
Whether you’re looking to purchase or open your own practice, take the time to observe your fellow ODs, across modalities, and gain as much insight as you can. You don’t have to rush into practice ownership; build up your own knowledge and work with mentors to feel confident in your decision. But remember, no matter how much information you have, there is a risk to being a business owner, and you are the only person that can say you’re ready.