A few things come to mind when South Dakota is mentioned. Vast state parks, enormous caves, Mount Rushmore and an old drug store are few that might ring a bell. But how about a duo of successful cold start private practices?
Probably not the first thing you thought about.
Enter Jones Family Eyecare, a growing franchise of homegrown eye care built from the ground up by Dr. David and Allison Jones. I recently had the opportunity to interview David about his journey through cold starting right after graduation:
Dr. Neufeld: What made you decide to open cold (as opposed to being an employee, utilizing a sublease or purchasing an existing practice)? Why did your wife and you decide on opening two practices rather than one?
Dr. Jones: It was always our goal to run our own private practice. We opened our first practice in 2012 after we graduated, then our secondary practice in a town 15 miles away in 2016. We never found a local existing practice that fit our vision.
Opening our own practice has allowed us to practice optometry to the best of our ability without anybody else setting our hours or dictating how we practice. Starting up a practice cold takes longer to build up than buying an existing practice but we are able implement policies and train staff exactly how we see fit.
With two of us as doctors we easily can have two locations that we both swap back and forth between allowing us to service a greater area.
Dr. Neufeld: If you had to pinpoint the toughest initial struggle/roadblock, what would it be?
Dr. Jones: The biggest struggle we have had is hiring quality staff. It is a necessity to have patient friendly staff who are well trained. We have found that it can be better to hire untrained staff than to hire people with optical experience who have poor customer service skills.
Another problem some offices have is over staffing. We started off with one staff member at each office then hired more when needed and once certain practice metrics were met.
Dr. Neufeld: How did you obtain funding and loans to get started?
Dr. Jones: We were able obtain financing through a small local bank.
Dr. Neufeld: Do you lease or own your buildings? How did you find your building? If you built it out, how did you go about creating a blueprint for it?
Dr. Jones: We lease space for both offices. We are in the process of purchasing a building for our first location since we have outgrown the office space. We searched office spaces available and decided on the place that gave the most favorable terms with the best location. We did some research and created all floor plan layouts ourselves. We find it unnecessary to get too many people involved and more cost efficient to try to plan and design things ourselves.
Dr. Neufeld: How did you handle staffing, both initially and currently?
Dr. Jones: We hired only one staff member at each office from the start. We initially did all training and even helped in the optical and answered phones when needed. We learned that if you have an employee who doesn’t respond to constructive criticism then you need to part ways and hire someone else. We watch key metrics to determine when it makes sense to hire another staff member.
Dr. Neufeld: What is your niche market and how did you carve it out? Any specialty services that you and your wife provide?
Dr. Jones: We serve rural/suburban communities so we see patients of all ages including lots of families with young children. Our offices are very family friendly and we strive to give our patients the best experience possible.
Dr. Neufeld: How did you measure competition and how are you dealing with it?
Dr. Jones: We chose locations that were unsaturated with very few eye clinics within a 10 to 20 mile radius. One of our offices we started up in a local town of around 3,000 people that did not have an Eyecare clinic.
There will always be online competition but people like a local clinic to go to if you excel at your care and customer service. Create a stand out experience from beginning to end for every patient and you will have to worry less about competitors.
Dr. Neufeld: What is the top way (or top two if you can't choose one) that you have grown your practice and obtained new patients?
Dr. Jones: The best way we have been able to grow our practice is with online reviews. Word of mouth has also helped draw in new patients. We tried various advertisements, direct mailers, and even a billboard but our online and social media reviews have been our strongest referral source.
Try to remind patients that are happy with your care and service to leave online reviews. Anyone that leaves a good review gets sent a thank you with a gift card for a local coffee shop.
Dr. Neufeld: What is your advice to any young ODs looking to start cold?
Dr. Jones: Don’t be afraid and go for it! All the hard work you put in now will pay off down the road. If you don’t have money saved up, or another spouse’s income, you will have to work part-time for the first few years to supplement your income.
Nothing beats being your own boss, being able to control your hours, staff, and customer care.
Dr. Jones: There aren’t many things we would change. We love that we started up so early after graduating. I think too many people wait too long to take the plunge. One thing we would recommend to other start ups is to be selective about which vision plans you take.
We accepted every local vision plan when we opened and over time we have had to slowly eliminate the low quality or low reimbursement plans. We also would recommend firing any staff if they aren’t a good fit after 1-2 months. There is no point in keeping on staff longer if they aren’t meeting your practices expectations.
Dr. Neufeld: How long did it take to become profitable? Also, did you ever work side gigs, or were you all-in on your cold start?
Dr. Jones: It took between two to three years before we took a profit from our business. We worked as independent contractors at a large national retail chain for three years while we started our private practice and filled in for other local doctors.
We currently are all in on our own two offices. David does work as an independent contractor at a federal prison 1-2 days a month.
Dr. Neufeld: I see that your practice is Vision Source. What were your reason for joining and would you recommend it to others?
Dr. Jones: We joined Vision Source to network with other private practice doctors and to get discounts on equipment when we started up our offices. We are actually no longer members of Vision Source. There are several optometry buying groups and each one is beneficial based on a practices needs.
We would recommend every practice owner find a good fit within a networking group to gain other owners wisdom and get practice management advice.