I Open My Own Optical Business?
Ask that question, and be prepared for answers that run the gamut between "Absolutely, you'd be awesome owning your own business!" and "Are you out of your mind? It will never work!" Somewhere between those two extremes, surely the truth "lies." On the one hand, owning your own business has some alluring things to offer: being your own boss, the pride of success and ownership, and hopefully making a good living. On the other hand, be prepared for hard work, long hours, frustration, and a few failures on the way to that ever-elusive success. The cold hard fact is that (according to American Chronicle, November 2005) eight out of ten businesses will fail within their first five years; nearly half will fail within 18 months. That means if 100 people reading this article open a practice, 80 of them will fail; only a handful – 20, will be successful. Maybe 1 might be a huge success. If those statistics are not enough to discourage you, perhaps you do possess that entrepreneurial spirit necessary for even the chance at survival. Read on.
Having experienced some success with owning my own multi-location (12), mini-optical chain, watching it fail, and then rebuilding a small, fairly successful independent practice, I want to share with you some things that I believe are critical to be successful in today's seemingly impossible-to-compete optical marketplace. However, being a big believer in keeping "first things first" - before I give you my two-cents worth of advice - we need to make sure a few very preliminary building blocks are in place.
First, I will assume that you are a competent, experienced master of your trade. In plain English, you're a great Optician. If not, do not read on. Spend the next few years mastering your craft – become technically superior to 95% of your peers. Concurrently to honing your optical skills, you better learn about people and what makes them tick. After all, "people" will be your main commodity. Your patients, customers, partners, vendors, doctors, and employees will all (presumably) be people. Your relationship with them is the most significant, general factor in determining your success or failure. You should eventually be able to "read" people as accurately as you can "read" a pair of glasses. Ironically, one of the most effective ways to achieve this is to read. Winston Churchill once said, "All [effective] leaders are readers." Notice he did not add that all readers are leaders. In short, to be victorious, you will have to be an excellent Optician, a great psychologist, a good business person, and possess a tireless spirit. Additionally, you should be prepared for that cliché (but oh so true) maxim of a business that may one day turn out to be successful: Year one you will lose money. Year two you might break even. Year three you will turn a profit.
Develop as many helpful relationships as you can – banker, accountant, realtor, mentor. Look into SCORE (The Service Corps of Retired Executives) at
No excuses with this one: Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Now read it again. Check out the NBIA (National Business Incubation Association) at
www.nbia.org. Now go read The 7 Habits again. Another helpful resource is
We will now assume you are ready to open your doors. You are prepared. You have picked the perfect location to open your own business, or taken over an existing practice. Your finances are in order and your staff (maybe just you) are in place. With all that preliminary groundwork, here are a few things you might consider in helping to ensure your new baby's success.
First, and most important, be unique. Establish some real reasons your business is different than others. Why would someone want to come to your office as opposed to all the other options that are already available? Perhaps you can carry exclusive or unusual frame lines that no one else is carrying in your area. Maybe you can become "Accessory Central," and carry every possible optical accessory. Unique operating hours could set you apart, as well as serving coffee and snacks. There are literally hundreds of ways you could set yourself apart. Find the ones that fit your personality and community and stick to them.
Second, thank your patients for their business – early and often. Whether it is a $25 sale or a $500 sale, every new customer in my practice receives a personal thank you letter on company letterhead, personally signed by me, along with a handwritten note, and a magnetic refrigerator calendar. Every repeat customer gets a handwritten postcard, thanking them for their "continued patronage and support." Of course, I always ask new patients "How did you hear about us?" When they tell me they were referred, the person responsible for the referral receives a thank you card. I wish I had a dollar for every customer who over the years has made a special trip back to my office, just to thank me for their thank you card! They are impressed, grateful, and amazed. Thanking patients is one of the best investments you will make in growing your fledgling concern.
Third, ASK for referrals. When we dispense a pair of glasses, and have determined that the patient is indeed satisfied, they are asked, "Can I ask you to do me a favor?" Ninety-nine percent of the time the answer is, "Of course." They are then asked to please tell their family and friends about us – that we count on them to spread the word. Satisfied people are always willing to do so, but they like to be asked.
Fourth, always be fair and realistic in all that you do. It has always puzzled and amazed me how some fairly large optical chains have, for example, a 90-day warranty. Meanwhile, nearly every frame manufacturer extends to us a 1-year warranty. Why not extend that to your clients? And regardless of where you position your new business in terms of high-end, middle-of-the-road, or budget, be realistic and fair with your pricing as well. I will never forget an Optician who approached me to purchase some eyeglass frames because she was going out of business. "It's impossible to compete, these chains are killing me," she bemoaned. I soon discovered at least one of the reasons for her business's failure: Some of the frames I purchased were marked $89, $99, and $129. Not one of them had a wholesale price of more than $9.95! Do you think that is a fair mark-up? Charging someone more than ten times the wholesale price? Be realistic and fair.
Finally, do not be intimidated by the big boys. Within a five-mile radius of my practice are three Wal-Mart Vision Centers, and at least 15 other recognizable chain stores, as well as a few private practices. Yet, somehow…magically…we are entering our twelfth year of successfully serving our clients. In addition to all of the reasons listed above, we are easily able to "compete" with the Goliath-like Wal-Mart, for example, in a number of ways – big and small. We can and do carry virtually any spectacle lens that is made in the world – they don't. We can special order any frame – they can't. Although we choose not to, we could get on any insurance panel we choose to – they don't. They carry a certain line of wooden eyeglass holders called Peepers. However, they only carry six or seven different models. We carry over 30. The ways in which you can relatively easily set yourself apart are limitless! It merely takes a bit of thought and creativity.
I was a bit hesitant to write this article because there are literally hundreds of things that must be considered when opening, creating, and maintaining a successful optical practice. Perhaps it did provide a few helpful hints and a lot of food for thought. And for those of you who take the risk: Good luck…you can do it!