Mistakes I Have Made Part II

Lee Shuwarger, O.D.

Note: Please see Issue 12 of The Practice Solution Magazine for Part 1 of this story.

So, picking up where I left off, I was now unemployed, paying a mortgage on a large house, no patients and a baby on the way.

Real estate agents like to say that three things are important: location, location, and location. Keeping this in mind, I leased a space in a new strip mall center in a growing area of town. Looking back, I now know that I leased the space for way too much. (It was several years later that I learned that commercial real estate agents would have been able to help me find a location and negotiate the lease– with no cost to me!) But at that time, I was without a job, I had a large house, no patients and a baby on the way, I had to do something to get the ball rolling.

I was without work for over a month while my office was being built. I spent way too much because I was desperate and uninformed. I needed to move fast in order to generate a cash flow. To create some business for the new practice, I sent out 2400 postcards to previous patients informing them of my new location. Still unemployed and no office or staff yet, I resorted to setting up appointments using my personal cell phone. In November of 2002, we opened our doors.

Our first month was wonderful! Everyone seemed to love the new office. The next month (and thereafter) was not so great. I learned that the “excitement” of a new office was fleeting– and one better have a strategy to deal with this very normal phenomenon.

My daughter, Sarah, was born on September 1, 2003. As a new father, I was scared to death.

At that time, my practice was only growing about 2 or 3% per month and was barely producing what I needed to stay afloat. I was finally getting the ball slightly rolling with my own practice and doing “ok” by my own standards. A couple years later, I was faced with another pseudo-tragedy; my wife of five years wanted a divorce. I say “pseudo-tragedy” because a lot of good came out of it. My daughter and I became much closer and I was able to refocus my attention away from my ex-wife and onto my practice.

I kept the practice going for a few years, still growing 2-3% per month and then in 2006, a consultant group from Nebraska contacted me to offer me some help with my practice. After talking to them for a bit, I decided that I really did need some help. They sent me a list of references to call to get some feedback on what their group did for them and what they might be able to do for me. Three of those references that I was expected to call were in my area. Of the three, one of them was no longer in business, the other was not doing so well, and the third would not return my calls. Based on that, I decided not to hire that consultant, I still believed I needed help from a business professional, but I did not actively look for another consultant.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from a consulting group in Oregon. After an interview and reviewing my practice over the phone, the Silkin group offered to send someone to my practice for free to do a full evaluation of my practice. Free is always good. I’ve spent a lot more money on stupider things, so why not. After my evaluation, I made the smartest move I have ever made; I hired a consultant. One of the things that sold me on this group is when I when I was told, “We have been in business for 26 years. There isn’t a situation that we haven’t seen before and we always know the right thing to do to improve it.” Wow, did that ring true. After signing up with them I had 19 straight months of growth: most of it double digit growth and some of it during this recession!

One of the many things I learned from my consultant was to magnify my strengths. I love being a Dad and my daughter and I have an amazing father/daughter relationship. My consultant told me that I could actually use that strength, my passion, and my love of my daughter to grow my practice.

Since the time that Sarah learned to put crayon to paper, I have saved her drawings. They make me happy and I truly cherish every one of them. I have them all over my exam room– from the floor to the top of my 10-foot ceiling. When parents come in for an exam, they are immediately at ease and feel certain camaraderie with me as a parent. For the last 3 years, I have not had even one patient comment negatively on my art gallery or question my love of my daughter. My patients tell their friends about my practice, and that word of mouth has resulted in many referrals for me. (As a note here, there has only been one person who did not like my daughters drawings displayed in my exam room. He told me that it was “unprofessional”. That comment came from my own father!)

After working with my consultant for a couple months to further my practice goals, my consultant notified me that one of my employees was not only turning away patients, but also stealing about $600 per month from me for years. He was able to show me what to do to handle this situation and taught me many other tools to handle any other business situation.

Looking back, I would have liked to have found a consultant earlier to provide me with much needed guidance in creating my own practice. After my experience, I knew that I could not go back to work for someone else or another chain store. I needed to have my own practice and the ability to create a future for my daughter. I would liken my experience of starting my own practice to having a person with failing eyesight try to find a pair of reading glasses at a drug store instead of getting a professional exam and a correct prescription. The consultant from Silkin identified my specific needs and provided me with solutions to address my practice. Today I am happy and I am very confident about my practice and the direction in which it is headed.

I wrote this article to encourage anyone newly in practice to seek good, professional help early on so as to avoid the many pitfalls I experienced.

And yes, my daughter is happy too. As I end this story, I am off to find room in my exam room for her next masterpiece.

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