Indie business insights and ‘speed dating’

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO sector skills development officer

On a sunny afternoon in May, a dozen keen and eager entrepreneurs arrive at the ABDO National Resource Centre for a twilight session to support those looking to become independent optician owners.

The event, organised by ABDO and supported with contributions from the Association for Independent Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians (AIO), SightCare/Storm, the National Eyecare Group, Eyeplan and the Specs Network allowed attendees to learn of the great levels of support available to an independent.

The event kicked off with an overview of the role and function of both the AIO Product Support Network and SightCare/Storm delivered by Mike Ockenden and John French respectively. This was followed by first-hand experiences of being an independent from Clive Marchant, MD of Colin Lee Opticians, and John Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Jones Opticians in Newcastle-under-Lyme. These session offered great insight into the challenging, but rewarding, life of an independent with Clive sharing experiences of the business’s growth over 40 years – including purchases, sales and the successful purchase and conversion of a house practice into a High Street practice.

John shared similar experiences to Clive in terms of rewards and sometimes setbacks and offered great insight into the role that an independent can play by specialising. John is the chairman of the British Association of Behavioural Optometrists, and being independent allows him to pursue his passion in this area.

David Samuel then led a session titled, ‘Routes to owning your own independent practice’, which included purchasing an existing practice, management buy-in, management buy-out, starting from scratch, taking over the family business or looking at a niche specialism.

The group then split into smaller groups to spend time with representatives from the supporting organisations in a ‘speed dating’ style session.  Delegates learnt more about the support each of the organisations could offer to an independent, asked questions relevant to their individual situations and arranged follow-up contact where appropriate. There was definitely a buzz in the air – with lots of information and knowledge sharing.

Chris Clemence from Eyeplan delivered the final session, ‘Money money money’, concerning possible routes to financing a business. This highly informative session covered areas including how much to borrow (think Goldilocks – not too much and not too little, your business plan should help discover the optimum amount), places to get finance such as the bank, peer-to-peer finance, commercial leasing, Angels (the correct term for the Dragons if you’re familiar with Dragon’s Den) and government grants.

Delegate feedback

Sophia Burton: “I’m an optometrist in an independent practice at the moment. I’ve been there for about 12 years and have the opportunity of buying into the business. I’m at the beginning of the journey – still making decisions about what I can manage, both financially and professionally. I needed help understanding the right questions to ask myself and other facilitators in the process. The ABDO meeting allowed an informal way of meeting those that can help with this. I didn’t realise how much support is out there and now have a bunch of contacts and information that I can call on. I really appreciate the guidance I came away with and feel more confident in the decision-making process. A must-do meeting for anyone thinking of entering the independent optician world of business and also for those who have already taken the jump.”

Saima Begum: “I’m currently working as a locum dispensing optician. It’s interesting to hear about the future vision for independent practices; there was emphasis around having a niche for your practices. It really helps if your practice has a USP. This can be anything. This was a great refresher of some of the things that I’ve observed and have thought about. Most importantly, this event was brilliant for getting all the support available in one room. Most definitely I would recommend the event to existing independent owners and everyone starting out. It is a must if you want to explore all the help out there for you as a practice owner to set up systems and a brilliant opportunity to network with other likeminded individuals.”

Company feedback

Richard Hollings, Specs Network: “The event was a great opportunity for the delegates to access the extensive range of specialist support that is available from the industry and to establish a support network with like-minded people who are undertaking the same journey.”

John French, CEO, SightCare: “Speaking to the ECPs who attended the ABDO event seeking to gain advice and knowledge about setting up their own optical practice, it was clear that they are all seeking independence and flexibility. They are all entrepreneurs who understood that owning and running their own business can be more satisfying and fulfilling than working for someone else. What they were not so sure about was the best ways to achieve this ambition. They were eager to understand the support available from SightCare in the key areas of business and financial planning as well as how to differentiate their business proposition from the competition to be able to be successful and grow their practice. They took away from the evening that there is specialised independent optician business and networking support readily available to ensure that they can learn from others who have become successful independent optician owners.”

Chris Clemence, Eyeplan: “I think the benefit of the event was for prospective independents to learn what is our there to support them and the fact that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Success is far from guaranteed but considerably more likely if you enrol the help of those who have a vested interest in your success. For Eyeplan that means helping practices build regular and reliable cashflow.”

For more resources and the Independent Practice Guide, visit the ABDO Business Support Hub.