You can go your own way – advice on starting a practice from scratch

Written by: James Horner
Published on: 30 Aug 2022

Team with awardQ: Why do you think you won?

A: It was a great surprise to win the BestUKVet start-up award (pictured) and as the reviews have come in, it has really helped buoy our enthusiasm reading what clients feel about our services.

As a team, we have all set about trying to give our best to all our patients and clients, and it is great to see this being well received by our client base.

Q: When did you open your business?

A: We opened our doors on 21 June 2021. This was nearing the end of the pandemic when the guidance was moving to “living with the virus” and restrictions were being eased.

Q: How did the pandemic impact on your plans?

A: The impact of the pandemic was notable, both positive and negative. On the negatives, the pandemic impacted my ability to search and find a good site.

From this came added frustration with paperwork as it took almost a year from identifying the site to getting keys for entry. During the kitting and fitting-out, the usual COVID supply chain disruption ensued.

On the positive, though, when we opened many practices were still struggling with the huge workload that the increase in pet ownership offered. At this point, we made a decision to let other practices in the area know we had opened.

This led to the most surprising activity and, in the first few months, most of our clients came as referrals from other practices who were unable to see the overflow they were receiving.

Q: How long had you been planning to launch your own vet practice?

A: The thought had been with me from graduation, but took a long time to grow into tangible action. The changing nature of the industry, with the growing influence of corporate organisations, fewer partnerships becoming available, and the demands placed on general business ownership by the Government all influenced the plan.

Q: Why did you want to start up on your own?

A: I have held a lot of different roles in several different organisations and I went full circle from thinking the age of the independent is dwindling to the firm belief the role of the independent is returning to our industry.

I felt two clear options existed: join an independent practice with a view to join the partnership to elicit change, or begin your own practice.

Both are not without risks, and for me, creating and supporting a select client base with a team of hand-picked individuals was exciting and the preferred option.

Q: What was the rough timeline from idea to opening up?

A: Assuming I count from the day I left my last full-time position, it is just short of two years; much of this was trying to find a suitable location.

The creation of the assets, such as branding, website, culture and vision took several months, but this was done in parallel to finding the magic site.

Q: How did you decide on your location/team and who ran the operational side of things?

A: The location requirements were easy to state, but very hard to find. I knew I wanted a space that I could expand into, a car park with easy access to the practice and a good footfall location. The reality of finding this was not easy.

I actually came across my current site by chance. From following a line of supermarket concessions, or potentially a temporary unit in their car park, I struck gold with the unit below Morrisons.

From an operational perspective, I have managed all of that in-house and built the policies and protocols with my team. The fun and annoying aspect of being a start-up is that we had no established processes, and so everyone had an input in how we want to care for the clients of the business.

This was helped by the individuals who have joined me on the way. The nature of individuals joining start-ups is that of people who share a common drive. Everyone took on little extras beyond a conventional position, and this shared the ownership of the whole growth.

Q: What are your top tips to other vets who are keen to launch their own practice?

A: Top tips are always hard to list, but I have had a go:

  1. Make sure you have a supportive partner and family. I cannot downplay the importance of my wife and my family’s support of me. The journey is one of huge highs and reactive lows. Starting a business is not to be taken lightly, given the time-consuming nature of such a venture.
  2. Find a great location – the importance of this cannot be underestimated.
  3. Don’t worry about local competition. With the growth of pet ownership, you will have a lot of work to go around and having supportive local practices is great when you are in a pickle.
  4. Define the type of client base you want to support and focus on those client relationships.
  5. Build a sense of ownership within the team – we are all in it together.
  6. Have fun – this is the easiest one to forget.

Q: How important is your website and online presence?

A: An online presence is an important marketing tool. The importance is because of the nature of where our new registrations come from; about half come from internet searches.

Even if the client is recommended by a friend, in many instances, an internet search occurs and the first impression any client has of your practice will be the website.

Q: Have you got any tips for other vet practices on maximising their online presence?

A: Time and understanding need to be developed in this area (unless you already are a digital marketing expert), and so using external consultancy is always helpful.

SEO, CTR and CPC are a flavour of some acronyms needed to be understood when dipping your toe into the online marketing world.

While the cost of consultants may feel prohibitive, it pays back dividends in the future from minimising misspent revenue.

Retainers, such as offered by Vet Help Direct, help spread the costs of consultancy and often exposes you to other services these companies can offer.

An increasing number of platforms exist that can be used to promote your practice. A balance needs to be struck between exposure across platforms and the quality of attention you can give for each platform you sign up to.

Q: Do you rate online reviews?

A: Absolutely, and, more importantly, so do your clients and prospective clients. For me, great reviews help remind you why you entered the profession and reinforce the fact you are doing a good job, while poor reviews give a realtime feedback on areas to improve.

Clients like to read positive and negative reviews. A business not getting any reviews raises alarm bells, especially in an environment of pet care, where there is lots of social activity and opinion on the subject of fur babies.

Q: Do you worry about getting negative reviews?

A: Yes. I don’t know anyone who likes having a bad report. I try to use it as valuable feedback once the initial disappointment has abated.   

Q: How would you encourage other vet practices to embrace online reviews?

A: Ask for them. Most people want to support you – especially if you have helped them and they are pleased. Sadly, someone saying yes to leaving a review and actually putting pen to paper doesn’t always happen. From our early days, we worked out for our practice we needed to ask 20 clients to get one review.

To help, we have QR codes around the reception area and try to make it as easy as possible for reviews to be posted.

The other route that has worked well for us is working with Vet Help Direct. Vet Help Direct created a marketing campaign where they emailed our client base and requested them to leave a review.

In both sources, it is great having the feedback, and reading reviews from new clients is brilliant.