By Rebecca MacMillan BVetMed MRCVS
Setting up your own practice is the shared dream of many vets. The thought of being in control of the day to day running and realising the level of care for your patients is a tempting one. However, as a business, it’s also important to ensure profitability otherwise your dream could be over before it’s even begun. Starting a new business will require hard work and dedication but it is achievable.
Find a premises
There are some key things to think about when choosing the location of your practice.
You need to ensure that there are enough pet owners in the area to sustain your business. Look at a 10-mile radius and see how much of that is residential, and what the population is like. Are they homeowners or renters? What is the value of the properties in this area, and are there any new housing developments popping up?
Make sure you know how many other vet practices there are in the area. These will all be taking a share of your potential clientele.
Buy or rent?
There are pros and cons to both. Renting tends to be easier to manage financially in the early days of your business. You will need to find a balance between a small cheaper building that your team might soon outgrow, vs paying over the odds rent-wise for a large premise that you can’t really afford.
Owning your building has the advantage of investing in the building itself, which is worthwhile if properties in the area are rising in value. It might also give you some more independence to manage the premises how you see fit, without needing a landlord to sign it off.
Bear in mind that a premises may need planning permission for change of use which could take time to achieve, and you will also need to check council requirements for any restrictions around things like hospitalisation of inpatients.
Once you’ve found the right area and a possible building, you will need to scrutinize it through the eyes of a potential client. Is there convenient parking available? Is it easy to find, or is it located off the beaten track? What’s the traffic like at rush hour? You might also need to consider any work that needs doing to improve access and make it disability friendly with ramps, handrails, or elevators.
Finances and details
You will need a business plan to obtain a loan to secure your premises and set up your business. An accountant or veterinary business consultant should be able to help you with this if you’re not sure where to start.
Lenders will want to see your financial projections for the practice. The main things to take into consideration will be your estimated revenue and your expenses – things like drugs, equipment, rent and staff wages.
Sorting out insurance for your premises and registering for tax should be on your list of things to do once your business gets the go ahead. Also, consider the costs of professional liability cover and whether you will be paying to use an out of hours provider.
Picking your team
For your practice to be a success you will need to employ the right staff that share your vision. Advertising through social media is common these days. Have an idea of what you want but be flexible as vets and vet nurses are in short supply at the moment. Allowing for part time or split shifts, as well as full-time candidates, is imperative.
You will need to consult a solicitor to set up employee contracts and for help in the employment process generally. Employees have rights and there are lots of laws to be aware of including the minimum wage, the legal right to work in this country, and the health and safety guidelines you should be putting in place for your team.
Make sure you shop around for good deals on your water, electricity, and internet/phone suppliers. Comparison websites can be a good starting point but be aware that notice periods and contracts may differ for businesses than for normal domestic use.
Equipment and practice management system
Make a list of the basics needed to get your practice off the ground, you can always invest in more later down the line. Leasing equipment can be false economy longer term, so try and keep this to a minimum. An X-ray room will need to be designed and kitted out by a qualified radiation protection advisor. Choosing your laboratory and wholesale supplier also needs some consideration.
Practice management systems are integral to the smooth operation of your business. Try a few different ones out to see which you like and talk to other vets for their recommendations. Practice management systems should be able to do more than just record patient notes and take payments. They allow you to run analytics on your business and help you with marketing (many run text reminders to clients directly from the system). So, you must have one that you find intuitive and can use to its fullest.
The fun stuff
Décor, branding and uniforms! Whilst these might be seen as the pretty or ‘fun bits’, the way your business presents itself can be a crucial part of the client experience. The name of your practice will also need to be run past your governing body for any objections, as well as paying attention to the use of the term Limited/Ltd.
You will need to attract clients to help get your business off the ground. Marketing should start ahead of the opening, as well as after.
From experience, traditional methods of marketing like newspaper adverts, flyers and radio adverts tend to be quite expensive for the number of new clients they generate.
Instead, focus on social media, reaching out through boosted posts and targeted adverts. You could also offer local businesses and neighbours discounts to help create interest. Signage is very important as well. Many people spot a practice from the side of the road, so make sure you stand out and look presentable.
Offering a local charity some discounts can be a great idea, especially in the early days. Not only will it give you some work to do in the quieter early days, but you will start getting the benefit of word of mouth.
Longer-term your business will grow through your reputation. So, give every client your best level of service as this will encourage their friends and family to also visit you. An introduce a friend offer might be helpful with this.
Setting up your own business can be a stressful time, particularly if you are juggling this with family life and still holding down employment elsewhere. However longer-term the rewards can be big, not least the satisfaction of being able to run things exactly how you want to.
If you are daunted by the prospect of setting up your own practice from scratch then you might want to consider a corporate venture instead, where you will have the support and help of an already established large business behind you.
Whichever path you decide to choose, best of luck!