In our latest installment of SBC’s monthly small business feature, we meet Dr. Samuel Teske, founder of The Eye Doctors, an optometry practice with two locations in the Tampa Bay, Florida area. In a recent interview with business writer Susan Caminiti, Dr. Teske speaks about the early days, the importance of customer service, and why it’s crucial to run a medical practice like a business.
SC: How did The Eye Doctors practice come about?
ST: In 2007, I purchased the practice from a doctor who said she wanted to retire and relax. It’s in an area of Tampa that’s growing and I thought it would be a good location. But once I took it over I had a few little surprises.
SC: Such as?
ST: When I signed the contract, the other doctor agreed to a non-compete clause that covered eight miles. She told me she was retiring, but we put the non-compete in there anyway. About three months into taking over the practice, I started getting phone calls requesting patient records. But the really strange thing was that all the requests were coming from her. That’s when she told me she decided to reopen her practice and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m 8.1 miles away.’”
SC: How did you respond to that?
ST: I could have gotten a lawyer and fought it, but I knew if I spent my energy on negative stuff it would probably bring the practice down. I wanted to concentrate on the positive and grow the practice.
ST: I took out a loan and reinvested in the practice and in technology. There were a lot of things that were being done incorrectly when I bought it. For instance, there was one phone line. Whenever I called, I’d get a busy signal and I knew that wasn’t good. Another thing I didn’t like was that all the eyeglass frames in our retail section were locked up. A customer has to be able to try on different frames to make a decision. So we unlocked all the frames. There was also just one computer in use when I bought the practice. I knew I wanted to have access to electronic health records for our patients, so I added 10 computers.
SC: Was there any point early on when you felt overwhelmed with the changes and the financial outlay?
ST: Oh yes. There were many nights when I was sleeping only two to three hours because of the stress and because I was working so much. There was the financial outlay from purchasing the practice and then the loan to upgrade everything.
SC: How did you handle that?
ST: I was kind of lucky because both my parents were small business owners. When I was growing up, the talk at the dinner table was around customer service, or issues with employees or clients. I saw first-hand what it took to run a business. My mom was an accountant so at the end of the year I would see piles of papers across the kitchen table and two pots of coffee.
ST: In my field [marketing is] about 70 percent word of mouth. Internal marketing was also very big. We started collecting emails and cell phone numbers of our patients. We also had a service that would allow us to text say, a happy birthday message to a patient. That allowed us to connect with patients beyond just the appointment reminder card they’d get in the mail.
We’ve also been very lucky to have patients write great reviews. I didn’t ask for those, but once they started coming in I did ask a few patients if they would write a review because I knew that social media was a new way to reach patients.
SC: You have two part-time doctors and another full-time doctor in addition to yourself. How did you know when it was time to bring other doctors into the practice?
ST: Once I started getting booked out, I realized we needed to add people. But growth is an interesting thing because it can also bite you. I learned that lesson early on. In the beginning, we grew very quickly but I didn’t add staff fast enough. Now we like to be a full staff member ahead of what’s needed so that we have the people in place for growth. We don’t want to constrain growth because we don’t have enough staff. And we’ve been growing 30 percent a year, every year versus about five percent annual growth for our industry.
SC: What do you attribute that to?
ST: Two things: population growth in the area where we’re located, and customer service. We’re very patient-centric. In fact, our slogan is: ‘Our focus is you.’ We also invested very heavily in technology for the practice. We have a few pieces of equipment that only a handful of other doctors in the state have. In addition, we have an in-office lab that cuts the time in half for people to get their eyewear. Most small practices don’t have that.
SC: One of the mistakes many small business owners make early on is that they try to do everything themselves. Does that describe you?
ST: Yes, it does. That’s why I love Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth. Every small business owner has to read this. In part, it says you have to get past that infancy stage where the owner is trying to do too much. We’re all guilty of it because every owner goes through those growing pains.
ST: I think it was when I hired an amazing practice manager, Kevin Whaley, in late 2008. We read a lot of the same books and would share ideas. Ask any doctor what the hardest part of their practice is and they’ll say running the business side. We train as doctors and then all of a sudden we’re business owners and discover that the practice doesn’t run itself.
SC: What duties and functions does Kevin take care of now that used to fall to you?
ST: He concentrates on the business side so I can concentrate on the patients. It’s really like having two owners the way he looks at things. For instance, if I’m considering buying a piece of diagnostic equipment, Kevin can run through the numbers to decide if the equipment is going to pay for itself, or if it’s going to adversely affect cash flow. That’s a huge burden off of me. It also helped me realize that as much as this is a medical practice, it is a business and it has to be run that way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.