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13 things I wish I had known about veterinary practice ownership

Man holding key with rainbow key chain
Fancy key chains + shiny objects = you're now a disillusioned new practice owner! Congrats!

1. It’s harder than you expect.

The first couple of years were generally fun – I was still in that new car phase. I was a practice owner! I can do whatever I want! Now I’ve had a thorough dose of reality. Practice ownership is not rainbows and ponies (okay, there are ponies sometimes). But, don’t let that dissuade you: you can handle it, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll most likely be glad you did.

2. It’s lonely.

Your employees are not your friends – they are your subordinates in the scheme of the business structure, no matter how small it is. Treating them like friends leads to fuzzy boundaries and poor attainment of business goals. (This doesn’t mean be a jerk though.)

3. You suck at communications.

I don’t care how good you think you are going into this. Most of your practice problems, both with employees and clients, are going to stem from communications problems. But you do not have to learn this purely from experience. Read a communications or team building book (here’s the book we used in my team-building class, and I’d say I definitely learned some things). This subject area seems subjective and touchy-feely, but it’s as grounded in science as our own. There are proven methods to communication and ‘getting along’ that you can apply to your own practice.

4. SOPs, employee handbooks, and mission statements – oh my!

I should have had all of these. I ended my practice ownership with an employee handbook, completed. SOPs – prioritized as next? Mission statement, nope. What I would now advise is to prioritize:

  1. Mission Statement: your whole practice should revolve around this so it’s pretty important.

  2. Employee Handbook: Set them up for success from day one.

  3. Standard Operating Procedures: These are going to take a while if you do them right, but do them! You will appreciate them for both routine usage and training new staff. And in case you're thinking your practice is too small for these, mine had 1-2 vets and 1-2 support staff at any time. Do them.

A card that says let your intuition guide you, you are what you've been looking for
The best mission statements get *deep down* at what a practice (and it's owner) really believe in. What motivates you to do what you do? What do you believe in above everything else?

5. Everything your practice does should be built on your mission statement.

Yep, this again. I think it’s that important because an excellent mission statement means you have complete clarity about who you are as a business and who you serve. No one should ever read it and confuse you with the clinic down the street. It’s not just something you complete and set aside – put it to work! You should refer each of your prospective employees to it. If they aren’t on-board with those values, they probably aren’t the right employee for your clinic. Additionally, you can use it when you lose your way: when situations get confusing, always defer back to your mission statement for guidance.

6. Branding is more than a logo and a website.

I wish that I would have understood real branding, and implemented it sooner. Like my lack of understanding of everything else in business, it’s been a learning process, I’ve gotten much better at it, and it’s now a favorite topic of mine. Know that great branding can make you look more awesome than you actually are (or rather, cement your true awesomeness level in your clients’ brains – the more ethical way to do it). On the other hand, poor branding can degrade your actual professionalism level. Hopefully that’s an obvious choice.

7. Schedule time to work on the practice – and make that time sacred.

Being a practice owner is far more than saying you own a clinic. You have to both work on that clinic and plan for its future as well. That takes a lot of time, and that’s time you have to take away from practicing or other life activities. If you don’t do this, your clinic is going to struggle. It’s that important. This was well described in “The E Myth,” which talks about the 3 different jobs you have as a business owner, which you can see described below (there’s also a vet version). Many vet-owners tend to concentrate mainly on practicing – or the “technician” role, and maybe a little of the “manager” role. But you need to be spending almost equal time on all of these if you want your business to be sustainable. Set clear boundaries about when you are working on the clinic versus in the clinic: a question here or there can eventually lead to no longer having time set aside.

8. As a species, vets are absolutely clueless about how to properly run a business.

We treat it like a passion project, which it is not. No amount of passion makes you understand accounting and finance, unless you – you know – actually learn accounting and finance. The best thing I did was begin taking business classes part time. I started with accounting – and magically, I understood QuickBooks afterwards! It was amazing! Do you need to go to business school like me? Not necessarily – but knowledge is certainly power, and the more you have the better you’ll be. Pretty obvious, right?

9. I should have been charging more.

I figured this out eventually, but it took me a while to change from rose-colored-glasses associate point of view to we’ve-got-bills-to-pay-but-no-money owner point of view. That’ll snap you to your senses quickly. This is also why I (and experts – here, here, here, among others) firmly believe in open lines of communication with your employees regarding finances. Keeping people in the dark builds mistrust and misinformation, while divulging appropriate amounts of information tends to decrease overall business costs and increase employee satisfaction and productivity.

10. Form relationships with your vendors and salespeople.

They are excellent resources for knowledge way beyond the boundaries of what they are selling you. Need to hire an associate? They might know someone perfect for you. Have no clue what supplies people ‘normally use’ for this procedure? Just tell them you’re an idiot (quote: me) and ask them to give you the inside scoop. They know a lot more than you realize, and they’re usually happy to help! Over time, these relationships will also help you form new connections at new companies as your salespeople advance in their own careers.

Two people having a conversation with a counselor
"What I hear you saying is that if I tell you what I expect from you before you engage in that activity, you actually know what to do. Interesting."

11. Clear expectations are the key to preventing disappointment.

Hindsight is the worst, but the more you learn as during ownership, I’d strongly recommend taking your new-found knowledge and using it to attempt to prevent things in the future: client problems, employee problems, and mainly hassles for you and your company. Do you expect a test to take a while to come back? Tell the client that now. Do you want an employee to tell you when they are unhappy? Tell them that immediately when they start. Don’t assume they understand they can come to you with that information. Don’t want your employees doing a certain thing in front of clients? Make it clear that this is not acceptable behavior (or even better, write that employee handbook!). A lot of mistakes are going to happen, but at least learn what you can from them.

12. I came out of practice ownership as a different person than I went in

– and that’s mostly a good thing. While there was some innocence lost along the way, what I gained was an enormous sense of responsibility, maturity, and humility. To keep a business going, you have to put the needs of your employees, clients, and the business entity itself above yourself. That takes some introspection and rearrangement of priorities if you want to be successful. It’s all a balancing act: you cannot achieve enormous success without giving up a lot of other things. Or perhaps you’re happy with mild success, but a happier family life? There are choices to be made, and it’s your very personal decision.

Woman yelling with streaked makeup
This has been fun. I want to put myself through this again!

13. I’ll probably do it again.

There were absolutely hardships during my time as an owner, but I do not regret my choice in any way. I don’t know exactly what my future holds, but I would not shy away from business ownership again. It’s lonely, stressful, and – at times – overwhelming, but the sense of accomplishment, creative fulfillment, and contribution to the world that I experienced was irreplaceable.

If you have any questions about starting a new practice or practice difficulties, feel free to reach out to me here or through my social media accounts!


Any thoughts or comments? Write them below in the comments section!

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