Pursuing a veterinary medicine career means committing yourself to a lifetime of learning. Attending vet school was merely the beginning. You need to continue building upon your education after graduating in order to keep up with emerging techniques and technologies. And because you’re interested in running your own veterinary practice, you have even more to learn.
Being a capable veterinarian is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to running a clinic. You’re also responsible for operating a business. There are a lot of things to consider.
How do you plan to finance a new practice? Have you thoroughly researched competitors? How many staff members will you need to hire?
It can seem overwhelming, but you shouldn’t feel defeated. Many veterinarians are successfully operating their own clinics or hospitals. Join us as we take a look at everything that goes into opening a veterinary practice.
8 Expert suggestions for starting a veterinary practice
We reached out to Dr. Heather Douglas, Douglas Animal Hospital owner and St. George’s University (SGU) alumnus, to gather some expert advice on what it takes to start a practice. Her tips can help you move one step closer to opening the doors to your future business.
1. Take your time getting comfortable as a practitioner
Since starting a business takes a lot of preparation, it’s probably a good idea to get some experience as a veterinarian before starting your own practice. You want to make sure your skills are fully developed and that you know what it’s like working with clients.
"I would definitely recommend getting a little more comfortable with veterinary medicine first."
“I would definitely recommend getting a little more comfortable with veterinary medicine first,” Dr. Douglas says. She suggests gaining at least a few years of experience.
That said, it is possible to start your own business sooner. That’s actually what Dr. Douglas opted to do. She initially began her career at a different practice, but realized it wasn’t a good fit.
“I felt that their standards of care weren't the same as mine,” she explains. “So, I made a decision, and then I started looking for a practice.”
2. Learn some business basics
You learned a ton in school and are eager to put your skills to use at your own practice. But while proficiency in veterinary medicine is important, having a solid business foundation is just as critical.
“You need to wear two hats since you're also the owner,” Dr. Douglas points out.
While some veterinary programs have done a good job of building business courses into the curriculum, or even offer a DVM/MBA program, many fall short. The problem with this is many veterinarians don’t realize they’re lacking a solid business education. They often find themselves wishing they’d known more about practice ownership before they decided to take the plunge.
“I think they should have some sort of small-business education, even if it's just an online course teaching them how to run a business and how to get it registered,” Dr. Douglas recommends. She actually obtained an MBA shortly after starting the practice, and she’s found it incredibly useful.
3. Start your research
Once you’ve developed both your veterinary and business skills, it’s time to start doing some research. Finding the right location is especially important. You need to decide if you want to purchase a practice, rent an existing location, or build a new clinic from scratch. Financial considerations typically play a big role in this decision (more on that in a bit), but you also need to think about your competitors.
How many other practices are in the same geographic area? How will yours be different? You’ll find it extremely difficult to become profitable if the existing vets are already accommodating their clients’ needs. Dr. Douglas realized this after the fact.
"In this area, there are 15 practices in five miles."
“In this area, there are 15 practices in five miles,” She notes. “I’d say I didn't research that appropriately when I bought the practice.” Dr. Douglas quickly learned she was able to set herself apart by focusing on exceptional customer service.
And if you’re looking to buy an existing facility, make sure you have someone assess it first. “You want to work with a company that can give you a valuation of the practice and take a look at their books,” Dr. Douglas warns.
4. Assemble your go-to team
Before you even think about staff, you need to assemble a team of professionals who can get you off the ground. Even with a solid business foundation, you can’t do it all yourself. Dr. Douglas recommends connecting with an accountant, an attorney, an insurance agent, and a business consultant. You may even want to chat with fellow veterinarians.
“I think it’s good to talk to other practice owners,” she says, adding it’s smart to speak with people at all stages of their careers.
Those looking to build or renovate should also get in touch with an architect in the very early stages. A good architect can guide you through the construction process and help with permits.
5. Get your financial plan in order
We mentioned that financial considerations often play into a veterinarian’s decision to go with an existing clinic or build their own. While building from scratch gives you more control, it’s also going to be more expensive. You need to construct the actual facility, purchase equipment, and bring in clients. Purchasing an existing practice offers the benefit of connecting you with pet owners.
"If you have an established clientele, you already having cash flow coming in."
“If you have an established clientele, you already having cash flow coming in,” Dr. Douglas explains. “I think that's really important. I would had to have gotten a lot more money financed if I wanted to build my own place.”
Depending on how well equipped the clinic is, you may not have to buy much additional equipment. Dr. Douglas says the only initial purchase she made was a dental cleaning machine.
And if you want to start from scratch? “I think you can probably do that after five years,” Dr. Douglas offers, by “Saving money or doing [Small Business Administration] SBA loans.”
The decision to buy, rent, or build is just one part of figuring out your financial future. You also need to come up with a forecast, which your accountant can help you build out. Coming up with financial projections will help you understand what you need to do to become profitable. Furthermore, you’ll need to provide a reasonable forecast in order to obtain a loan.
6. Develop a marketing strategy
It doesn’t do much good to open your practice doors without clients, so you need to develop some sort of marketing strategy. There are plenty of low-cost options. Dr. Douglas says she started out doing events and posting flyers.
Remember to think about client retention as well. It’s often easier to keep people coming back than to get new faces in the door. Consider a referral program that rewards clients who recommend you. Promotional offers are another way to maintain a steady stream of clients.
Dr. Douglas also mentions wellness plans have worked well for her practice. “Wellness plans are monthly payments discounted for whatever the animal’s due for – vaccines, maybe a neuter,” she explains. Because clients make monthly payments with wellness plans, you’ll likely see a more predictable cash flow.
7. Hire the people you need
Determining how many people you need to hire can be tricky. It really depends on the practice, but make sure you hire enough staff to provide the support you need. It’s easy to make the mistake of hiring too few team members, which will likely result in you spending too much time on non-veterinarian duties.
“I would say that per doctor, you’re going to need at least one technician, one assistant, and one receptionist,” Dr. Douglas says. “That would be ideal.”
"I would say that per doctor, you’re going to need at least one technician, one assistant, and one receptionist."
8. Expect bumps in the road
The final thing to keep in mind when starting your business is that it’s very unlikely everything will go as planned. You should expect to go through some growing pains as you figure things out during the first few years.
So, how long was it before Dr. Douglas felt like her practice was operating smoothly and predictably? “It took about five years,” she says.
While that might sound daunting, veterinarians who persevere typically find it very rewarding to operate their own business. The challenges are worth it if you’ve always dreamed of running your own veterinary practice.
Set the stage for success
There are clearly a lot of moving pieces to juggle when starting a veterinary practice. Take plenty of time to research and prepare. You need to consider your eventual location, staffing needs, and everything in between before you begin seeing patients.
You also need to make sure you’ve obtained all the appropriate credentials to practice veterinary medicine as well. One of the most important requirements is passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). But is there more to the NAVLE than simply obtaining a minimum score?
Learn more about what your test performance means by reading our article “5 Things You Need to Know About Your NAVLE Results.”
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