Any vet looking to start a private practice has a lot of work ahead of them. From developing a business plan, to building relationships with vendors and service providers, to building a client base and the connections necessary to succeed, it's a long, difficult journey. Fortunately, plenty of help exists for every step of the process.
Broadly speaking, building and growing a veterinary practice (outside of opening a franchise, anyway) can be broken down into six stages. What are they, and what is involved in each one? Let's dig in.
Before we get too deep, though, it's worth acknowledging that no two journeys are going to be the same and that there aren't exactly clean transition points between these stages. You may find yourself at an awkward transition point, and sometimes, it can feel impossible to meet the challenges head-on. Rest assured, it's always possible to grow; it just might take a different outlook or perspective to figure out the way forward.
Stage One: Ideas and Foundations
Whether you're fresh out of veterinary school, or you're an old hand working for corporate chains, and you want to gain the freedom and flexibility to do other things, you've decided to open your own private practice. This stage is defined by one major landmark: your opening day.
Before the opening day, you have an immense amount of work to do. You have the knowledge and the skills, but you need the tools, the resources, the contracts, the medications, the relationships with pharmacies, and more.
Don't forget all of the details of a business plan, from expenses to fees and charges, patient management, and all the rest; after all, if you want your practice to succeed, you need to be able to pay for it all.
On top of that, you need a location with an area that has low enough competition and high enough need that you can survive without having to compete overmuch with other practices, especially those that could crush you with advertising or overspending. You need a physical location, a suitable building, all of the décor and accouterments, machines and tools, and all the rest.
You can't go it alone, either. You need staff, whether it's someone to answer the phones and check in clients, someone to assist you as a veterinary nurse, or someone to handle the paperwork in the background. Often, you'll need 2-6 or so employees able to work with you and each other as a tight-knit team capable of handling anything that gets thrown at you.
Opening day comes and goes, and now you're in a frantic scramble for survival. Every day and every week brings new challenges, from patients to business details to unexpected financial issues and more. You don't build processes; you handle challenges as they come, and every day is different. Maybe, in a year, you'll have seen it all and have recurring patients and a stable client base, but for now, it's a make-or-break moment almost constantly.
This is one of the most stressful times for vets opening new practices. As the lynchpin of the entire practice, you can't afford a day off, and you're very much risking burnout. Some people thrive in an environment of constant challenge and change, but if you're not up to the task, you won't make it. It's no wonder that most businesses – let alone vet practices – fail within the first year.
Stage Two: Survival and Settling
Once you've made it past your first anniversary, a lot of the stress and burden will ease. Since so many vet care plans are annual checkups, this is the point where you have proof positive that your patient base is there. The bread and butter of veterinary care keeps you going, while the unique challenges of sudden, emergency, and critical care cases provide the variance and "adventure" that keeps you engaged.
This is the point where you start to consider growth, but you don't have the resources or stability to handle it just yet. You have the income to cover your loans, rent, bills, and other expenses, and have some left over. You can hire additional staff, give your loyal employees raises, and look into additional options and services.
Unfortunately, as much as the stress of constant change and challenge eases, this is where the mental stress of a pattern and a rut begin to form. You start to feel like you've seen it all; the novelty wears off, and instead of facing challenges with optimism, you face them with a sigh.
You've survived, and you're settling in, but your growth may feel like it's stagnating.
This is also where new challenges start to come up. A long-time employee leaves for another opportunity, and now you have someone new on your team who doesn't know how things work, and you realize that nothing has been documented and you have no ongoing, trainable processes. You need to codify and formalize much of your practice, and that can feel like the death of innovation and creativity, even if the benefits in efficiency are worth it.
Some practices never progress past this stage. That's not necessarily a bad thing! Called PSB, or Permanent Small Business mode, a vet practice headed up by you and a handful of close employees can subsist indefinitely, in perfectly satisfactory harmony. If that's all you want out of a practice, then by all means, enjoy it. Though, PSBs are often at risk of closing due to changes in the economic environment, so it's inherently a risk.
If you don't find satisfaction in stasis, you'll start to look towards the next stage.
Stage Three: Success and Evolution
At this point, you are usually presented with options.
The first is to maintain your position while growing horizontally. "Horizontal" growth means building more robustness without adding more services. For example, you might hire another vet to work with you, both so you can take the occasional vacation, and so you can handle a higher patient load without overloading your practice. You build outwards, expanding not your range of services, but your capacity in the services you offer.
The second option is to reinvest, evolve, and grow. Maybe you've been providing basic standard care, but you've always wanted to be a specialist; you start taking night classes while hiring a relief vet to take up some of your caseload so you can start to offer more unique services. Maybe you start experimenting with innovation, providing unique forms of telemedicine or combination care. You forego raises in favor of reinvesting in your practice, counting on greater future rewards to pay you back in spades.
The third option is to sell out. This is the point where the corporate vets come knocking, wondering if you might want to benefit from all of their resources, if you only adopt their branding, handbook, policies, and requirements. For some, this is a great exit, a way to offload a lot of the work and stress of owning a practice or even a chance to take a payout and retire. For others, this is an affront, and the idea of whitewashing a unique practice with one of the corporate brands is insulting. There's no wrong answer, just the answer you want to give.
For growth as a private practice, only one of these options is open. To progress to the next stage, you reinvest, reinvent, and evolve.
Stage Four: Growth and Redundancy
Stage four is cyclical, building growth through feedback mechanisms. You hire a new vet to provide greater capacity to make more money to invest in hiring more management and staff to further increase caseload to make more money to invest into expanding your services to build a more robust caseload to make more money to invest into advertising to… you get the picture.
Every investment at this stage is carefully considered for how it can build upon the other services and systems you already have, how those systems might need to adapt for profitability, and how it can all be reinvested. Redundancy makes you resilient to change, hiring a greater team allows you to build outwards, and you can start reaching upwards for greater heights.
Vets, here, are often faced with a personal choice that can be very difficult. You own the practice, but the larger it gets, the more time you find yourself behind a desk working with paperwork, making phone calls with vendors, and dealing with administration… and the less time you spend with your passion, helping and healing the animals we all hold dear.
Vet mental health can be a serious challenge, and this is one of those crisis points. Do you submit to the fact that you're more a business owner than a vet and rely on the vets you hire to handle the majority of the work while you take on the cases that most interest you? Or do you do as much as you can to offload the administration and keep working as a vet?
This is also the point where you may consider opening additional practices. If your location is large enough and you have the funds, opening a second office somewhere – smaller, but with established processes and veteran team members from your primary practice – can be a good way to graduate from an individual practice to a veterinary group.
Stage Five: Stability and Maturity
Expansion and growth have limits. So many of the problems in the world, politically, economically, and socially, come from companies that demand unending growth and see mere maintenance of current profits as a failure. It's unsustainable.
The sustainable perspective is to reach a point where your services, your patients, and your staff are all satisfied and in balance, with enough left over to help with growth, reinvestment, or stability as necessary. In the traditional five stages of business growth, this is the endpoint, the goal.
You provide a sufficient return on your investment for yourself, your investors, your co-owners, and everyone else involved. You provide satisfactory care to your patients, and you're satisfied. Right?
Stage Six: Expansion and Verticality
The sixth stage is a difficult stage, and it's not recommended for every veterinarian with a private practice. It's the point where you transition from local vet to regional vet, from private practice to corporate practice, from DVM to CEO.
Some vets find themselves disgusted with this idea. Maybe you left corporate work for a reason, and to see yourself become what you fled is a step too far. Maybe you still love working with animals directly and can't bear the thought of all of the work you'd need to do taking that away from you.
On the other hand, maybe this is now your dream. You've been running a private practice for years now, and you're ready to move on to a less hands-on role. You're tired of dealing with troublesome patients, you want a better work/life balance, and you don't mind being able to pull in a salary for the high-level work while your vets do the labor you used to handle.
And who knows? Maybe your vet corporation can compete with the big boys, and you can bring the changes you wish you would see to the world of veterinary care without compromising your morals.
Helping Vets with Hope
At Hope Vet, we're experienced practitioners of animal healthcare, and we're here to help.
At nearly any stage of veterinary growth, we can assist you. Maybe you're in stage one, and you have a desperate patient you can't handle yourself, but there's no one else in the area you trust to send their case. Maybe you're in stage six, and you're expanding your veterinary empire by using our service to provide diagnostics and consultations to your practices that are still growing.
Whatever the case may be, you can reach out to us for a variety of services. We can help you handle everything from tricky critical care and emergency cases, to internal medicine, to oncology, dermatology, neurology, and more. Just drop us a line, reach out, and discuss your needs. We're more than happy to help.