Most new veterinarians begin their careers as associates supporting a more experienced practitioner for several years. Over time many go on to start their own practice — an exciting milestone professionally and personally. While most veterinarians will wait until they are confident regarding their medical skills, it’s important to realize that the business aspects of starting a new practice can be the most challenging. Key to success is understanding the business side and surrounding yourself with a team of professionals who can help.
Before you start your own veterinary practice, know these five things:
Understand the business. Most veterinarians receive at least some basic corporate training in veterinary school, but they are far from prepared for all the non-medical elements of business ownership. Every veterinary practice requires a basic understanding of bookkeeping, business contracts, and employment law. You will need to understand how to market your business and many owners will even have to manage real estate if they own the property where the practice is. That can be intimidating for a new owner-practitioner, and therefore it is critical to work under an experienced veterinarian before opening your own practice, not only to learn day-to-day care of patients but also gain insight into business operations.
Managing clients (the human ones). Most veterinarians went into their profession because of their love of animals. But it is the human clients who will control much of the fate of their business success. After all, humans will determine if you are paid on time, receive good reviews on social media, get referrals, and maintain repeat business. While veterinarians are trained to respond to medical complaints, they may be less likely to have a client-oriented mindset when it comes to their (human) clients. What happens when a client is frustrated that pricing is not as expected? Who responds when someone posts a Yelp review stating that they had a poor interaction with a team member? While staff or third-party business partners should be able to deal with these issues day-to-day, these challenges ultimately are the responsibility of the practitioner-owner. Even if you’re not a “people person,” you will need to build relationships with clients, suppliers, and employees if you want your practice to thrive.
Supply and inventory. The last few years have brought huge market disruptions. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have led to supply chain issues, inflation, and worker shortages. Procuring materials and equipment has become more expensive and less predictable. Add to that the specialty nature of the products required in a veterinary practice, and this can impact the ability to run a smooth operation. Building a relationship with reliable suppliers and having in place signed agreements that lock in pricing, delivery, and other key deliverables are more critical than ever. Before starting your own veterinary practice be clear on not only how much and how frequently you will need different equipment and supplies but also where you will get them from and how to ensure consistent delivery.
Employer expectations. Many would-be practitioner-owners began their careers as associate veterinarians and have experienced the employer-employee relationship from that perspective. However, being the boss means being in charge of all hiring, firing, and retention issues. The Great Resignation that was prompted by the pandemic hit particularly hard jobs that cannot be performed from home. Even with the huge increase in veterinary telehealth, vets need staff that can be on-site. Our recent discussion of how to attract and retain talent in the current climate explained that keeping staff now might require signing bonuses, larger salaries, or more lucrative benefits. And once you have a team in place, the work doesn’t stop there. You will need to meet ongoing compliance requirements with employment laws, not to mention a plan to professionally develop any associate veterinarians you bring on – they will want the same mentorship you once sought.
Property rights (and wrongs). Since veterinarians often own the real estate where their practice operates, they will immediately find themselves managing a building as well as a business. If they have excess space to lease, they will take on a landlord role as well (be sure to get legal and business advice before you take on tenants). Even if you are the only tenant, any issues related to the physical structure of your facility is your responsibility. The specialty equipment and other needs of a veterinary practice mean that you must think like a business owner and a practitioner. You should do a thorough examination of potential locations that both will attract (human) owners and can meet the needs of furry patients. And due to the sunk costs when you outfit a building for a veterinary practice, consider your long-term needs – will you have room to expand one day? At what cost? Getting expert help on how to finance and maintain your location is critical.
Ask questions before you start your own veterinary practice and get help.
No business owner got started on their own. The key to a successful veterinary practice starts long before you see your first patient. Understanding all of the points above is made far easier by getting professional advice. Whether it’s learning about your financing options or how to use social media to promote your business, these are worthwhile investments that are part research and part education. The more work you do up front, the less likely you will have unpleasant business surprises down the road. Instead, you will be able to focus on the satisfaction and rewards of being a veterinarian practitioner — and owner.