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Issue: 62 - Feb 14, 2014
Today’s Entrepreneur
By: Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB
Animal Arts

The February 5, 2014 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association published an opinion piece by Charles G. Kels, JD about the death of the entrepreneur in human medical practice. The small, solo medical practitioner who is still hanging on is being trampled by the imposed burdens of paperwork and regulations and by an absence of work/life balance. This trend is cemented with the younger generations who are entering the workforce. In Kels' words, "Young parents and professionals value flexibility and quality of life over the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship."

If this sounds like a mirror of the trends we are seeing in today's veterinary medicine, to some degree, it is. Today's young veterinary graduates often face a mountain of debt, and they are less inclined and less able to start a small business and thrive the way they once did. But unlike human medicine, it is still both possible and desirable to own your own business. Veterinarians have a lot more freedom than human doctors. For the veterinary entrepreneur, there is still joy in being your own boss, practicing the way you want to practice, and making your mark on the world.

As veterinary architects, we get to know many of these brave entrepreneurs, because a physical building is the greatest and most important investment of a small veterinary practice. Here are a few of the critical decisions our successful clients make that distinguish them from the hundreds of others who work for someone else:

1. Align your expectations. It may not be possible to build the large freestanding buildings that are featured in Veterinary Economics magazine. But that doesn't mean that there isn't value in building a smaller, more cost-effective building. Our successful clients come to a quick understanding of their goals and what they can afford so as not to face crippling disappointment. Leasehold build outs, outfitting an existing building, smaller new buildings, and remodeling an older veterinary practice are all perfectly viable options for getting a foot in the door.

2.  Go in with a partner or two. It is a lot easier to afford a building if you have the backing of a partner from day one. It is also easier to run the practice once the hospital is built. Having your own practice is overwhelming on its own. Go in together and share the risks and rewards.

3. Be frugal with equipment. As construction costs have escalated, equipment costs have skyrocketed. It makes sense to buy the latest technology when the technological lifetime of medical equipment is only about 10 years. That said, today's successful businesses make smart equipment choices. Develop good relationships with referral hospitals that can offer specialty services. Purchase only what is needed to open the doors. Work with your veterinary distributors and bundle your purchases to get the best deals.

4. Plan for growth. The most difficult part is getting your own practice started. But, you want to be sure you have the ability to take the next step. Growth can occur in many ways. For example, the decision to do a minor facelift on an old veterinary practice may help you get a foot in the door.  If you can build a new building on the same property years from now, this is a great strategy for long-term success. 

5. Be determined.  One of our young and very successful clients told me that if he were defeated every time someone said he couldn't do something, he would not be where he is today.  You may find the wrong property the first time or hire the wrong team member.  Keep trying.  It is not unusual for a building to take two, or even three, years from concept to completion.  Over the lifetime of a practice, this is time well spent.

While veterinary medicine is not an easy road, the most tried and true way to turn it into a good and profitable living is to invest in you.  What a privilege you have to make this choice.  This is one of the things that distinguishes you from your human medical colleagues:  the choice and the chance to be your own boss.