Becoming a business owner

“Sometimes the hard road is the better road”

Three practice owners speak about the challenges of 2020, and offer their advice for those just starting out

Pixabay/Joshua Woroniecki

Ellis Leatherbarrow, Hakim Group Cooper and Leatherbarrow, North Yorkshire and County Durham


Cooper and Leatherbarrow has been a family business throughout the generations, which makes working here even more special. The original business was established in 1902 by Ernest Cooper and became Cooper and Leatherbarrow Opticians after my grandfather joined him in 1913. My father took the reins in the late 1950s, and then I became the managing director in 1996 after joining in 1981.

The pandemic has brought home the value of having a diverse practice. There were many practices across the country that were closed or working remotely, but we actually stayed open with our Darlington and Richmond practices staffed but with a locked-door policy. As part of our local Minor Eye Care Service (MECS) scheme we were getting patients sent by local GPs, NHS 111, and ophthalmology.

The pandemic has brought home the value of having a diverse practice

Ellis Leatherbarrow

Because of the reputation we have established over the years, we were kept quite busy. As our normal function of sight testing and dispensing spectacles was basically suspended for three months, all of that actually helped to keep the business ticking over during that challenging period. Having a diverse practice was hugely beneficial during that time, as you can reallocate manpower and resources as necessary.

This year has also highlighted the importance of having a support system. As a solo independent, actually having the whole support from the back-office team at Hakim Group has been a huge benefit. Having that effective and collective backing, as well as having access to individuals to bounce ideas off, and who can throw ideas back at you is extremely useful. This year has really reinforced that.

My main words of advice for anyone becoming a business owner, especially following this year, is to be prepared for the unexpected.

Valarie Jerome, Valarie Jerome Optometrists, Berkshire


I call it the corona-coaster. It's been a complete roller coaster in my personal life, and in my business life. I lost my father in January, and then COVID-19 came in March and locked us down.

I've learned so much more about myself. In the beginning, I wanted to give up. I just wanted to hand in the keys, draw a line under it, and say, ‘it was nice, I've tried it for four months and it didn't work, let me just pick something that's easy.’

But sometimes the hard road is the better road. It's taught me that I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be, and what real passion I do actually have for the profession. I hope that that shows.

I've learned so much more about myself

Valarie Jerome

This week was completely booked; next week I'm on target. I've only got three more appointments left for the whole of next week. That's just unheard of. As a brand new, less than a year-old practice, you only have one appointment an hour, or every two hours. I couldn't I couldn't be happier with how it's turned out.

My advice to anyone who's starting a new independent practice is, however hard you think it's going to be, it's going to be 10 times harder. If you're not passionate about what you do, and if you don't think that what you do and how you do it is different than anyone else, then you're going to be in trouble. If you're doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, you won't succeed.

If anybody's going to offer you free advice, take it. There's lots of free advice out there, and you don't have to just stick to the world of optics. You can pursue small business help through other avenues.

Adam Matthews, Hakim Group Matthews Opticians and Hearing Care, Cornwall


Being an independent has meant that we can excel at providing better customer service and quality products, and spend more time with patients. In Cornwall, I think patients connect really well with the idea of being independent, as they like to shop local. That was demonstrated after the initial lockdown, as we have been tremendously busy. I think there has been a shift in focus to support small businesses.

I think there has been a shift in focus to support small businesses

Adam Matthews

Prior to furlough being introduced and before the first lockdown, there was a lot of uncertainty. Clinics just dropped off a cliff, especially as so many of our patients are over 60 and were shielding. Very quickly, I had to adapt to think about the longevity of the business, which was not something I’d ever really had to think about before.

It meant I had to have more challenging conversations, regarding staffing and HR. We had to look closely at new guidelines, and make sure we were finding the right sources of information. That meant there was a requirement for a lot more communication, so those skills have certainly had to be honed. Understandably, everyone was concerned, with worries about finance and safety. I’ve learned a lot about reaching conclusions that satisfy staff, the business and everyone involved.

Very quickly, I had to adapt to think about the longevity of the business, which was not something I’d ever really had to think about before

Adam Matthews

What has been reaffirmed during this time is my belief that patients opt for the experience on the High Street. I think that’s been proven this year as opticians are still going strong through lockdown, especially at a time when other businesses on the High Street are really struggling. That’s obviously testament to the fact that people still want to come back for the quality service and the professional advice.

The challenge that I have faced, and that a lot of business owners will face, is of how to balance creating a warm and welcoming environment in a post-COVID world, where the High Street experience – of PPE, social distancing and having your temperature checked – is harsh. I think we’ve overcome that well here. That should definitely be a priority for any new business owner.