Becoming a business owner

“My background is different to a regular optician buying an independent”

Sofia Fazal, former professional services manager at Zeiss, on moving from the corporate world into independent practice ownership

Owner of Wolverhampton’s Bushbury Eyecare, Sofia Fazal, had a long journey into practice ownership, working in multiples and in the corporate world before finally setting out to fulfil her long-held ambition in autumn 2021.

“I started off in optics, working across the sector,” she explained, “and had various opportunities to take on franchise opportunities. But, having small children, I decided to wait until they were old enough for me to focus my energy into having my own practice.”

She added: “When I got into my late 30s, I was in a position to start thinking about it.”

Building an ambition

This long-standing ambition, Fazal said, came from experiences working in multiples, where she was unable to spend as much time with her patients as she would have liked.

“As an optician who really loves the job, I was missing out on stretching my skills and making sure the patient's best interest was kept in mind,” she said. “I really wanted to be able to deliver best practice, and I felt that I was unable to do that when I was working for other people.”

Then, a slight curveball came about: Fazal became the professional services manager at Zeiss, a company that she describes as “the Bentley of optics.”

She explained: “My husband said, ‘Didn't you want to have a practice?’ I said, ‘I do. But this is a journey that has been thrown my way. Maybe this is the best path for me.’ So, I took the exciting opportunity.”

I really wanted to be able to deliver best practice, and I felt that I was unable to do that when I was working for other people


She remained at Zeiss for two and a half years, working across the UK and global marketing, and in training and development, implementing business models for independents as well as larger corporations, “to increase the bottom line and really make a difference, whether they were small or whether they had lots of stores.”

She explained: “I loved every day, seeing businesses achieve new milestones and reap the benefits of their hard work.”

During the pandemic though, whilst still enjoying her role at Zeiss, Fazal “did a lot of reflecting. I thought, ‘Where is my North Star? Where am I going with this?’”

She added: “I woke up in the middle of the night few times, thinking, ‘I’m going to wake up in my 60s and think, I should have had a go.’ That's when I said to my husband, ‘I need to do this.’ He said, ‘You've been saying this for years. We're in our 40s. You've only got 20 odd years of working left. If you're going to do it you need to do it now, because you'll miss the boat.’”

She made the difficult decision to leave Zeiss, “with nothing planned, just with the hope,” posting on LinkedIn that she was planning to venture into practice ownership. Within a few days, she had had six people reach out to see if she would be interested in buying their practice.

“A lot of people were keen to sell to me,” she said. “Then I came to this practice. I liked the set-up and thought there was potential. I said ‘Yes, let's go for this.’” She received the keys on Saturday 18 September 2021, and started testing the following Tuesday.

Practice priorities

Her immediate priority was restocking and rebranding, and changing both the shopfront and the interior, whilst being careful not to alienate existing customers: “I want them to feel comfortable and that they have enjoyed the entire experience from start to end,” she explained.

She added: “I think for a new practice owner, it's really important to change the exterior. It was white before, with some purple, and we rebranded with royal blue. A lot of money was invested, but it helps the shop stand out. Branding is really important. You need to be visible physically.”

Despite the early changes, Fazal was realistic: she expected to build the practice for a year, working for Zeiss as a contractor and potentially locuming at the same time. “But,” she said, “It happened more quickly than I expected, I think because I had vision and commitment to what I'd decided. I was so sure I wanted to do this. I think sometimes you've got to have that mindset. You can't sit on the fence. Once you've made that decision, you've got to be ready to go.”

Project management skills learnt at Zeiss, she said, as well as her broad optical experience, helped her stay organised and on top of her deadlines. Within a couple of weeks, she had her marketing plan for the next year, and on day one, before even starting testing, had organised for new frame suppliers to visit.

I was so sure I wanted to do this. I think sometimes you've got to have that mindset. You can't sit on the fence


“You learn a lot on the job, and whatever skills I've learned through working in different opticians, I've taken the best of everything and have that ready to go,” she said. “You've got to do your research. Key to the growth of any practice is understanding the demographics and behaviours of your customer base. You've got to look at what the market needs, making it specific to your local area. If you have a project plan and timelines, the deadlines might be tight, but at least you'll end up achieving them around the time you've pinpointed. If you don't put any timelines in, you're never achieve what you want to achieve.”

She added: “You've got to be careful with your time management. Wednesdays and Fridays I keep as business days. One is for business strategy, and one for marketing. If you're not disciplined, you'll end up inundated.”

Fazal’s first three months were about footfall, reputation building, and making sure her team could work well together. Becoming embedded within the community was also a priority. “It's about being valued,” she said. “We should be seen as an integral part of the society we live in.” Her aim is to give back to the community, whilst also providing a service.

A people-centred practice

She believes the biggest challenge for an independent is staff, “And if you have the right staff, and you are able to support them and develop them, it gives them more to strive for.” Team culture is extremely important, so she ensures weekly one-to-ones, maintaining a constant loop of feedback so she can bring new ideas on board.

“Whether you're doing well or not, it's about keeping the morale of the staff in the right place,” Fazal believes. “When you're not happy at work, it shows in your performance. Customers can see it.”

Constant analysis of customer needs, via questionnaires and conversations in the testing room, has led to increased sales. The mark-up on her frames hasn’t increased, but rather the practice’s understanding of the customer base and their needs has.

She advises “really investigating what the patient’s lifestyle is like,” and relaying that back to the dispenser during the handover: "We can't assume because they're retired, they'll just be reading. We've got to ask more questions.” She points out that if she doesn’t fully understand visual needs, she won’t be able to give a personalised prescription.

Modernising the experience

Technology has also played a key role. Having iPads in the practice allows patients to see alternative colours and styles, and for the practice to order them in: “It really helps patients feel that they're valuable to us, and that we'll work around their needs.”

Bushbury Eyecare has gained new customers through social media, and time is set aside every week to ensure the business’s Google information and paid digital advertising is up to date. Creating short videos for Facebook and Instagram has allowed the practice’s existing customers to keep up to date with goings-on, too. Fazal explained that a big learning from the past six months is that these things need to remain a priority.

She added: “You're always learning, as an owner. Any mistakes I’ve previously made, I’m now aware of. If I buy another practice, I'm not going to just sit and wait for them to happen again.”

Importance of community

In terms of advice for new practice owners, Fazal emphasises the importance of asking for help, “syncing up with other independents who have been there and done that,” and not being afraid to lean on peers for advice.

“There are times where I'm stuck,” she admitted. “I'll reach out to Facebook and LinkedIn groups. There are so many groups online that you can join with lots of optoms, especially in independent practice. It helps to get another opinion.”

She added: “We've all been there. I'm only six months in, but there are practices who've been there for years. Learning from their experience is important. You don't go in knowing everything. It's full of surprises.”

She also advises reaching out to the AOP for any clinical queries.

Future focus

When it comes to buying a second practice, for Fazal it’s a case of when, not if – but she’s learnt not to rush the process. “I'm ambitious,” she said. “I love what I do. I'll always be looking for another practice. But right now, I have to give due diligence to this one, and make sure it's established and running smoothly. I'm very happy with where we are and what we've achieved in the first six months. We'll definitely be looking for another practice in the next year, though.”

She added: “I love being my own boss. I enjoy the good days and bad days. It's feels so rewarding, when you see the difference you make to every person that comes in.”

She wants those just embarking on the journey of practice ownership to “Reach out to people like myself, who have practices. The door's always open, if anyone needs advice. I'm happy to help anyone who needs it. We're all in it together."