“If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re going backwards”
Simon Hyde, new owner of Direct Optical in Worthing and Littlehampton, on how he is balancing business ownership with an optometry conversion course
04 July 2023
Taking on two practices, starting a conversion course in optometry, handling a pre-Christmas break-in, preparing for summer exams, planning a move 260 miles north: it's all in a year’s work for Simon Hyde, new owner of West Sussex’s Direct Optical.
In May 2022, Hyde took on Direct Optical’s two practices, in Worthing and Littlehampton, when the previous owner retired. He had previously worked with the practices as a locum dispensing optician, which helped when the question of taking over arose.
The previous owner “wanted to find a person with the right attitude toward his patients,” Hyde explained: “I had worked with him for a couple of years, so we knew each other. He was happy with the way I was treating his patients. So, he could see that that his legacy could continue.”
Practice ownership is the latest in a string of roles that Hyde has held in optics. His career started three decades ago, when he began as a trainee technician at Sailsbury Specsavers in January 1990.
Alongside practice ownership, in early 2023 he enrolled on a distance learning conversion course in optometry – something that he felt was essential if he was to succeed as a practice owner.
“I’ve been in optics for 32 years,” Hyde explained. “I’ve done literally every level of optics, aside from optometry. This was the next step. There was there was no real plan B. I could have stayed as a locum dispensing optician until I was 70 years old, or [I could] take the plunge. It had always been an ambition.”
Taking on the optometry course at the same time as the practices was, he said, “potentially ill-advised – but if you're not pushing yourself, you’re going backwards.”
He added: “I had wanted to do the optometry conversion course for a long time. I wasn’t in a financial position to be giving up work for a whole year to be able to finance it. It’s only now that the business is potentially in that position.
“But also, I think it makes good business sense to not have to necessarily rely on your key member of staff [a resident optometrist] 100%. It makes business sense for me to be able to do that job and step in as needed and run my own clinics. It gives me more flexibility.”
Hyde continued: “It’s the last brick in that wall of experience, from being a trainee technician 32 years ago, all the way through to technician to assistant to dispensing optician to manager to director – all of those jobs that I’ve already done, and now owner as well. The last thing to do is optometrist.”
In Hyde’s own words he has, in recent months, had “literally as much going on as possible.”
Early challenges and learnings
An early annoyance was a break-in at Direct Optical’s Worthing practice, which happened three weeks before Christmas and saw entire frame collections from Oakley and Ray-Ban being taken.
Diplomatically, Hyde describes the burglary as “badly timed.”
Moving on, does he feel that having already been self-employed as a locum helped him in the early days of practice ownership?
“Being a locum assisted me in understanding staff and locum needs,” Hyde said. “Because I’ve been in their position, as a dispensing optician, I understand their frustrations a lot more. I know, as a previous locum myself, that you need to have a certain amount of consistency to know where you are.”
But his new venture is entirely different to being a sole trader locum, he shared.
“It’s a whole different environment, and it’s been a massive learning curve. From the accounting side, it’s been so much more than I thought. I thought I knew everything about optics, but I knew nothing about the accounting side of it.”
Hyde explained that this has been his biggest learning curve, along with getting to grips with the requirements of Primary Care Support England.
I thought I knew everything about optics, but I knew nothing about the accounting side of it
“My advice to anyone who is taking on new business, even if you’re taking on, as I did, a previously-owned business, is that you have to start from scratch,” he explained. “It’s very drawn out. Everything has to be by email, so you’re not getting an answer straightaway for certain things. You have to cross the t's and dot the i's on everything. That has been quite a challenge and the biggest learning curve, definitely.”
In all, it took Hyde 11 months to be fully set up to provide services via Direct Optical. He does not have a business partner so did it on his own, which he describes as a “hefty” task.
“But I think, starting to come out the other side of it, that there is a massive benefit in that decision making is made much easier because I’m not having to run it past anyone else,” he said, countering: “The flip side to that is that you don't necessarily get someone to bounce ideas off.”
His key advice for those thinking of taking the step into practice ownership is around the organisation and setup of the practice and the services that it can provide – the admin, in short.
“If you leave things for later, everything mounts up, and it becomes overwhelming. And then, when you look at it on a Monday, you think ‘I don't even know where to start on all this,’ and you might leave it again,” Hyde said.
He added: “My grandmother had a saying, which was, ‘how do you eat an elephant? One spoon at a time.’ It’s one of those things that always stuck with me. It might be a bit silly, but it works for me. You’ve just got to chip away, chip away, and slowly get through it. Try not to let things mount up – try and deal with them at the time.”
Hyde continued: “One of the things I did learn is that I’m quite a procrastinator, and if I can leave it, I will. I’ve had to learn, in business, to do it straightaway, otherwise it does get put back. That’s the only real piece of advice. I still feel that I’m on a massive learning curve.”
I’m quite a procrastinator, and if I can leave it, I will. I’ve had to learn, in business, to do it straightaway
As he marks the one-year anniversary of owning Direct Optical, Hyde’s next few months are unlikely to be any less busy: he is currently preparing for his summer exams, after which he will move from Brighton to Bradford to begin his full-time optometry course.
He plans to travel back to the south coast at weekends for the 10 months that he will be based in Yorkshire, whilst Direct Optical’s permanent employees hold the fort during the week.
He is looking forward to walking his dogs in the West Yorkshire countryside, he said.
A cautious rebrand of Direct Optical is also planned for the summer, and with it a greater focus on social media, as well as a more sophisticated way to manage recalls so the practice can avoid being swamped with 300 appointment requests at the same time. To aid this, Optix software has recently been installed at the practices.
While he plans to rebrand, Hyde is conscious of imposing too many changes all at once on his patients, who are mainly over 60.
“They don’t really like change that much, so we’re gently easing them into it,” he said.
Aside from everything else, a new location is also planned for the Worthing practice – from its current home in east Worthing to a more central location, which will allow for a second consulting room to be opened – which Hyde will also be able to use during his pre-reg.
“That is going to be another challenge,” Hyde said – although, like everything else, it doesn’t appear to be one that has any prospect of phasing him.