Searching for fulfilment

AOP Councillor Dr Valarie Jerome tells OT  about almost quitting optometry to start a dog walking business before deciding to open her own practice

Valarie Jerome optometrists
Newbury-based optometrist and AOP Councillor, Dr Valarie Jerome, opened her own practice on 11 November this year.

“I did locum work for many years. Two and half years ago I referred to a patient as a customer and it was at that time that I thought, ‘Uh-oh, something’s got to change here’,” she told OT.

Dr Jerome, who is currently completing her independent prescribing qualification, told OT that she had started to become disheartened by commercial pressures and decided that she had two choices: do something different in optometry or quit the profession and start a dog walking business.

“I wanted some kind of fulfilment. I wanted to actually like what I do and enjoy going to work,” Dr Jerome explained.

After deciding that there wasn’t much money in walking dogs, Dr Jerome started to look at practice locations near her family home in Newbury.

She explained: “I looked at buying existing practices but there just weren’t any for sale that were nearby to me that I thought would be the right fit, so I decided to start up cold. I finally found the right space at the right price and here I am.”

Valarie Jerome Optometrists opened last month with two optical assistants and Dr Jerome as the sole optometrist and dispensing optician.

“The patient journey begins and ends with me. I spend an hour with each patient, I do all of the pre-testing, the examination and discuss glasses or contact lens options if they need them,” she said.

Speaking about the journey to opening the practice, Ms Jerome said: “Initially you think, ‘I’ll just open an opticians like everyone else.’ I met with an accountant who told me, ‘If you’re going to be like everyone else, you will fail.’ When researching, I found out that around 70% or 80% of independents fail within the first three years, so I asked myself, ‘What’s everything that I shouldn’t do?’ as I needed to be different.”

She decided to focus on her clinical expertise and use that as her unique selling point, as well as choosing eyewear with a back story.

A change of perspective

Dr Jerome explained that she researched why practices fail and what makes a successful practice, as well as identifying her target market – 35–55 year-old-women.

“What does that target market want? What do they buy? What do they do? What’s their occupation? What eye conditions do they have?” she asked herself, adding: “I began to look at it from a retail standpoint and not a clinical perspective.”

Dr Jerome hired an interior designer and branding expert who designed the look, website, logo and colours so she could attract the people she wanted.

“I wanted the practice to have a good flow. I thought about everything that happens when they walk through the door. I wanted people to enjoy their experience and to make them feel like they were having a unique experience,” she shared.

Dr Jerome said she was aware that many new practices “go big too soon” on equipment and end up failing. As a result, she decided to “splurge” on one “big gadget” – the Optos Daytona.

In total, Dr Jerome invested £19,000 in equipment and kept the cost down by inheriting equipment from retired practice owner, David Shannon, in London’s Notting Hill and buying second hand.

Financing the practice proved to be Dr Jerome’s biggest challenge. She explained to OT that because of her immigration status she was a risk for finance companies.

After eventually securing finance and using some of her own money, Dr Jerome invested £30,000 in shop fitting. She was able to save in the process by carrying out the work with her husband, who works in the building industry.

Speaking about naming the practice, Ms Jerome told OT: “I’ve been a locum in the area for about 10 years. I made a Facebook page a year ago because people were asking for me at practices where I had done locum work. I built up quite a following, so I thought that if I am trading off my name, expertise and personality then I should have my name up there.”