The decision to sell my optometry practice
OT clinical editor, Dr Ian Beasley, explains how cutting his losses after five years as a practice owner was the best decision for his finances, his family, and his mental health
18 October 2023
In 2007, I was looking for a new challenge. I had itchy feet, after being in practice for just over 20 years. I needed something new.
Pretty much on the day we signed the contract to commit to the lease on the shop, I got a letter from Aston University, saying that a new remote doctor of optometry programme was launching. I thought, ‘this is exactly the challenge I was looking for.’ But we’d just signed the lease, and it was too far down the line.
I signed up to the doctorate anyway, because that was absolutely what I wanted to do. The day we opened the practice, my youngest daughter turned four. My eldest was five.
Tied inOwning an optometry practice consumed my whole life. Even when I wasn’t there, I was thinking about it or worrying about it. I know it’s normal, but I just wasn’t cut out for it.
We spent the first few years trying to get it off the ground. Within 10 months of opening, Specsavers and Boots Opticians opened, and the town went from three practices to six. Three new practices were all fighting for business, and then we had the financial crash and went into a deep recession.
We had signed a 10-year lease, with a break clause after five, so we were committed to that. We had no choice. It wasn’t a case of being able to cut our losses. We had bought equipment on lease purchase, so we had debts to service. It was costing hundreds of pounds a day just to open the front door. On some days, we’d only sell a lens cloth and make a profit of 80p. In the beginning, that’s how it was, day after day.
When finances became really stretched, it got to the point where we had to divide our family home into six bedrooms and rent it out to PhD students. Renting our home was quite profitable, and that income allowed us to rent a smaller place, help fund the business at the same time, and just about keep our heads above water.
It was costing hundreds of pounds a day just to open the front door. On some days, we’d only sell a lens cloth and make a profit of 80p
Break clauseFour years in, I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ My partner decided to take over for the final year before we could enact our break clause. He could see the bigger picture, because we did break even, despite all of those challenges, at five years.
I think it would probably be a really good business by now, if we had seen it through. But for me, stepping away was worth it. I felt like a weight had been lifted. It's hard to describe the relief. I hated the staff management, the marketing – all of those things that were a distraction to my clinical care of patients. I wanted to look after patients and do a good job of that. It’s really hard to balance that when you have to worry about paying the bills and doing the other things that some people thrive on.
I wanted to look after patients and do a good job of that. It’s really hard to balance that when you have to worry about paying the bills
I finished the professional doctorate in 2012. It was almost like therapy. The failure of the practice drove my passion to complete something that I should have just done in the first place. Had that letter arrived from Aston a few months prior, I would never have opened the practice. I just knew that the doctorate was the start of something new, so I was trying to channel my angst into completing it. It was a six-year programme and you had to wait at least four years to submit the thesis, but I’d done it in three and a half, despite working six days in the practice and teaching as well.
My doctoral supervisor was Professor Leon Davies, who was previously a clinical editor of OT. We’d known each other for years - in fact, he’d worked at one of the other practices in the group. OT's current clinical editor left, just as I was finishing my doctorate, and they didn’t have anyone to take over the role. Leon said, “I’ve got just the person.” It was 2013, just as I was closing the practice. I graduated from the doctorate in spring 2013, and this job opportunity came up in June or July. I joined OT in September 2013.
The upside of the experience is that it has taught me resilience. I can’t imagine that anything will ever get as bad as that period was. It has taught me that, to find out what you do like, sometimes you have to work out what you don’t like or what you’re not good at. It’s okay to admit that you’re not good at something.
We’re now 10 years on. Almost every day, I’ll walk past the practice. Occasionally the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as I think about how horrible that time was. But then, I remember that I’m not there now, on Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday all day, trying to sort out everything that didn’t get done in the week. I think it will stay with me forever.
I think closing the practice was absolutely a positive. I can understand why people would regard it as a failure. But I don’t know how you could define stepping away from something that you hate, to move on to something that you love, as anything but a success.