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Out of the box.

OT's Emily McCormick speaks to optometrists who have built a career outside of the testing room and established businesses to help enhance the services and products available in practice

With a plethora of career avenues available to optometrists, optics is a hot bed for entrepreneurialism. Therefore, it is not surprising that when speaking to practitioners who have embraced these opportunities, their success is wide-reaching.

While their experiences may be very different--from optometrist-come-eyewear and accessories designer, Sarah Peaceful, to practitioners-come-practice and patient management programme experts, Michael Prais and Peter Noakes--each have something in common: they have stepped out of the testing room with a shared desire to better the wider profession.

A Peaceful business

For Ms Peaceful, entrepreneurship came early in her career when she purchased her first independent practice a few years after qualification. "I always wanted to experience the broader aspects of optometry and see lots of different things," explains the optometrist. While this desire manifested initially in locuming the length of the UK, it quickly progressed to practice ownership.

Running a number of opticians allowed Ms Peaceful to build on her business knowledge, as well as learn about the retail aspect that accompanies it. "Owning my own practices allowed me to understand business and bridge the gap between the retail, medical and clinical that optics offers," she said. Embracing the front-of-house of optics, Ms Peaceful began attending trade shows and frame events where she enjoyed networking and meeting people who she could "learn from" inside and outside of optics.

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Embracing design

It was during this time when Ms Peaceful was considering the portfolio of frames offered in her practices, that she spotted a gap in the eyewear market for frames that were beautifully designed but did not cost a fortune. "I wanted to create a nicely branded frame that had an affordable price, looked nice on the practice shelf and wasn't stocked by the practice down the street," Ms Peaceful explains. Paired with ambition and a strong work ethic, Debauch was soon born. Coming from a clinical background, the optometrist is quick to admit that she has not always been the creative type, saying with a laugh: "The desire to design did take me by surprise at first. But I think that it is only when you let yourself try something new that you can realise your potential."

From sketching in her downtime to establishing a brand, the wheels set quickly in motion for Ms Peaceful and her business partner husband, Ian, when a trip to Vision Expo East in 2010 saw them secure a US distributor.

Today, Debauch eyewear is distributed in the East Coast of the US and Canada to a series of big optical chains and independents, as well as in Russia and Ukraine.

Entering Russia and Ukraine, gave Ms Peaceful the opportunity to flex her design muscles even further, with the expansion of the eyewear brand into accessories.

The awareness and popularity of Debauch has been steadily flourishing and 2016 is expected to be a year of even further development for the brand. "This looks set to be a very exciting year for us in America and Canada in terms of new collections and brand new products being introduced to the US market, which I'm super excited about," Ms Peaceful says.

While modest when talking about the company's evolution, Ms Peaceful is also confident the brand has the potential to grow further still. "Debauch as a brand fits nicely onto a range of accessories outside of eyewear," she said, adding: "Expanding outside of eyewear wasn't the goal when we established Debauch, but it certainly isn't a recent thing either."

Ms Peaceful does not rule out further territory expansion and, when asked about the UK market, she agrees that while she has never actively pushed Debauch here, "it does have a small presence and it would, of course, be nice to see this grow. If I guessed three years ago where I'd be now, I'd be thrilled."

Software benefits

Moving back into practice, for Mr Prais (pictured right), an independent with two practices under his belt, and Mr Noakes, co-owner of a group of six opticians, their 'second' careers came from a desire for something in their own practices that was not available on the market.

"Around 10 years ago I was looking for a practice management system to use in my own opticians, but they all seemed expensive and did much more than I needed at the time," founder of Opticabase, Mr Prais, told OT.

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As someone who always had an interest in computing, unable to source something he deemed suitable, Mr Prais took the decision to "simply" write his own programme.

Producing code to create a bespoke practice management system (PMS) that fitted his practices' needs, the optometrist initially focused on building a programme that would reduce the time his reception staff spent filling out NHS GOS forms and writing patient recall letters. On completing the PMS, the optometrist firstly introduced it in his two pracitces.

However, with an optics-focused PMS installed, and working seamlessly to the benefit of his practices, it was not long before his peers began enquiring about the system. The third time he was asked by a practitioner friend if they could rollout the PMS in their practice, Mr Prais realised that he may have, in fact, developed something worthy of taking to market. Today, Opticabase is used by 500 practices and is much more than a form-filling, recall system.

Over the last decade, Mr Prais has continued to develop Opticabase to best meet the needs of both his practices and his customers. This includes the establishment of Opticabase Dispensing and, more recently, Opticabase Clinical.

Mr Prais admits that he certainly did not think that writing a PMS to meet his needs would result in the business that he leads today.

By Mr Prais' estimations, around 20% of the independent opticians that currently have a PMS installed are using Opticabase. "We have been growing at a steady pace," he says.

Talking about the future of Opticabase, Mr Prais says: "I would like to see Opticabase in more practices, especially those which are not yet computerised as they are the ones who will really reap the benefits."

"I hope we become the market leader in opticians' PMSs. We are certainly getting there," he added.

With the patient in mind

Becoming 'the boss' just four years after qualification, Mr Noakes admits that a desire to set up his own practice was always at the forefront of his mind. Put simply, he "wanted to do it his way."

And there's no doubt that doing it his way over the last 37 years has seen Mr Noakes establish a very successful group of independent opticians.

Initially opening the doors to his first practice in Crownhill, Plymouth, in 1979, the business has grown into a six-strong group that is known today as NHK Opticians--a partnership between Mr Noakes, Nick Habermehl and Andrew Kerr.

With patients never far from the topic of conversation when OT speaks to Mr Noakes, it is clear that his patient membership programme (PMP), Iris Visioncare, has been created with the patient, just as much as the independent practice, in mind.

Mr Noakes was an advocate of PMPs from very early on in his business career, establishing a standing order scheme for his contact lens patients in 1982. Observing the growing benefits that the scheme brought both patients and the practice in terms of secured income, the practitioner invested in an 'off the shelf' PMP in 1998.

However, despite NHK's six practices servicing an estimated 12,000 patients, patient take-up remained modest. "It didn't do enough for us," Mr Noakes explains honestly. "We wanted to offer insurance on spectacles, interest-free credit and much more, but there was nothing out there that allowed us to do so," he adds, making it clear that the desire to offer more to patients fueled the establishment of Iris Visioncare.

Almost a decade passed as Mr Noakes focused on growing his optical business. During this time, the group continued to utilise the PMP it had in place. However, seeking advice on what it would take to start their own PMP gave Mr Noakes and his colleagues the encourgaement required to develop a new bespoke PMP.

Creating a PMP

As the driving force behind Iris Visioncare, Mr Noakes believes strongly in the strength of PMPs to help retain patients, place value on professional fees, increase turnover and secure practice income.

Mr Noakes feels passionately about keeping the independent sector alive and believes that a PMP is a tool which can enable practices to grow to grow their practice and "give their patients every opportunity to access the services that they want in any way they wish, and a PMP can support this."

For Mr Noakes, the intention was always to market it to a wider optical audience. Today, more than 2000 NHK patients are signed up to the bespoke, cloud-based PMP, and Iris Visioncare is present in 21 practices across the UK.

Having been released onto market in late 2013, Mr Noakes admits that: "It can take a little while to get some traction in this industry. No one signed up for the first year, but now interest is healthy and growing." Mr Noakes explains that practices which choose to use the PMP are investing in a bespoke offering that is "designed to be flexible."

When asked what's next for Iris Visioncare, Mr Noakes concludes: "It would be nice to get 200 practices to see the PMP light."
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Title Annotation:COVER STORY
Author:McCormick, Emily
Publication:Optometry Today
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2016
Words:1595
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