Business Rx:

July 28, 2013
The entrepreneurs

Optometrist Natalie Sukontasup had always envisioned opening her own eye care practice, but wasn’t quite sure where to start. Then her husband, Kiati Plooksawasdi, used the idea as the basis for an entrepreneurship group project while pursuing his executive MBA degree at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Plooksawasdi and his classmates helped navigate the process of starting the business from the ground up. In January 2013, Sukontasup and Plooksawasdi made their dream a reality, opening First Sight Vision Care in Maple Lawn near Columbia.

The pitch

Sukontasup

“First Sight Vision Care serves the families of Maple Lawn and its surrounding communities in Howard and Montgomery counties. We pride ourselves on providing quality comprehensive vision care in a state-of-the-art facility. Our services range from complete adult and pediatric vision exams, contact lens evaluations, diabetic eye exams, LASIK evaluation, ocular disease co-management, motor vehicle exams and same-day red eye evaluations.

“I worked at several vision care practices, but it is very rare for one to be run like a business. That is one of our priorities here. As a new practice entering a very competitive retail market, we are trying to distinguish ourselves from the competition, without sacrificing quality of our service and products. In today’s current market, competition is intensely felt from large big-box retailers advertising discount pricing, but at the expense of quality service and care.

“At First Sight, we are focused on customer service and creating and maintaining a long-term loyal customer base.”

Plooksawasdi

“What differentiates us is our focus on patients and patient education. We’re trying to change the way people think about vision care. Most times, people are seeking eye care when there is a problem or they need glasses and contacts. We’re trying to help patients seek preventative care. As the saying goes, eyes are the windows to the soul, and they are definitely the windows to your health, too. From a simple eye exam, you can detect early signs to health problems, including diabetes and high cholesterol.

“Our main challenge right now is getting the word out about our offerings. We’re looking to capture new business. We’ve been embedding ourselves in Maple Lawn through community events, including youth sports programs, sponsoring charity events, and vendor booths at fairs. We’re having pretty good penetration in the vicinity around our office, but how do we spread beyond that to surrounding communities? As a young business, we’re on a limited budget. How do we get the word out that we’re here without breaking the bank? Once we get people into the office, their experience helps bring more patients through word-of-mouth referrals. But we just need to get them in the office.”

The advice

Liz Sara, entrepreneur-in-residence, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“When you’re going after a consumer audience, there are many things you can do to build your client base that will cost very little money, but will take a significant amount of time and effort. But that’s what entrepreneurs are all about — building the business with sweat equity.

“First, I would suggest you contact the insurance companies and get on their list of preferred providers. If you’ve already done this, make sure the information on your accepted insurance plans appears on your Web site. The No. 1 way people select health care providers is by looking at the ‘in-network’ list from their insurance company ... then doing a little research on their own.

“Once you are on the list, you still have to compete with all of the other providers, but now you have a real entree to potential clients. Since people ask their friends, neighbors and colleagues for recommendations when it involves medical providers, you need to be ‘top of mind.’ Here’s a few ways to accomplish that: Consider implementing a loyalty or referral program. A lot of dentists do this. They offer patients points or discounts for future services for each referral. There are companies that offer these programs as kits so you can implement them easily and cost-effectively.

“I like that you’re focused on offering patient education, so start ramping up some outbound information to become more visible using the Web. Add more content to your Web site related to educational tips, advice on vision care, etc. Adding more content and more metatags should move you up in Google search results.

“Think about starting a regular e-newsletter and leveraging your Facebook page by updating it with frequent tips and vision care education.

“Finally, become active members of the American Optometric Association. Professional societies often offer resources and information to help members build and grow their businesses. Association conferences and events will also help you network and learn best practices from your peers around the country.”

The reaction

Plooksawasdi

“You provided some great new ideas to build off what we have already implemented. Before we opened, we made sure we were credentialed with the major insurance companies and continued to add them. This is critical for a new practice because 90 percent of our patients came from insurances within the first few weeks of opening. As insurances were added, we promoted this on our Facebook page and a section on our Web site that lists providers with their logos. We leveraged the help of local businesses and medical practices in Maple Lawn, asking them to put up a poster (that also displayed our insurance providers) in their window or on their bulletin board to let the community and their staff know that we were here.

“A loyalty program is a great idea. We have been working through developing one as part of our marketing strategy, but have not implemented it yet. We do get a lot of repeat business and referrals to friends and family, and we want to reward our loyal patients.

“We have an area on our Web site dedicated to patient education, but I think we can take it to the next level by creating a blog to discuss new eye care educational topics to ensure the information is fresh and relevant. Doing more with metatags and moving up on Google search results is definitely on our radar and I think where we need the most help. Patients have been finding Dr. Sukontasup through Google search, but they are looking for her directly.

“Dr. Sukontasup is an active member of the American Optometric Association as well as the Maryland Optometric Association. She attends and participates in meetings and continuing education seminars.”

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