A shared work ethic and a desire to make their own mark has led university friends DR ANNA TANG and DR KATHERINE DUONG to open Theia Optical, an independent optometry boutique in the Sydney suburb of Five Dock.
Dr Anna Tang and Dr Katherine Duong met in the optometry and vision science lab at UNSW in 2014 midway through their optometry Masters degree, spawning a friendship that has evolved into a business partnership.
Tang graduated in 2017 and joined the Specsavers graduate program, working at its Liverpool store for two years. Duong graduated in 2018 and worked in an independent practice for one year.
“Both of us decided we wanted to experience working at different practices, and both went locum full-time,” Duong says.
“Between us, we worked at several independent practices and corporates, including Specsavers, OPSM, and Oscar Wylee. Both of us had the same idea in terms of work ethic – we were both working six or seven days a week.”
Their shared drive and exposure to various optometry business models shaped their views on how they wanted to practise.
“Because we both worked so hard, we definitely wanted to work on something that was our own, though we were realistic about it as it would take time to make back that margin and build up our patient base,” Duong says.
Tang and Duong, in their fifth and fourth year out of university respectively, opened a greenfield practice, Theia Optical, in Five Dock in January this year, with the support of ProVision.
‘Theia’ is derived from the Ancient Greek Goddess of sight and all things shining. With youth and time on their side career-wise – and both equally determined to build something for themselves – the duo considered joining a corporate franchise, but ultimately decided to stride out on their own.
“Working at other practices made me realise what I really wanted to do. In order to appease that – to build a rapport with patients and look after them through their whole journey – the best way for me to achieve that is to create my own practice so I can practise the way I want,” Tang says.
Her motivation to guide and educate patients about their eye health stems from personal experience.
“I’ve been short-sighted since a young age, and my myopic prescription kept changing every year I was growing up. I had a lot of questions about my eyes but never had any answers,” Tang adds.
Building from the ground up
While both women gained optical dispensing experience before graduating, business was not among their skill set.
“It was extremely daunting. We’re all afraid of failure. That was one of the biggest things that held us back. It took us a while before we set things up,” Tang says.
Although they didn’t initially plan to open a greenfield practice, buying an existing business didn’t meet their requirements.
“We had a strong vision but there wasn’t any store that aligned with that. We knew we wanted our practice to be modern, welcoming, and catering to all ages, but have a strong clinical background,” Duong says.
“We wanted the best of both worlds, to cater to fashion needs but never compromise on the health of eyes. We couldn’t find somewhere opportunity- wise during the time when we were looking (during COVID); there weren’t many practices that were selling.”
For the ambitious pair, the construction process at their chosen Five Dock location was the most daunting. They’re trained in optometry, not project management.
“When you don’t know what you’re doing, everything is hard,” Tang says. “When you’re looking for services when you’ve never used that kind of service you don’t know who to ask.”
Duong adds: “We didn’t have much idea about business or the construction side of things, setting up accounts, meeting with suppliers, marketing, accounting … there’s more to business than just being an optometrist.”
The self-described perfectionists concede that the idea of starting a greenfield practice was unnerving, but the challenges didn’t end once the fit out was complete and their doors opened.
“There is so much to learn everyday as a new business owner,” Tang says, noting that building a patient base with a limited marketing budget has been a major learning.
“We’ve been trying to post a lot and be consistent on social media. To some degree it has worked, people have reached out,” Duong says.
“Apart from social media, we’re speaking to local businesses. Before we opened, we introduced ourselves to surrounding health clinics and pharmacists, as we’re located next to a medical practice, and in our street there’s quite a few medical practices.”
Tang adds: “We have a lot to learn, even the networking process and reaching out to businesses is still a challenge for us.”
Selecting equipment and stock
Tang and Duong are both therapeutically endorsed optometrists and agreed on going “all in” when it came to fitting out their practice with the latest equipment, purchased mainly through Designs For Vision.
“We wanted a beautiful practice, but we didn’t want to compromise on the eye health of the patient, so we’ve purchased an OCT, visual field, fundus camera, and we offer myopia management so we have a biometer and stock Hoya MiYOSMART and CooperVision MiSight contact lenses,” Duong explains.
“The one thing we are missing right now to call ourselves a full scope practice is a topographer. It’s on the list but we’re taking it one step at a time as we splurged a lot because we wanted to make sure we had everything that we needed,” Tang says.
Choosing the frames range was a time-consuming but rewarding part of starting the new business for Duong, who enjoys the fashion retail side of business. They’ve opted for a range that caters from the affordable price point, through to luxury, with brands such as Gucci, Prada, Ray-Ban, Oakley, Tiffany&Co, Carrera and Oroton, to name a few.
“I reached out to suppliers in December in the lead up to the practice opening, during the busy peak period. I met up with every frame rep to see their range, while also still working full time, so it was a packed schedule,” Duong says.
“Based on my prior experience in dispensing and in independent practice, I had a general idea of what was popular and what sold well, and I ordered what I thought would be a good range.”
Prior experience also came into play when Tang and Duong considered lens suppliers.
“We primarily use Hoya but we do use a lot of Essilor as well. I hadn’t used Hoya prior to us opening but Anna had a good experience with them at an independent practice,” Duong says.
“We occasionally use CR Surfacing and JP Optical because not one lens supplier is going to have all the lenses that you want. It depends on what the patient needs, but being an independent, we’re able to open accounts with any lens supplier we want.”
Competition and billing
As if it isn’t difficult enough establishing a greenfield practice, Theia Optical also had to contend with another independent practice opening two doors down around the same time.
Duong and Tang made a point of differentiating through offering different brands and lenses, but say that at the end of the day, they’re focusing on their own business.
“I’m really enjoying the process. Day-to-day, I’m excited for work, and feel the difference between working for someone and having our own store. It’s a different kind of stress, but a good kind of stress,” Duong says.
Tang adds: “I love what we’re doing, and I’m glad I took the leap to start something new, although I’m always striving for more.”
Aligning with ProVision has also helped them remain competitive. NSW then-business coach Ms Joanne Scott-Dostine, who has since left ProVision, was influential in their start up.
“We didn’t know much about the business side of things. ProVision have been helpful finding suppliers, providing advice through the process of securing the rent, a lot of business advice,” Duong says.
“They have their own team of people behind the scenes. If the business coach can’t answer your question, they’ll refer it to someone in ProVision that’s their specialty.”
“It’s been nice to have a business coach and support from an organisation that knows what they’re doing. We’d be lost without their help,” Tang adds.
As with all new businesses, Tang and Duong have weighed up whether to bulk or privately bill patients.
“It’s daunting thinking about private billing. We’re a new practice, still building our patient base. We thought if we private bill from the start it might be a little difficult. We also had to consider the demographic in Five Dock,” Tang says.
“The reason why we decided to bulk-bill – at the moment anyway – is because all the GPs around us do it. And Katherine and I both come from practices that have always bulk-billed.”
Finally, when it comes to the future of independent practices, Tang and Duong are optimistic.
“At university, we often heard that it is not profitable to open your own clinic anymore,” Duong says. “In my opinion, there’s always going to be a place for independents, because even at the other independent practices where I’ve worked, we would often get patients from elsewhere who were unhappy with the customer service or quality of frames or lenses they had received.”