How to Succeed on the Fast Track

Steps to help you achieve happiness and success within your practice

How to Succeed on the Fast Track

Steps to help you achieve happiness and success within your practice.

By Jennifer Stewart, OD

HOW MUCH HAVE things changed in the last 4 years? We've seen a dramatic shift in our lives—from housing prices to the job market to the entire economy changing. As a 2007 graduate, the first few years of my career have certainly had their share of tumultuous, exciting times. I was fortunate to know exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to achieve, and I've been able to get there through hard work, determination and a little luck.

I graduated from the New England College of Optometry (NECO) in 2007. While in school, I was set to join a private practice back home in Hudson Valley, NY. During the third quarter of my fourth year, I learned that the doctor I was supposed to join was selling his practice due to health issues. This forced me to change my whole game plan. I hadn't even considered the need to search for a job after graduation. I'd always known I wanted to be in private practice, and eventually (sooner rather than later) become a partner and owner. As a new graduate, I knew this wouldn't happen overnight, and I knew I would have to be patient.

Life in the Fast Lane

After graduation, I took two part-time jobs, in private practice, in Newburgh and New Paltz, NY. One practice was a very fast paced office with a diverse, disease-based population. The other was a high-end optical shop in a small town. I was able to create a schedule that allowed me to work with both of them—seeing patients two days a week at each office. It worked well since neither practice had the space nor the number of patients to hire me full time. I was able to be in two very different learning environments, and it was a win-win for everyone.

After a year of practicing, I moved to Norwalk, Conn., to join my current practice. I began working here in August 2008 and joined as a partner in 2010. I was fortunate to join a practice with a great mentor—Mark Feder, OD. He's the President and CEO of IDOC, a practice management and development organization focusing on the independent OD. Since the organization takes up a great deal of his time, I had a full schedule from the start. I've spent the last 3 years building my portion of the practice, expanding our medical side of the practice and making our optical department even more profitable.

Go for the Goals

How was I able to achieve my goals? Here's my advice.

Be realistic and set goals. I knew that within 5 years of graduation, I wanted to have my student loans paid off and be an owner of a practice. I set up a plan for myself to achieve that, and I was able to pay off my loans and become a partner much earlier than I had originally planned. It took a great deal of patience and planning, but the rewards have been worth it.

Be flexible. If private practice is your goal, realize that some private practices can't take on a full time OD to start. Find a way to make it work.

Be creative! As I mentioned, I first worked part time at two private practices, and they couldn't have been more different. But I learned a lot at both, and I was able to piece together a full-time salary, which would not have been possible otherwise. I enjoyed the dynamics and challenges of both. I learned how to deal with staffing issues, various types of patients and two completely different practice modalities. If the practice you'd like to join can't hire you full time, there is most likely another practice in the same area that is looking for part time help as well. Network at state association meetings and ask your reps—they usually have a good sense of which practices are looking to hire.

Hire a good team. A good lawyer, financial planner and accountant are invaluable when planning your financial goals and creating a blueprint to buy a practice. For me, it made the process much less daunting because I knew they had my best interests in mind. The cost of this team is well worth the peace of mind and having a solid business plan in place.

Be your own advocate. Most of the time, an initial hire doesn't have a partnership plan set up, and that's OK. Be sure to keep it on the table though, if it's something that both parties want. When I started at Norwalk Eye Care, we made a date to talk in a year about our plans. One year to the date of my hire, I took Dr. Feder out to lunch, and from there, we set my partnership plan in motion. The first year gave us a chance to find out if we were a good fit, and if we were ready to proceed with the partnership. When we met to discuss our future, it would have been fine to give it another year to figure out, or even walk away if it wasn't the right fit for either of us. You often hear stories of associates joining a practice with the promise of becoming a partner, but 5, 10 or 15 years down the road, it was never brought up again. Be your own advocate, get the ball rolling.

Networking. Attend every meeting you can and introduce yourself to everyone. I've been to almost every type of meeting, including the AOA, AOSA, ARVO, Academy, state associations, Alumni events and the IDOC business conference meetings. At every one of those meetings, I introduced myself to as many people as possible. Remember that there are many private-practice ODs out there seeking an associate or partner, and some of them aren't sure where to look. Be visible, outgoing and personable and you'll make invaluable contacts. Every position I've held or been offered has been a result of networking.

Bring something of value. Do you have a special skill set or specialty to offer potential practices? Did you complete a residency in contact lenses, low vision, pediatrics or ocular disease? Are you skilled in Web design or graphic design? Are you a natural with numbers and accounting?

When I started at my practice, we didn't have a website. I took that on as my first project—initially, getting a basic website up and running, and then custom-designing a site with exactly what we wanted. I also set up online contact lens ordering, uploaded patient registration and welcome forms to the site and enabled online appointment scheduling.

In addition, I've embraced social media, developing a very active Facebook page and registering our practice on Yelp and FourSquare. I've worked on developing an email system for patient notification and we had our first trunk show/fashion event in May.

I enjoy “numbers” and have, for the last year, been tracking all of our practice metrics using The Edge software by GPN. I leave this open on my computer throughout the day (including days when I'm not in the office) and I'm able to track everything including our sales of frames and sun wear lines, ophthalmic lenses, contact lenses and even what percentage of our patients are getting transitional lenses, non-glare lenses and second pairs. I even set goals for the opticians and staff, and I'm able to provide specific feedback on how we're doing. I find it extremely useful for growing the practice and learning to be a better businessperson.

Ask questions! Many times, the managing partner may take for granted what he does on a daily basis. Ask to be involved by learning one new task a month. Learn how payroll is done, and take that on as a responsibility. Learn how and when bills, rent and practice expenses are paid. Learn basic accounting skills, and don't be afraid to ask questions. Also, as mentioned before, learning a practice management software system will allow you to provide specific practice metrics, which will help you identify areas where the practice can grow or improve.

Above all, have fun. The biggest compliment I receive from patients is when they say, “Wow, you seem to really love your job!”—and I absolutely do. For me, being involved in patient care and the business side of the practice has been both challenging and satisfying. I love implementing different changes in our practice, and finding ways to make us more successful. Being a private practice OD and partner was my goal, and being able to achieve that and find the right place with the right partner and staff has been extremely rewarding. nOD

A 2007 graduate of the New England College of Optometry, Dr. Stewart practices in Norwalk, Conn. Reach her via email at or visit her practice website at or check out her Facebook page at