The failure of a veterinary practice business can be one of the worst times for all involved, but it can also provide some of the most valuable career lessons for the future. By John Burfitt
The tough reality in business is that not all dreams of running your own show actually work out. Even with the best of intentions, due diligence and persistence when starting up your own veterinary practice, things can go pear-shaped.
According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 60 per cent of new Australian businesses will likely fail or wind up facing voluntary liquidation within the first three years of operation. There could be many reasons behind a failure, including poor financial management, cashflow problems, staffing issues and increased competition within the marketplace.
Not surprisingly, the unravelling and closure of a new venture takes an enormous personal and emotional toll. It’s not uncommon in the wake of a failed enterprise for the business owner to go through periods of depression, despondency and uncertainty about what to do next.
It’s a topic Dr Ilana Mendels of the training consultancy VetPrac knows well—and will explore in her next Exit Strategies for Vet Business Owners workshop on 15 November in Sydney.
“The first key to survival after a major stuff-up is to own it,” Dr Mendels says. “Failing in business doesn’t make you a failure. A business is a recipe and the recipe can be a success or not, depending on the ingredients. So try again or don’t—the choice is always yours.”
Taking time to drill down to explore and understand the reasons why the business failed in the first place might be one of the most valuable ways to confront the experience and overcome the resulting grief. It can also help point the way forward, suggests Alan Manly, founder of Group Colleges Australia and author of the book, The Unlikely Entrepreneur.
“This might be the best time to do a business plan, and while that might sound like doing things the wrong way around, it can provide the breakthroughs to understand what you learned in the process,” Manly says.
“There are some businesses that still launch without a business plan, so even by creating and then looking into a detailed plan after the fact can provide the information of where you were headed and where you ended up. It can pull into sharp focus what went wrong, and doing that can prove to be therapeutic as it provides the ‘why’ of the experience. It can also provide the needed insights of what needs to be done next.”
Dr Diederik Gelderman, veterinary industry trainer and author of Veterinary Success Secrets Revealed, knows what it’s like to stand among the rubble of a business that’s bombed. He’s been there twice, the first time at a cost of $100,000, the second $250,000.
“The only way to get over that was to spend time intensively looking at what didn’t work,” he says. “That was difficult as well as painful but once I had that sorted out in my head, I knew what I wanted to do next. It was the best feedback I could have got on the whole experience.”
There are some who insist it’s best to take time out, to recover from the experience and allow some space to lick your wounds. Others claim it’s important to get back on the horse as soon as possible.
“Sit and draw a picture of what you want your life to look like,” Dr Mendels says. “Write down a number for how much money you want to earn. Identify your values and see if the world around you can meet them or if there is a job that does. Swallow your pride and realise, sometimes, it’s just a job and it doesn’t have to mean anything.
“Our priorities change in life. If you want to get back on track in business, just start. Make a plan with a rolling six-month, three-year and five-year plan. Take the time to plan your success and get your ducks in a row. Include safeguards in case failure looms. Let the failure pass you and look around for another plan entirely that still satisfies the picture of your life.”
Alan Manly agrees it is essential to map out the road ahead. “Write down a plan of what you are actually passionate about, and what makes you want to get out of bed,” he says. “This might be a good time to sign up for some new study, to retrain, to learn new skills and to expand your way of thinking. It might prove very valuable to change your focus from business owner to business student and see where that takes you.
“Just remember this—business guru Warren Buffet has said he didn’t make real money in his life until his 50s. It is never too late to learn new skills and never a waste of time.”
One of the greatest lessons to emerge might be the realisation that not everyone is suited to run a business. A highly skilled practitioner in a clinic who had grand ambitions of running their own business might discover after a failure they’re far better suited to being an employee than an employer.
“I have worked with many people who have found themselves with this realisation and that might be the most valuable lesson of all from the process of losing a business,” Dr Gelderman says. “It is about recognising the way you are. I know brilliant veterinary technicians who are not good managers, and vice versa. After a disappointment, this is when you need to learn to play to your strengths and do them well.
“If you learned from going into business that you don’t want to be the boss, then that is not a waste of time. It means you can make your next move with a far clearer idea of what you’re meant to be doing.”