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Sublease Provided Segue to Private Practice Ownership

When Sarah Blackwelder, OD, moved from California to Austin, Texas, in 2020, she says that she carefully considered her next career choice; she had just spent three years working in a corporate setting since her 2017 graduation from Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University. “I was so unhappy being limited in what I can do and treat.” The experience led her to want more control of her work, even when practice ownership hadn’t been on her radar.

Then a sublease opportunity alongside an established Pearle Vision presented itself in Sunset Valley, near Austin, and Dr. Blackwelder says that it felt like a perfect match. “Moving to a new state and starting a new business at the same time is nerve-wracking; you don’t know anyone in the community,” she says. “Starting with a corporate location that was established for 20 years was a good way to enter the market.”

The first two years presented their challenges; Dr. Blackwelder had to shut down for COVID-19 just days after opening Blackwelder Optometry, her sublease location, in March 2020. But she’s also had many chances to connect with new-to-her patients as she built a local patient base.

In 2021, the owner of the Pearle Vision franchise did not renew its corporate contract. Feeling confident in taking over the optical with a few years of experience underway, Dr. Blackwelder bought out the owner in November 2021. In December, she rebranded as Vibe Optometry for the full-service practice.

The optical side was ready to use immediately after the transition. However, since Texas is a two-door state, a top priority is removing the wall between the two spaces so that she can provide a more thorough experience with an easily accessible optical to browse. She hopes this will help with her capture rate for eyeglasses, but for now she is ensuring patients have an escort from her exam side to the optical.

In January 2022, Dr. Blackwelder started reviewing quotes for the renovation she will complete this year, with a main goal of connecting the two spaces. The exam space had been renovated around the time she opened her sublease, but the optical has a 70’s feel, she says. “I’m excited to bring it up to more modern standards.” She’s hoping to roll out updates on the clinical side of the practice, as well, when the timing and budget allows. Her wish list for future patient care includes intense pulse light treatment and Lipiflow.

The transition of ownership was not as smooth as she had hoped, Dr. Blackwelder says. She’s run into some issues with insurance credentialing and also with vendors regarding establishing a new business at an address and location that had previously been an existing account for a different optical business. She advises anyone in ownership ventures to start requesting to change the status of their contract for insurance credentialing as soon as possible to avoid loss of service. “Start earlier than you think you need to start, because even once you’ve checked everything off of your list, it will take a month longer than you expected.” Dr. Blackwelder is thankful for the support she received once joining Vision Source, which provided a wealth of knowledge and simplified the insurance credentialing process.

She has found success in other areas, however, such as hiring someone to handle her social media presence and search engine optimization, which she has always known to be important, and now, she’s letting designated expert take the reins to make the most of her digital presence. “Social media is a powerful tool but investing in marketing to my community even in a larger city is proving to be beneficial to us.”

Dr. Blackwelder says that she’s glad that she ultimately considered full private practice ownership once she was ready. It’s been easier to step into the optical side without the worry of building up a patient base, and she couldn’t pass up the unexpected opportunity. “If you really enjoy what you do with the patient care side, the business side will come naturally,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like work when you are excited to do what you’ve been wanting to do for several years. The stars kind of aligned in this case.”

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