Navigating veterinary practice life as a start-up and business owner

Common challenges, lessons learned and looking ahead to 2023

18 October 2022 10 min read


In our 12th episode of Paws, Rewind and Play, we talk to Ellie Cavale who is co-founder of Vets on the Common, a start-up practice based in London, United Kingdom. She is an RCVS Advanced Practitioner in Small Animal Surgery providing both first opinion and referral care to their patients. Their values are based on her and a colleague’s history of treating London’s stray dogs, cats, exotics and wildlife, where they transitioned to setting up their own practice and wanted to create a place with love, compassion, trust and expertise.

Ellie talks specifically about key challenges present for smaller, local independent practices, her valuable recommendations and her vision ahead.

The first six months are always going to be hard and obstacles are ever-present

It’s clear from our conversation with Ellie, that for anyone in the start-up business, it’s always going to be a hard-graft. Thinking about setting up a practice and getting everything in place as well as considering all the operational costs from rent, gas, electricity, base salaries, infrastructure, building works, making sure there’s enough stock, the internet is set up and more – it really takes over in the first six months. And it can be overwhelming. But that’s okay, as Ellie is here to tell the tale and is still here surviving and operating a healthy practice today, which demonstrates that with persistence and determination, it is achievable. This is in spite of ongoing challenges.

“It was a very difficult transition in the beginning from being a practice owner and project manager, to being a vet at the same time. It was a very steep learning curve to be able to balance the two. Additionally, most of the customers coming to us, were patients from a different practice and we would have to deal with ongoing cases from their previous practices. So we had the additional challenge of communication and problem-solving during lockdowns and Covid amongst everything, as well as trying to maintain our personal space and safety.”

There’s a few additional challenges Ellie highlighted that should offer some relatable reassurance that it’s not just you or your practice experiencing these hurdles. Sometimes, when it’s put into words or collectively acknowledged, that alone can provide some type of “breath of relief.”

Common challenges and advice for start-ups and established veterinary practices

  • Personal space and safety/all having Covid at once! Has your practice thought about contingency measures should a high number of your staff become unwell at the same time? Proper scheduling and rotas in place, as well as supporting systems and technology, can help you manage this better. Our podcast interview with Dr Alex Hynes can give you a good view on scheduling to success.
  • Overall work/life balance. Ensure your team members have fair responsibility to take care of commercial matters and clients, as well as enough downtime to avoid stress and burnout.
  • Financial constraints. Whether you’re a new business owner or you’re feeling the pinch like most people and companies from the cost of living crisis, it’s important your practice have a decent accountant, advisor and owner with commercial acumen to navigate these hurdles. Your practice can also keep an eye out for key discounts and financial flexibility with suppliers. As for managing clients who are struggling, read our cost-of-living advice blog.
  • Feeling like a life coach. Ellie points out that with all the new pet-parents and owners, many are inexperienced and hence the vet often feels like a life coach in many respects, as well as being a therapist for all their staff because of numerous challenges presenting themselves. It’s important your staff are well equipped to embody a support system but also to have key policies and boundaries in place so that your teams are not overstretched to the point of your “therapists needing a therapist themselves.” Being proactive, fair and logical applies here – ensure that your practice value staff the right way and the rest will take care of itself. The reality is, that if staff feel valued and empowered, if they’re assigned responsibility to take care of a part of the business that needs taking care of, it will happen naturally and the fruits will show. Our podcast with Kay Ritchie, Veterinary recruiter gives some solid advice.

Remembering to compartmentalise and isolate each challenge

Ellie’s approach is similar to what we’ve heard with Danny the Vet, and that is to compartmentalize challenges instead of trying to tackle them all at once otherwise it will overwhelm you. Ellie says:

“When I am in the consult room with the pet, I can concentrate on what’s best for me in this particular moment for this particular animal. It almost feels like nothing else is important at the time, where I can isolate each action. Once I leave the pet, where it’s in recovery or the next steps have happened and then I go to open our balance books and look at our invoices, I can then concentrate on that, without worrying about how Rocky is doing for example. I put things in boxes and look at one box each time. That’s how I balance things.”

Her advice is to try to be as present as possible and deal with what needs to be done, similarly to triaging. It is easier and more practical to tackle each day as it comes.

“For the problem of today, we’ll worry about that and then tomorrow, we’ll worry about the problem of tomorrow. And the reality is no one knows what is going to happen in three months’ time. We just do our best.”

What the future holds for veterinary practices

From Ellie’s perspective as a business owner and what is still a relatively “new” practice, the trio of more staff, training and technology are required for an optimum operational practice. Her objectives are also focused on work/life balance which is a continuous trend for many workplaces in many industries. For Vets on the Common, their strategy neatly and logically aligns with encouraging themselves and their staff to look at professional career goals and development.

Having been so focused on getting the business up and running or being a practice manager, they want to ensure individual aspirations, dreams and wishes are fulfilled.

“The other thing that happens when you’re so busy being a business owner, practice manager, financial advisor, life coach so on, it’s easy to forget about the excitement of learning new techniques or CPD about a new medication, things that only vets can get excited about! There’s a danger of getting stuck in a routine where you can’t grow professionally. So 2023 is all about professional growth for us. We want our nurses and vets to feel valued in their career progression goals.”

As she outlines her objectives for 2023, it might also inspire you to look at similar areas:

  • Career progression/training
  • Equipment/technology
  • Expanding and acquiring new clients

Vets on the Common have the capacity to look at all three areas, but wish to remind practices what is really at the heart of achieving these things, which is communication.

Ellie acknowledges the importance of strategising and planning, yet really values how much good communication is with team members, clients, pet owners and third-party partners such as your accountants, wholesalers and suppliers.

“You need to be able to communicate your needs really well to them to get to a satisfactory outcome, especially when you invest in something really expensive. Everything from their service to support levels e.g. how long you expect equipment to be current for, technology updates etc.”

Incorporating wellness and pet-health plans as part of your practice offering in 2023

As economies around the world feel the pinch from various macroeconomic factors, we asked Ellie about her thoughts regarding pet-health plans as part of their 2023 strategy, as a means to ensure affordability for clients and as a continued revenue stream for vet practices.

Vets on the Common had indeed been receiving phone calls and requests from clients if this service and option is available which demonstrates the demand is there, pet-parents want assurances over affordability and potential customers may not change practice from their existing one to your one if it isn’t offered as an option. As a result, they have incorporated it, but recognise the need for better education to clients to ensure that they don’t confuse it with pet insurance, as well as why regular payments are required after they receive treatment.

“It’s fairly popular, but it does come with its own challenges as not all people realise the way they work is that their monthly payments continue past the services they received e.g. we’ve had people cancelling their memberships after they’ve had their lot of vaccinations, flea control and not understanding why they owe us money beyond that etc. So there’s a little more complexity however it is important and just needs to be managed well. There’s a lot of groundwork and ensuring clients are well educated, but from a vets point of view, it does provide the preventative care and maintains continuity where that is the better scenario.”

Overall, no matter what your practice’s needs and goals are for the coming year in 2023, Covetrus aims to support you in the challenges your team may be experiencing across the business. As Ellie highlighted, having meaningful conversations and communication with your suppliers is key to facilitating a healthy, optimal-performing practice. Whether you have reservations, questions about the products or support, our representatives are there each step of the way.