Jordan Lipton, 40, and Elizabeth Perry, 39, loved being doctors. They had 20 years of hospital practice between them, but they wanted to spend more time with patients than the hospital-mandated seven minutes. They even dreamed of making house calls.
Their solution: to go into business for themselves. Lipton and Perry started plotting the launch of Signature Healthcare, a Charlotte (N.C.) concierge medical practice that would open its doors in March, 2003. The duo wanted to offer comprehensive primary care, including annual physicals and house calls, to patients who would pay about $2,500 annually. To do so, Lipton and Perry would have to be both physicians and entrepreneurs. "Suddenly we had to make decisions about where we would locate our offices, what equipment we would need and on what basis, how we would find patients," Lipton recalls.
For many professionals who hang out their own shingles, that last concern -- finding clients -- is the most vexing. After working in situations in which someone else handled business issues, they now have to do the rainmaking themselves. That's not something their professional training has prepared them for. "In architecture school you were offered a business course that revolved around contracts, but heaven forbid you were taught to market yourself or the business. That was seen as something almost undignified," says Elizabeth Murphy, who with architect Lauren Burge is the majority owner of Chambers Murphy & Burge Restoration Architects, an Akron-based specialty architecture firm. Murphy saw the problem coming: She says she tried to get into marketing classes while she was in college, but they were always full.
That skills gap affects more than just a handful of isolated entrepreneurs. The American Institute of Architects says about 75% of its 72,000 members work at firms with fewer than nine employees, and the American Medical Assn. estimates that 30% of physicians are in practices with 10 or fewer employees. About 30,000 of the 45,000 accounting firms in the country have five or fewer employees, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Colleges and universities seldom offer their budding professionals any training in how to market themselves. That means most professionals learn the hard way that marketing doesn't have to be a dirty word. They're on their own when it comes to attracting attention or clients without coming off as flashy or crass.
In some cases that means hiring outside help. David Danziger, a Richboro (Pa.) lawyer who started his own practice last summer after 26 years of working for a big firm, says he used part of his $500,000 savings to hire a public relations firm and pay a graphic designer to make a logo. "Marketing is an area where I'm willing to write big checks to outsiders because it's important to have a professional appearance," Danziger says. "One of my two jobs now is practicing law; the other is setting up the firm."
For most professionals, smart marketing is something they can launch on their own. By knowing what to expect, finding a niche, networking with other professionals, and staying flexible, these entrepreneurs can practice their professions as they choose while still putting dinner on the table -- or the next generation through medical school.
Talk of the Town
Lipton and Perry tried to do everything right. Before leaving their hospital jobs, they met with a medical practice consultant who helped them set goals and crunch numbers. They wanted Signature to one day generate about $200,000 in salary for each of them plus enough to cover overhead costs. They each invested $300,000, mostly from home-equity loans, to launch the practice.
Then, like all entrepreneurs, they made mistakes. Lipton says they spent "thousands of dollars" on advertisements that didn't bring in new clients. A year after the launch, the daily tasks of running a business were taking a toll on the two partners. "I truly hated having to think about paying bills, meeting with vendors, and networking and marketing to get new clients," says Lipton.
He and Perry wised up fast. They killed the ads that weren't working and instead began making guest appearances on local cable-television shows to discuss health care, which did generate business. They even began offering Botox treatments to people who weren't patients in their practice. That wasn't profitable but it brought more potential patients into their office. "We have learned to look at [Botox treatments] as kind of a supermarket loss-leader that breaks even but won't make us money," says Lipton.
One of their best marketing ideas was to throw parties. "Once people come in the door and see what we have to offer, following up is the easy part," Lipton says. A reception they hosted featuring vintage wines and gourmet dark chocolate was particularly successful. "Both are healthy in moderation," Lipton points out. They also threw a "client appreciation evening." And at their 2004 autumnal equinox party, about 150 people jammed their offices. Within several months many of the guests who weren't already patients had signed up.
Another way to set your company apart and attract new clients is to develop a niche. Perry and Lipton did that by becoming the first concierge medical practice in their area. For 47-year-old Joel Rakower, an accountant in Commack, N.Y., specializing in litigation consulting made the difference. Rakower's six-person, $1 million Financial Appraisal Services seeks out assignments not to represent one side or another in a dispute but to impartially determine the value of the asset at the center of it.
Finding a niche also makes it easier to network among your peers without appearing threatening or overly competitive. Elizabeth Murphy makes a point of attending professional conferences and local events featuring other architects. Her own specialty is in restoring, renovating, and preserving buildings that might otherwise be leveled. By telling other architects about her business, she hopes they will think of her down the road when they have a larger project that needs restoration work.
A similar technique is working for Julie Bolton, a Long Beach (Calif.) physician. When she started her holistic health-care practice in early 2004, she ran ads in the Yellow Pages. Those didn't bring in many new clients, so now Bolton is concentrating on networking. "If I hang out with cardiologists, psychiatrists, or others who want their patients to improve their lifestyles, my sense is that I will get even more referrals," Bolton says. She's hoping those specialists will turn to her for services such as nutritional counseling for their patients. "But it's still a struggle."
The hardest part may be deciding when to offer discounts, whether it's to jump-start a client relationship or to preserve the quality of your work. Elizabeth Murphy conducted a paint analysis for the Daughters of Divine Charity convent in Akron, something she believed was important to the restoration project her firm had undertaken. While she didn't charge the client, she did itemize the cost of the analysis -- $5,000 -- on the invoice and then deducted it from the total due on the project.
As Signature Healthcare approaches its third anniversary, its partners say they have finally struck a balance between practicing medicine and running a company. "You can't escape business concerns, but if you learn enough about them you can make sure that those issues don't control you," says Lipton. And yes, he and Perry now make house calls.
By Suzanne McGee