Yousuf Ali, who owns two My Eyelab franchises in Texas, tells us how he got started and the biggest challenges of operating his franchise during the pandemic. Raised in Pakistan, Ali, 60, first came to the U.S. to attend college in New York. After he graduated, he went back to Pakistan to work and then returned to the U.S. in 2000 and settled in Dallas.
We asked him to tell us more about his business.
How long did you work in marketing before you decided to become a business owner?
I worked in marketing for over 18 years, predominantly in the B2B marketing space focused on direct mail. I started to see a shift in the direct mail industry and wanted to try something new, so retail was very appealing to me and I started researching different aspects of retail where I felt I could be successful.
What made you realize you wanted to be a business owner?
The independence of working on my own was appealing to me, as I moved away from my long career in marketing. For a while, the direct mail business saw a big decline in 2008-2009 as e-mail marketing and social media marketing started to pick up. I wanted to do something new and challenging.
Did you know immediately you wanted to buy a franchise?
Yes, I wanted to be in a franchise business, as I thought that starting a new business from scratch is a much higher risk as compared to a franchise, which has a proven track record and a shortcut to growth.
When I decided I wanted a retail business, I did a lot of research and attended trade shows, read a lot of magazine and did research online. I was always attracted to the healthcare field and considered other healthcare-related business, but My Eyelab really caught by attention. The main reason is because there is no aspect of this business that I cannot do myself. The more I looked into it and the more time I spent, I felt very comfortable jumping into a franchise like this with no previous knowledge and experience in healthcare.
How fortuitous that you picked an industry that is deemed “essential.”
I was very lucky to choose a business that is deemed “essential.” This is one of the reasons I chose this franchise in the first place, as healthcare is a somewhat recession-proof business and in times of recession, people still need to take care of vision needs.
Like the rest of the nation, none of us knew what to do when COVID started. When the state of Texas shut down the business, we were deemed essential and had to reduce our operating hours to just six hours a day. The first few weeks were extremely challenging and then once people got used to “the new norm,” we had a rush. People needed emergency prescriptions, their glasses broke or they misplaced their glasses. We were one of the few eye exam places where we could service patients comfortably. At the time, none of us knew how COVID was being transmitted, so all of us wore gloves, shields and masks. When the lockdown was relaxed, we had to recruit new staff members to keep up with the demand. We have increased our associates by 30% since late May and we have seen a 25% increase over normal business, pre-COVID.
My Eyelab has been using technology for a long time. Can you tell me a little more about the technology?
I like to define My Eyelab as a technology company that serves the vision needs of the people. We are one of the first companies to use telehealth for eye exams and we’ve had a tremendous advantage during the current environment because of that. We are able to maintain social distance throughout the vision examination for all our patients.
When we first opened in August 2019, our patients were hesitant to use telehealth because it was something new, which is understandable. Post COVID, people have more confidence in us because we are able to do an exam with a 6-foot distance. Telehealth is the future and we have been on the forefront of that.
How do you check eye health online?
We have a technician in our store escort the patient to a private, sanitized examination room for the exam. The test is performed virtually via video screen. The remote ophthalmologist (MD) or optometrist then creates the patient’s customized eye care treatment plan and prescription.
You said business is up in the pandemic. Do you attribute this to the fact many consumers don’t have to come into the store?
Patients still need to come into the store. With telehealth, we are able to maintain complete social distance with all our patients. This has given safety assurance to our patients. This in my opinion has given us the success we enjoyed during pandemic.
We have increased our associates by 30% since late May and we have seen a 25% increase over normal business, pre-COVID.
How are you recruiting employees to both the new location and the original one?
Recruiting is a constant, ongoing process for us. We predominantly use Indeed and LinkedIn.
How do you retain your current employees?
Success of our business relies on our well-trained associates. One of the important factors is work environment. Our goal is to have a friendly, family-oriented work environment and work with each associate on a path of self-growth.
Can you tell me a little about the weekly “spiffs” you offer your staff?
We need to keep all our associates motivated and that is important to me. Each month we use a various spiff [sales performance incentive fund], which is to help remind our associates of all the products and options we have with an opportunity for them to earn extra money.
One of the biggest challenges we’ve had post-COVID is recruiting people during this time where we’ve needed them the most. We have placed an enormous effort to retain each employee we’ve brought in and have been successful achieving a low turnover. I know that people get used to their paychecks – salary and commissions aren’t always the way to motivate staff to reach even further. In order to get them motivated to recommending the correct add-ons to what patients, we use spiffs as something quick and spontaneous to reward employees. They can win a gift card, a reward or even half a day off and it’s the internal, friendly competition that makes it rewarding for me to see.
How do you assure your customers they’re coming into a safe environment?
We make sure our associates and customers are wearing masks and maintain social distances. We do temperature checks and we have detailed questionnaire of COVID-related questions to better access customers’ exposure to COVID. All frames that are touched by the customers are sanitized before going back to the display board.
How do you assure your employees they’re working in a safe environment?
For safety of our customers and associates, we have installed multiple air-purifiers (carbon filter). Each week in our morning huddle, we go over all safety protocols that we all must follow. The store is sanitized few times a day and deep cleaned twice a week by a professional crew.
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Published February 17, 2021