As the son of a prominent Southern California optometrist, Dr. Mark Williams not only inherited his father’s humble but successful small business, he also assumed the legacy of a vital medical practice that serves more than 20,000 patients throughout the communities of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, and Palos Verdes Estates. Born and raised in the same village where his father practiced, Dr. Williams was born into the role of a small town optometrist, maturing in tandem with the practice he inherited and guiding the small business into one of the most successful optometric practices in Southern California.
How did you start your business?
My father opened this business in 1956. He worked hard to establish the practice, and it was very successful when I joined in 1982. I didn’t want to be an eye doctor, but because I had three older brothers and none of them wanted to go into the business, it was my responsibility to carry on the practice.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
My father helped me get started, but the biggest expense was the education. Because my dad owned the building, we were able to fund it by borrowing against the building.
Running The Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I really learned the entire business by watching my dad. Of course I went to school and learned the ins and outs of how to operate a medical practice, but it was really my dad who taught me everything. I used to watch him treat patients, and observed how he interacted with the staff. He was really a gifted man as an optometrist and as a businessman.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Let’s see. There were so many. But one of my mistakes I made, I think, was that I did not know how to deal with people very well. I’ve learned a lot. It’s a skill that took a long time to learn. You know not everyone has people skills. It’s something that has to be learned. I had to learn how to talk to people and how to explain things to them. You know you go to school and you learn things that are in textbooks. But people are not textbooks. Everybody likes to be treated slightly differently. It’s a real skill that my dad had naturally, but I had to really learn it. It was a mistake that I didn’t learn that early on in my career.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The smartest thing I did was to watch my dad. I know that sounds odd, but I saw how he set up the business and how he organized the business. I watched him for hours and actually took notes on how to talk to people and how to relate with them. I watched how he built a really good staff and how he managed the back office. That was the smartest thing I did, observe and try to mirror my father.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
There is no doubt that the most rewarding thing to me is helping people see better. This is the most rewarding thing to me. I am providing a gift of better vision, and to me this is a service that really matters. It is very, very rewarding.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
It is extremely challenging, especially these days to take a medical practice and make it into a business. For example, it’s challenging dealing with all of the personalities, including the staffs’ personalities. The other really challenging thing about a medical practice is dealing with all of the requirements of the government. In the back office right now, we have fee slips that haven’t been entered into the computer going back to April. All of the insurance requirements are really, really confusing and so it’s hard to bill. The private pay patients are easy, but it’s all the other billing situations. We have a four-month backlog on billing because of the insurance challenges. That’s clearly one of the biggest challenges that I see.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
The most surprising thing is how the insurance component of a medical practice has become the controlling factor of the business. It’s not about treating patients anymore, it’s about whether you can work with the insurance companies. I got into this business to handle everything myself. I wanted to work directly with the patients but now the insurance has taken over how the entire healthcare industry can treat patients.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
My dad is definitely my role model. I mean he opened this practice in 1956 in the most beautiful place in Los Angeles. What a smart move that was, right? Brilliant. Back in 1956, there was nothing here. We were one of the original businesses. He knew this was going to be the perfect location, and he was right.
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
If I had it to do all over again, I think I wouldn’t have been so tough on myself. I was always trying to make everybody happy. The customer is always right, but sometimes you just can’t please them. I always took it personally and felt like a failure when I couldn’t please somebody. So I think I would have changed the way I always got down on myself when I couldn’t please somebody. In the healthcare industry, it’s sometimes difficult to tell people the medical truth. Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
I don’t think I would change anything. I was born to do this job, literally. I was raised with the preparation to run a successful medical practice. I am very lucky.
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