Business Owner Story –

Business Owner Story –

Jeff Oster is the founder of, a unique educationally driven e-commerce site that helps customers find the most appropriate products to help foot and ankle conditions like bunions, hammertoes and tendonitis. Based on the ideal of medically guided shopping, Oster started to better educate consumers about specific conditions related to the foot and ankle to teach them more about their diagnoses and find the most appropriate products to help them.

The Start

How did you get started with your business?
I graduated from medical school in 1983. I had been in practice for about 15 years. I found that one of the interesting things about providing medical care is that it doesn’t scale. You have a conversation educating a patient about a particular condition, and then you may go in to see the next patient and have the same conversation all over again. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who is the communications director for the business. As the Internet became a more consumer-oriented tool, my friend was able to guide me into ways to use medical information in a way in which the business could scale.

One of the things about medicine is that there is always an information imbalance, where the doctor has so much information and the patient has so little information. I think when you can offer written information to a patient, it creates more of a balance between the provider and the patient, because the patient can go home, read over the information and read it a second time, rather than having that one flash of education in the office.

How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
We flirted with funding so often. We’ve looked at loans in many cases, but have always been able to find a way to fund our projects.

I think there is a time and a place for funding for businesses that want to grow quickly or businesses that want to grow to sell the business. In our case, we plan to stay with the business for a long time, so we don’t want anyone else to have ownership of our business.

Who was your first customer?
I don’t remember the very first customer, but I do remember that within our first month of business, I was so proud that we sent a $300 order to Romania. I thought, “Wow! What an impact I’m having on healthcare worldwide!” But then I came to find out it was a bogus order and we had been ripped off. We started out very naïve and learned that consumers are the same everywhere. There are good people and bad people.

Running the Business

How did you learn to run your business?
Trial and error. I had 15 years of business experience in practice, but medical practice is very different than running an e-commerce business. Fortunately, my wife is an attorney by training, and she had administrative skills to be our operations manager. We call her the COE, which stands for the chief of everything. I manage the medical side of it.

What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Beginning a small business is much like your development from a child to an adult. As you go through adolescence, you try out so many different things and eventually find who you are. In our case, we had a real challenge finding what our brand was. At first, we branded ourselves as a discount foot and ankle care pharmacy. Over time, we evolved into a brand that is something our customers really look for, which is reliable information and products that are associated with that information.

What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The smartest thing that’s set us up for success was to surround ourselves with really smart people. Every small business owner starts out wearing all the hats within the business. The best thing you can do is identify your deficiencies and find a strong support team.

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What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
With this particular business, it’s rewarding to know that you’re having an impact on peoples’ lives. I went into medicine to help people. I think this is a very interesting alternative means for people to access healthcare. We’ve tried to democratize healthcare, and by doing so, I think we can help so many more people, which makes it very rewarding.

Ownership of your own business gives you autonomy that gives you the flexibility to do much of what you want to do, rather than what your boss wants you to do. There’s the old saying that when you’re self-employed, it’s great, because you can choose which of the 23 hours of the day you want to work. Some days we work very hard, and some days we play very hard.

What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Running a business, particularly an e-commerce business, is a lot like herding cats. You not only are working with the day-to-day activities and fulfillment and managing the content on your site, but you’re also trying to have a vision to look forward and see where you want your company to head.

What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
One of the things that I’m most surprised about our business is the ability to affect lives around the world. In reviewing some of our orders for today, we have orders from Canada, Spain, The Netherlands and Portugal. I think it’s great to be able to help people solve problems regardless of their geographic location.

What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
A writer who I follow and admire a lot is a general surgeon from Boston named Atul Gawande. He grew up in a small town near us in Ohio, and I was fortunate enough to know some of his friends and his mom and dad who were both physicians. Dr. Gawande is interesting from the standpoint that he speaks honestly and openly in his writing about medicine. He wrote a book called “Complications,” which was an honest look at the side of medicine that isn’t always good. He writes in a way that creates humility in healthcare. He writes about who we really are, rather than who we are supposed to be.

What I’ve Learned

What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
Fail often, and plan on failing again. Failure is the only way that you come to understand where your success may lie. You need to realize that it’s the very rare company that comes up with the novel idea or novel service that’s going to take off and be successful. You have to try and try again to mold your product or service into something that’s exactly what your consumer wants.

Be data driven. Without data, it just isn’t true. Data runs the gamut, whether it’s your product sales, your analytics, your SEO … When you neglect the data, you don’t really understand your business.

What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
As a college student, I started out as a business major, but it made no sense. Subsequently, I became a biology major, and that was the transition into medicine. But now, after I’ve been in business for 30-some-odd years, I’d love to go back and get a master’s in business, because now it would all make sense. Until you’re immersed in an activity, it’s hard to train for that activity. I wish I had a better business skillset, or at least more people advising me on how to be a better businessperson.

About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.

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