Independent Strong (IS): Can you please tell me a bit about yourself and your practice?
Ashley Szalkowski, OD: My name is Ashley Szalkowski, I’m the optometrist and owner at Guild Eyewear Studio. I graduated from The New England College of Optometry in 2018. I spent the first few years of my career working in an MD/OD setting. Once COVID hit, I decided to make the transition into private practice. I was splitting my time between several practices in the area, and it didn’t take me long to become bored with the repetitiveness and generic feel of all these offices. I had a desire to do something different. So, I googled “how to open a business,” and the rest was history!
Dr. Szalkowski: East Aurora, New York
IS: Square footage?
Dr. Szalkowski: 1,500
IS: Setting (stand alone building, office building, etc)?
Dr. Szalkowski: Stand alone building
IS: Number of staff and roles?
Dr. Szalkowski: One staff member aside from myself. This person serves as optical manager/office manager.
IS: Did you: buy your practice, start cold, etc.?
Dr. Szalkowski: Cold start
IS: How long have you been at your practice?
Dr. Szalkowski:13 months
IS: What does independent mean to you?
Dr. Szalkowski: Independent means I’m free to practice the way I want to. Free to provide my patients with the best service and products without the interference of third parties.
IS: Please tell me what inspired you to be vision care plan/insurance free?
Dr. Szalkowski: I was working at a total of five different offices (a mix between corporate, OD owned, and optician owned). All of these practices were experiencing the same problems, and they were all complaining about vision insurance. When I asked why they took these plans, the answer was always “we have to.” That wasn’t a good enough answer for me. I knew it could be different. I knew it HAD to be different. I was just starting my career, and I would not allow myself to spend the next 30 years complaining about vision plans.
IS: What was the journey/timeline like to get there?
Dr. Szalkowski: From the moment I decided to open my own office, it took approximately two and a half years to open the doors.
IS: How do you market to patients without being on an insurance plan list?
Dr. Szalkowski: A little bit of everything. I’ve tried print ads, paid social media ads, organic social media growth, tv commercials, and in-person events. There hasn’t been a singular source that has provided a large influx of patients. Word of mouth has been our best asset, but that takes time. If there’s something I would have done differently it would be creating a larger marketing budget and working with a team to create a solid marketing plan.
IS: How has this experience changed optometry for you?
Dr. Szalkowski: I enjoy it!!! The first four years of my career were spent thinking I made a terrible mistake. I was burnt out and tired of unappreciative patients. I was bored with the repetitiveness and discouraged there was no career growth working as an associate. Opening Guild opened up a whole new world. I had no idea how much I would love it. Granted, I’m working far more hours and for far less money (I keep telling myself the pay will come), but it doesn’t feel like work. I love the growth potential and I know that my success is up to no one but myself.
IS: How has it changed your staffing needs? Practice size (sq ft)? Equipment needs? Frame/lens mix?
Dr. Szalkowski: No insurance has definitely reduced the staff size required to run efficiently. We’re a mighty team of two and doing great! I structured my practice in a way that it would focus on routine exams and be optical heavy. Therefore, I didn’t bring in any special testing equipment. (I have a great referral network that I feel very comfortable co-managing with). Because of this, I didn’t credential with vision or medical plans. Rather than spending money on testing equipment, I built out my optical to be very boutique-like, and our frame lines reflect that.
IS: Has there been any pushback?
Dr. Szalkowski: Transparency has always been very important to me. Our website makes it clear that we do not participate with insurance, and why we take this approach. Because of this transparency, we’re able to have those conversations and answer any questions before the patient even walks through the door. This has helped to eliminate any push back.
IS: What is your best advice to doctors who feel they can’t do what you have done?
Dr. Szalkowski: Ask yourself if you want to work for the insurance companies for the rest of your career. Let that fuel your decision and motivate you to work hard now to reap the benefits later.
IS: What is your next goal for your practice?
Dr. Szalkowski: Start paying myself!
IS: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Dr. Szalkowski: The out of network approach is not for everyone. You have to be ALL IN on it. If you’re not committed, your patients won’t commit either. Also, the first few years of a start up are really hard.
Editor’s Note: Independent Strong conducted this interview with Dr. Szalkowski in the fall of 2023, with the intention of starting our Practice Profile series in the new year. At the time of the interview, Dr. Szalkowski’s practice was truly ‘open access,’ and she accepted no vision care plans. In recent weeks, we have learned that Dr. Szalkowski has restructured her practice to begin accepting VSP members. We apologize for any confusion.