Lessons Learned: Stepping Up After Getting Burned

Opening a new vet clinic nearly 3 years after the failure of our last one is no small feat. For nearly 3 years, I worked my fingers to the bone trying to keep the clinic running on almost no money, with volunteers and even our head vet coming and going with no measure of consistency, and relying on the least reliable people to hold things together in the worst of possible places to keep anything together. Nothing about that experience makes me want to do it again except the memory of the days when we were actually able to provide the care these animals needed in a place where no one else could. That alone drives me to do this again and pushing aside the horrible memories of watching preventable suffering and death on a daily basis, living with the nonstop financial stress and nightmare of never getting a break is the only way to move forward while constantly going over the lessons I must not repeat this time around.

Here is a small sample of what I learned from the first clinic we had in Hoi An:

Work in a big enough market to sustain your work. Small towns in which most pet owners are rural poor are not sources of paying customers that can sustain your overhead costs.  Set up work in a big city that can sustain your business and do outreach to smaller towns. Da Nang has 10 times the population and a much higher number of paying clients as a result. Hoi An is not a market we can count on.

Have a non-donation- based income source.  Donations from individual donors are inconsistent and require more time, energy and money than they are worth in the long run.  Income needs to come from something you can rely on.  

Supplies are hard to come by so manage your own supply chain. Build your own veterinary supply company or spend 90% of your time on a global supply treasure hunt. We are working on opening a side business of veterinary and medical supplies to make sure we get the bits and bobs we need imported without a middleman and are able to help others do the same. Ideally this will eventually produce some income, but in the beginning it will serve us well for our own purposes.

Experience matters. Have ONLY experienced vets in charge from Western clinical backgrounds who have experience working in low-resource environments.  Vet students are absolutely worthless in terms of being able to diagnose and treat any cases and require too much babysitting.  Western vet students take time away from training Vietnamese vet interns who are really the focus of our work anyway.

Make sure vets are capable of and interested in training interns.  We cannot rely on Western trained vets to manage the Vietnamese veterinary industry.  Our job is to make a locally-managed veterinary industry capable of doing the preventative work that actually ends animal suffering.

Clinic managers are not vets. Have an experienced clinic manager who is not vet staff, but a business person who can manage a medical facility’s needs.  Vet staff work with animals, not invoicing systems and inventory management.  Multitasking is not a vet thing…

PAY GOOD SALARIES and offer benefits and time off to all staff.  Sustainable human resources involve treating your staff well so they can afford to and want to stick around all year for multiple years.  Volunteers are never going to be useful in the long term and take up too much time in training them while not reaping the benefits of that investment. With volunteers, you get what you pay for.

You cannot run a business 100% on free work, no matter what your donation income is. Discounts for rescues and free work must be a fraction of your clients until you have an income you can rely on to pay overhead. Our mistake in Hoi An was not having any sustainable income, plus providing free or extremely cheap work for rescues who ultimately ended up totally screwing us over in the end and really should have paid full price anyway.

Don’t date your vet/business partner. Staff are staff and boyfriends are boyfriends. Opening a vet clinic with my vet boyfriend before couldn’t have been a worse idea., especially if he wasn’t really interested in the mission or willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get it up and running and keep it that way. And if you do date them, treat them well and be a good girlfriend and not just a pain in the ass workaholic that is unable to live a normal life. Don’t expect anyone to be as passionate about this as you are- it’s not possible.

Do not rely on young, inexperienced local staff for anything other than their daily tasks. Don’t rely on a young local vet from the village for your progress and sustainability, particularly when they are not interested in or capable of progressing as a clinician or getting international training as required for this progress. Mainly, don’t waste your time on people who can’t be bothered to step up to the damn plate. Be a better interviewer and don’t be afraid to fire people who just don’t cut it.

Have a life. Being a workaholic is not equivalent to producing good work. Never ever under any circumstances forget to have a life outside of this and a support system of people who truly care about you. This goes for all your staff. This is insanely difficult work that is traumatic every single day and if you have no one to hug the snot out of you when you finally get home and throw your bra off in a huff and crumble to the floor, it will be impossible. You are only as good as the people around you who have your back. You are NOT a one man army.

There is a lot of work to do in taking failure and turning it into success and most of that involves perseverance and understanding our history. We can only fail if we stop trying. We will make a lot more mistakes over the years, but we will never give up in trying to change the veterinary industry of Vietnam to work better for the animals.

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