Spinefit Chiro & Physio: When starting a clinic with a friend works
Ever wanted to go into business with a friend—be it opening that bar, or getting the band back together? Cliniko customers Keith Tan and Aaron Lau of Spinefit Chiropractic & Physiotherapy in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) share their story of starting a clinic with a friend.
Keith Tan and Aaron Lau met in Auckland, New Zealand after moving there from Malaysia to attend University; the two connected through a Malaysian study group. Keith studied at the University of Auckland, and Aaron at the New Zealand Chiropractic College (NZCC). From there, they came to share a flat while Aaron was just beginning his chiropractic studies, and Keith was getting stuck into a combined Science and Business degree.
After graduating, Aaron moved back home to Malaysia and worked in the country's pioneering integrated medicine healthcare groups. This is where he got the inspiration to start his own practice. Keith, meanwhile, had also moved home to Malaysia and had been busy working in the technology, construction, and advertising sectors. Keith was Aaron’s natural first port of call when looking for a partner who could round out the business's expertise. Keith says, “I was initially uncertain and scared at first, but we both had our own strengths that created a synergy to bring about a different way of doing things when it came to the local chiropractic industry here in Malaysia.”
From the start, the duo knew they wanted to make smart choices that were about longevity rather than short term gains. Their first decision, with this value in mind, was their choice of location for the practice. They thought about their ideal location, and selected a mall that was a central hub for the community, guaranteeing foot traffic and a level of ease for busy patients running errands. The mall also had no existing chiropractic services which meant that they could start out with no direct competition.
Keith and Aaron’s next decision was to raise the capital for opening the business through the support of family and friends, rather than a business loan. This allowed them a greater degree of control over their early journey. “The good thing about this is the freedom,” Keith says.
We work around realistic timelines, not just those that are solely bottom line driven—although that is also a key factor.
— Keith Tan
Growing a business from the ground up is never easy, and Keith was aware right from the beginning that some trial and error would be involved. When developing his marketing strategy, he remembers: "We tried doing brochure drops, speaking with the surrounding businesses to see if we could leave our brochures at their premises. We also launched introductory care plans that promoted our services at a very attractive price just so we could see some foot traffic". To begin with, that seemed to be driving some growth for the business, but Keith came to find he needed to change strategy. "It did not create any ‘stickability’ with the patients, as most of them were just attracted by the low cost."
Evolving his marketing strategy from this lesson learnt, Keith decided to leverage some connections he'd made before starting Spinefit Chiro & Physio: "I started reaching out to some of my old contacts from the industry to see if we could do cross marketing/partnerships." This is how he came to develop partnerships and cross promotions, becoming the official chiropractor/physiotherapy for an international Rugby 10s event—one of their patients was on the organising committee, which allowed Keith and Aaron to develop those valuable connections.
Interviews in the local media have also helped raise the profile of the business. Keith encourages others to not be shy, and to try and put themselves out there. "Sometimes stepping out and cold calling another business/team/organisation because they may benefit from what we do is one of the best things" says Keith. That's how they got in touch with a state cycling team, after Keith approached them at his local gym.
Keith firmly believes that by raising the profile of the chiropractic and physiotherapy disciplines in Malaysia, people will take notice and seek them out.
If I had to put it into a sentence, the way we market our practice is by being honest and genuine with what we have to offer.
— Keith Tan
The team also engages the community through talks on health and wellness with the aim of not only increasing their exposure, but to try and develop positive relationships to Chiropractic treatments and Physiotherapy in the wider Malaysian community. "There's still a lot that needs to be done," Keith says. "In Malaysia, traditional alternative medicine is still the first point of call for any musculoskeletal types of complaints—complementary medicine is still in its infancy here. Any opportunity to educate about what we do as chiropractors and rehab specialists, we jump at."
Since starting out in 2014, Spinefit has grown to include a team of six. While Aaron is now practicing in Melbourne, Australia, the rest of the Malaysian team includes two chiropractors, two rehab specialists, a clinic assistant, and Keith—who rounds out the team as the co-founder, and manages the business and marketing side of Spinefit.
When it comes to growing your team, Keith believes it’s important to define your business values—to develop some key principles, and to begin as you mean to continue. He recalls: "We were very intentional and made sure that each practitioner joining the team carried the same values as us. This was done so that our practice members would receive the most exceptional care from our practice that was excellent, honest and personalised—something that was lacking in the practices that we were exposed to."
Keith reflects: "There are quite a few practitioners out there who would like to just be practitioners, and not be involved with the business/operations or marketing side of the practice. I believe that there is a merit to how practices can be set up where there is someone who’s sole role and responsibility is to handle the business, operations and marketing side of things."
Allowing practitioners to be fully in the headspace of providing excellent care is a huge priority for Keith, who is an advocate of this kind of personalised business assistance: “There is a whole industry dedicated to just focusing on marketing on behalf of these practices. However, I find that the focus becomes very diluted and eventually the same strategies begin to be applied across their clientele. Because of how we’ve set things up from the very beginning, we both played to our strengths to see Spinefit grow to what it is today”.
Coming from a business and tech background, Keith knew how best to evaluate new software, and what he was looking for when considering practice management systems. "We were looking for a versatile practice management software that was cloud based.” He knew it was worth future proofing his management system, and avoiding the paper files trap. He notes, as a word of advice for those weighing up when to invest in systems: "Most startups are afraid to spend on certain services/systems that once implemented correctly, you don’t have to think too much about. Cliniko has been so good that we've used it since the beginning, and recommended it to others, too."
Although Aaron was the first to discover Cliniko, Keith has been working hard on leveraging integrations with Marketing platforms, and accounting software. More importantly, he has also spent time developing an understanding of how his customers interact with booking platforms, and leveraged Cliniko to suit their needs. "We promote [our online bookings] on our website and social media channels—we also created some how to videos to encourage people to book online, rather than call up." This is a timesaver, as well as a handy tip for those who are travelling often, and can't always be on the other end of a call.
During peak appointment periods, Keith can have all hands on deck booking and checking in patients from the multiple clinic devices (tablet and laptop), meaning clients aren’t queuing at one device—a handy feature of cloud based software!
Reflecting on how to successfully mix friendship and business, Keith notes: “It’s understanding and respecting the clear lines between work and play. It was hard at first as we both had different working experiences that we were used to. But over time, as we matured in our roles, we understand how at different times we need to wear different hats as we both have our own sets of responsibilities. Not every practitioner wants to be in the limelight. They would rather do what they do best as a healthcare professional—to help and serve others. Individuals like myself who aren’t a healthcare professional—but share the same passion and vision—make great partners in building a successful thriving practice.”
As for any last words of advice for people considering a business venture with a friend, or developing healthy and productive work relationships? As Keith says: “At the end it’s still a work in progress, but if we can have a banter and a beer after, it should be good!”
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