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Eyes Wide Open

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:46 a.m. May 4, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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After five years of fine-tuning a business that uses occupational therapy to restore people's vision, Michele Vandendooren felt confident enough to take it national.

The founder and president of Sarasota-based Low Vision Works, Vandendooren launched the expansion at a large industry tradeshow in Los Angeles in fall 2009. Her plan was to recruit a network of affiliates, places like V.A. hospitals and home health care offices, which would license her company's proprietary vision enhancement programs. She would charge a onetime startup fee, and then a smaller monthly fee.

But less than three years into national expansion, Vandendooren faces a challenge she never saw coming: Going national this way, through a hybrid-franchise program, hasn't worked out. It's actually a complicated, labor-intensive process — with thin margins, to boot.

Instead of repairing a business model that gave her fits, however, Vandendooren decided to flip the strategy. Now she will attempt to grow Low Vision Works through offices nationwide that she and her team of six corporate employees supervise from Sarasota. Says Vandendooren: “I've transitioned back to where I started.”

The transition began in earnest a few months ago, when Vandendooren hired three occupational therapists for markets in Fort Myers, Sarasota and Palm Harbor. She also recently opened a Low Vision Works office in the New England area, where she hired nine full-time occupational therapists and two people for marketing. The plan is to treat patients in their homes.

“I suppose I could keep things the way they are, but I have a vision for this company,” says Vandendooren. “Now we have an opportunity for more rapid growth.”

Low Vision Works annual revenues have hovered at less than $1 million in recent years. But Vandendooren believes rapid growth can come from addition by subtraction, in which she will eliminate the hassles of setting up affiliates to succeed.

The way it has been, Low Vision Works recruits occupational therapists for the affiliates and handles local marketing. The affiliates are spread through eight states. “We were trying to drag these people into success,” says Vandendooren, “and we could just do it ourselves.”

An occupational therapist, Vandendooren created Low Vision Works in 2001. It works by increasing visual acuity in the vision not impacted by disease. The program is most effective, says Vandendooren, with people who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and some stroke-related vision disorders.

Vandendooren initially came to Sarasota, in 1996, to start a more traditional occupational therapy business. She developed the low vision program in conjunction with a local ophthalmologist.

The growth back then, after the medical side, was the easier part. That's because Vandendooren brought an entrepreneurial background to the business. A New Jersey native who grew up mostly in Alberta, Canada, Vandendooren launched a waterskiing business when she was 19. “It was the most fun I ever had making money,” says Vandendooren.

She later founded several more businesses, including one that provided snowmobile tours in British Columbia. “I was the kid on the corner with a lemonade stand,” Vandendooren says. “I was always very entrepreneurial.”

Now Vandendooren hopes that spirit will foster the Low Vision Works reinvention. “I would be a lot further than I am if I started this way,” says Vandendooren, “but I have no regrets.”


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