Richard Dixon secretly wants to be an astronaut.
He’s already managed to qualify as a veterinary surgeon, get a PhD in endochrinology and revolutionise the whole vet industry in the UK, so why not?
“I do sometimes look back and think, ‘flipping heck, how did that all happen?’ he laughed when Scottish Entrepreneur spoke to him.
“But my application to the European Space Agency didn’t go quite as planned.”
Instead he is focusing on VetsNow, the business he set up in Glasgow in 2001 while skint and studying for that PhD. Fourteen years later the company is turning over £31m and has 53 clinics across the UK.
“The impact has been much more than we ever saw coming if I’m honest,” he said. “When I started the business I didn’t have a proper understanding of where it could go and it’s only by taking the journey that we’ve seen more opportunities and started to fully understand the profession and our own business. A lot of it has been trial and error, trying to improve the model and the business and being willing to adapt and change.”
As with all the best business ideas, Richard’s was very simple: provide an out-of-hours veterinary service.
“I couldn’t count the number of times since we launched the business that people have said ‘what a great idea!’” he said.
“It’s such a simple idea. Entrepreneurialism is being about seeing things from a slightly different angle – and we identified an opportunity at the right time in the marketplace and approached an old problem from a different angle.”
Rather than competing with existing veterinary clinics, he was able to provide a complementary service which allowed everyone to benefit. Vets no longer had to be on call 24 hours a day, and pet owners knew they would get the same standard of care in the middle of the night or at weekends.
He quickly had the support of the vets he approached, but putting the idea into practice was a new area for him.
“The challenges for anyone setting up and growing a business are enormous,” he said. “I came to this with no business experience and no formal training in business – I was a vet. A lot of what we have learned over the last 15 years is the formal training is hugely valuable but a lot of business is common sense and old-fashioned hard work.”
He solved the problem of a lack of capital to invest in premises by simply leasing clinics which weren’t being used overnight. This again proved popular with vets as it provided them with an additional revenue stream. It also allowed the company to scale up much more quickly than if they had had to build their own infrastructure. The entire capital investment came from Richard himself.
“When I was a student in Glasgow I had a flat – and this was in the days when you bought a property and the prices went up!” he joked. “I sold the flat, took the proceeds from it and took the approach of “I’m going to put this money behind the business and if it works, fantastic, if it doesn’t then I guess I’ll just have to go and get a job.” Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, the business has been reasonably successful so far.”
He no longer practises as a vet, focusing instead on being a businessman, something he views as “the best job in the world”
“The big reward for me has been that professional stretch,” he said. “I now get to work with people who are incredibly talented, it’s just amazing. I never thought I was going to run a business, when I was young all I wanted was to be a vet.
Through the experience of VetsNow I’ve been exposed to all different people from all different sectors and I’ve realised there is an enormous amount of talent out there from whom you can learn. That’s been really rewarding, it’s one of the things that keeps me going.”
He is very involved with Entrepreneurial Scotland, something he credits with supporting and inspiring him through the years. Promoting entrepreneurialism to vet students and other young people is something he enjoys – even if he struggled a little with the label at first.
“It took me a while to be comfortable with the term ‘entrepreneur’ because I never really saw myself in that light. In some respects, the term is too synonymous with business, I’m more interested in entrepreneurial behaviour and that can be anywhere,” he said.
“There is something about Scotland that says ‘it might look impossible but we can do it’. We’re pretty tenacious and resilient – they are attributes that serve anyone working in a fast-growing business very well. I’ve enjoyed the feeling of having to keep learning and find people who know more than I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else – except maybe being an astronaut.”