Franklin entrepreneur has an eye for business

Monday, June 23, 2008 at 2:59am
Optometrist Jim Tilley of Character Eyes in Franklin, shifted career paths because he wanted to open his own business. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

Jim Tilley started his professional career trained as an electrical engineer marketing technical products for big corporations.

But Tilley wanted to own a business and chose optometry as the path. The Wisconsin native went back to school to study the field, then moved to Nashville and learned the business as a fill-in doctor in every place from Wal-Mart to private practice.

Four years ago, he opened Character Eyes just off the Franklin town square in a building along Church Street that began as a hospital in 1941. It’s a boutique business targeting a higher end clientele seeking something different in frames and willing to pay as much as $600 for them.

Owning a small business can be a tough life. The trend for their long-term survival isn’t terribly good.

“In the long run [defined as 10 years], roughly nine out of 10 start-up businesses will be gone,” said Bruce Lynskey, a clinical professor of management at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

Lynskey said the biggest reason small businesses fail is that the market deteriorates for their product and they don’t have the diversification of a big company as an offset.

“Every next year in business is money in the bank for his survival,” Lynskey said.

Character Eyes has a narrow creative niche with hands-on customer service. For Tilley, it’s a “lifestyle business,” meaning that he doesn’t have plans to go far and wide with more than one shop. He is focused on making that store work and generate steady revenue as well as profit.

“That’s all good,” Lynskey said. “The customer relationship is the glue that holds the business together in case someone comes in and starts another business.”

The soft-spoken Tilley also has helped himself on the operations side of the business. He and his wife own the building housing the business and have a mortgage. But there is no debt on the business itself.

“I wanted to be totally independent of all that,” he said.

Lynskey said that is an excellent situation to have.

“That really protects you from macro economic conditions,” he said.

Tilley said he learned a lot about running a business by spending seven years as a fill-in optometrist.

“I saw the good and the bad of types of businesses when I was building my plan,” he said.

One aspect of the business he saw not to mess with was health insurance. He employs himself and an optical manager. If he took insurance, Tilley said he would need a third person to handle the administrative needs.

“There’s almost nothing in it for a doctor,” he said.

Tilley said insurance can limit a business’ uniqueness and fun factor because of what plans are willing to pay. As a result of eschewing insurance, Character Eyes sells a lot eyewear from prescriptions Tilley didn’t write.

“About three quarters of what we do comes from other doctors,” he said.

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