James Ramsden

James Ramsden Interview

“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.” ~ Thomas de Quincey

DIEDERIK: So, I’m here today with James Ramsden from PetPack.

Good morning James.

JAMES: Diederik how are you? Good to speak to you.

DIEDERIK: Good. Thanks for taking the time. James, what ignited your passion to become a vet, and at what age did that start?

JAMES: Well, originally, I wanted to be an Airforce pilot, which a lot of kids want to be. And, I actually didn’t pursue that because…this is quite early on, because my eyesight wasn’t a hundred percent, and in those days, you needed 100% eyesight. And at the same time, I didn’t realize that I was spending a lot of time with animals, we had pets, and also, my grandfather was a beef farmer. So, there’s really interest in animals. But, also, my grandfather was an early conservationist. He was one of those greenie farmers, he was one of the very early guys and he used to spend hours taking us out to see birds and things like that, which was terribly boring, but it started to sink in.

To cut a long the story short, I really like science, and so the obvious option is to become a doctor or a vet. Being a doctor didn’t appeal to me for some reason, but being a vet did appeal to me. I think for those range of reason though, I really love my pets, my dog, and I liked spending time with my grandfather out in the bush, and so it has that overarching animal science connection. So that’s why I got into it.

DIEDERIK: You’ve gone into a bit of an alternative route. In the intro, I said you’re from PetPack, which is obviously not a veterinary practice, can you just quickly precis your career?

JAMES: When I was in practice, one of the first things I did was that I started to call my clients. This was early on. I graduated in the early 90s. I think, ultimately, I just like talking to people, so it’s an interesting part of being a vet. So in my view of veterinarians is generally is that you’re either…if you put them into broad categories, you’re into the technical side, which is like carpentry or getting the job done. Or, you like the front end part, which is where you’re connecting with the clients. That’s very black and white as a range, but for me, it’s more of the front end, and I’ve done a lot surgery but I find it stressful particularly if I’m not doing it regularly or I’m doing new techniques. Whereas with people, I’ve been in some very difficult situations with people and it’s not always fun, but I actually quite enjoy that challenge of making the connection.

So, what I started doing was ringing clients. When I graduated, no one rang clients, and the reason I know that was because—when I say I rang clients, I was ringing them to see how the animals were. The second person I rang said, “I paid the bloody bill, what are you ringing me for?” You got the impression that in those days, the only time they ever got a call was when their account was overdue, and of course, we’re talking accounts in small animal practice, which really doesn’t happen these days. So the whole scenario was quite different.

Anyway, pretty quickly, because I was interested to see how the animals were going, I worked out that it was actually really productive to ring someone 48 hours later or three days later because you could head problems off problems at the pass, and the clients loved it. They couldn’t believe they’re getting the call because it was useful.

So, from there, I started thinking about other things that you could do, and we build a little email tool that I used myself, and then I started selling that to other vets, and it was quite organic really. A few things came along, like the internet was invented. But also, we had the .com boom and then it crashed. So, there was a lot of my effort to start in the .com boom “What can we do? What can we do?” And then in the crash, it was “How do we survive? How do we survive?” But, all the way along, I’ve maintained that interest in communicating from the vet to the pet owner, and as a result, PetPack today provides services that help vets communicate directly with their clients, or get new clients coming in.

DIEDERIK: Cool. Thank you.

Looking back, what didn’t teach you at vet school do you know now you should have been taught?

JAMES: That’s a good question.

I think if you just break it down, the types of people you had teaching us were academics, they didn’t have a lot of commercial experience, and commercial experience covers everything from marketing to making sure you got the right margins on your products.

So, if I zero in on my own area of interest, there was no education around the importance of communication. So, good quality communication, for me, in vet practice makes all the difference. It could be as simple as giving people the space and time to make decisions around expenditure because we’re familiar where all goes wrong and the person says “It’s too much.” That can be headed off earlier. But, probably more significant, or more of a greater impact, is that role that we play in helping people understand the choices they can make. So, for instance, dental care and obesity are two huge examples were with better communication, you can actually have an impact. Because my view is that the pet owners that we’re dealing with, generally want to look after their animals well. The reason they don’t look after them is it’s too hard. It’s either too hard because you’ve got to remember to do something every month, or it’s too hard because the problem’s hidden and the expert hasn’t made it clear to you that the problem’s there, and then help you make that decision.

Good communication covers a lot of that, and we didn’t get any training in communication. We had a couple of people come into the university who had that sort of interest, that was good, and I found it very interesting. But it was not an option to learn more about that. So that would be the area that I would like to see more done in.

DIEDERIK: And then the other side of that coin, what did they teach you that retrospectively you now know to be incorrect?

JAMES: I thought you were going to say “What did teach you that you that was fantastic?”

I actually can’t think of anything. I might come back to that one. I mean, the market has changed dramatically, so yeah.

DIEDERIK: Based on your experience, if you’ve got a new graduate vet sitting in on this conversation, what are two or three things that they need to immediately do to turbocharge their career?

JAMES: So, are we’re talking about people who are going to get into traditional veterinary practice? Or are you specifically talking about ones who are about to graduate or the ones who are just starting off?

DIEDERIK: Either. Either about to graduate or a new graduate that’s already graduated.

JAMES: I think the most important thing would be to get one foot into the commercial world, which is practice or industry, early on. So, as much as you can, spend time outside of the university in practice or in industry. The issue with that though is that when you’re at university, you’re not really that interested in what’s going to happen next. Often, you’re very absorbed because practically, there’s a lot of work to do, and socially, you’re very focused on university. It’s quite hard to think about what’s going to come next. But that would me my advice.

The other thing I would say to people is follow your passion when you can, and sometimes, it’s not obvious that it exists. A good example of that is, I’ve mentioned before, I’ve got a real interest in conservation and I experienced that being a small animal practitioner and then being involved in conservation are almost two separate entities. I’ve always wanted to know how to bring them together, in fact a lot of my work at PetPack is to make a sensible connection between pets and a healthier planet. And it looks a little bit like a—not a joke—but it looks like something which someone thought up in a management meeting or something because you think “What’s the connection?”

We’ve had PetPack for 14 years, and just the other day, I had a young person who came in, a young graduate, a science graduate who’s working in animal welfare. She put on the table, all this evidence of the connection between people who have pets have an increased empathy towards environmental issues. And I thought, “That’s fantastic!” because I’ve been stuck with this for a long time, and I’m love working with conservation, but now, I can start to see there’s a real connection between doing more work with pet owners and that having a positive impact on the environment.

Yes, I think university can be very dry, because they’ve got a lot of material to get through, and it doesn’t often go outside the borders of the straight up and down veterinary stuff. So, as much as possible, try and keep your passion alive by exploring how you can get that to work.

DIEDERIK: Thank you. That’s interesting. And yes, just innately, I don’t know how or why, but I see a connection with healthy pets and healthy planet. I don’t know why, but it just sort of make sense.

JAMES: I suspect a lot of us do, and finding a practical application of that has a been a challenge.

DIEDERIK: The other side of the coin with that question, if you’ve got that same new graduate, what are two or three things you’re going to tell them they’ve got to avoid or not do if they want to be successful?

JAMES: Give up. I think you’ve got to make a conscious choice. It’s going to be difficult following the pathway of being a vet. There’s a range of challenges which we don’t need to go through which are pretty obvious. And, this is, once again, I was talking to a mate of mine the other day, I know most people who go through vet science have a strong passion for animal care at the bottom and sort of supporting that decision and go and do this work because there’s a lot easier things you could do. There’s going to be points where you are going to want to stop, I imagine, for some people, and really have a good think about that. Don’t just stop and walk away, but have a think about whether or not that’s the right decision. Because it’s okay to walk away. If that passion is still there, I would really encourage you to keep going and you’ll find a way around that. Or work with it, if you don’t like the person you’re working with, or the hours are terrible, or you’re not doing the conservation like you wanted, or whatever it is, just keep going because you have confidence in yourself to find that pathway.

DIEDERIK: If you were starting out again, would you in fact be a vet?

JAMES: That’s such a good question.

Yeah, absolutely. I believe that the pathway I’ve taken is the best pathway. There’s a good reason for it. Maybe it was that young person coming to my office recently and showing me the connection between animals and…it’s taken me 14 years. The reason I would do it again is that if you’re interested in animals, and in the broader context, conservation or animals and habitat preservation, or whatever it is within the animal world, veterinary science is the best training you’ll get by a long shot. Because you can converse with anyone across those topics and have a sense of what’s going on really quickly.

DIEDERIK: What were two or three major challenges that you faced?

JAMES: I worked with a guy who I didn’t get along well with. That was really difficult for me. I was pretty young and I started a new practice with another bloke, which was great at the start but then when decisions needed to be made about the direction we were going in, it became clear that we weren’t going to be working together. I found that extremely difficult, and it knocked my confidence for some time. So that’s one.

The other one was whether or not to continue practicing or to develop the online business that lead to PetPack. It might seem easy in hindsight now when we got a thriving business that we could say that that was pretty straight forward. But, to actually get off the pathway from traditional veterinary practice is pretty difficult if you’re talking to your colleagues about that because most people look at your sideways and go “What the hell are you doing? Why would you do that?” And so that comes back to encouraging people to stick with their passion, because I think that’s where they’re going to add the most value, and in doing that, I think that’s the real challenge because not everyone is going to say you’re doing a good job. I’d say they were my two biggest challenge.

The third challenge coming from that was surviving in a new business environment where you’ve got cash-flow issues. These are practical things where you need to dig deep in those situations. I’m happy that I’ve been through those because I’ve learned a lot and it changed the way I operate, but they weren’t necessarily pleasant.

DIEDERIK: How did you balance your career, family and fatherhood?

JAMES: From the start, I felt, and so did my wife—she’s actually my business partner. She founded the business with me—that it was important to spend time with our kids. And I grew up like a lot of my generation where my father wasn’t around a lot. So, one of the advantages of owning your own business, whether it’d be a vet practice or an online marketing business like PetPack is, you do have the capacity to be flexible with time and that was one of the great things about it now. In the early days, cash was pretty tight like I was talking about before. So there wasn’t a lot of room to move but, the value of being there when my boys were little was amazing. I’m really, really glad that we did it.

DIEDERIK: What does success look like to you James?

JAMES: It’s a range of things. It all comes down to me feeling like I’ve reached my potential, and that’s a sense of… and that’s sort of something that I look, honestly at on a minute by minute basis. Am I doing a good job with you now? It’s about adding value.

Then, there’s your more long term things where you can look back on a project. For instance, success for me would be working with you on the merging of the business groups. That’s a really good example, I was really proud, I wrote it up on my office wall, that I would like the two groups to be merged by October. I think I wrote that at the start of the year. It’s quite freaky, and it was just wonderful. It’s all about asking yourself that question, “Are you up, or going for your potential?” and then, “Are you actually going to do it?” And then doing it. So that’s really my sense of success.

DIEDERIK: What are the keys to your successes? What are keys to success in general?

JAMES: For me, it’s having a balance. Understanding what the key priorities are. Business is important, family is important, community is important and the other one is my own personal develop and health. As much as I can, I try to put effort into all of those areas.

When I started out, I was pretty prescriptive about it. I used a bit Steven Covey stuff and I looked at sort of… Keeping track of it now, I’m much more…  I did learn things from that. I used to have a mindset of process, but I keep an awareness of those areas.

Another part of success for me is having a partner that you trust, a life partner, because it’s pretty easy to get off track. I’m like a lot of vets, I think, probably who are clever or good at attention to detail for instance, I can get very focused on one area. So it’s very good working with someone else in your life who can say, “Look, just put your head up for a sec and have a look.” A classic example the other day, it was my parents’ and her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary on the same day, which was pretty remarkable. I get up in the morning, I needed to prepare to get the back of the house organized a bit. I saw these weeds in the corner, I spent like an hour and half pulling those weeds out because the back of it was just a bit of mess. When she came out and said…she didn’t actually say much. I said “Oh, you should be congratulating me,” and she said, “That’s actually not what we needed to get done today. We needed to get the tables organized.”  And I went, “Oh, geez, you’re right.” So, another part of success for me is really putting effort into having a really strong relationship with…it doesn’t have to be a one person, but in my case, one person has been fantastic; and then, the other people in your life.

DIEDERIK: Ever since I’ve known you, you’re always up and focused and motivated, how do you stay that way?

JAMES: It’s an interesting perception because I certainly spent a lot of my career double guessing or worrying about whether I’m doing the right thing. So, I must work pretty hard on maintaining a positive and even view.

A couple of things have been really instrumental for me, – Mindfulness. I came across a guy called Craig Hassed who’s a GP who taught the Monash Med students back in the 90s, which was remarkable, I think, then. I had a bit of anxiety, or I had a tendency towards anxiety, and mindfulness is a really good way to manage that. So, that’s an important part of it because that allows me to reduce the amount of chatter going on my head, and chatter is excessively detrimental in my case.

And then the other part of it is that when I get in front of people, which is probably where you’ve seen me, I’m much more in the moment, because that’s my natural place to be. I do really enjoy being in a public setting or having a chat.

DIEDERIK: If you had the chance to do it all again, would you do anything differently?

JAMES: I would, from an early age, practice Mindfulness. I think that would have been a great help during my schooling years, university years. Looking back, I had very little control of what was going on my head. That’s a really important thing, and I’m really encouraged to see that my boys practice it in school. A lot of schools have taken it on board which is a really good thing to do, and I practice it with my boys too. It really helps them, even if they need to go to sleep. That’s an important thing.

The other thing, and I don’t know how I would do this differently, is that I would have liked to engage more in the real world as opposed to the academic world or the school world more, so I had a much better commercial sense of what’s going on. Because I think my commercial sense is an area that really needs to be improved. We’re a lot better commercially in our business than we were when we started. Commercial sense, some people are more innately commercially but, it’s really important to understand that if you’re going to have a satisfying technical career. If you’re a vet or an online marketer, or whatever you do, to have a commercial understanding of how that’s going to work makes all the difference. I alluded to cash-flow issues before, you can’t necessarily avoid those, but you just want to have a much better understanding of the mechanism of how your business works. I would say that would be the other area.

DIEDERIK: What do you think holds most vets back from achieving their goals?

JAMES: I think they don’t ask. I would say that they’re generally, as a group, I would say that they’re not inclined to ask the question. So they might have an idea of doing something but they won’t go and ask someone about it. They assume it’s not going to be possible. That’s an observation, I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I suspect that’s the case. I’ve had a few interactions with vets where I said, “Why didn’t you ask the question?” They said, “Oh, well, I just didn’t.” And so, the avenue is not opened.

The other one would be the mindset of the veterinary business model is limiting and it’s also under pressure for various reasons, and it’s difficult to get out of that mindset. I suspect that most vets are not making the time to go outside of the business and think… Sit on top of a mountain for instance, and spend time thinking about what’s going on. And it comes down to the education, which is what I was talking about before when you ask me about what things were missing. It was that I was very focused on getting the job done, and there’s not much more about thinking about why we’re doing the job, or what else is out there. And that’s not the university’s fault, but it’s something which students need to have their eyes opened too, I think. 

DIEDERIK: Do you think that luck or tragedy has played any part in you achieving your success, or has it just been hard work?

JAMES: Absolutely a million percent, I’m great believer in—when you refer to luck—the power of the Universe in a general sense. And, just understanding the chance of me being here, and how unlikely that is from an evolutionary perdspective. It’s actually energizing.

I was pretty grumpy with my parents as I was growing up as a teenager. I thought they were pretty hard workers, but they really put their lives on the line to deliver for me the opportunities that I had. So that’s luck, it was all luck.

Another bit of luck, or the Universe, whatever you want to call it. I was driving down the… To get into Vet Science, you had to get a certain score and my score was way above that in the HSC. I was coming back from my grandfather’s farm, the greenie farmer bloke. When the results came out, I was on the train heading home, and I was reading the paper of the person in front of me. The person in front me had the paper open and the page that was facing me was the headline which said ‘This year, the university entrance marks, nothing’s really changed except for two courses’. I don’t know what it was, ‘…and veterinary science, which has gone up to a whopping x number of point’. And I went, “What!?” And my mark was .5 under that. I think I had .5, whatever it was, .5 or—I’m pretty sure it wasn’t .6, it’s .5 under. So, I went into a flat spin and obviously, I got in. I never worked out what happened there, but you can imagine the luck associated with that. How many people with that point and…?

Even the tough things I’ve had in the things I mentioned that were very difficult for me. It’s hard to think of them as being lucky, but I certainly wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have those.

DIEDERIK: If you were mentoring someone else, what pitfalls should they make sure that they avoid to be a successful vet?

JAMES: First of all, this is not actually answering the question directly, but I would say that I would spend time and just support them. Because there’s certainly a sense when you’re a young vet, that you’re alone and you lose contact with that daily day to day contact with all your classmates because you go out into practice. So, just know that it’s okay, is the starting point. And, “It’s okay” is also a really good message for when you start practicing because you’re going to make stuff-ups. There’s two things together which is to just really think about, I would say, reach your potential on a daily basis, which means you’re a good person, just do your best. And then also, when things go wrong, that’s actually okay because you’re doing your best to do it, and there’s ways to get around that.

That would the main things that I would be encouraging.

DIEDERIK: Cool. Thank you.

James, what’s your passion?

JAMES: It’s getting up every day and doing business. And for me, business is living, it’s working with my team, it’s working with the clients, and it’s working with the community. And, I put a lot of effort, like we all do, into our work, so I actually really enjoy as much as possible, those interactions with the people that I work with. And, if you’ve got a passion or a direction you want to go in, which we have at PetPack, that desire to help people look after animals better, it’s the day to day working on those issues with the people you work with which is my passion.

We’re a technical company as well, we have a lot of technology, but that’s not my passion, it’s more the team and it’s also more of the actual what we’re trying to do with this thing that we produce.

DIEDERIK: When you were in practice, at what stage did you start to look at the business side of the practice versus the clinical side?

JAMES: From day one I started. It came because I was doing talks to like Pony club groups in my first year. The guy I worked for actually encouraged me to do it which was really great. And then I started thinking about, “Okay, can we get sponsorship for these?” So I started tinkering with business plans for promotions or events for this vet practice. From day one I’ve had an interest in business. And before that, I had a couple of businesses when I was at university as well. So, the whole way through.

DIEDERIK: Well, it’s almost like the young boy selling lemonade, isn’t it?

JAMES: I’ll tell you what, it was exactly that. I had a really small crack at fashion design with a mate of mine who is a fashion designer, and I used to paint so we used to do print t-shirts and things like that. And then I did a party design business as well at Uni. I never made any money out of it, but it was a lot of fun.

DIEDERIK: That’s a good starting point.

Our industry as you know has this reputation, what’s kept you sane?

JAMES: That’s a really good question, because I reckon I’ve been there—Not been there, but it felt like I was going off the rails a couple of times. Well, Mindfulness training has been excellent, my partner has been excellent, and probably underneath it all is the sense that I’m doing a good thing or I’m a good person. But sometimes, I think if… One of the key messages I would say to people is that… because I was pretty hard on myself for a long time, and you don’t realize you’re hard on yourself until you look back and go, “Yeah, you’re really smashing yourself.” What I mean by that is being critical of yourself, self-talk about saying “You’re not doing a good job,” or, “You stuffed that up,” or, “You’re no good” or, “You’re not going to be able to do it.” Mindfulness does help with that because you become aware of what you’re saying. That’s helped me reconnect to myself to actually realize that I love myself and I’m good person and I’ve got something to add. And, if you can tell yourself that every day, which is what I do, it makes all the difference.

DIEDERIK: I think I’ll get that book on Mindfulness. It’s sounds like it’s a must read.

JAMES: It’s good.

DIEDERIK: What’s the biggest thing you’ve given back to your community?

JAMES: Well, for a long time, I didn’t give back at all, really. I was very focused on myself, and probably that’s partly why I was feeling unsatisfied.

Since, I’ve had kids, I’ve been involved in their sporting clubs, been team manager for quite a few teams, and I found that really rewarding. You’ve obviously got a self-interest in that because your kid’s involved, but you do spend a lot of time helping others.

And then the other part is working with the veterinary community by working through the association, and as we talked about before, working with you to bring the businesses together. It’s been extremely rewarding.

DIEDERIK: What are three key attributes or drivers to success for someone in general?

JAMES: First of all, it’s realizing that you are special. It starts with you, you need to have a really strong sense of yourself being important and special from that start. It’s not a given that you do. In fact, I suspect for a lot of people that’s not the case.

The second is to have an idea that excites you, something that you feel… the commonly used phrase is “Something you feel passionate about.” That can be hard to find, but it doesn’t’ have to be something complicated, it just needs to be something that you feel “I guess I quite like that.”

And then, the third bit is having the obstinacy. You being obstinate about actually achieving it, and I reckon that’s probably the hardest part because it’s not very pleasant. But, those three things are important, I think they’re probably the things that get you over the line.

DIEDERIK: Second to last question. What’s your vision for the future of the veterinary industry?

JAMES: Well, I’m just so excited about it. I think that getting back to the original comment that veterinary science is the best animal training you’ll get; it allows you to communicate across all animal topics which then includes habitat conversations, etc. And from my point of view, biodiversity issues will become the most important issues, or one of the most important issues for us going forward. So what we need are people who can actually help communicate that to the community and help them understand what it is. And even if it’s simply running a vet practice where you celebrate people having animals and help them look after animals better. Now that we know that having animals helps those people connect with the environment better, I think that’s a really important role.

And at the other end of the day, it will be the innovations going forward that will help people look after animals better. Vets will be involved as well as innovations around the environment as well.

DIEDERIK: The last question. For you, was there ever a snap point, a line in the sand, a defining moment in which you said, “You know, I just won’t take it anymore”?

JAMES: That’s sounds like a moment like you’re under the pump and you pull yourself up from it. Is that right?

DIEDERIK: Yeah, just a change in direction. That “Enough is enough. I’m going to head to a different direction. I won’t just take that old BS anymore.”

JAMES: There’s a project that I’m passionate about that I’m working on that I’ve been putting off for a long time because of other things. And quite recently, it’s interesting how holidays help you with these things. I had a moment when I said that stuff, “If you keep crapping on about it and talking about it but saying it your head the whole time, it’s never going to happen”. So, what I’ve done is because the project…because it’s going to take a significant investment, and I don’t know if it’s going to work, what I’ve done, which is quite hard for a perfectionist, I suspect I got an element of that. It’s really important to me that we present it well. Rather than building and spending the money on building the project, I’ve actually started it manually, which is like a concierge service in a start-up world, I suppose. But it’s basically where you manually run this project where it could have been automated. And it’s been absolutely so rewarding.

It’s basically a trial with a small group of pet owners, and their feedback has been like, “This is the best thing that we’ve had,” and I wouldn’t have known about that if we didn’t do that.

It’s very early days at the moment, because I drew that line in the sand only a couple of months ago, but it’s fresh in mind that it was a pretty strong line in the sand, and we’re off and running in a way I wouldn’t have thought we would have been doing.

DIEDERIK: So, that was the last question James. Thank you very much for spending the time with us today. It was awesome.

JAMES: Thank you Diederik. Thanks for the opportunity.

Key Take-Aways

  • Good quality communication, for me, in vet practice makes all the difference
  • The pet owners that we’re dealing with, generally want to look after their animals well. The reason they don’t look after them is it’s just too hard
  • Following the pathway of being a vet is very difficult and you’ve got to make a conscious decision to follow it through and not to give up
  • To get off the pathway from traditional veterinary practice is pretty difficult if you’re talking to your colleagues about that because most people look at your sideways and go “What the hell are you doing? Why would you do that?” You need to remember to do what’s right for you
  • The mindset of the veterinary business model is limiting, it’s also under pressure for various reasons, and it’s difficult to get out of that mindset. Make the time to get out of the business, sit on a mountain top and think

“You always have to proceed with insufficient knowledge – that’s the difference between someone who makes something happen and the procrastinator who doesn’t.” Diederik Gelderman