It was time for a dental check-up. The timing was good. I had traveled about 6000 miles on the innovation road trip and returned near my home for a family wedding before continuing what is expected to be another 6000 miles.
My wife posted to Facebook asking for a recommendation. A good friend providing a glowing referral to Dr. Andrew Hall and The Studio for Exceptional Dentistry in Colorado Springs, CO. A previous dental experience left me a little nervous about seeing a dentist again, but my friend assured me that Andrew was very understanding, patient, and accommodating. Both she and her husband were used to pain-free and comfortable dental visits with Dr. Hall.
I scheduled an appointment and with the prodding of my wife, managed to keep it. Not only did I end up with an exceptional dental appointment, including a filling and two new crowns, I was intrigued by the customer service, competency, and technology I experienced. This warranted an innovation interview with Dr. Hall. We met over lunch and discussed his background and experiences creating and growing the business.
Meet Dr. Andrew Hall, DDM
Andrew considered both medical school and dental school after earning his undergraduate degree on an ROTC scholarship. Having some friends whose parents were in dentistry, he decided to give dental school a try first. After the first year he knew it was a good fit for him. When he graduated with a DDM, the Army sent him to earn additional expertise in a year-long advanced dentistry education. He served as an Army dentist for three years, including a deployment to Iraq. After his service, he moved to Colorado to enjoy the state’s natural beauty with his family and outdoor activities, including snowboarding.
What do Dentists Know about Starting a Business?
Andrew shared, that in general, “dentists are not good businessmen – we just don’t get the training.” While a dentist is expected to provide a healthcare service and manage a small business, doing so is not part of the education received in dental school. Andrew wisely joined an existing dental practice as an associate dentist to learn the ropes. Over the course of two years, he learned a lot about how a dental business was managed, as well as what he would do differently.
This is a theme that has run through many of the interviews with innovators and business owners – they leveraged their prior experiences that taught them what to do as well as what not to do. In the latter, you often learn as much or more from negative examples, such as a manager treating an employee poorly and deciding that you would not do the same thing.
Andrew’s time in the practice was good and he debated about staying there, but decided he wanted to chart his own path, deciding to open The Studio for Exceptional Dentistry. He could have hired a consultant – there are many who help dentists get new practices started – but decided to try crafting his future himself. If he was not successful, he figured he could always hire a consultant later. He had several secret weapons he brought to bear on the new adventure.
Secret Weapon #1 – Wise Guides
This is a small business and innovation weapon – having experienced guidance. Before moving to Colorado, school and life was in Florida. He had two really good friends in Florida who were dentists with successful practices. They were instrumental in providing guidance and helping Andrew shape the vision for the practice. They helped him identify the parameters to focus on. Since Andrew was establishing his business in Colorado, there was no concern about him becoming a competitor to his friends’ practices. He also had a trusted friend in dental sales who had a broad view of dental practices and he became a helpful sounding board.
Leaving the security of an existing successful practice and charting his own path was a risk for Andrew, but one mitigated in part by wise guidance. But, there was more.
Secret Weapons #2 and #3 – Cash Flow and Continual Motivation
Andrew was unable to bring his previous patients to the new practice given the non-compete agreement he had. He was truly starting new. To help manage cash flow and his time as new patients were found, he worked as a contract dentist one day a week for another practice. This provided two key benefits. First, it generated predictable income. Too many small business owners underestimate the importance of cash flow as the expenses are high while the income is low when starting the business. Second, it was a continual reminder of why he was starting his own dental practice and becoming a small business owner.
Motivation is critical!
Andrew knew starting a business would be demanding for him and his staff. Like any small businesses, the work can become overwhelming at times, which leads to questioning if the effort is really worth it. Maybe staying at his former practice would have been better – it certainly would have been easier. Business owners need a clear vision, conviction, and motivation to battle through such questions. The weekly reminder of how other practices operated in contrast to his vision for a dental business provided motivation to stay the course.
Secret Weapon #4 – Technology Centered Innovation
Andrew shared, “we try to center the practice around technology, so to speak. I see innovation as an advancement of technology.” The practice leverages technology as a competitive advantage. In addition to digital X-rays, two key technologies are used:
- CEREC – a 3D technology that uses computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing to mill crowns and other dental appliances in the office while patients wait. The competitive advantage is two fold – (1) an ideal fit for the patient without the need to make a physical mold (no more goopy gel to hold in your mouth while it hardens – I never did like that) and (2) work is completed in a single appointment.
- GALILEOS – a 3D imaging system that creates a complete virtual model of a patient’s jaw and teeth, using less radiation than traditional X-rays. Patients benefit by having a more comfortable experience and Dr. Hall can see more by having a complete virtual model.
You can read more about these technologies on Dr. Hall’s website.
Secret Weapon #5 – Master the Competitive Advantage
Andrew does not only make use of innovative technology to create competitive differentiation, he has become a recognized master of the technology to create competitive advantage. He serves as a trainer for Sirona, the company that makes CEREC and GALILEOS, teaching other dentists how to use the technologies. He also provides advanced courses and acts as a mentor on these technologies periodically for a professional dental education center in Scottsdale, AZ.
As a small business owner, this expertise elevates Dr. Hall’s reputation by being recognized not merely as a user of innovative technology but a master of it. He has leveraged this reputation further by providing a monthly interview to a local television news program, discussing issues and advancements in dentistry.
The practice leverages this mastery in their marketing materials. A clear competitive advantage does little good if your customers are not aware of it.
Secret Weapon #6 – Sandy’s Brand of Customer Service
During the interview with Andrew he characterized his work as being in the customer service business – it just happens to provide healthcare also. I do hear this customer service perspective a lot from business owners and it often means very different things, requiring me to drill into the how customer service takes shape in the business. However, that was not necessary this time. As a new patient, I had already experienced Sandy’s brand of customer service. Sandy is the person who answers the phone, manages the office, and most importantly, does everything with a smile. After arriving for my first appointment, within a few minutes I felt like family. Sandy sets the customer service tone for the practice. Everyone I met was very friendly and accommodating – making me feel comfortable. Sandy also brings a lot of depth and agility to the practice. She has rich experience as a chair side dental assistant, being able to perform any of the procedures one can short of having a degree in dentistry.
Secret Weapon #7 – Swim with the Best
This secret weapon is the most important of them all. It has had the most influence on Dr. Hall and the practice overall. It is also something too few business owners and innovators seek out.
Andrew, through his association with Sirona and the professional education center in Scottsdale, has developed valuable friendships with dental professionals. Further, because the dentists are continuing to pursue advanced education and leverage the latest technology, he is interacting with the best of the best. Also, because the dentists are in other markets, the fear of competing with each other is removed. Andrew shared, “By nature, dentists are very fearful of competition, as any business is. I can have conversations with a guy in practice in Michigan that I could never have with a guy in Colorado.” These associations are active and engaging, producing win-win interactions.
They communicate in numerous ways, such as email and phone, but also through a private online forum. Dentists share interesting and challenging cases and everyone involved learns through the discussion. Essentially this is a mastermind group of elite dentists. They see their purpose as sharpening each other – giving to the group as much as they receive from it.
Andrew says he has been very fortunate – having had “the right people enter into the right conversations with me at the right time.”
Andrew’s Advice for Small Business Owners
This is short and sweet:
- Start with a clear vision for the business. Know the target you want to hit. Find ways to stay motivated.
- Find the best people in your industry you can get unbiased guidance from. Look for ways to be sharpened and to sharpen others.
- Stay engaged and keep learning. No industry stands still. Don’t just learn your trade, master it.