Hi Aron, it’s been a year since we last spoke. Tell us, what’s new with Soulsmile?
Shields, thank you for this interview opportunity. This type of support from the community has helped Soulsmile get its message out and boosted it beyond the business startup phase. Having moved mid-career from the Bay Area three years ago to start anew - I can’t express my thanks enough! We are committed to providing one patient at a time, high-tech, high-touch general dentistry with an emphasis on complex dental conditions and cosmetics. We deliver this service at a great value by really listening to our patients to come up with a treatment plan based on the patient’s wishes, and then performing in an efficient, predictable manner to achieve excellent results.
New for 2018 will be a monthly membership plan for uninsured patients, laser-assisted hygiene at no additional charge, cone beam 3D imaging for critical diagnostics, and 3D printing of diagnostic models for accurate planning and enhanced patient communication.
And personally? Congratulations on your baby girl. How is fatherhood?
Thank you! Siena is six months old and it has been absolutely wonderful. I’m most blown away by motherhood. My hat is off to my wife, Ryann, and moms everywhere. Second, I’m in love. I think about Siena all of the time and can’t wait to see her. I’m a softie already!
Starting a business brings about unexpected challenges. Would you share yours?
Right, these challenges are lifelong learning in an organic sense, as opposed to more academic learning. The two most significant areas where this has occurred for me with Soulsmile have been, first, the earning of trust in a new practice and in a new community, and, second, the development of my leadership skills.
I see that, as your “Modern Dentistry - Classic Values” slogan touches on trust.
Yes, absolutely. That motto is eight years old now, stemming from our San Francisco office. It’s easy to write a strong message into a vision statement, but trust is earned the old-fashioned way in dentistry. It doesn’t matter to a new patient if you’ve been practicing for a dozen years. Making a solid connection with everyone walking through the door who values our services is at the heart of earning that trust. So I have spent a good amount of thought on earning and maintaining trust rather than assuming years of service, academic background, technology or past success will speak for themselves.
How has leadership become a learning opportunity for an experienced dentist?
To get Soulsmile where we want it, I need to become a better leader. Simple as that. Podcasts and audiobooks, which were already in my regular diet, have been perfect for improving my shortcomings in this area. Of the ten or so audiobooks I have listened to this quarter, Extreme Ownership, written by a couple of Navy Seals, was my favorite. In a nutshell, it’s about taking full responsibility for every condition, situation, and outcome.
Beyond the application of building and maintaining a high-performance team, I now see what an amazing dynamic my team members bring to our business since taking full ownership of training, working through our vision, being vulnerable to them about my own dreams and concerns, giving them a safe and fun place to work, and allowing them to express themselves and own their personal connection with patients. It’s really exciting for me to see this team becoming one of our greatest strengths.
Those points make sense, as your patient reviews often mention being very trusting of you and your team. Do you have a particular philosophy to credit?
We feel lucky to have such great reviews from patients and humbled by their generosity. The patient experience is always on our mind. We actually have a six-star goal: a five-star review plus a willingness to refer a friend. Our patient exams are at the heart of this trust, I believe. A quote from the famous martial artist, Bruce Lee, might shed light on our approach: “No way as way, no limitation as limitation.” Lee’s philosophy rejected the idea of a preconceived response (in our application, a predetermined dental treatment plan) and mandates an open mind with no perceived limitation of what is possible. I can’t tell you how many times being open-minded, curious and communicative has uncovered a wide range of really important dental considerations, from a patient’s unexpressed desires to big life events - good or bad, to finances, to hidden dental conditions. We believe that every patient has a unique view of their dental health. Safety, comfort, dignity, beauty ... whatever the objective, it is in flux depending on a person’s situation. So our sincere goal is to have patients feel (“soul”) these positive ways (“smile”) about their dental experience.
So trust stems from focusing on listening before the big-picture plan?
Exactly. We combine what we have learned from our patients with a myriad of dental solutions - from simple to complex- to come up with an ideal plan for that patient at that specific point in their life. Sometimes the plan is even to do nothing; whatever fits the patient’s desire. Each team member is highly trained and crossed-trained so we can be nimble, often pivoting to a patient’s request while plugging in the relevant standard operating procedures that apply. This feels flexible, understanding and compassionate to the patient. But there is also an efficient and methodical backbone which gives the feeling of safety and comfort. It also allows us to see one patient at a time and to keep fees at a good value. A patient leaving a review may not directly notice these things. Such is the case with many of our favorite businesses.
You barely mentioned technology, yet many reviews comment on this as a strong characteristic of the practice.
As Jim Collins stated in his business book, Good to Great, technology can accelerate a business beyond good, but it will not in and of itself make a business great. People will. I love technology in dentistry. It’s great for patients and the progress keeps us all engaged. Using new technology is a state of mind; it keeps you in the loop. At Soulsmile, we don’t use technology before it is practical, tried and true. But we do continue to look for the slightest application for affordable technologies in order to stay in the mental game so that when the application of use say, 3D printing, comes full circle, we are on the train instead of looking for the station.
In your opinion, what is the least understood area of dentistry?
Dental implants. Implants are actually a group of components that are combined to create the part that the patient cares about: the tooth. Understanding the parts, prices and prognosis can be confusing. Also, a natural tooth is still the best implant. Implants are a fantastic solution for an empty space or a completely empty dental arch, but I think we need to respect mother nature and the patient’s desire to keep their natural teeth when possible and practical to do so.
What’s a question people don’t usually ask, but you wish they did?
“Here is my budget today and here is my projected budget, can you make me a three step treatment plan that will allow me to look and feel my best and keep my teeth healthy forever?”
Any particular observations from this mid point in your career?
It’s a great view from which to look around. I’ve been thinking about how my “n=” is getting high enough that what were anecdotal observations as a younger clinician have now become a large enough sample size to amount to bona fide professional experience. As mentioned, I like entering each exam and treatment with an open mind, a “beginner’s mind” in the yoga sense, and yet good clinical judgment and planning stems from solid experiences from which to confidently draw diagnosis and treatment proposals.
Lastly, I know you are an outdoor enthusiast and adventure athlete. Any new projects?
My wife and I love the Rogue Valley as a base for outdoor activities. The dirt is perfect for riding bikes right now and there will certainly be a good amount of backcountry and Mt. Ashland shredding in the months to come. We love paddling performance stand-up paddleboards and rowing at Emigrant Lake. There are fantastic adventure motorcycle routes all around. The list goes on, and yet, I have to say, that taking Siena for simple walks in the woods might be my new favorite outdoor pursuit.