When Scott Leune graduated from dental school in 2005 and opened a practice, he had his whole career ahead of him. And with his wife expecting their first baby, life was pretty good. But just months into starting the rapidly expanding business, Leune decided to play a fun game of soccer.
Only it ended up not being fun at all. Just months after getting the practice off the ground, Leune was seriously hurt in the game, fracturing two vertebrae in his back. The injury left him in and out of a wheelchair and in constant pain for the next decade. And as his debt grew, so did his desire to quit the now nearly physically impossible job he'd worked so hard to get into.
From pain to gain
Leune figured out fast that, given his circumstances, he couldn't continue to serve his patients on the front end. But when he brought in another dentist to cover the work, he had an epiphany.
"As soon as another dentist was treating patients in my practice, things quit working well," Leune explains. "I realized that the business systems and operations were not built around best practices, but were instead built around my own skills and conceptions. As I grew from one dentist to 10 dentists in four years, I continuously had to innovate our systems so that they worked for everyone, not just me."
More confirmation that the dental industry needed a shakeup came when Leune took a gamble to open seven additional practices, a move that brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.
"What I quickly realized was that I didn't have the money or infrastructure needed to recruit, train, and retain the best dentists in our area," says Leune. "I couldn't fix this financial situation by getting other dentists. Instead, I had to reengineer and innovate how we operated the dental practices so that any normal dentist could be successful. And no matter what, I had to maintain a very high standard of patient care and experience."
So Leune dove into change. He set about coming up with multiple systems to put more money in owners' accounts. Scheduling patients, managing insurance, office design, offering payment plans--Leune reworked them all and more.
The initial response to the redesigns, however, wasn't rainbows and ponies. Dentists and teams reacted negatively and pushed back, despite the fact Leune's modifications were dentist-friendly. It didn't help that patients were used to the long waits, outdated resources, and huge bills. It took an enormous amount of work to overcome their familiar way of thinking.
"Every period of growth exposed weakness and failure," Leune says, "and we had to muscle our way through in a very humbling time to learn from those mistakes and failures and reach the finish line."
But starting from scratch paid off. Because of the way Leune tore down and rebuilt operations, the practices went from losing around $120,000 a month to producing profit. Now, as co-founder of parent company Dental Whale, and as founder of one of its subsidiaries, Breakaway Practice, Leune passes on what he's learned to other professionals in his industry. The companies that make up Dental Whale provide seminars, IT support, insurance management, and other services (e.g., equipment repair, marketing) to professionals across the country, with 850 employees serving roughly 17,000 dentists each year. What's more, Leune expects Dental Whale to double in size every 18 months.
Leune says that, while the dental industry has been complacent, there's now a pressure within the industry to improve efficiency, keep costs under control, and give patients a better experience. And while rebuilding infrastructures and processes as the business grows has been a huge challenge, it's the reengineering aspects of the industry that give Leune enormous joy.
"If we see our methodologies accepted on a large scale," he says, "actively changing the face of dentistry in some way, then we are elated to have been part of that innovation."
Discomfort, balance, and details are all OK
Based on everything he's been through, Leune's philosophy is that the passionate obsession entrepreneurs have to change or make something has to be balanced with the ability to second guess everything, even your own decisions and assumptions. When you can do that, you can recognize failures and adjust to them quickly and appropriately. And similarly, as you see the big picture of an innovation opportunity, you shouldn't lose sight of the specifics necessary to bring your dream to fruition.
"The type of vision and thinking that leads us to see the opportunities can also result in our inability to come to terms with the challenges," Leune says. "We can be very positive thinkers, very optimistic, not always so detail oriented, and we might avoid conflict. But it is in the operational details and conflicts where innovation can be well-sculpted and assumptions be proved false. We many times must balance big pictures with small steps, balance positivity with skepticism, balance business obsession with outside needs. It's a challenging path for sure, and from time to time, we lean more heavily on one side while compromising the other. This push and pull can make the entrepreneurial process exciting, terrible, profitable, financially failed, normal, unpredictable, stressful, and fun. And that's just how we feel in any one given week."
Now, hopefully, it won't take a broken back for you to become obsessed, to do some digging and see what could be different. But Leune's story proves that getting uncomfortable can yield impossibly positive things, sometimes to the extent that entire industries shift for the better. So don't settle for being complacent. You're capable of much, much more than that.