Once an RDH Always an RDH

Feature article from the DeW Life Magazine Autumn 2019

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My journey from full-time RDH to owning two businesses that help my fellow dental professionals 

I have been a dental hygienist since the age of 19. I have always loved being a dental professional and especially enjoy being a part of the dental community. After practicing full-time for many years, I developed fibromyalgia and contracted Lyme disease which made it painful to see patients every day. I felt the need to explore a professional life outside of my operatory but knew I wanted to remain in dentistry. I started looking at how I could contribute to the dental world in other ways.  

First, I went back to modeling part-time (I had started modeling in hygiene school, but that’s another story for another article). I also realized that I’d always enjoyed the CPR recertification classes at my office, and was curious about becoming an instructor. As this was my first venture out of my operatory, I had no idea how to start but pushed myself to make phone calls and quickly connected with the AHA. I learned I could take Instructor classes and through these classes, I met two amazing women who had recently lost their sons to Sudden Cardiac Arrest. My sister Darla and I created The CPR sisters and dove into volunteering our classes everywhere, helping these mothers to place AEDs where children play, building the CPR business through word of mouth. We were thrilled when we were offered a grant through the AHA to offer free classes for a year! Soon we were teaching 2-3 classes a day and having so much fun.  

I still loved my connection to dentistry

After that first year with the AHA grant, I started concentrating on recertification classes for dental offices as I still loved my connection to dentistry. While teaching these classes I was fortunate to meet so many different groups of dental professionals and learned how to operate a small business. I stayed this course for years: working as a part-time RDH, part-time fashion model, and part-time CPR Instructor. I would have been happy to do this forever but fate jumped up and pulled me in another direction.

Four years ago, I walked out of my office after a typical day of nine patients, short lunch, no bathroom break, and battling the office manager over the thermostat! While driving home I thought about how much time was wasted with all six of us complaining about the office being too hot or too cold.  Couldn’t our days be more productive if we didn’t have this constant battle? Space heaters in one operatory, fans going in another, people not wearing their PPEs because they are too hot or others so bundled up that going to the bathroom was an impossible feat. I thought about the recent developments in fabric technology and BOOM –

Twice as Nice Uniforms was born. 

I had an amazing idea but, where do I go from here? I knew nothing about fabric, manufacturing, patents, etc…  Balancing three jobs and raising a family left very little time for anything else but I couldn’t stop thinking about how all our lives would improve with better uniforms. I spent my lunch hours and late nights after everyone went to bed to start my research. Read everything I could get my hands on from Business for Dummies to Negotiating with Giants, Scaling Up, and anything by Brene Brown. I went to my local fabric store to research fabric and in search of a seamstress referral.  

Together with an amazing seamstress, we designed and redesigned and redesigned my ideal medical uniform. I also began to tell people about my idea and a few thought it was interesting but most looked at me like I was crazy. Two months later, I wore my first prototype to work and I decided crazy or not, here I come! 

This is when things got serious 

I quickly learned two very important lessons: (1) if you want something you have to go after it with all you have, regardless of what the others say and (2) you MUST network, network, network. I have always been a relatively shy person. So shy, in fact, that I almost didn’t go to hygiene school when I found out I had to take a speech class. But I realized that I had to leave my shyness behind or forgo following my dream. I chose the dream. 

Life had plans for me, and just by chance, I made a great contact who is on the Board of the Atlanta Technology Angels. From the get-go, Lee was very interested in my idea and quickly became my professional mentor. We met once a week and he educated me on the business of starting a company, developing a product, taking it to market, and more. Much of the time I literally had no idea what he was talking about, but I listened intently and ran home to do my research. This process took about a year.

Along the way, I took advantage of the local universities including the patent library at GA Tech where I did preliminary patent research. I also visited the textile schools at NCSU and GA Tech to get educated on fabrics. I went to fabric shows in GA and NYC and talked to everyone!  In one of our weekly meetings, my mentor told me I would need about $500,000 to get my uniform to market. I almost cried!

How would I ever turn my dream into a reality? 

I joined LaunchPad2X, an Atlanta women’s entrepreneur group which was one of the best things I have done on this journey. This group immediately connected me to so many people, companies and resources. I learned how to develop a pitch deck to raise money, create a business plan, what to look for in an investor, how to apply for a patent, connect to business attorneys, accountants, and many other invaluable connections.

I raised needed capital through an investment angel and officially established my company. Soon I realized that I needed help with everything from bookkeeping to manufacturing. I didn’t have funds to pay professionals, so I offered some small equity in the company. Also, I have a very supportive family and friends network and they jumped in to help in whatever way they could. 

I was finally ready to hire a production manager to help with uniform manufacturing. I had a steadfast dream of manufacturing in the USA which was discouraged by many people, but I persevered and knocked on any door I could find. Most textile manufacturers were happy to take my money to make a sample as well as give me a quote for production that wasn’t even close to matching my product needs. I did look outside the USA in China and other countries but most manufacturers would not work with a small company and small production numbers. I finally connected with a factory in NJ who not only loved my idea but was willing to work with me!  This factory was genuinely excited to be a partner in my journey.  

Uniforms for comfort, safety, and professionalism

Going into my first production run, I realized that if I was going to introduce temperature regulating uniforms to the world I might as well change everything about uniforms that I didn’t like. This is where my history with fashion connected with my dream of problem-solving with the uniform. I set out to design uniforms for comfort, safety, and professionalism. I changed everything from the fit to the designs to fabrics. No more ugly, ill-fitting, cheap fabric uniforms. I became obsessed with addressing every unmet uniform need and designing the perfect uniform for the dental community. 

To do so, I needed to learn more. I needed to understand everything from buttons to patterns to cut tickets, so I hung out in the factory with the seamstresses, listening and learning. (I also noticed that they suffered the same posture issues as we do in dentistry!) At this point, I thought I could just walk away and wait for the product to be finished, which was not the case at all. Once a garment is created, it must get tagged, bagged and ready to ship. Then, there is warehousing and shipping. And finally, how and where do we sell them? Bringing my idea to life involved many more steps than I ever could’ve imagined. 

Your dream is now a reality

The day you see your first product come off the line is both exhilarating and terrifying. Your dream is now a reality, but now you have a product to sell. Product sales is a very tough job. I knocked on door after door and sold a few uniforms, but it was very hard and lonely. Learned to network using Facebook and LinkedIn, which resulted in articles, podcasts, and support of speakers in dentistry such as Anne Guignon, Anne Duffy, Janice Hurley, John Stamper, Andrew Johnston, Michelle Strange, Jasmin Haley, Cindy Purdy and many more.  I also connected with other dental professionals turned entrepreneurs, Rachel Wall, Sarah Thiel, Linda Miller, Elijah Desmond, Angie Stone, Debbie Z. and many more. Fellow salespeople I met and now share war stories with are Kyle Zak, Melissa DeLong, Andrea Johnson, Eden Ivie, and Rhoda Kublickis. And dental mentors Linda Miles, Tony Stefanou, Bryan Laskin, Tonya Lanthier, Amy Kinnamon. 

I began attending every dental trade show I could. I learned how expensive it was to market your product at a show, but also discovered how amazingly supportive dental professionals are. The dental entrepreneur community embraced me with open arms and offers of help with everything from an endorsement to sharing a hotel room. At one of my very first trade shows—TBSE in Las Vegas—I was given the last-minute opportunity to talk about my product on stage in front of 2,000 people. I was terrified but I knew I had to do it. I literally ran around the trade show floor that morning recruiting models to come on stage and model my garments. While recruiting models—and thanks to the Madow Brothers—I was fortunate to meet Damon John from SharkTank (and we’ve chatted a few times since then). 

Always trust gut feelings

One thing I’ve learned along my journey is to always trust my gut feelings. Once, I went against this feeling and listened to two of my advisors and hired a PR firm. The firm was not a good fit for us and cost us thousands of dollars. There was a silver lining though because they did introduce me to Tonya Lanthier, founder of DentalPost who has become a huge supporter, advisor, and friend. 

Another lesson learned is that when you introduce a new product to the marketplace it takes twice as long for the market to understand and accept it. I learned to keep my head down and plow forward no matter what. I would go to offices and spend hours getting all the employees fitted only to receive a call the next day that one person in the office didn’t like the uniforms. It would lose me the sale as well as the whole previous day of work! I carried samples in my car and hauled them in and out of offices literally all over the country. People thought I was wasting my time but I knew people would ‘get it’ if they heard first hand why they needed these amazing uniforms and could see and touch them. 

One year into the launch of Twice as Nice Uniforms, I was still working my part-time jobs. In year two, I know I had to stop so I had more time to build the business. Some of my hygiene patients had been with me for 27 years and I couldn’t bear to leave them. My compromise was to work hygiene one day a month. 

At this point, I was living off my savings which were dwindling fast. I sold my house and moved to a smaller home and cut back on everything I could. I felt like I was getting ahead – the business was gaining recognition, I’d established a strong network in the dental industry and sales started to improve.

But then, the bottom fell out.

When I started this business, I was told, over and over, that start-up clothing companies rarely make it past year 3.  I chose to ignore this and forge ahead. The issue is that when you reach this point, your numbers don’t make sense anymore – you are basically too big to be small and too small to be big. I had worked harder than I had ever worked in my life, people loved my product, I had started gaining momentum and yet, we were barely hanging on by a thread. So what now?

I had to go back to the drawing board to figure out a solution. I had to literally stop selling and again invest my time toward researching manufacturing options. It’s at this point that most small clothing companies leave the USA and I genuinely thought this was in our future. I spent nearly a year investigating options in China, Mexico, India, and nothing felt right. I was quickly running out of options, I was watching my friends’ start-up companies explode with growth and I was trying to figure out if we were going to survive another day.

One day, I picked up the phone and called the factory I have used for the past three years. They knew my journey and were aware of the problem. On a whim, I asked if they would consider a deeper partnership with me so that I could keep production in the USA and they said YES. While we were both in agreement, it still took nine months of negotiating to reach a deal, all the while juggling just to keep things afloat. During this stretch of time, we had fabric quality issues, label mix-ups, maker delays, construction setbacks, which result in delayed delivery times for customers. Sales were increasing and yet I didn’t have product to ship! To make matters worse, we’ve also had two times where customer shipments went missing from USPS for days. 

With all of these challenges, am I still glad I started this journey?

Absolutely! Do I see light at the end of the tunnel? FOR SURE! I have lost friends along this journey as I work constantly but I have gained an amazing dental family. I am even more thankful for my amazing family and friends who believe in me and have worked by my side all these years. 

Since I made the transition with my factory, I have had many wonderful things happen. I have partnered with Crest Oral B to bring unique product marketing through fashion shows at dental meetings and trade shows. This idea was born over margaritas at a dental hygiene networking event with Dana Moon. Not only has this been a great marketing opportunity for both companies, it is fun! And my beloved dental family steps up to volunteer as models in the shows. 

Along the way, I revised some of our original styles, added new custom designs for dentistry and responded to customer needs. I worked with Infection Control specialist Jackie Dorst and others on dental jacket designs. I have now established a niche market as there is not a uniform company that thinks about our needs in dentistry. My ‘Made in the USA’ quality products are now gaining traction through university programs as well as large practices and DSO’s.

We are getting interest from other countries and sales are at an all-time high. I am very proud of my factory partners—Syrian immigrants—who have worked tirelessly for more than 40 years in this country to support the dwindling American manufacturing business. 

“Twice the Life.”

In line with my passion to take care of my dental family as well as my desire to give back whenever I can, I recently established a program called “Twice the Life.” We donate our used sample uniforms and returned merchandise to dental professionals going on mission trips. I have also partnered with numerous small dental companies and non-profits as I truly believe this helps everyone to succeed. I donate time to mentor other dental professionals interested in developing products or starting a business.  Even helped another uniform company to get its start. Lastly, I now have a platform to speak my passion: I speak, write and do presentations on dressing professionally, comfortably and safely. Why it is important, and how it affects the bottom line in your dental practice. I can proudly say that I am upholding my company motto, “Bringing Comfort to Those Who Comfort Others” to my dental family.

 

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