The Little Engine That Could

Many reading this title may remember a favorite childhood story about toys that were stranded when the train they were on broke down.  Finally, a very small blue train agreed to bring the toys up the mountain to the other side where many children were waiting anxiously. The little blue train struggled to get up the mountain and at times it looked like it might not make it.

But the “little engine” made it!

The story is one of optimism, perseverance and determination despite all the odds. While the story is a fairy tale, I am going to share with you a real-life true story about our “little engine” — or should I say “little orthodontic practice” — and how we “got to the top of the mountain” and succeeded.

Our story starts in 2008 with the economic collapse that struck quickly and with brutal consequences in our community in Northern California.

Orthodontic treatment is one of those items often considered “too expensive” or not necessary and this is even more true during a “bad economy” where people are losing jobs and homes.  Having straight teeth is the last thing on their minds.  Food on the table and a roof over their family’s head is top priority.

As we entered 2008, we thought we had it made.  Our growth in our 3 locations had been steady and upward and quite honestly, we taking it “easy,” congratulating ourselves on how smart we were and what great marketing we were doing to have such thriving practices.

Humility came fast and furious.

After investing in some commercial buildings and a new house in 2007, we found ourselves in a horrendous financial situation in the 3rd quarter of 2008 and, quite honestly, throughout the next 36 months.

One location was a lease so we quickly were able to close that office and relocate the patients to our flagship office about 6 miles away.

However, 2 of our locations were in buildings we owned, both with mortgage payments.

One particular office, a satellite, had been started in 1998 and for 10 years had steady growth.  All that changed rapidly in 2008.

Our commercial building had an additional tenant which is always helpful when you want to have some help with the mortgage payments.  Unfortunately, her business was not doing well and she ended up closing and moving out.

We tried our best during this time to cut our overhead.  We renegotiated our practice loans and tried to renegotiate the mortgage on the building.

We were successful with the practice loans, but the bank holding the commercial mortgage would not work with us on a refinance on our building.

Without a steady influx of new patients and declining revenues, we were struggling to make ends meet.

Decision time.

We thought about closing the office and having the patients transfer to the one location we still had open.  However, this would have been a huge burden for them as that location was at least 60 minutes away and obviously very inconvenient.

As we continued down the path of indecision and prayer for a refinance, we discovered another opportunity to move into a pre-existing dental office that had all the plumbing and walls and cabinets needed to have a decent orthodontic office at a price we could afford.

So, we moved.

Now in our new space, we focused on what we needed to do differently to attract patients that may not have considered orthodontics before because traditional bracket and wire braces were not of any interest to them.

We started to market and offer Invisalign Clear Aligners to adults first and eventually teens in this small community. The ability to have a removable and mostly invisible appliance to straighten teeth was and still is very appealing to adults and now teens and even young children.

It was more challenging than we realized.

First, the economic situation had not improved, and people were still struggling to just get a job.

Second, no one ever heard of Invisalign Clear Aligners in this small town, which meant many patients going for second and third opinions. They would often hear how Invisalign Clear Aligners would not work for their problem, or even worse, that somehow, we were going to permanently damage their teeth and gums!

Third, because no one knew about Invisalign Clear Aligners, everyone assumed they would be twice the price of traditional braces, and often would not even call us for our complimentary consultation.

Being the first can be an advantage, but not without some arrows in your back on the way up the mountain.

After our move into the new location in 2011 we found that for the first year we actually saw some growth and improvement.  This was a relief, since if we went any further backwards, we would be out of business in a year.

So, we took the plunge and continued to head up the mountain with “pig-headed” determination to succeed despite all the challenges we were facing.

We were not an overnight success.

It took time.

It took patience, persistence and a willingness to not listen to all the negativity that was being said about us by other dental professionals in the community and to our potential patients.

We struggled, we kept learning, we kept our focus on the goal, and our mission was clear.  We offered a different experience at a reasonable and affordable fee and provided results that were as good or sometimes even better than traditional brackets and wires.

Remember the story of the little engine that could?

We had a team meeting at the end of 2018 and celebrated our “little engine.”

My treatment coordinator and office manager, a longtime employee, told me that as far back as 2011 that she thought any day I was going to walk in and say the office is officially closing. That’s how bad it was.

I told her there were so many days and nights that idea certainly crossed my mind.  But my optimism for what we were providing — Invisalign Clear Aligners — and our ability to make it affordable would eventually make us successful once again.

And it has.

Our practice, in this small community has grown 10x since our lowest point in 2009 and there are new mountains to climb still!

The fairy tale of The Little Engine That Could illustrates how optimism and hard work when combined with persistence and determination can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success.

(If you are an orthodontist and interested in learning more about how clear aligners can help your practice thrive as well as the details on the specific strategies we implemented to massively impact our community and patients by offering them an alternative to traditional brackets and wires, please click here to learn more and register for my upcoming Clear Aligner Boot Camp.)