Last October, Forbes hosted the Under 30 Summit in Detroit. Over four days, the magazine brought together young leaders across technology, finance, entertainment, fashion, philanthropy, and food for a conference featuring A-list speakers, a private music festival featuring artists including 21 Savage, The Chainsmokers, and Normani, a food festival, a pub crawl, and a day of community service.
For Detroit native and SmileDirectClub co-founder Alex Fenkell, it was more than just a conference, though; it was a homecoming. Fenkell and business partner Jordan Katzman launched SmileDirectClub, then known as SmileCareClub, in the Motor City back in 2014. As a two-man operation, they took customer service calls, personally shipped out hundreds of custom orthodontic appliances, and spent countless hours building one of the world’s first teledentistry networks of dental professionals and orthodontists. Fenkell even shared how when they fell behind in fulfilling orders, he’d bring the orthodontic kits home to his mother’s house – and revealed that his childhood bedroom is still full of the materials used to make orthodontic appliances.
Five years and a move to Nashville later, SmileDirectClub has come to represent the significant majority of the doctor-directed and prescribed clear aligner industry, helping over 750,000 people achieve the smiles they’ve always wanted. With more than 6,000 employees working at over 300 SmileShop locations across the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as well as a network of over 250 dental professionals, they are now truly achieving their goal of “democratizing orthodontics.”
At the Under 30 Summit, Fenkell, along with FIGS founder Heather Hasson and Harry’s founder Jeff Raider, spoke to an audience on the consumerization of health. They explored how they mastering branding and product to turn something monolithic and utilitarian into something cool and sexy, sharing stories and exploring the power of building a disruptive brand in this exciting era.
Fenkell started from the beginning. He shared with the room how he met Katzman at summer camp in northern Michigan when he was 13 years old. Over the years to come, they became best friends and business partners, and launched a number of different ventures in the Detroit area. However, when they remembered how miserable they were when they were teens with mouths of wired, metal braces, they started to envision a better way to get straighter teeth.
As they did some early research and looked at the data, they realized that they didn’t just have a good idea – they had found an enormous opportunity. They learned that six out of 10 counties in the United States don’t have orthodontists at all, meaning that huge numbers of people, even if they could afford orthodontic care, simply had no access to it. By connecting state-licensed dentists and orthodontists with these people, they could do more than just transform smiles – they had the power to make the world a better place.
In building the brand, they thought long and hard about all of the negative associations people have with the dentist’s office and how to craft a message around transformation, freedom, and affordable treatment on the patient’s terms – not the doctor’s – in order to improve outcomes and empower consumers.
During the panel discussion, the entrepreneurs were asked about the unique challenges that face companies who not only choose to make difficult to produce, intimate, physical goods for their customers, but then also need to prototype their ideas and dedicate so much of their lives to them. Fenkell used this question to talk about an early pivotal moment in the history of the company: a customer who wanted to straighten his teeth before his daughter’s wedding, but simply couldn’t afford traditional orthodontic care. Hearing this person talk about how SmileDirectClub gave him a viable alternative that worked with his finances, and hearing how emotional he became as he spoke about this, was a major source of “why” for Fenkell and Katzman, giving them the motivation to keep moving in the face of what can sometimes feel like insurmountable odds and never-ending challenges.
Fenkell also explained that in the early days of the company, they were often comparing notes with other founders building disruptive businesses in similar spaces. He and Raider shared best practices as they created and scaled their marketing, keeping a close eye on how the millennial direct to consumer space continues to develop. As SmileDirectClub’s co-founder, board member, and VP, Fenkell remains very interested in what works, what gets buyers motivated, and what inspires action from a brand perspective.
Next, the panel discussed the most valuable, high impact things to focus on when building brands. Fenkell stressed that you have to start with your product as a solution to learn who you are and what your brand is, and that talking to customers early on will show you what your mission is. He explained that starting with a brand first and product second is rarely a recipe for success. He also emphasized the importance of being in front of customers, which for many brands is a combination of social media, offline advertising, and a physical presence that allows them to stay close to prospects.
Finally, when asked to make a fast, bold prediction about the consumer space, Fenkell’s answer was simple: he told the audience to expect to keep seeing digitally native brands pursue multiple channels to find customers, as the space never stops evolving. Though building a brand is never easy, and doing it in an industry that is long overdue for change is even harder, Fenkell stated that by being original and having an amazing product, you can position yourself to succeed – no matter what might be standing in your way. It’s a message attendees of the Under 30 Summit may very well use to build incredible companies of their own.
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