An Idaho dentist didn't always plan to be a dentist. However, the winding path he took to the profession prepared him well not only for his clinical work, but also for the task of running a successful business.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But for Mike Dolby, DDS, the path to becoming a successful dentist was anything but straight or short. In fact, it was quite circuitous.
Dolby, who opened Cottonwood Creek Dental in Eagle, ID in 2007, attended Boise State on a football scholarship with intentions on becoming an architect. When his coaches and advisors told him that the rigors of math would take too much time away from football and suggested business instead, Dolby agreed.
It was the start of what is likely one of the most unique routes anyone has ever taken into the field of dentistry.
Too Many Sales
Dolby graduated Boise State with a degree in business management, and almost immediately took a job with the company that today is known as GlaxoSmithKline. He began selling toothpaste and other related products, and his motivation to succeed—and subsequent success—earned him a rude awakening to corporate life when he attended his first district regional meeting in Denver.
“I remember my district guy pulling me aside and telling me that I was making his numbers look bad and he wanted me to work only three days a week and golf the other days,” Dolby recalls. “So I immediately had a bad taste of what corporate life was about, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
After briefly contemplating returning to school to get his MBA, his father, a college football coach, suggested he try dental school.
“And with about as much simplicity as that, I told my employer I was going to dental school,” Dolby says. “He said it was a waste of my time.”
But it wasn’t. After completing all the necessary science courses over an 18-month stretch, Dolby took the dental admissions test and was accepted by the school of his choice: the University of the Pacific in San Francisco.
“It’s a condensed program, three years of dental school versus the traditional four,” Dolby explains. “They take four academic years and cram it into three calendar years, and you work your butt off, but it’s a great education and it allowed me to get done quicker. Because at that point in my life I was getting a little bit older. And you know, it wasn’t school anymore; it was a distinct career path.”
Dolby recalls entering dental school and telling his wife, “I wasted four years going to school to get my business degree because I’m never going to use it. I’m a dentist now.” But that wasn’t the case. Instead, he learned quickly that there is a huge void in the model of training a dentist to enter life following dental school.
They do everything they can to get a young dentist essentially safe in the clinical aspects of their profession,” Dolby says. “And there virtually is no time to teach them that they will be running a private practice on their own.”
The result, he says, is that dentists find their way into a private practice and they know nothing about it. They struggle, and the staff ends up usually running the practice as best they know how with a limited business background. That was fine prior to 2000 because the model met dentists’ needs and helped them make a living. But times have changed.
“When I first started practicing you never heard of a dental practice going bankrupt,” Dolby says. “And now you that all the time. And it’s because the landscape is much more competitive than it ever has been. You need to run your practice efficiently, run it as a business, and you just can’t stumble your way through anymore.”
Sharing the Knowledge
Dolby’s business acumen has served him well, and now he’s passing it on to colleagues in the form of a recently released book, “Practice Made Perfect-Blueprint for a Successful Dental Business” that has become a bestseller on Amazon.
“I basically took the 20 plus years I’ve been in practice and really focused on practice management and systems that are needed to run a high quality, low volume practice,” Dolby says. “I’m not the guy who’s teaching others how to run a corporate dental practice. I wrote it for the everyday guy who’s out there who wants to own his own brick and mortar building. Who wants to have a staff of four or five, and a four- to five-chair practice, and practice, three to four days a week, and have a great living.”
The secret to great dentistry, Dolby says, is doing a lot of little things great and consistently. There isn’t one magic bullet. Dentists can’t provide great dental services without a great team behind them. And a perfect example, he says, is Cottonwood Creek’s Care to Share program. When current patients refer a new patient to the practice they receive a $25 credit to their account. But that $25, Dolby points out, is only the icing on the cake.
“It’s a small token of appreciation,” he explains. “Nobody ever gets up in the morning and says, ‘God, I’m so glad I get to go to the dentist.’ The only way a patient is ever going to refer a patient to my practice is if I exceed their expectations. And when I do that, it naturally happens.”
Dolby says he works hard to stay in shape, and points out that people don’t often realize that dentistry is not only mentally demanding, it’s physically demanding as well.
“We’re working in a tiny hole,” he illustrates. “There’s a tongue moving and saliva moving, and people twitch and move at the last second. You’re hunched over, and it becomes very physically demanding.”
As such, Dolby uses his spare time to run triathlons, and has even participated in an Ironman. He has also competed in obstacle racing. The physically demanding activity helps improve his endurance, because he plans to continue practicing for the long haul.
“When a patient looks at me, and I see the joy in their eye in their cosmetic case that I did, or just the experience they had, and I know they’ve been filled with horrible experiences up to this point—it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”