How we went from 0 to 27 locations in one year : By Dr. Samson Liu, MAGD, MBA, MSF
In 2018, I went from owning 0 dental practices to owning 27 locations by the end of my first full year. My first practice was a scratch start with 0 patients. Even after years of working for a major DSO, I still had very little idea of how to own a business or how to build a group. However, in my opinion, the definition of an entrepreneur is he/she must be prepared to take significant risks and come up with innovative solutions to complicated problems. What I lacked in practical understanding of starting a company, I made up for with passion, determination, and the willingness to make mistakes.
Without the right preparation and experience, that kind of exponential growth in such a short amount of time can be overwhelming and unsustainable. While I was certainly out of my element, I used my years of experience to create a dental brand that would stick out from the competition and provide value for my doctors and patients.
The start of SOHDental
After 18 years of helping to build out the legacy of Heartland Dental, I realized that I wanted to build a legacy of my own. I started SOHDental in 2018 to create a new culture which benefits the patient via unique, customer-focused treatments and techniques.
I was fortunate to have three of my best people with me initially to help build out my vision for SOHDental. With my background in operations and the day-to-day of being a practicing dentist, I needed a support system to establish a foundation for the company.
“For me, it was never about size. I am much more concerned with how SOHDental can help other dentists cement their legacies and provide better care for their patients, an evergreen culture. Therefore, I wanted to avoid a name for my company that ties us to geography or even to my own name, because I believe that ultimately the company should be about others, not about ourselves.”
Starting out, I had no idea what we were going to do. We had never done something like this before. I certainly did not know how to build a business from the ground up, or even buy practices to build out the organization. This was an entirely new undertaking for me and my team. In those early days, it was easy to wonder if we might have made a mistake.
Yet I found some inspiration in an unexpected place. During a visit to Cuba, I met with a couple of entrepreneurs who were looking to overcome challenges with their ideas. One wanted to start an internet company in a country that, at the time, did not even have widespread internet access! The other wanted to become a fashion designer in a country that does not even have a significant design industry! How can they make these ideas work? With a desire to learn and the passion to get things done.
I realized that if this was ever going to work, I needed to keep trying different approaches until I found one that fit my vision. If we don’t know how to do something, we are going to figure it out. If we can’t figure it out on our own, we need to hire someone that can. One of our earliest challenges was securing the capital so that we could begin purchasing practices. We started learning by doing, networking with bankers and practice brokers alike, actively figuring out both how to buy practices while buying them at the same time! It wasn’t easy being the new kid on the block and trying to show everyone that we were serious buyers.
We learned firsthand that the best way to secure funding for our vision was to define as clearly as possible our vision and passion, then articulate it as eloquently as we can to help others understand the business. It turns out that making a major lasting impression on others goes a long way in generating necessary funding, quality referrals and leads. Once everyone knew that we were serious about our business and our vision, they were much more open to working with us.
In the beginning, we started affiliating with practices at an accelerated pace intentionally for three reasons:
1. To outrun our negative cashflow due to building out a support platform
2. To learn our economic engine which would be growth by affiliation
3. To take advantage of the favorable tax climate for businesses at the time.
I made some unwise purchasing decisions at first, but I learned from my mistakes and utilized a few consultants who could help me make better decisions.
We made it work by being careful with our budget and making sure to hire the right people to support our organization, whether we were looking for doctors, hygienists, or people for the front office. We planned our hiring based on where we planned our affiliations to give the offices the support they needed. Our goal initially was to affiliate with 15-20 offices every year if our budget allows and it is a good match. Most important, there must always be a purpose to our growth; we don’t want to grow just for the sake of getting bigger.
“We learned firsthand that the best way to secure funding for our vision was to define as clearly as possible our vision and passion, then articulate it as eloquently as we can to help others understand the business.”
Our aim is to provide assistance to our supported doctors by taking over their non-clinical challenges. We offer services like payroll, supply purchasing, equipment procurement and maintenance, recruiting, accounting, marketing and IT support. At SOHDental, we are committed to providing the best possible culture for doctors to thrive and grow in their own practices.
Cultivating a healthy doctor culture
For me, it was never about size. I am much more concerned with how SOHDental can help other dentists cement their legacies and provide better care for their patients, an evergreen culture. Therefore, I wanted to avoid a name for my company that tied us to geography or even to my own name, because I believe that ultimately the company should be about others, not about ourselves. In fact, SOH stands for Simon, Oliver, and Henry, the first three initials of my three sons, to reflect our outlook into as far as the next generation. The company name SOHDental is to reflect our investment into the legacies of the doctors that we serve.
I always wanted to make SOHDental a long-term focus, relational company for doctors. I wanted to create a space where engaging and retaining doctors means maintaining an experience that would allow them to flourish and grow. I wanted to match doctors to practices, not the other way around. By avoiding a transactional approach and being short-term focused, I believe we have created a unique experience for doctors to thrive in the position that they are meant to be in.
Establishing a foundation of good doctor culture is at the heart of what makes an organization like SOHDental work. If the doctor culture is negative in any way, the overall company culture will suffer. We have worked to provide special training opportunities for our doctors that equip them with the latest tools and techniques they need to succeed at patient care and running their practice. Providing mentorship opportunities for doctors is another great way to ensure that they are receiving the support they need to continue to provide better care to the most important part of the equation: the patient.
Building a business like this requires planning, budgeting, and patience. I would not be where I am without the formative years at Heartland Dental. Making careful business decisions about what we purchase and who we partner with is the best way to succeed in building a lasting, evergreen dental organization.
Dr. Samson Liu is the founder and CEO of SOHDental LLC, a clinician owned, innovative and people focused dental partnership organization unique in the industry. Started in 2018, by the end of 2020, SOHDental supports over 35 practices in 8 states.
Prior to SOHDental he was a Senior Dental Executive with 18 years experience in leading clinical and support services at Heartland Dental from 13 to 800 locations, a ~$1.3 billion Dental Support Organization (DSO).