Alex Fenkell of SmileDirectClub: “Execution ”

Execution — the lifeblood of any company. Big ideas and plans are great but go nowhere without execution. As founders, Jordan and I learned this early on, and we wanted to make sure execution was a key part of the company culture. We have 7 Truths that define our culture, including “​Dependability Increases our Capability.” It means […]

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Execution — the lifeblood of any company. Big ideas and plans are great but go nowhere without execution. As founders, Jordan and I learned this early on, and we wanted to make sure execution was a key part of the company culture. We have 7 Truths that define our culture, including “​Dependability Increases our Capability.” It means we do what we say, we can count on one another, and we value living up to our promises to each other and to our customers.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Fenkell.

Alex Fenkell is Co-Founder of SmileDirectClub, the international oral care leader and telehealth pioneer of doctor-directed, remote clear aligner therapy. Since its founding in 2014, SmileDirectClub has served more than one million satisfied customers through hundreds of SmileShops across 11 markets and employs more than 3,700 people. Alongside his childhood friend and co-founder, Jordan Katzman, Alex built the business from the ground up. As SmileDirectClub continues to grow, he is still extremely hands-on and involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.

Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Alex always knew he wanted to change the world. Prior to founding SmileDirectClub, he worked with Jordan on several startups — ranging from car detailing to a payment application program. He also attended the University of Colorado.

Outside of SmileDirectClub, Alex has a strong allegiance to the Detroit community and is involved with Friendship Circle, a charity for children and young people with special needs. He is also a wine enthusiast and Certified Sommelier. He has been featured in both Inc.’s 30 under 30 list and Forbes’s 30 under 30 list for Retail & E-Commerce.

Moving forward, Alex is looking to partner with more philanthropic organizations and continue growing SmileDirectClub to reach new customers seeking safe, affordable and convenient access to a straighter and more confident smile.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My cofounder Jordan Katzman and I met at summer camp when we were 13 years old. We both had metal braces at a young age which was a pain point in our youth that we didn’t let go of. Years later, we were wondering if there was a more cost-effective, convenient, and accessible way to straighten teeth, and that led to our idea to create SmileDirectClub.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial, interested in building new things, and curious for how things can be improved. SmileDirectClub is a perfect example of taking an existing practice — straightening teeth — and enhancing the offering to democratize it and bring it to more people. Metal braces typically cost thousands of dollars and the constant in-person visits can be cumbersome, especially for someone who doesn’t live close to a provider as is the case in 60% of counties in the US. Jordan and I thought there has to be a better way that people can more conveniently and affordably get a smile they love. Our smiles say a lot about us, and they can have a real impact on our personal lives and professional opportunities. We continue to be inspired by the stories of transformation coming from our Club Members, like Madilyn who was brought to tears when her mom surprised her with an impression kit to get started on her journey. Our customers remind us that straightening your teeth is life-changing.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

SmileDirectClub is an omnichannel oral care leader and telehealth pioneer, revolutionizing access to affordable premium oral care by creating the first D2C Medtech platform for teeth straightening and a line of oral care solutions. With an estimated 85% of people worldwide suffering from malocclusion, and less than 1% receiving treatment annually due to traditionally high costs, we exist to bridge that gap. We’ve created and grown innovative offerings to further our mission to provide safe, convenient, efficacious and affordable oral care to more people.

Since its founding in 2014, SmileDirectClubhas connected one million eligible patients with state-licensed dentists and orthodontists who leverage SmileDirectClub’s technology to prescribe, manage, and direct all aspects of clinical care and remote clear aligner therapy at a cost of up to 60% less than braces. We have grown to represent 95% of the doctor-directed at-home clear aligner industry.

Today, and especially amid the pandemic, people are not always able to visit a dental office, make frequent visits for check-ins, and spend a lot of money. We created the first telehealth platform for clear aligner teeth straightening, and we’ve seen demand for telehealth increase exponentially at this time given social distancing protocols and the mandated temporary closures of dental practices at the start of the pandemic. People have shown that they want and need a way to improve their smile without high costs and frequent in-person visits.

Additionally, in January we launched a premium yet affordable oral care line that includes an electric toothbrush, water flosser, bright on™ — our premium teeth whitening product — and more. Walmart was the first retailer to carry this CPG line in store and online, and we recently launched at CVS as well. These products are now in more than 6,800 retail stores and we have the #1 whitening SKU at Walmart.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we were first starting out, it was just Jordan and me. We were doing everything from handling customer service calls, packing impression kits, and shipping out the orders. To this day, whenever I visit my mom’s house, I still find putty containers from packing those early impression kits. Though not necessarily a mistake, it’s funny to look back on. From those experiences, I learned what it meant to be an entrepreneur. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, and if you’re lucky, you get to eventually hire experts in these areas and take your company on to the next level. Needless to say, there are no putty cases coming in and out of my mom’s house these days.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

As a fellow entrepreneur and founder of a disruptive company, I really admire Elon Musk for how he reinvents and revolutionizes industries. From Tesla to SpaceX, his leadership is proof that investing in research and development results in game-changing innovation, an incredible customer experience, and unmatched customer loyalty. We’re customer obsessed at SmileDirectClub and inspired by the culture of innovation he fosters.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is a good thing. It’s the human condition to evolve and improve. Just because a product or industry has been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working to its fullest potential.

There is inherent pushback against disruption because it takes work and requires careful consideration. Consumers, lawmakers and established industry players are averse to rapid change because it can be risky. Smart business leaders understand that the approaches taken to market and communicate your efforts are just as important as whatever the disruptive business or product is. Communicating to all stakeholders and target audiences that what you’re doing will improve their lives in some way is imperative. It’s not about disruption for disruption’s sake — it’s about a solution that adds value.

The need for telehealth has never been greater as we all grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. Physicians and other health professionals are now seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before the pandemic, according to the American Medical Association. SmileDirectClub was at the forefront in creating its telehealth platform to increase access to care without the need for an in-person visit and we expect with growing reliance and adoption, telehealth will become increasingly utilized across all healthcare fields.

We also sprang into action at the onset of the outbreak and put to work our 60+ HP 3D printers to manufacture much-needed face shields. More than 55,136 were distributed across health care organizations and the dental community in the U.S. and Canada. Further, the American Dental Association and many state dental boards and associations mandated the postponement of all non-essential dentist appointments, halting business for many oral care professionals. SmileDirectClub quickly opened its platform so that dental professionals could conduct follow-up care and manage contact with patients remotely, while decreasing risk of exposure to disease. All dentists and orthodontists were empowered to use SmileDirectClub’s teledentistry platform free of charge to communicate with their patients. The Company also distributed complementary medical-grade 3D printed face shields so that providers have the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for emergency in-office care.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

This journey has taught me so much. Whenever I’m asked for advice it’s hard to keep it just to three, but these are the tips I often come back to.

Vision. What are we going after? Make sure you have identified a true need that’s going to solve a problem and generate intrinsic value for people.

Execution — the lifeblood of any company. Big ideas and plans are great but go nowhere without execution. As founders, Jordan and I learned this early on, and we wanted to make sure execution was a key part of the company culture. We have 7 Truths that define our culture, including “​Dependability Increases our Capability.” It means we do what we say, we can count on one another, and we value living up to our promises to each other and to our customers.

Passion. Passion is what fuels the execution, especially in the formative days of starting a company when you have a lot going against you and giving up seems so easy. You need to have passion, believe in your mission, get inspired by the “why,” and be willing to fight for it every single day.

In addition to these core principles, you need to have a lot of patience and be willing to make sacrifices. Things don’t necessarily come quick or easy. Having the patience to learn about your strengths and weaknesses is critical. And building anything great requires some level of personal sacrifice and lifestyle change — it comes naturally with the work.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

From day one, SmileDirectClub has led with consumer-focused and directed marketing and advertising efforts. Specifically, we use a lot of user-generated content in our marketing and advertising because it’s all about the real stories of transformation. Our customer’s before and after photos speak for themselves and draw in more like-minded customers who want to same experience.

We also remain devoted to delivering a superior customer experience because referrals are a strong source for lead generation for us. Our Net Promoter Score is our north star, so improving the customer experience is a driving decision behind everything we do at SmileDirectClub.

As the business has evolved, we’ve added on-ramps to broaden the opportunity for consumer adoption, including a direct-to-office option, which allows customers to get started on their smile journey from a dentist’s chair, in addition to our impression kits, which are doctor-prescribed and mailed to customers, and our SmileShop retail locations where customers can get 3D image taken of their smile. We’re wherever our customers want us to be all in the name of furthering our mission and providing more people safe, affordable access to care.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Innovation is in our DNA and it permeates the entire scope of our business. We are always looking for ways to continuously improve and evolve with our customers as we look to drive long-term sustained growth.

We also recently launched SmileDirectClub Teen, a clear aligner treatment for teens including a patented Tile-powered aligner case that is Bluetooth-enabled so customers can locate their case with their phones.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Adam Grant’s book “The Originals” resonates because it speaks to the challenges of presenting a new idea to the world. At SmileDirectClub, we’re challenging norms that have been in place for decades because we want to bring an equally effective and safe method of teeth straightening to more people through the power of teledentistry. Improving the status quo is never easy, and all the studies and stories in the book of those who bucked outdated trends reinforce that we’re not alone.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Vision without execution is just hallucination,” from Thomas Edison. This quote is on my desk because its only in seeing your ideas through that your vision becomes a reality. It’s a reminder to have patience while you focus on execution — which is very important.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m proud to say I think our team at SmileDirectClub is achieving this right now and we will continue to work hard to benefit as many people’s lives as we possibly can. We are dedicated to our mission to bring safe, affordable oral care to people who may have otherwise not been able to improve their smile because of time or cost constraints. We’ve seen amazing stories of people who gained the confidence to interview for a job they always wanted but weren’t confident enough to go after because they were self-conscious about their smile. And many of our Club Members take better care of their teeth after they complete treatment with us. Our work isn’t just about what a smile looks like on the outside, but how our Club Members feel and care for themselves today and well into the future.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow SmileDirectClub:

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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