Before you take any huge leap, you must be confident that there are people around who will help you stand up after the fall. This confidence allows you to dream big and move forward without fear.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Khamzat Asabeav.
Khamzat Asabeav, founder of SoftSmile, graduated from Columbia Law School with a master’s in law before continuing his career at Linklaters, the leading global firm, working between London, Moscow, New York and the Middle East. In parallel to his stellar legal career, he founded and co-founded several startups, most notably a braces producer in Switzerland (3D Med) and a car-sharing company in Dubai (Motor). Since 2019, Khamzat has dedicated his time and effort leading the charge at SoftSmile, making affordable, quality orthodontic treatment solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My story begins in Chechnya, where I’m from. Chechnya is a tiny region in the south of Russia, which in the 90s was a well-known part of the former USSR. Because of the brutal wars that devastated the region while I was a child, my parents took my younger sister and I along and fled our home, later becoming refugees. As a refugee, I witnessed a great deal of injustice — which shaped my aspirations to become a lawyer — and experienced the difficulty of lacking basic healthcare access. It was very difficult for Chechens in Russia to even schedule a doctor’s appointment at that time, and that stuck with me.
Fast forward to 2014: I was living between New York and London and practicing law at an international law firm leading significant merger and acquisition transactions. At the same time, a longtime friend was trying to create braces and aligners in-house using 3D printers to help make orthodontic treatments more affordable. You can imagine that when I realized I had the chance to use the skills I’ve learned in M&A to help make a significant impact in healthcare (considering my personal experience as a Chechen refugee), I jumped at the opportunity. So, in 2018, I decided to put my legal career on hold and join my friend’s efforts, as I fully believed that together we could significantly impact the orthodontic industry and help those who are unable to afford quality dental care.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We work in the orthodontic space. Although they are very costly, invisible aligners are the most popular orthodontic product. The high costs for patients stem from the tremendous amount of money doctors pay to third-parties for treatment planning and manufacturing. Even though 3D printers are becoming more affordable and more and more doctors are trying to make aligners “in-house,” high-quality treatment planning is not yet readily accessible.
This is where SoftSmile comes in. We are disrupting this sector by empowering doctors to make advanced treatment plans on their own. With our state-of-the-art software, doctors anywhere in the world can provide high-quality aligner treatment independently, instead of from a collaboration with third parties. Doctors now have full control over the cost of aligner treatments for patients since we are eliminating any unnecessary steps in the process and making it a more efficient and transparent workstream that benefits both the doctor and, ultimately, the patient.
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?
The funniest mistake, or even the happiest accident, was that the first companies who reached out, expressed interest in our platform and wanted to discuss possible partnerships…were those whom I considered our direct competitors! Apparently, even the most well-known dental companies are seeking advanced treatment planning software.
The bottom line is, no matter how diligently you build your strategy, it is only after getting the product on the market that you really see who your client base is and what the level of demand looks like. My advice to others is to deploy the product as soon as possible, even if it is a demo version.
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?
I’ve had the privilege of working with, and learning from, the best and brightest people from around the world who I’m now fortunate enough to call my friends and colleagues.
The global managing partner of Linklaters, Charles Jacobs, taught me that there is no such thing as a hierarchy in successful companies; anyone can bring their ideas to the most senior people in the company and get the necessary resources to implement their idea. In my opinion, this is how businesses should operate.
But the largest impact in my life comes from my family, especially my mom. She always worked tirelessly to support our family and make sure that my sisters and I had everything we needed. She cultivated values in us such as dignity, compassion, and instilled in us the ideal that hard work is always the best bet for success. Most importantly, she has continued to support me unconditionally. I have people around me who will lift me up when I fall, which empowers me every day.
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?
I am close to two groups of professionals, doctors and lawyers, both of whom spend their whole lives learning. Anything that helps them make their job easier is valuable and should be appraised by all. When I see attempts to exclude doctors, lawyers, or teachers from the equation and replace them with robots, artificial intelligence, or other substitutes, I feel that we may lose something precious and priceless: wisdom and empathy.
I do believe that any disruption will be empowering, and people’s experience and expertise is as valuable as any technological advancements.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1) SoftSmile is not my first venture. The first company I co-founded was called 3D Med and was quite promising. However, some strategic mistakes at the beginning made it impossible to develop the company in the way I initially envisioned and therefore, the business failed. My friend told me a few simple words: “Let’s do it again.” This is a compelling phrase that gave me the hope to move on and the comfort knowing I had support along the way.
2)When I was a young lawyer and had just been hired by the firm of my dreams, one of the senior partners told me: “Everything will be fine as long as you remember that someone depends on the results of your work.” This really enlightened me and reminded me of my everyday ethical responsibility. I try to pass this onto others: If you do your job, you must do it remembering that someone depends on it.
3)I learned from my friend and prominent investor, Michael Novogratz, that before you take any huge leap, you must be confident that there are people around who will help you stand up after the fall. This confidence allows you to dream big and move forward without fear.
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?
We operate in a market in which there are just a handful of companies that can offer high-quality technology solutions for doctors and patients. Our strategy for generating quality leads was to create a product that both outperforms anything on the current market and solves customer’s problems, while also educating those who can help others through our product.
This strategy helped us get the attention of big dental players in just a few short months following the reveal of our product’s demo version.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We at SoftSmile know all the bottlenecks in the aligner printing process. Once we solve the biggest one, which is access to advanced treatment planning, we will then make aligner manufacturing more affordable. With existing technological advancements, we can make orthodontics as affordable as a local dentist’s simple check-up, providing accessible orthodontic treatment for those in need.
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?
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo has had a deep impact on my thinking. It is a story of how unfortunate circumstances may lead even the noblest and bravest people astray and how poverty and ignorance can damage one’s wellbeing. This book taught me to look deeper, never judge, and always lend a helping hand to those who fall. There is no point in personal happiness if your neighbor is in despair.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The great boxer Joe Louis once said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.” Mike Tyson slightly changed this quote and made it even more famous when he said, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.”
This is one of my favorite life lessons, as it preaches that no matter how diligently you prepare, real life and real people can be messy but it’s all about how you react and pick yourself back up. This quote has helped me countless times when things did not go according to my plan. But I did not respond by panicking. Instead, I simply made a new plan informed by the latest data to move forward.
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.
If I were to inspire a movement, I would try to remind the movement’s audience that we all are people and as such, we should respect one another. I believe that conflicts escalate the moment we forget that those we talk to — or about — are real people as well. Respect and acknowledging others’ rights is the fundamental step toward seeing the good in society. We can do almost anything from defeating a virus to rebuilding cities if we unite and work together.
If anything, 2020 has demonstrated that none of us could survive or live alone — we all need communication and collaboration on both the national and international levels.
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