Growing up in Wisconsin, Dustin Pfundheller knew family members that couldn’t afford dental care and thought it could be cool to create a dental practice that people could afford to use. “I would always ask people why isn’t there a clinic like this and why has nobody made one, and they always told me it was impossible or just not the way its done,” he said.
But Pfundheller set out to do it anyway – and never gave up on his goal. After graduating from University of Florida dental school, the dentist knew setting up such a clinic would be all-encompassing, so he took a first job practicing dentistry in Singapore to experience other cultures and get in some travel. Luckily, the practice he worked for allowed a 14 12-hour day stretch, with 14 days in a row off. For the next six years while working full time, he visited over 200 countries, sometimes volunteering his dentistry work in the emerging economies while there. (Caution: visiting his Instagram page will send you down a wander-lusting rabbit hole).
The big vision
After he got that travel bug out of his system, Pfundheller moved back to the states and chose the Miami area to start his dental clinic, with the big vision of lowering dental costs significantly for patients. It took two years to finally secure a bank loan, because his dental practice didn’t fit the traditional model, he said. With funding from an SBA loan, he opened The Smile Mission in Palmetto Bay in December 2020.
Everything about The Smile Mission is innovative and high-tech. Crowns, dentures, veneers and invisible braces are made in the clinic with 3D printing technology – no longer are multiple appointments needed to get a simple crown, for instance. But even better is the price. For example, dentists typically charge about $1,500 for a crown; at The Smile Mission, a crown cost about $600 to $700, he said. “And we do veneers for $500 a tooth, other offices are anywhere between $1,000 to $2,000.”
To set up his The Smile Mission for success, Pfundheller rethought everything, such as the cost of supplies, saving big bucks by buying direct off Amazon rather than through a supplier, while not scrimping on quality.
When he found out the average dental chair costs about $10,000, he contacted the factories in China that make the chairs. “I bought 15 directly from the factory for $1,000 a piece,” he said proudly. To be sure, it took hard work: He had to navigate customs, set up the shipping, and arrange for a semi-truck to deliver them to his office.
Getting help from Florida SBDC at FIU
Business consultant Nile Kirec and the team at Florida SBDC at FIU assisted him through every step, from the incorporation of the business to the opening of the dental clinic and beyond. “We have conducted industry and market research, worked together on the brand and brand strategy, web site, marketing strategy and continue to assist him,” said Kirec, who specializes in marketing, branding and communications. FSBDC at FIU, the small business development center within the College of Business, provides no-cost one-on-one consulting and other training to small businesses in Miami Dade and Monroe counties. “I wish more people would take advantage of it,” Pfundheller said.
About working with SBDC at FIU, he said: “We talk once a week, at least once every two weeks, about all different things, everything from the website, to doing payments, and contracts, opening day, everything. Obviously, there’s so much to start in a new business… The only problem with calling them is then you realize how many more things you have to do,” Pfundheller quipped.
Now Pfundheller is eight months into the business, and it’s going great, he said. The website SEO work paid off because customers are flying in from around the country to take advantage of the low prices and same-day service. About half his customers don’t have dental insurance; the other half choose The Smile Clinic because of the convenience of getting same-day service, cutting up to weeks of wait times between appointments. The clinic already has more than 20 employees, more than most dental clinics.
Pfundheller said he would not have been able to get to where he is now as fast as he did if it weren’t for FSBDC at FIU’s help. “Working with SBDC definitely streamlined things. It was really helpful when I opened to not have all these headaches and it would have been much slower if not for SBDC giving me tons of advice and tips.”
Tips for success
His advice to others starting businesses: Always plan for the future. A lot of dentists think about what they need right now, not a few years down the road. He is happy he has 5,000 square feet with 15 chairs. “I’m so glad we planned ahead and don’t have to turn people away because we don’t have the room. No dentist buys 15 chairs to start out.”
Early on, a good sign to him was that “everybody who would ever hear about us would come in” for services, he said, including his tow truck driver who brought his girlfriend, the man from the office’s filtered water company and his workers, the neighboring businesses, even the postman. Then the fact that people were traveling thousands of miles to use the service was further validation. “You know you are doing something good,” Pfundheller said.
“I’m just so happy that the idea that I had as a kid of one day opening up an affordable practice is working out, after everyone told me it would be impossible. And it has done very well.”