Home Advice For The Young At Heart Overcoming Setbacks In Entrepreneurship Through Accountability And Perseverance

Overcoming Setbacks In Entrepreneurship Through Accountability And Perseverance


by Dr. Sulman Ahmed, founder, Chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental and author of “Make Them Smile: Why Customer Satisfaction is the Key to Rapid and Sustainable Growth”

I know. It’s so common, it’s a cliché: we learn from our failures. As with many cliches it contains a seed of truth, but it’s also misleading. It implies that  learning is a passive experience. A more accurate saying would be that we learn from our failures if we force ourselves to. The only way to learn from a mistake is to own it, to hold yourself accountable and then reflect on how you could have done better. For that reason, in my business, I always hold myself accountable first.

For example, in the late 2000s, I experienced a string of failures. Each contained a lesson. The economic collapse that had started in 2007 only accelerated. More and more people lost their jobs, and with their jobs they lost their dental insurance. Even the people who kept their jobs lost dental insurance as companies scrambled to cut spending everywhere they could without laying off more people.

I didn’t pay myself the entire first year I owned my offices. I instead lived off the $70,000 I had saved. And then in 2009 just after Christmas, I got a call from my bank. The payroll didn’t clear. In the middle of the holidays, I had to run out and transfer $25,000 from my personal savings into the payroll account to make sure my staff would get their checks. After that, I had less than $50,000 to my name. I remember driving home from the bank with knots in my stomach. I felt small and irrelevant. I kept thinking I would have to close the practices, declare bankruptcy, and go back to working as a dental associate.

This was the closest I’ve ever come to rock bottom. In many ways, the biggest lesson I learned from this experience had nothing to do with the mechanics of running a business. I mostly learned that I never wanted to feel like that again. I still remember the despair and frustration, and I carry it with me wherever I go. It’s a little fire that burns inside me. It fuels me, and I protect it, I almost cherish it, so I can keep finding the motivation to push farther. I recommend that you and other aspiring entrepreneurs do the same when faced with a failure.

I stayed the course. We made some tweaks to the business, which I will describe in detail later on, that allowed it to become profitable and grow. By 2010, the office I had founded was finally starting to generate revenue, and the office I had acquired became profitable. I had found my footing. It was tenuous, sure, but I could stand.

Naturally, I decided it was time to take another huge risk and bought my fourth office. This one immediately backfired. It turned out to be a money pit. To break even, each office needed to gross about $40,000 a month. Several months in, the fourth office brought in only about $10,000.

Almost everyone in my life, even the people I knew and loved the most, questioned my decision. My wife, who I love dearly and has supported me through this entire process, argued that I should sell that office. My mother would call and ask why I couldn’t just be happy with a few offices, make some money, pay off my debt, and live a calm life. Despite my best efforts to keep my mind focused on the big picture, doubts crept in. The first offices hadn’t taken this long to become profitable. Maybe my vision was just too grand.

I reasoned that I owed it to myself and my staff to at least try. As a first step, I spent more time at the location, by observing work for a few days and interviewed the staff. Weirdly, everybody thought that business was good, if not booming. They felt they were doing their jobs well, and on the surface they were right. The front office people answered the phones and booked a steady stream of appointments. Hygienists and dental assistants executed their tasks quickly with a high degree of skill and professionalism. The dentists finished all the cleanings they needed to and received glowing reviews from guests. Yet each month we hemorrhaged money. The office obviously was bursting with potential, I just needed to figure out how to unlock it. During this process I realized the office struggled in two connected areas: efficiency and conversion. Efficiency is simply how quickly we can clean, diagnose, and treat our guests. Conversion measures the percentage of guests who come to get cleanings and also necessary treatment.

I went to the office not to bully people into giving me results, but to learn from them and get an accurate sense of the situation. This taught me that in order to scale I needed to devise a way to make sure each office followed the exact same processes. In this case it was in the early days, and I was able to take a full month to bring one outpost up to snuff. But I knew that as I continued to grow, that level of commitment would become impossible. I realized that if I wanted to scale, I would need to make sure I developed a robust training procedure so I could replicate my system with minimal effort.

You will likely face similar setbacks. The only way to overcome them is to be honest with yourself, admit your failures, and ask yourself — what can you do to be better? Remember, life is not a race, and you only fail when you give up on an idea or vision.



The following was excerpted from the forthcoming title Make Them Smile: Why Customer Satisfaction is the Key to Rapid and Sustainable Growth (Ben Bella Books/Matt Holt, May 7, 2024)


Sulman Ahmed

Dr. Sulman Ahmed, author of “Make Them Smile: Why Customer Satisfaction is the Key to Rapid and Sustainable Growth” is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of DECA Dental. In 2008, Dr. Ahmed opened his first dental office with a vow to establish a truly patient-centered model. His passionate belief in putting patients first is the fundamental backbone of DECA Dental’s core values in delivering patient care.