From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Two Guys, Three Buckets

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied.

Alfred Nobel

Picture the first day of business for 1-800-DENTIST: two guys sitting on upside-down, five-gallon plastic buckets, waiting for the phone, which was on a third upside-down bucket, to ring. Quite the image for what would become the nation’s largest dentist referral service, huh?

Back in those days, there was no money to waste on furniture, as my partner Gary Saint Denis and I had marshaled about $10,000 in start-up capital from very trusting relatives. It was early 1986, and we had spent the last six months driving all over Los Angeles trying to convince dentists to join our new patient matching service. We talked to hundreds of them. Finally, by June, we had managed to wrangle eighteen members.

I had been a junior copywriter at an advertising agency, and Gary a stockbroker, before we started 1-800-DENTIST. We had an idea, a phone number and no money, only a desire to work for ourselves and still eat lunch out every day. Looking back, having no cash was a huge advantage. Throwing money at a problem is seldom the best answer and often prevents you from making the key discoveries that only come from constraints. And this theory even applied to our office space; we had no private offices for the first three years. A little claustrophobic at times, our forced closeness helped us refine every aspect of our operation. But we did eat lunch out every day, giving us the opportunity to quietly analyze the business, and also flirt with the waitresses!

So how did we manage with no money? Simple. In order to fund the growth of the business, when a dentist would join the service, we would have them pay us the first and last month’s membership, like an apartment lease. This gave us the cash flow to buy increased advertising each month, so that we could afford to keep adding more dentists. It was like a perpetual-motion machine.

In the first years of the business, when Gary and I would drive around the Los Angeles area meeting with dentists, we would occasionally pass roofers working on top of a building. Gary would say to me, “At least we’re not working with hot tar.” That became our mantra through the tough times, when we didn’t know if we were going to make it. It kept us optimistic, remembering that we were lucky to be entrepreneurs in America, taking our shot.

One of the most important aspects to launching our business was to create a company where we wanted to go to work every day. As such, as our company grew, we made it a point to create a casual, friendly, open environment for our employees, and have always related very personally with them. The remarkable thing was that this design, which was more of a personal goal, turned out to be one of the cornerstones of our business model. Today, 1-800-DENTIST is a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week operation; thousands of calls from throughout the country are received each day at our Los Angeles center and are answered by actual people, not machines. But mind you, it’s not a boiler-room environment of a large call center; the cubicles have lots of space (and real chairs, now!), and the operators enjoy great views from the windows and also music, which is played throughout the building. We also pay for their parking and health benefits, host games for extra cash bonuses, have monthly dress-up days, have a massage therapist on staff and much, much more!

We definitely encourage an open, fun and warm atmosphere among the staff, and this attitude is reflected to our customers when they call. We found that when people are looking for a dentist, they often have tremendous apprehension about the process, operating somewhere between fearful and terrified. The fact is, it can be hard to choose a dentist, because in most cases there’s no way of assessing their clinical skills prior to a visit. But most people put off a trip to the dentist because they’re expecting an unpleasant experience. So when they call 1-800-DENTIST and hear a friendly and compassionate voice, it puts them at ease and makes them more comfortable with the dentists we recommend. When we started our company, we had some inkling about the importance of hiring and retaining well-trained and friendly call center operators, but the ripple effect of their job happiness and how they greet and help our customers rewarded us tenfold. Matter of fact, I can proudly state that this is the essence of our success.

No one can tell you what will succeed when you start your business. You have to follow your passion and trust your gut. Most people, including the general manager at my former ad agency, told us at the beginning that 1-800-DENTIST was a dumb idea. Proving them wrong became a great motivator. A few years ago I was meeting with a venture capitalist to raise money for a separate business project, and to give him background, I described how the 1-800-DENTIST business worked. He mistakenly thought I was pitching him on starting what was already my existing business. He exclaimed, “That would never work!” I explained that it was already a booming multimillion-dollar business, and then ended the meeting, thanking him for letting me know so quickly how useless he would be as an advisor.

To this day, I try never to discourage someone from starting a business, even if I think the design is flawed or the idea goofy. You can waste years trying to figure out the perfect execution of your business idea and raise enough capital to absorb every shock. You’ll be wrong. Get started. Take action. Run lean. Have fun.

Back to that very first day, with us two guys sitting on those buckets. By 6:00 P.M., the phone had rung fifty times. Hey, we thought, what we told the dentists would happen might actually come true. Should we buy chairs? Nah, let’s get a couple more buckets.

Fred Joyal

EPILOGUE: Fred Joyal is the CEO and cofounder of 1-800-DENTIST, a branch of parent company “Futuredontics.” As the largest dental referral service in the nation, over 2.5 million people contact 1-800-DENTIST each year to find a screened member dentist.

Joyal is also the on-air spokesperson for 1-800-DENTIST, having appeared in over forty television commercials, print and video news releases. His boy-next-door looks, charming smile and soothing delivery of the company’s message has shepherded many a dentist-weary soul to call 1-800-DENTIST and make an appointment.

To learn more about Fred Joyal and 1-800-DENTIST, please visit

Dahlynn McKowen

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