Five lessons from the first five years of owning a business

This is a long article – you’ve been warned.  However, it’s probably my most vulnerable and transparent to date.  I’m coming up on my five year anniversary of running a business and it got me thinking about the lessons I have learned along the way.  I know it’s weird to say it, but it’s probably the most significant piece I’ve written in that five years.  To be certain, there have definitely been more than five lessons, but for the sake of brevity (it didn’t work), I condensed it to five.  Five in five.  Sounds more catchy.  So, without extending the introduction any longer – because, Good Lord, the article is long enough – here are five lessons I’ve learned in my first five years of owning a business.

1.  If You’re Different, You Can Compete

I remember my first conversation with Ashley Joves of Smile & Co.  It was 6:30 p.m. on a summer evening. The kids were playing in the house so I stepped outside the front door to talk.  She was a dentist getting ready to start a practice from scratch in the greater Sacramento area.  Ashley had recently won the attention of some in the dental community because of an initial Facebook Live video that went viral and her vision of what a “different” dental practice could look like.  She envisioned a wine-bar-like atmosphere where food, culture and community played a role.  She envisioned interaction with other local business owners to support each other and make Folsom an amazing place to work.  

“Am I crazy?”  She had almost gotten lost in describing her vision to me and then stopped abruptly as if the voice of realism jerked her back to earth.

“No,” I said. “If you can be different, you can compete.”

You see, California is THE most competitive state in the nation when it comes to dentists per capita. Brokers, lenders, and suppliers will all tell you that the area is too saturated. The flood of DSO and corporate investment dollars is driving the valuation of practices higher than ever.  You’re better off looking somewhere else.  And they are 100% right IF you are going to build the same traditional dental practice that everyone else has built.  BUT if you can be different, you can compete.

We work well with Ashley because being different has always been a central value to our business.  We could have launched a dental marketing company like every other dental marketing company and blended into the noise.  Or we could stand out, create something different and get attention.  We choose the latter.  

I traded suits and ties for ripped jeans and Air Force 1 sneakers.  We decided to never use stock photography in any website we ever created.  We decided that dentistry was a beautiful and inspiring profession that deserved a better story.  We decided to work closely with a few clients as their trusted advisors, instead of building a company around the mass production of a boring, blah product.  We decided to launch a podcast with video instead of audio.  We decided to document our team along the way and show the behind-the-scenes culture we were building.  

The whole time, it’s been a decision to be different.  The world has enough of the SAME.  The market for blah is fiercely competitive.  You most likely won’t make it.  

So please, whatever you’re doing, ask yourself, “How am I different?”  Discover what it is that makes you unique and triple down on that.  Bet the whole show.  The world needs business owners who don’t just talk about being different, but show the world that they actually are.

So, the first business lesson I learned is this, “Show me you’re different and you’ll win.”

2.  Panic Attacks

We were about nine months into the launch of our business.  It’s 2:30 a.m. and I’m lying in bed wide awake.  My heart is racing and I’m having trouble catching my breath.  I can’t stop thinking about… cash flow (ah yes, the glorious life of a business owner).  One of our clients was two weeks behind on an invoice. In those days, we had so few clients that one of them could literally throw off the whole month by being late.  We had also paid a few bills on time that we probably should have waited on. And now I was laying in bed, unable to sleep because of the pressure of potentially missing our first payroll.

“I think this is a panic attack,” I thought to myself.  I don’t know that I had ever really had one before. I began controlling my breathing and eventually it subsided allowing me to fall asleep, but only after most of the night had passed.  

We managed to make payroll for the team that week, but I had to delay mine until invoicing was current again. I still remember that conversation with my wife. “So… I’m not getting paid tomorrow.  I should soon, but… I’m not entirely sure when.”

Probably the most surprising lesson over the last five years has been the reality of anxiety. I’m fortunate in that it hasn’t ruled my life, but that night certainly wasn’t the last incident.  The most difficult part for me is that it sneaks up and takes me off guard.  I could have had a great day and then an email or social media post triggers something that causes my thoughts to begin this uncontrollable spiral.  I could have had an absolutely overwhelming day that sends me to bed physically exhausted, but mentally frantic.  The hardest part has been the self-awareness of knowing when anxiety begins to attack, how to communicate it to those that love me and how to shut it down.

I know anxiety is a debilitating condition that millions struggle with every day.  While my experience has been more episodic in nature and usually due to imbalance in my life, it has given me an appreciation for the importance of mental health.  It’s a life decision that I take more seriously.  I’ve learned that I need margin in my life.  Having eight phone calls in one day may look time efficient on the calendar, but I don’t like how it makes me feel afterward. So maybe four is enough. I am very task-oriented so having a full to-do list for the day makes me feel anxious. I’ve learned that it’s okay to wake up, breathe, read, make the kids breakfast, drop them off at school and then sit down to my computer.  

I have a ton of respect for people like Dr. Shakila Angadi (@theinspireddentist) and the work she’s doing to drive awareness to mental wellness in dentistry and help professionals suffering through it.  Whether you’re a business owner or not, life is meant to be enjoyed.  But that same drive that fulfills you professionally can also rob you of being present in the moment personally. If you’re struggling with feeling overwhelmed, stressed, panicked or just overall unhappy, please find someone you can trust to have those conversations with.

Business is hard.  Panic attacks are real.  But it doesn’t have to define you. Here’s the truth I live with: I can’t go back to the beginning.  And I can’t control what tomorrow will be.  I can only live here in the middle.  But it’s the place I find grace and peace.  

The second lesson I learned is, “Staying mentally healthy is my most important job.”

3.  The Team Matters Most

It was one of those beautiful Florida mornings.  The family was still asleep.  I slipped out of bed, made some coffee and was now enjoying the sound of the ocean waves from the balcony.  One of the things I enjoy most about family vacations is having the morning to myself to read, think, write, go for a run – basically whatever I want to do.  This morning I had been working through a new book titled, “Scary Close” from one of my favorite authors, Donald Miller.  Donald’s writing style is so effortless it’s genius.  I’m always disappointed at the end because they read so fast.  I can clear a 200 page book of his in two days.  

Towards the end, Miller tells the story of starting his marketing agency, Story Brand in Nashville.  He wrestles with the “Why” behind what he’s doing and the point of running a business at all.  Is it just to make money?  He recounts, “I wanted more than just a company.  I wanted something different.  I wanted to be in it for more than just a profit.” He sits down with his leadership team and maps out his core values.  He sums it up, “We’d have to make money in order for the system to be sustainable, but the business wouldn’t exist to make money, it would exist to build a healthy community.”

I don’t know if you ever read a book and have something hit you so hard that you have to put the book down and just sit for a moment?  It doesn’t happen to me all the time, but every now and then something strikes so profoundly that it’s almost physical. It’s like discovering the elusive treasure that you’ve been searching for for years.  There it was, “Suddenly we were more than a company, we were a new and better culture.”  

In that moment, I instantly understood the purpose of Studio 8E8 and any business I would build.  It’s less about the “What” and more about the “Who.”  In other words, it almost doesn’t matter what we do.  What matters most is that we build a culture where others can find their purpose, use their gifts and talents and experience a safe environment.

Since that time, our culture has been our number one value.  You see it reflected in the food budget every month.  We buy lunch for the team on Mondays and break in the middle of the day to hang out personally.  We have a “snack ladder” in the office that we keep stocked with snacks and a message thread where you can request your favorites.  We take time intentionally throughout the year to celebrate with dinner and enjoy nice restaurants with our team members.  I think a lot of times people overthink culture in a workplace.  Here’s a simple trick:  Show me your food budget and I’ll show you your culture.

Before I move on from this, I want to say one more thing: I am so proud of the Millennials on our team and I am so respectful of that generation overall.  I get frustrated with anyone dissing them right now.  It seems like the cool thing to do. There are a lot of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers looking to put down the new, “cool” kids because they themselves are insecure, scared and threatened.  I want to be someone that stands up and says that I believe in this generation.  There is more potential in these 20-somethings right now than any generation EVER in the history of the United States.  I feel called to be a leader in that space by serving them.  Studio 8E8 probably won’t be the last place they ever work, but hopefully they will look back and see it as one of the most fulfilling places they’ve ever worked.  

Lesson three is this; “Invest more in the WHO than the WHAT.”

4.  I Am The Most Demanding Boss

Over the last 15 years I have worked for two very demanding bosses. For those of you who have followed my journey you most likely know who they are and are probably nodding your head in agreement right now. While I will stay away from specific examples in order to respect privacy, I will say that one of the most difficult things about working for a demanding boss is the ever-changing expectations that come with the job.  

The toughest part of following a demanding boss is that the rules always seem to change. Depending on the day or the mood, priorities are different and your performance seems to be at the mercy of their current state of mind.  From the boss’ standpoint I get it. In that moment, they are 100% certain about what they want.  Until they wake up the next day and realize that they are 100% certain that they are not certain.  So they change what they want.  While this is fine in your internal, personal dialogue, it only causes confusion and frustration for those working for you.  

I intentionally decided (thanks previous bosses!) that I don’t need to be a douchebag leader that holds up an ever-changing standard of perfection (I think that's tweetable).

My team needs me to be inspired but systematic; full of vision but also day-to-day practical.  They need me to set the standard high and challenge them, but execute with patience.  They need a leader who leads with principles and not personality.  Personalities change, but principles guide no matter the situation.

What’s even more interesting is that as soon as I became a business owner I realized that I am the most demanding boss I’ve ever worked for.  Left to myself, I never stop. By default, I drive myself to constantly get better – pushing the standard of perfection higher and higher along the way.  That’s why I think it’s super healthy to have a filter with your team; to recognize that my drive is different than their drive.  It should be.  It’s okay to have different sets of standards based on experience, gifting, personality, talent, role, etc. They’re not business owners. That is 100% fine and it would be out of line for me to expect them to act like one.

My expectations of myself cannot be the same expectations I have for them.  What I’ve also learned is that most people are demanding enough on themselves.  What they need most is a leader who believes in them.  Being driven is okay, but have the self-awareness to realize that most type-A personalities have demanding self-talk that will undermine a healthy business culture.

The fourth lesson I learned is, “Demanding bosses are douchebags.”

5.  It’s All About Relationships

It was October 11 and Rapid City had just gotten its first snowfall of the year.  It was our first trip to South Dakota and we had a few hours to kill before we had to be at a new client’s practice.  “I think we can make it to Mt Rushmore and back,” I told JMoore and Jeff.  I mean, who flies into Rapid City and doesn’t get over to see this great American monument?  It’s bucket list stuff.  

The Black Hills are always beautiful, but after this snow, they were stunning.  Sitting on the evergreens like a new, fluffy comforter that nobody has ever slept with.  We made our way up to the observation area and stood there for a moment without saying anything.  We had a video piece that we needed to film, but the grandeur of this mountain deserved a moment of pause.

“Can you believe we get to come to places like this?” Jeff broke the silence. “I mean, did you ever think when you started this that you would get to go to some of the coolest places in our country?”

I hadn’t actually.  I knew I liked to travel and it would play a role in my life, but Jeff was right.  We have been able to go to some really cool places.  And even though we’ve collected stories to tell from all over the country, what’s even more “cool” are all the people we have been able to meet.

It’s official, dentistry has become our tribe, our community.  Many of my good friends now work in the industry.  We’ve been able to meet so many amazing people and what’s even more important is realizing we share many of the same values.  

2018 will particularly stand out as an amazing year because of the people we’ve met.  Dental influencers like Anissa Holmes, Mark Costes, Michael Arias, Shakila Angadi and Leonard Tau to name a few.  We discovered that part of our purpose is to use our talents as a company to help elevate the industry as a whole - not just individual dental practices.  We’re excited about the future of personal brands and helping more influencers communicate their story.  

2018 also marked a significant increase in startup practices.  Sleek Smiles, Perch Dentistry, Cresta Bella, Fresh, 161 Dental Studio, Freedom Family, Livingston Orthodontics, Molar City and all the others that trusted us with their vision.  These are visionaries and pioneers that see something different and have the courage to go after it.  We’re honestly honored to get to be a part of helping make their vision a reality.

I think the final lesson is also the most important, “It’s all about people.”

Closing Thoughts

So for now, that’s my top five lessons in the first five years of business ownership. I’ll be back in 2023 to give you the ten year recap.

I’ve truly had the time of my life.  It makes me wish I would have done this sooner, but don’t mistake the smile for the fact that it’s been easy.  Learning important insights like these lighten the load, but being a business owner is still demanding.  And you already know how I feel about demanding bosses.

Joshua Scott is a dental marketing speaker and consultant. He has been in the dental industry for the last 16 years and works with practices around the country to create confident marketing strategies.

He leads Studio 8E8 (pronounced “88”), a creative marketing firm specializing in brand creation and digital marketing solutions. He is also the host of The 8E8 Show — a regular podcast answering dentistry’s most important marketing questions.

Discover more about Josh’s approach to marketing at

Learn More

The dental practice landscape is changing at an ever faster rate. Protect your investment by putting together a strategic marketing plan customized to you. Schedule your consultation with me.

You Might Also Like...