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RDH entrepreneurs

March 1, 2012
The late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, said in an interview, “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks.

Ann Arrington, Becky Logue, and Marie Wickman-Dykes. Photo courtesy of Anne Guignon, RDH.

Don’t be afraid to go for your dreams

by Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH

The late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, said in an interview, “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really ‘grok’ what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, and not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.” Innovation from a passionate commitment to improve the quality of patient care is what dental hygienists strive to do each day. Creating and designing a product from concept to reality to act on that commitment to improve care is a huge challenge.

I recently had the privilege of meeting three dental hygienists who have designed and created new products for the dental profession and brought them to the marketplace. Becky Logue, RDH, invented the Dental R.A.T., a foot activated mouse for hands-free periodontal charting. Ann Arrington, RDH, invented the Blue Boa, a hands-free high volume suction adapter for power scaling. Marie Wickman-Dykes, RDH, invented Mirror Gear, a plastic protective cover that fits over the mirror head during autoclaving.

The inspiration

The spark of inspiration is the heart of an entrepreneur’s vision, often born out of the frustration that there is no known solution. “My spark was ignited by frustration,” said Ann Arrington, inventor of the Blue Boa. “I couldn’t use my ultrasonic scaler successfully. I felt like I needed to grow one more hand. I couldn’t hold the handpiece, the suction, and the mirror all at the same time. If I handed a patient the suction, they didn’t hold it where I needed it. You would think if a patient were drowning, they would put the suction farther back, but they just don’t! If I held the suction, I couldn’t see anything. I compromised my posture in a way that would make any Chinese acrobat proud! When I would finally pick up my mirror, I had left so much behind that I wondered why I even used the ultrasonic.

“I started looking for solutions to my problem,” Ann continued. “I tried a hygoformic saliva ejector, which looks like a pig’s tail. It was designed to go into the low volume suction. It didn’t have enough power in the low volume suction, it hung heavy in the mouth, often displacing or falling on the floor, and the tubing on the low volume suction was too short and didn’t reach the far side of the mouth. Among other possible solutions to my problem, I tried a suction mirror. The one I bought connected to the high volume suction. I liked that, and I liked using it on the posterior teeth. However, the tubing was heavy and it didn’t work well for me on the anterior teeth. While working on anterior teeth, all the water was collecting in the back of the mouth, while my mirror and suction were looking at the linguals of 24 and 25. One day, I thought, ‘I wish I could slam the hygoformic and suction mirror ideas together, taking the best of both and leaving behind the disadvantages.’”

Mirror Gear inventor Marie Wickman-Dykes said, “Basically, I was frustrated with constantly changing my mirror heads because they became scratched and damaged during the cleaning and sterilization process, and quite frankly they just didn’t last long enough in my opinion. I also wanted better quality mirrors, but couldn’t afford to replace them over and over again. So, my first attempt was to wrap them with gauze to try to protect them from scratching during the sterilization process and I thought — there must be a better way! I believe the idea for Mirror Gear first occurred while I was cleaning a patient’s teeth, and it was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. I could not wait to get home to discuss my idea with my family and get the materials needed for the idea. That night I worked on a prototype with the materials I purchased, and it ended up looking like a piece of cheese! Within a week I improved the prototype sample to the point that I could present the idea to a patent attorney.”

Dental R.A.T. inventor Becky Logue said, “Our office had been looking for different ways to perio chart, and nothing seemed to give us the accuracy we wanted. I’d been thinking about ways to perio chart alone that worked. One day I got the kids a foot-operated dance pad for their PlayStation game, and I just kept thinking, if I could have the numbers on the floor, I could perio chart alone without interrupting anyone else. And since we use our feet for a lot of things in dentistry, I thought it would be pretty simple to learn. I really needed something to help me perio chart because our dentist wasn’t going to get us a hygiene assistant. I had talked to my dad and told him what I was thinking, and he told me to get off my butt and do it. So I talked to a patent attorney and told him what I had in mind, and he laughed at me and said, ‘That’s a kindergarten concept; I doubt you can patent that.’ He called me later and said I could get the patent for foot-operated data entry. We had just built a house and saved some money for a pool, so I had a family meeting and asked if I could have the pool money for a Dental R.A.T. That was the start.”

The refinement

After the spark lights up an idea, the refinement of the design begins, sometimes with input from family, friends, and professionals. Ann said, “For me, the trick was trying to get ample suction, without sucking up the oral mucosa. It was a fine balance. I had to study how many inches of mercury a dental compressor would produce. Then I ran a few field tests to determine just how big in diameter the tubing could be. I also had to test a few materials to see if they could withstand the sterilization process. I wanted my product to be able to withstand high heat in order to be autoclavable.

“Initially the length was only 36 inches. I found that to be too short. We extended the length to 42 inches and even offered a 48-inch Blue Boa for offices that are not ergonomically close to their suction. Another alteration that was suggested by a fellow hygienist was to make a Blue Boa adapter that would fit a traditional quarter inch saliva ejector. I was hesitant to do that. For me personally, the quarter inch saliva ejector was never ‘hands free.’ In other words, I couldn’t put a bend on it that allowed it to sit in the mouth, unaided by me. That was my whole goal in producing the Blue Boa adapter. However, after a few hygienists requested it, I decided to accommodate that request with another Blue Boa option that would fit the standard saliva ejector. If they had a good hands-free bend, the Blue Boa would provide a lightweight tube and high volume suction.” Ann also discovered that her product was beneficial for other dental procedures that require saliva isolation, and she also markets her product to pediatric dentists and other specialists.

It is unusual that Ann didn’t set out to create a business. “I started shopping for a company that could provide me with eight tubes to take back to my office. I just wanted to fix my problem. I wasn’t trying to start a business. After going from one company to the next, I realized that I would have to fabricate a specialized mold to accomplish what I wanted to make. When I received the quote on the mold, I backed away from the idea. It would require an investment of several thousand dollars. But the more I thought about it, I realized that so many other hygienists were struggling with exactly the same problem. I had polled many hygienists trying to find a solution. Nobody had one. That’s when I decided to move forward.”

Marie said, “After conducting both legal and marketing research, we began the process to receive approval on a provisional patent. Once that legal hurdle was behind us, we began the next step in the process of taking the product from the idea stage to market.” She contacted several companies to find one that would create the first prototype of Mirror Gear, finding one in the U.S. that could also make the product in eight different colors.

“My reasoning for offering multiple colors was based on the fact that we color code for different dental procedures, and to distinguish between hygienist setups and/or operatories,” she said.

The Dental R.A.T. also evolved due to the dental industry’s dependence on the computer. Becky said, “As we were looking for a way to input the numbers in an ergonomic fashion, we thought we should also add the left click so we could mark bleeding, recession, etc., and we also needed the mouse cursor control to be able to move to other things on the screen. The nice thing that has happened is that as everything else came onto the computer, the digital X-rays, intraoral cameras, and more, the Dental R.A.T. could run any of it. It also has changed from a corded PS2 round mouse plug to a USB cord to a wireless version.”

Her strong conviction in the product’s usefulness propels the project forward even when things get difficult. “I strongly believed that by covering the mirrors during the cleaning and sterilization process, dental offices would save money,” Marie said. “Dentists and hygienists could have better quality mirrors and not have to replace mirrors because they would last longer with the Mirror Gear covers. After sharing the product idea with a few local dentists and dental hygienists, and conducting a cost analysis on replacing dental mirrors compared to purchasing Mirror Gear covers to protect them, I decided to proceed. I also had the support of my coworkers and family, which made a huge difference in my decision.”

Relationship with others

Family and free time often take a back seat when the entrepreneurs’ businesses demand attention. When asked how much it affects their time, Ann answered, “Immensely! I had no idea. Many of my other hobbies have taken a backseat to my business. I still make time for exercise, but outside of that I’ve had to refocus my energies on my business. But my family always comes first! I try to work while the kids are at school or in bed, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I try not to let the business interfere with them. My husband has been very supportive. He has even attended trade shows in my stead! I had to teach him a little dental terminology, but he is so willing to jump in and help when it’s needed. Without his support, the business would not even be possible.”

Marie finds pros and cons with business and family time demands. “Mirror Gear has affected my family and free time in both positive and negative ways. I’m always trying to find new ways to balance my work and personal life, and I’m always asking others for assistance. There is no free time with a start-up business.” She adds that the support she’s received from her family has made all the difference. “My family has truly supported me. I’m thankful to my husband, kids, and family for giving me all the support and time I’ve needed to pursue my dream. They encourage me to keep going and never give up!”

Becky and Ann also found support in coworkers and family. Ann said, “I work with four other hygienists. They have been so supportive. They were the ones who provided me with the initial feedback when I began to take the idea seriously. They tested my first prototypes and provided so much feedback along the way. They have cheered with me during the highs and cried with me during the lows. They are some of my best friends. And my husband is my No. 1 fan!”

Becky said, “My family has been very supportive through a lot of ups and downs. My husband had to really pick up the financial burden since I wasn’t working in hygiene, with no paycheck and no benefits, just paying attorneys and engineers. And I’ve had to travel a lot, which is fun but hard on the family. We also decided to sell stock to raise capital, and so many of our friends and a lot of my patients stepped up and invested. We wouldn’t be in business without them! I’m hoping someday to be able to return the favor tenfold.”

Funding a dream is never easy, and Marie looked back on her financial challenges. “I started out by draining my 401(k), and $20,000 was gone in no time. These funds were spent on legal fees and the development of the 3-D design and prototype. Following my initial outlay of $20,000, I received an investment from my uncle and grandmother to fund the development of the mold, actual production of the product, our first order, and the marketing costs, including brochures, a website, collateral printed materials, and more. While I am not at liberty to disclose how much we’ve invested in the product, I will say that it costs money to make money.”

Ann had some savings she used for financing, but she needed help in other areas. “I found that I needed help with areas outside my expertise. I didn’t have any knowledge about forming corporations, licensing, patents, websites, accounting, etc. The list is lengthy. I soon realized that I needed outside support to help with those areas in which I was lacking.”

Becky and Marie relied on outside help for the business end of their businesses. “You definitely need outside help when starting a business, and you should not be afraid to ask for it,” Marie said. “There are a lot of experts out there that are willing to help you; you just need to ask.” She attended several classes at the local community college, and met with the Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa Small Business Development Center for additional help.

“I went to our local small business development center and they were very helpful in teaching me so much about business,” said Becky. “I had to learn all aspects of a business fast! There are so many great businesspeople that want to see small businesses succeed. There are also a lot of snakes wanting to take advantage of gullible new businesses.”

Being forced to stretch and learn and do things a new way is another hallmark of entrepreneurship. “Besides all of the financial challenges, it was a challenge for me to go from being an employee to an employer,“ said Becky. “I gained a lot of respect for all of the challenges my bosses had. They weren’t trained in business either; they were technical people who had to learn all of the aspects of business like I did. All of a sudden you’re married to a business full time — you sleep, eat, and drink it. Every weekend revolves around planning and strategizing, and vacations are a thing of the past.”

Becky also needed to overcome her fear of public speaking. “I used to about pass out when talking to more than three people at a time, and now I speak at colleges and seminars,” she said. “It’s interesting how God puts us in places where we would never put ourselves. I’ve learned a lot and I’m so thankful for all the new places I’ve seen and friends I’ve met. And someday I’ll get a vacation that isn’t a dental meeting.”

“Marketing is by far the biggest challenge,” said Ann. “I thought that since I was a hygienist, I knew this industry inside and out. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to get past the front desk person if I went door to door. But I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get the word out about a new product. Big companies have such large marketing budgets that they can really hit the marketing campaigns hard. My budget is so small, and it’s hard to compete with the big dogs. Even if you don’t take budget into consideration, attending multiple trade shows each month is very difficult. It takes a lot of time.”

Keeping Mirror Gear’s presence on the Internet was an unexpected challenge for Marie. “I launched the sale of Mirror Gear two years ago. I would say the only real challenge that has changed is the updating of our website — As we continue to reach dental offices and dental schools throughout the country, we know we must have a presence on the Internet. We have found that our website needs to be updated, upgraded, and refreshed more often than we had anticipated. In addition, we’ve found that we can offer Mirror Gear to dental schools at a reduced cost if they purchase large quantities; therefore our collateral marketing materials have needed to be revised and reprinted at an additional cost.”

Biggest surprises? “People surprise me,” said Becky. “I want to trust everyone. I had a guy want to learn about our product and want to be my first employee, and one day I couldn’t find him. He’d been arrested for a scam where he was stealing millions from people in a Ponzi scheme. I would’ve been his next victim.”

Ann said, “I never realized what was required to run a business, not only financially, but emotionally and physically as well. It takes a lot of time to run a business. I thought I would dabble in it a few hours a week, but that is so far from the truth!”

“My biggest surprise is that I thought I could work, have a family, and create a start-up business all at once. It takes an enormous amount of time to try to manage it all,” said Marie.

At least for these three women, successes are many and regrets are few.

Successes for Mirror Gear have been inclusion in two fee-free dental product catalogs, meeting dental speakers who have helped spread the word about the product, and obtaining a partnership agreement with Zirc mirrors. “My only regret,” Marie said, “is that I wish I had spent more time on the front end creating a business plan and looking at more creative ways to help us be more cost-effective with marketing. There is definitely a learning curve with any job, and with a start-up business there are many more learning curves.”

Success for Ann is feedback. “I love it when someone approaches me at a tradeshow and tells me how much they love their Blue Boa, and how much it has changed their posture, clinical effectiveness, and more. I feel the same way, but to have someone else express that brings such joy to my heart. It is so nice to know I am making someone else’s job easier and taking away that frustration that I shared with them of not being able to use an ultrasonic proficiently without growing an extra arm.”

Any regrets for her? “No regrets. That was part of the reason why I tackled this adventure in the first place. I didn’t want to lay my head down on the pillow each night thinking what if? No matter the final outcome, I know in my heart that I gave it my very best shot. There will be no what ifs.

Dental R.A.T.’s successes include being featured on the cover of a dental journal, being named Best of Class for dental technology at the Pride Institute, and being ranked one of the top 10 new products in the dental industry. Becky also received personal accolades by being named the Idaho Innovator of the Year and being named the Idaho Woman of the Year. She also received the Idaho State University Professional Achievement Award, and was invited to speak at graduation. Regrets? “Nope, even the tough stuff I’ve ended up learning from, and learning is always good!”

So if you have the idea for “The Next Big Thing” and aren’t sure if you should proceed, what do these RDH entrepreneurs have to say?

Ann will advise, “You’ve got to have a lot of energy. It requires time, money, sweat, and tears of both joy and sadness. There are times when you think you don’t have any more to give. That’s when you have to dig deep and give a little more. But if you think you’ve got something that is going to fly, you’ve got to give it wings and see where the wind takes it! Don’t be afraid to follow your dream. It is an amazing experience. I have learned so much about myself. No matter where my journey takes me, I have truly become a better person because of it.”

Marie says, “I would suggest that you evaluate and really weigh the pros and cons of doing everything yourself or selling your idea or product to a large and reputable dental company. While I chose to take my product to market, it might have been more beneficial to me (and my family) to investigate the need, demand, and financial gain from selling my product to a large dental company that already has the distribution mechanism in place to market the product directly to dental offices. However, I don’t regret taking this chance and meeting people and learning the various aspects of running a start-up business. If you have an idea or dream, go for it and follow it, wherever it might take you. “

Becky agrees. “Go for it! Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Have fun along the journey.”

How to succeed in small business

  1. Start with an idea.
  2. Look through catalogs and on the web to see if someone has beaten you to the marketplace. Is your idea better? Simple is usually better than complex.
  3. Develop a prototype and let others try it to solicit honest feedback. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Would someone honestly buy it? Do they have ideas to make it better
  4. Find someone to manufacture your product. You may need engineering drawings, schematics, artist illustrations, or a full-scale model. If manufacturing overseas, you may need help managing overseas production. To start production, you may also have to commit to a minimum order quantity from the manufacturer. How will you finance them? Where are you going to store these products
  5. Sell your product. You can sell through a distributor, catalog, show booth, from your own website, or a combination of these. Marketing is important to get the word out that your product exists and how it will solve a problem. Remember that as a new business owner, you are the packaging designer, order organizer, shipping clerk, advertisement executive, customer service representative, web master, public relations consultant, show booth designer, marketing chief, etc.

Entrepreneurs share the things they've learned

BECKY LOGUE: How to work the subway systems in any town, and how to pack light!
I’ve learned an appreciation for being a boss/employer.
I’ve learned not to stress or worry but to have faith that if something is meant to be, it will work out.
I’ve learned that I can accomplish anything if I surround myself with people smarter than me!

ANN ARRINGTON: Owning your own business is not for the faint of heart. It is a roller coaster filled with highs and lows. There are bursts of exhilaration, along with fear and so many other emotions. I never knew this before experiencing it for myself firsthand.

I’ve learned that hygienists are great at supporting one another. I’ve received so many phone calls and emails with suggestions, encouragement, feedback, etc. I’m so proud to be counted among these great professionals.

The Internet is an amazing tool. People all over the world have ordered our product because they have accessed it on the Internet. Along those lines, “Click and Ship” is my best friend. If I had to visit the post office each day, I really don’t think I could do it. With access to postage online, I can pay and label everything right from my home office and run it up the street to the city office postage drop.

MARIE WICKMAN-DYKES: I’ve learned that there is not enough time in a day to get everything done, both business and family.
I’ve learned to not be afraid to ask for help.
Many amazing hygienists are out there that help guide you.
It takes a lot of little steps to get to the next big thing.
I learned the patent process, the manufacturing process, and the legal, financial, and marketing aspects of a start-up business.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is a frequent contributor who is based in King George, Va.


1. Steve Jobs: The Next Big Thing WIRED Magazine 1993

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