Inside SmileDirectClub with Alex Fenkell

By: Izzy Hermelin

Alex Fenkell, co-founder of SmileDirectClub, sat down with us and shared  his personal experiences with starting his own company as well as tips we can translate when creating our own businesses. With the aid of his fellow co-founder Jordan Katzman, the two developed SmileDirectClub, an at-home invisible aligner business. Founded in 2014, SmileDirectClub has seen rapid growth and represents 95% of the at-home invisible aligner business. SmileDirectClub is an Official Partner of  the Michigan Fashion Media Summit, and wants to know #WhatMakesYouSmile?

Q: Could you talk about your experience with starting SDC? Feel free to touch on your recognition of the need for these products in the market and how you came up with the name and slogans.
A: My co-founder Jordan Katzman and I came up with the idea of SmileDirectClub in 2014. We were thinking back to our days at summer camp with a mouth full of metal braces and thought – there’s got to be a better way to straighten teeth. We wanted to create a convenient, affordable model to help give more people a smile they’d love. There are 300 million people across the world that can benefit from invisible aligner therapy. One of our missions at SmileDirectClub is to increase access to care. 60% percent of counties in the U.S. do not have access to an orthodontist, and we’re now treating people in 100% of those counties. We’ve currently transformed over 400,000 smiles and we’re eager to keep raising that number.

Q: What does a typical day at Smile Direct Club look like?
A:  Jordan and I are both very involved with the day-to-day business. The entire executive team is incredibly hands on and we are all working hard to continuously make SmileDirectClub better. I have a hand in just about everything that goes on within the company. We are all working to continue to improve our service, products and reach more people and make more smiles.  

Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced with starting your own business?
A: We are grateful to have started a business that is providing our customers with a life-changing service that people are excited about. SmileDirectClub has seen significant growth over the past few years, and with that comes a few growing pains. We’re working as a team to make sure we grow efficiently and in the best way possible to help continue to serve more people.

Q: As you have grown why did you decide to open brick and mortar stores, when you were so successful with direct to consumer online?
A: SmileDirectClub started as a direct-to-consumer brand and still remains a core part of our business. We created SmileShops to give our customers another easy way to begin their smile journey. We have found that customers enjoy having that one-on-one attention from a SmileGuide who is trained to capture a 3D scan of their smile, speak in detail about the service, and answer any questions the customer may have in real-time.  However, those who prefer to complete an at-home impression kit still have that option. We have strategically placed SmileShops all over the U.S. and in Canada to help continue our mission of providing access to care. To also help further that mission we have created the SmileBus, we have multiple buses that act like a mobile clinical and travel the US providing customers with another way to complete a 3D scan.

Q: Do you think American beauty standards have an impact on your brands success?
A: We are doing much more than straightening teeth – we are democratizing confidence. Similar to any beauty product, our invisible aligners are helping customers achieve their best self. We are very much a cosmetic service, so beauty standards impact how people view the need for our service.

Q: Why are you interested in being a part of the Michigan Fashion Media Summit?
A: We are happy to be a sponsor of this year’s Michigan Fashion Media Summit. We have strong ties to the area as both Jordan and I are from Michigan and that’s where we started SmileDirectClub. Many members of our leadership team are also University of Michigan alumni, and we’re honored to be a continued part of that community. SmileDirectClub prides itself on providing confidence and empowerment through a new smile. We are excited to be sponsoring an organization that is committed to similar values within its group. As a cosmetic product, we know how important it is to feel confident, and we admire the confidence it takes working within the fashion industry.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own company?
A: My advice would be to be patient. It took Jordan and I years to find the right idea and you have to be willing to fail a few times beforehand to succeed. It's important to not get hung up on just one idea, you need to be willing to move forward and pivot when something isn't working. The first steps when building your own business are grueling; I acted as the call center, shipping department, sales team, and basically everything in between when we first launched SmileDirectClub. We worked very hard to get to where we are now and you have to be patient to get there. It’s also important to find the right partners. Jordan and I were fortunate enough to have very knowledgeable advisors helping us along the way, which has been one of the keys to our success.

Brian Zhao