“Dr. Augustyn, you have created what we refer to as generational wealth in your practice,” Kyle Francis of Professional Transition Strategies said to me after evaluating Happy Tooth, our general dentistry practice end of 2022. I think Kyle noticed an emotional reaction on my face, via the zoom call. Tears pulled from my eyes, and I fought tirelessly to prevent them from running amok. Having left the meeting, much to my surprise, I felt a loss of control, and I fell to my knees, crying, covering my mouth so as not to make a sound.
I was bewildered at my own reaction. I felt a combination of astonishment, gratitude, fear, and an endless sense of pride (something entirely foreign to me). You can work tirelessly your entire life, never expecting to hear those words. Is this what it felt like to ‘have made it,’ I wondered.
Is this what it was like to have a reward for relentless and painstaking effort? I felt so lucky, except luck didn’t get me to hear those words coming out of Kyle’s mouth; it was an uncompromising improvement, incessant hard work, and some blood, sweat, and tears that did it. I’d had an unquenched thirst for learning as far back as I can remember. Kyle described me, in our meeting, as a ‘growth junkie,’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. From the moment I understood what growth of self had stood for, as distant as 7th grade, I had chased it each and every day; I still do today. And apparently, that’s how I’d arrived.
Failing, In Debt, And Broke.
A few years before the pandemic, I sat down to calculate the value of the services provided in our office. Happy Tooth, the name I’d come up in before graduating from dental school, was predominately an HMO and public aid practice. We prided ourselves on serving anyone and every one, on this tumultuous walk of life.
On an average year, we saw a total of 10,500 patients and had 800 or so new patients knocking on our doors asking to be seen. Our days were in a fast-forward motion, with no pause button in sight. We were running between rooms and needed roller skates to keep up with demand. The full fee for services rendered at Happy Tooth hovered in the mid-4 million dollar range. Our collection on those services was roughly at 25%; our overhead was between 69 and 75%.
This meant that what we had leftover before paying ourselves as providers, let alone owners, on said $4M+ practice was at a little
less than 10%. 10% split between 2 partners. 10%. There were many days that we had a hundred dollars in our operating account, and our only perceived savings was the line of credit on our practice. We had so much credit card debt at such high-interest rates that I personally paid it off using my savings to reduce the liability of late payments.
And even amidst the financial struggle, much of the work I was doing felt like it was worth it. I thought I was fulfilling the purpose of my presence, serving those who had few or no choices. I thought I was serving humanity. The truth was that I was volunteering more than I was serving. I was so burnt out during those years that in my yelp reviews from 2018 and before, patients referred to me as standoffish, unprofessional, and agitated. The slogan of our office: “Happy Tooth. Happy Patient. Happy Day.” was not applicable to any part other than the tooth. I was serving others with an attitude unbecoming of a compassionate provider. I was serving others and was strongly disliked; in fact, I also disliked others.
I was miserable. Yet, I kept going like that for years because I didn’t know any better. I kept going like that for years because my practice was such a failure; it would take decades to turn it around. And I didn’t have the strength for that. I felt helpless, lost, devoid of hope, and incapable of imagining possibilities. I was stuck, motionless, paralyzed by my own failure. There was no room in my future for what today’s reality has brought. And yet, with all of that, the next question in everyone’s mind must be: what changed? How do you go from no money in the bank to generational wealth? How long did it take? And, can I get there too?
A Hard Day's Night
It would be blasphemous of me to say that cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Yet, as difficult as it was, the experience and fight were so eye-opening that waking up from the aftermath of the trauma, I was projected toward life-changing decisions.
The life I had pre-cancer, the one painted above, was no longer a life I was willing to return to. And thus, the beginning of 2019, a search ensued. A search towards a fair reward for the output of energy and hard work. A search towards figuring out who I was, deep down, and not who others expected me to be. A search towards filling my own cup and not someone else’s. I searched for unapologetic authenticity.
A three-year commitment to life coaching sessions was the first step into finding that which made my heart glow. That gave me hope; the sessions made me identify my own deeply buried and undiscovered talents. With encouragement and newly found strength, I decided that the failed practice I was running was worth the effort it took to change it. I’d assumed that it would take a decade to rid of broken systems, which took 13 years to create. But even if it did take a decade, at least I’d be fulfilled at the finish line. Much to my surprise, the efforts of rediscovery and coaching paid off sooner. Instead of 10 years to turn it around, it took 3.
Three difficult years. Three years of concepts, meetings, planning, and thinking. Three years of 60-hour weeks. In 2022 alone, I had 24 contact hours with patients per week but worked 3 times that. Two of those three years were in coaching with Productive Dentist Academy, a guiding light. Two of those three years created a million-dollar growth in our practice receipts, profitability, and an overhead to be envied.
Two of those three years, I, along with my team was enveloped in uncomfortable change, difficult conversations, and materialized challenging concepts. I had to push myself daily to be a better leader, doing the right thing for the right reason and rising to the occasion in spite of exhaustion and frustration. I had to find hope and faith that it was going to be worth it in the end. I wish I could offer you a step-by-step guide on how exactly this change came about, but our process, our culture, or starting point was different than anyone else’s.
The only advice I can offer, on getting yourself to the other side of red, is to get help. Help from an expert who can lead you into
growth, into the black. A coach, a consultant, or a mentor. Create accountability with that help. Create a commitment. Create a plan. And then move forward as fast or as slow as life allows. I forever offer myself as an example of what is possible, still in disbelief of the road ahead and behind me; I give my time away, speaking with anyone needing mentorship or guidance on the phone. I do this at least twice a month. Random people, struggling dentists looking for hope and a better way, are the people I fill my weekends with. You, as well, are welcome to be part of that conversation. Reach out to me, if moved to do so.
lThe Restless Mind, Body, And Soul
I don’t know that I’d ever considered myself an entrepreneur. To me, an entrepreneur is someone who builds multiple ventures, materializes ideas, and monetizes them. But maybe there is room in that definition for a variation. Maybe an entrepreneur’s spirit is less about monetizing ideas and more about creating and realizing a vision. Maybe it’s more about the inception and less about the dollar; maybe it’s about change.
The spirit of an entrepreneur, for me, didn’t only entail the growth of my practice, its bottom line, or a handsome EBITA. Generational wealth was not part of the plan, not even a seed in my mind. ‘Focusing on the practice alone or its finances would have been too easy,’ I jokingly think in my head. I am far too restless and relentless to only keep one job.
The last two years of my life have also included other spinning plates in the air. I spend my weekends and evenings constantly writing and have published over 50 articles (since 2020) in dental magazines and other publications. I am a regular contributor to Dentistry Today with my own column called Mindful Moments. I have prepared lectures and spoken nationwide several times a year at dental meetings and study clubs. I was even the school board president at my daughter’s school. I found that the more pressure I put on myself, the more I valued time, the more I created, the less I took for granted.
My life coach, Lani Grass, once told me that she has never met anyone who wants more return on investment for each minute of the day than I do. As lovingly as she said it, I don’t consider that a compliment; it’s a hindrance, a heavy weight to carry to constantly try to materialize all the moments ahead with little rest. Yet, it’s that hindrance and all of those spinning plates that I think make me an entrepreneur, a contributor to sharing, teaching, and, of course, learning.
What's It Worth?
There are many times that I lay at night wondering if the work
and stress, which have led to an increase in anxiety or depression symptoms at times, have been worth it. I remember coming home after my cancer surgery, looking at all the materialistic things surrounding me understanding that they didn’t mean a thing, not in the face of the dancing demons. That which money can buy isn’t important, not in the end, not compared with a life worth honoring.
The hard work that I’d put forth, the early hours at work, and the late meetings at home, they haven’t been for the sake of accumulating generational wealth. It’s been for the sake of growth, my own growth, my own improvement. It’s been an act of ridding my self-perceived flaws and perfecting my strengths. I believe that being an entrepreneur has little to do with the gathering of things that can be counted and later sold.
I believe it’s all about an inner drive, a sense of restlessness. It is a magic push towards something bigger than ourselves, something worth creating for the sake of growth, of self first, and then of others. And now that I’d arrived, what I have come to know and gather is up for display. Not the display of bank accounts or mutual funds, for display as compassion, mentorship, and support of those walking along with me.
In 3 more years, you won’t see me counting dollars, you’ll see me celebrating with anyone who today is choosing to wander down the same path as I did. And thus, it is only when I consider my true servitude to others that I consider it to have been worth it.
Dr. Maggie W. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist, owner of Happy Tooth, author, and inspiration speaker. She completed her formal dental education, earning a doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Prior to that, she was awarded two Bachelor's degrees (UIC and Benedictine University). She is also an alumnus of Dawson Academy. Dr. Augustyn has published over 50 articles in the last 2 years. She is a columnist for Dentistry Today, publishing monthly in “Mindful Moments." She has also written in Dental Economics and is a frequent contributor for Dental Entrepreneur Woman. Dr. Augustyn also has a strong social media presence and has been a guest on multiple podcasts. She can be contacted at maggie.augustyn@ gmail.com.