Alex Fenkell and Jordan Katzman
For some, smiling is a little more difficult than others. These are the people Alex Fenkell and Jordan Katzman are happiest helping with SmileDirectClub, the Nashville-based company they first conceived of in 2013 and launched in 2014 with seed money from Jordan's dad, David Katzman of Camelot Venture Group.
“SmileDirectClub is the pioneer and industry leader of the dentist-directed at-home invisible liner market,” Fenkell said of the business which he said is 50 to 60 percent less than other similar teeth straightening businesses.
The idea for the business first came to Fenkell and Katzman when they were 13-year-olds at northern Michigan's Camp Tanuga with a mouth full of braces. “We had the typical mouths of metal, which were such a pain, and miserable experiences,” Fenkell, 29, of Bloomfield and a Cranbrook Kingswood graduate said. His longtime friend Katzman gew up in Franklin and graduated from Birmingham Groves High School. Both return to the area each weekend from Nashville.
The two first had a bunch of other business ideas they launched before SmileDirectClub, beginning with a car detailing business they started together at the age of 16. “We did it for friends and family and people in the community,” Fenkell recalled.
After college, they started a payment application program, similar in concept to Venmo, which Fenkell acknowledges was probably a little ahead of its time. “We'd collect money from friends,” he said. “It had peer-to-peer Venmo capabilities. It was successful, but it didn't go as far.”
If timing in life is everything, the time was right for SmileDirectClub, which uses custom-made clear BPA-free plastic aligners which gradually shift teeth into their desired position, with follow-up retainers to keep teeth in perfect formation. Shoppers can choose two options to achieve their results, either by ordering a kit online and sending an impression of their teeth back, where a licensed dentist or orthodontist will create the invisible liners and send them back, or at one of their 121 SmileShops in 34 states. They currently work with more than 225 state-licensed affiliated dentists and orthodontists.
These walk in stores allow shoppers to have a scan of their smile and then a state-licensed dentist or orthodontist develops the invisible liner which is shipped to their home. Currently there are SmileShops in Rochester Hills and Farmington Hills, Fenkell said.
“By the end of the year, we'll have 150 shops in 40 states,” he said.
While typical orthodontic treatment can cost thousands of dollars, SmileDirect is a more affordable option, with the kit costing just $79, plus $80 a month over two years of treatment. Follow up retainers are about $100.
Fenkell and Katzman are very excited that, as of this summer, the kits are available at Macy's, CVS and Bed, Bath and Beyond, providing availability to a greater reach of potential clients.
“The most rewarding thing for me are the customer results. That you can offer someone a life-changing product for an affordable option, that's what it's about,” said Fenkell, whose focus is on the retail shops while Katzman is very hands-on with research and development and IT – although they make it clear they're involved with all aspects of the company.
What's next for the two young entrepreneurs?
“We've treated 250,000 people so far. The U.S. market is about 100,000 million, so we have our hands filled with this. We really are having lots of fun – it has been an incredible journey so far.”