Taking It to the Streets

By Marianne Jacobson

First Impressions

On a sunny day in February, I approached what looked like a rocket nose cone, a bullet train or a Hollywood movie trailer parked on the corner of Spear and Harrison Streets in San Francisco. I entered timidly through the door and was welcomed by Luke the receptionist on a small video screen on the wall in front of me, but Luke was a mile away at the “mothership.” On board this space-age vessel, I met Dr. Sara Creighton ’09, founder of Studio Dental, and my journey into the future of dentistry began.

Studio Dental was launched by Creighton and her business partner and CEO Lowell Caulder in 2014. They currently operate one mobile dental office and a small corporate headquarters in San Francisco. Their entrepreneurial vision and plans are grand.

Creighton was raised in Idaho, graduated from Wake Forest University in 2005 and University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in 2009. She describes her education at Pacific as “transformative.” Creighton remembers the dental school community as incredible and supportive and she relies on her professors when her patients need a specialist today. She started to form her own dental practice, called Washington Square Park Dental, in San Francisco with a classmate before finishing her DDS degree. After five years, she sold her share of the business to her partner to pursue her entrepreneurial venture full time.

Dr. Craig Yarborough ’80, associate dean for Institutional Advancement, remembers her well. “Not only is she exceptional on paper, but in person she is uniquely talented with phenomenal drive.” He was not surprised to learn of Studio Dental, nor her success.

While small, about 250 square feet, the Studio Dental truck is sleek and modern and has its own engine room with motor, compressor, generator and more in the nose cone of the trailer similar to a fancy cruise ship. The colors are a combination of soothing beige and modern black and the ceilings are high to offer a more spacious feeling. Creighton and Caulder partnered with David Montalba Architects, who designed Creighton’s first award-winning dental suite in North Beach, to design this traveling studio. The impressive Studio Dental trailer cost about $300,000 to build. Financially, they are on track to break even in another six to nine months, less than 18 months from the initial launch.

While Creighton and her mobile team are hitting the streets, Caulder is holding down the fort at the stationary “mothership.” His tiny office, with an inspiring view in the WeWork co-working space at Sixth and Market Streets, is near many of their prospective clients’ offices.

He shares his perspective on their joint venture. Caulder smiles as he informs me that he and Creighton share the same end goals: to work with people they like, build something cool that they can be proud of and have fun while doing it. He declares, “It was fun to turn dental practice on its head and create a dental office on wheels.” Both partners are ambitious, smart, young, articulate and the picture of health and hygiene. Creighton and Caulder’s relationship began as yoga comrades who became friends, then later dentist and patient. Their successful and refreshing partnership grew from their joint desire to start a company and serve their community.

The Genesis

The co-founders both agree that the genesis of Studio Dental came from their own busy lives as young, social San Francisco professionals. Two key issues emerged. Their contemporaries did not seem to have dentists they called their own nor did they go to the dentist regularly. Many of them had dental coverage, but weren’t using it. This dental discount was coupled with the increasing number of requests by Creighton’s patients in North Beach for early-morning or end-of-day appointments and frequent patient cancellations due to work conflicts. They saw a void in the marketplace, a need for convenient-to-work and hip dental care for young San Francisco tech professionals and decided to tackle it. Studio Dental was born to fill that void.

It took more than a year from conception to launch. “The biggest part of the build-out was to make it feel less like a truck, give the impression of quality and assuage patients’ fears,” Creighton explains. Since dental phobia and angst can be troublesome for some people, Studio Dental strives to change the experience by changing the space. They also aim to bring ease and positive service experiences to the dental office, operating more like other modern, service-focused businesses that cater to busy, modern, tech-centric professionals. One of the important elements that they sought to incorporate was clear and transparent pricing. So they built a system with proprietary software so patients are presented with a bill in real-time upon checkout.

The name Studio Dental came from a funny story. The partners had entered a pitch competition at Harvard Business School, when an Australian friend asked in a charming accent what was happening with their “What do you call it? Dental studio?” and the name Studio Dental stuck. It embodies the connotation of artistry and simplicity that meshes with their goals for brand identity.

How It Works

Creighton learned from her first practice that it is very challenging to serve as the service provider and also run the business. Her Studio Dental partnership is more symbiotic, with Caulder in charge of the business side and Creighton running the dental practice. The business process is as follows: Studio Dental forms partnerships with San Francisco businesses, which in turn promote the service to their employees. Employees are offered appointments during the one- to two-week stint while Studio Dental is parked outside their office. They operate 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, similar to a traditional practice. “Brave early adopters” as Creighton likes to call them, visit the studio, then word travels fast, and many more sign up and visit Studio Dental. Early success with this system was proven recently when 100 patient appointments were scheduled in two hours.

They saw a void in the marketplace, a need for convenient-to-work and hip dental care for young San Francisco tech professionals, and decided to tackle it. Studio Dental was born to fill that void.

Some initial kinks included driving and parking the huge vessel around San Francisco. “It was very tricky, but it is under control now,” says Creighton. A tow truck moves the studio every week or two to a new location. It also continues to be a challenge navigating the different cultures of their corporate partners. Their practice is an intimate service and not all companies want the responsibility that comes with the association. While there are few limitations to this model — they even have an X-ray machine onboard — procedures like crowns are trickier when Studio Dental is only right outside for a week and multiple appointments are needed. Patients can travel to the next location or otherwise wait for the studio to be back in the neighborhood.

Studio Dental has already seen patients from big-name partners such as Google, Dropbox and Airbnb among others. Their savvy business model includes using the mobile dental office to quickly get their dental concept out there in the marketplace and build up their client base. The hype and energy they have created with the truck will lead to the addition of a brick and mortar studio. After just seven months on the road, they are treading into repeat business territory (with most patients coming for cleanings two times a year) and so far the outlook is outstanding, with 80% of their first patients coming back for a second visit. Their goal is to have a consistent client base, and that already appears to be happening.

On her third visit to Studio Dental, patient Irina Lazar believes that the most valuable asset of Studio Dental is that it saves time. “You are in and out quickly,” she says. She especially loves watching Netflix on the ceiling TV while getting her teeth cleaned. Lazar likes the Studio Dental environment because it feels simple, streamlined and up-to-date. The only change she would like to see would be the addition of a bathroom.

Hygienist Karen Wong didn’t know what to expect, but she loves working at Studio Dental largely because the patients are happy. She says her patients love Studio Dental; they are excited to come to work and now happy to go to the dentist too. “It is convenient and it gives them a little break from work,” Wong adds. Also, the unique concept makes her job interesting. “It is fun to work in a different neighborhood each week,” she shares.

After just seven months on the road, they are treading into repeat business territory (with most patients coming for cleanings two times a year) and so far the outlook is outstanding, with 80% of their first patients coming back for a second visit.

What the Future Holds

“We now have a good sense of operating these trucks, so the sky is the limit,” beams Caulder. Studio Dental’s online appointment scheduler recently opened to the public. They have their first brick and mortar Studio Dental opening in late 2015 in the Mid-Market neighborhood. It will expand the brand and continue to attract patients into the truck too. Creighton says that one goal for both the mobile and freestanding studios will be to have more University of the Pacific graduates as employees. She has many grand plans for Studio Dental. “Every time you talk to Sara, she is stretching the envelope of where this profession will go,” says Yarborough.

Caulder shows no signs of stopping. “We have really big dreams” like creating a national brand by launching in other cities across the United States and adding more trucks. Studio Dental sought to address both the general fear many patients have of dental visits and the busy schedules of urban and technology employees. Through entrepreneurship, technology and energy, they’ve had strong early results and the road ahead looks bright. Like a rocket ship or bullet train, Studio Dental is on its way.

Marianne Jacobsen, BA, MBA, is a freelance writer from Marin County.