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Becoming a dental entrepreneur: 5 lessons from a pirate ship escape room

Oct. 15, 2021
Dr. Gina Dorfman shares lessons she’s learned from a pirate ship escape room game with her family that directly apply to making your dental practice successful.

“How is it possible that I cannot put six simple puzzle pieces together?” I thought, hastily moving the large wooden blocks on the floor of a pirate ship escape room. I must have been thinking out loud, because my

16-year-old son, who was busy solving a different riddle, turned around and casually remarked, “Mom, the Earth is not flat,” and that’s when the puzzle pieces started to click.

It turns out that the lessons learned in the short, 59-minute breakout from the pirate ship escape room reinforced everything I ever learned about being an entrepreneur over the past 20 years. The map puzzle holding the final clue that would lead my family out of the escape room with one minute to spare was not flat, just like Earth, but it took an unconventional mind to see it. That’s the first lesson I learned trying to navigate the turbulent waters of entrepreneurship: if you cannot solve a problem, it might be because you are looking at it the wrong way.

Lesson no. 1

If you can't solve a problem, consider looking at it from a different perspective.

I opened my first two startups in an oversaturated, PPO-infested market. The plan was to work efficiently and do more with less while providing a superior customer experience. Ha, what a novel idea! Who knew that inside every entrepreneur there is a little girl who believes in unicorns?

I remember my mentor, Dr. Howard Farran, talking about doing things better, faster, and cheaper. “You can only pick two of these,” he stressed. “You can do things better and faster, or you can do them faster and cheaper—but you can never do all three.” Alas, trying to do more for less at a high pace was not the best way to take care of my patients and earn their loyalty either. I tried different things, followed every dental consultant, and unsuccessfully implemented a lot of the same advice. I quickly learned that trying to do the same thing and expecting a different result is almost as sane as believing in unicorns. I needed to look at my problem through a different lens.

I became obsessed with the idea that we could leverage technology to reduce waste, improve team communication, simplify workflows, enhance our relationships with patients, and build our reputation while eliminating unnecessary busywork and its associated payroll cost. This is how Yapi was born.

Lesson no. 2

Understand your market, watch out for changes, be ready to correct course, focus on the overarching purpose, and treat challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.

Escape rooms are a lot like real life. They are built to make us feel uncomfortable and to stimulate multiple senses. They challenge our abilities and force us to stretch our imagination. They are designed to create challenges that cannot be solved with conventional thinking, and they often throw in irrelevant distractions that can take us down the wrong path, wasting precious time and resources. And, while not everyone can escape in time, everyone can enjoy the game.

As an entrepreneur, whether you are running a dental practice or a dental software company, you will often find yourself thinly stretched, overcoming obstacles, making difficult decisions, feeling uncomfortable, and struggling with doubt. As dentists and practice owners, we often feel stuck dealing with the minutiae and thus fail to see the big picture. We are often struck with paralysis by analysis and so become our own floating hulks.

I loved watching my kids—two lefties with ADHD—running around the pirate ship, tackling challenges, being willing to try different things instead of getting stuck on things that didn’t work, and celebrating small wins. That reminded me so much of my experience building my dental practices and, later, Yapi. To say that I often felt challenged, overwhelmed, conflicted, and even scared is an understatement, but it was a fun voyage that tickled my quest for exploration and adventure. Most importantly, it was an opportunity to build on my knowledge and passions to create something scalable.

Last year, my husband, my business partner, and I had a chance to jump ship. Pardon the silly pun; even I rolled my eyes while typing it. We chose to stay the course with a new supportive partner on board because the mission was personal, and the journey seemed more fun than the destination.

Lesson no. 3

Build a culture of collaboration and leadership where everyone has an opportunity to step up and shine.

Behind every successful entrepreneur and every successful enterprise is a fiercely loyal and collaborative team. For Navy SEALs, effective collaboration makes the difference between life and death. And, for the San Antonio Spurs, fostering a culture where every player has an opportunity to step up and take the lead became the very essence of the storied basketball franchise.

Escape rooms force us to collaborate because most riddles require various skills and problem-solving styles, and every player has access to the same information and understands the mutual goal. That’s how our practices and businesses should function.

Being an entrepreneur and a leader means fostering a spirit of cooperation and leadership in our crewmates. An entrepreneur is like a ship’s captain who must envision the destination and clearly communicate the purpose of the mission. An entrepreneur must understand the vessel’s inner workings better than anyone but know how to delegate effectively. An entrepreneur must pay careful attention to high winds, strong currents, and rapidly changing conditions, but trust the crew members to make critical decisions. When they need all-hands-on-deck, they must have a way to get everyone rallying around the same goal so that each team member has a chance to step up and demonstrate leadership on an individual basis.

Unfortunately, this type of collaboration is challenging in a typical dental practice where teammates work out of their assigned areas, focused on their patients. It doesn’t help that many of us believe we must do everything perfectly, be the most intelligent person in the room, have all the answers, and even order supplies if we expect to have the right kind of a no. 3 post when we need one.

When we created Yapi, we sat out to connect dental teams to promote collaboration and teamwork. Many of our customers say that Yapi is like an efficient employee who doesn’t take a day off or need lunch because busywork is automated, and teams are given the freedom to focus on high-level work. But the feature I love the most is that Yapi puts the entire team on the same page, where everyone can step up as a leader and save the day. Even the most well-run practices have hectic days when everything seems to go haywire; Yapi is the glue that helps everyone come together and finish on a high note.

As for our team, we went from three cofounders to a crew of almost 80 exceptional employees. We make software, but our job is to make our customers’ days easier. And, while I want customers to love our software, I am thrilled to hear their compliments about our excellent customer service.

Lesson no. 4

Be willing to take risks and fail.

The pursuit of perfection is the enemy of business success. As clinicians, we find this idea unsettling, because we measure our wins and losses in megapascals. We are perfectionists by training, which makes us pretty poor risk-takers and delegators. But, as entrepreneurs, we must be willing to fail, and we must be willing to delegate and graciously accept our team’s failures as well. As Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Watching my children tackle puzzles, get stumped, and try again reminded me of what it means to be an entrepreneur. I often tell my teams that they will never have all the answers, and that, sometimes, they need to jump off the cliff with the prototype and build the rest of the plane on the way down. I know it makes them uncomfortable, partly because this advice comes from a woman who once fell out of the sky with a failed parachute. But I also know that overnight success in business takes anywhere between five and ten years. Waiting to get all the answers and all the stars aligned for a perfect launch is the recipe for failure.

Lesson no. 5

Money is the only wrong reason to do anything. If you are passionate about something, ignore the negative voices and follow your heart.

Anyone who’s ever experienced the adrenaline rush of beating the clock or the rival team breaking out of an escape room will understand the adrenaline rush of being an entrepreneur. The most successful inventions come from the pursuit of passion, not profit. Money is the by-product of figuring out how to do something we love exceptionally well and owning our mistakes. Anyone can say they are altruistically doing something to help dentists, but real passion and authenticity always speak louder than words.

More than ten years ago, when we introduced Yapi, we had a product that solved the problems our potential customers didn’t yet know they had. Now our customers are expecting contactless forms, self-service, and automation. It can be tough to ignore the chatter, but entrepreneurs must learn to quiet the negative voices. If you listen to the naysayers, you’ll never find out if your idea is a treasure worth pursuing. And, if you are offering a product that everyone wants, you are probably five years late to market. What kept me going for years was the reminder that one CEO of IBM famously said that nobody would ever want a personal computer on their desk, but another man came along and said that soon everyone would expect a personal computer in their pocket. Look at today’s market share of IBM and Apple.

When Yapi released Smart Scheduling this year, some customers expressed concern that allowing patients to self-schedule in real-time would cause problems. Yet, Expedia and Open Table have made it easy for customers to make reservations for travel and dining online for nearly 25 years. Today, Smart Scheduling is a phenomenal opportunity for our customers to differentiate themselves from the competition by offering their patients the convenience they want. We are working on a lot of new cool things at Yapi! I can barely wait to unveil what’s coming soon.

There is a quote attributable to Henry Ford: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d ask for faster horses.” The lesson here is to listen to your customers or patients to understand their pain points, but don’t let them dictate what you do for them, and don’t do anything because it seems like easy money. Lean in with your passion and stay true to your beliefs. Most importantly, keep in mind that there is no Linek manual for success—you must carve out your way. Wishing you fair wind ever and always.  

Editor's note: This article appeared in the October 2021 print edition of Dental Economics.

Gina Dorfman, DDS, graduated from the University of Southern California in 2000. She is a practicing dentist and the founder of Dentistry for Kids and Adults, a busy family practice just north of Los Angeles, California. She is also a cofounder and the CEO of the paperless dental software company, Yapi. Contact her at [email protected] and learn more at

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