Meet The Disruptors: How Bil Watson of Brighter Image Lab Has Shaken Up How We Smile

Tyler Gallagher
Sep 21, 2020 · 12 min read

If there’s one thing my experience has taught me, it’s the value of a smile (the verb, not the noun). As valuable as a person’s smile is, it’s still directly related to how often they give a smile to someone else. We need so much more kindness in the world and a smile is the universal start of every good feeling, every meaningful conversation. That’s why we have the “SmileWithMe” hashtag. It’s just our way of trying to spread some positivity where maybe there wasn’t enough before. We hope to help people remember that it can mean everything to the people around them.

a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bil Watson.

Bil Watson is the founder and CEO of Brighter Image Lab, a company pioneering the “Lab Direct” veneer process that allows people the choice to improve their own smile, without going to a dentist. Over the past 20 years, Brighter Image Lab has made dental veneers financially affordable and helped over 300,000 clients, creating almost 70,000 custom designed dental veneers without drilling, exorbitant bills or dentists.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

got my start in a completely different industry. I built a very successful franchise brand and grew it to over 100 locations in just a few years. After selling that company, I was on the lookout for my next opportunity and there were a couple of dentists who wanted me to get involved in teeth whitening. When I first started Brighter Image Lab, I remember thinking I’d be able to turn it into a hands-off system pretty easily. What I didn’t expect was getting exposed to an ocean of people who were desperate for help. We’d get 100 new cases in and half of them needed so much more than just teeth whitening. They’d call and tell me their smiles embarrassed them so badly that they’d miss their kid’s school play or skip a job interview. That’s when I really started getting invested in the work — looking for a better solution — because I saw what these veneers would do for people. It took a really long time to figure out a system that would work and actually help people in the way they needed help but, at that point, I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to, I was doing it because I felt like someone had to.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I think we realized we were a disruptor when people started showing up to try and shut us down. In the early years, with teeth whitening, the US Supreme Court actually had to step-in because the dentists were using their regulatory boards to shut down private businesses. In that situation, it was an entire industry, so we were just one of many companies affected. Definitely part of disrupting the dental industry, but just a small part of it. But that all changed when we brought the lab direct removable veneers to market.

We were the only ones doing it (without a dentist), and the first ones through the door always take the hit. Dentists feel like they’re owed a monopoly on anything that happens in the mouth. But it’s just not true. That’s why they tried to make over-the-counter teeth whitening illegal, and that’s why they tried to make lab-direct veneers illegal. The truth is, it’s a cosmetic cover. No different than a high-end wig, or expensive makeup — it’s certainly not dentistry. But a few years ago, the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners sued us. They charged us with 28 different counts that were all variations of “practicing dentistry without a license,” and no amount of explanation would convince that what we do isn’t dentistry. We had to prove it in court.

In the end we won our case on all 28 counts — not because we found some loophole or had big-money investors funding a powerful legal team — but because we were simply in the right. People have the right to wear a cosmetic cover over their teeth and they have the right to buy it without paying the dentist a 300% markup for it.

It was a really hard and expensive fight, and it really took a lot out of our team, but I just felt like it was worth fighting for. So, we did — and we won. That was when I felt like we’d really made our mark. From that point forward, dentists had to take notice, they knew they had to start being more competitive, and they knew if they didn’t they were going to lose their removable veneer clients to us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, I remember in the midst of our lawsuit with the State of Texas, I was in a deposition with the state’s expert witness. He was an old school dentist who hadn’t practiced in a while, and he was just absolutely offended by everything we did. I think my mistake was asking him what his opinion was of me. He started off pretty calm but worked his way up into quite a fit! He started yelling and he actually called me a “charlatan.” I remember that well. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life — and many of them are probably true — but that was a new one for me. It didn’t really bother me, but it was definitely surprising. Looking back, I know it was just a tense situation and his frustration got away from him. I know it wasn’t personal because he’d never really had a chance to get to know me outside the lawsuit. He just knew what other dentists were saying about me and my work. They ended up calling a recess to let things cool down a bit, and I think if you were to ask him today, he’d tell you there’s no grudges between us. That certainly didn’t stop my team from having a good laugh when I got back to the office — or AGAIN when we got copies of the transcript.

I guess what I learned there was if you ask someone what they think of you, under oath, you’d better be prepared for the answer!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I had a lot of people teach me about business, but I think I learned the most from my dad. He wasn’t an experience businessman but he taught me a lot about caring for people who needed it. For him, helping people wasn’t something he did, it was just part of who he was. Growing up I can’t count the number of times I’d see him step in and buy a pair of shoes for someone else’s kids or buy a meal for someone he’d just met. I’m sure seeing him do that is what drew me to this business. It’s the feeling of really — truly — helping someone who can’t help themselves.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think disruption is good when it corrects a gross imbalance or injustice. I don’t know of any industry as imbalanced as dentistry. There’s so much monopoly and gate-keeping that prevents people from getting affordable care.

Listen, there are a lot of great dentists out there. The independent guys, the small-town guys, the ones with a family practice and a Toyota in the parking lot, they’re just making a living like anyone else. So, I want to be clear that that’s not who I’m talking about. On the flip side, there’s been a long-standing trend when it comes to costs in the dental industry and it’s going in the wrong direction. Every few months some news station will do an investigation where they find what they call “creative diagnoses” which is just a polite way of saying these dentists are out here drilling healthy teeth or filling cavities that aren’t really there and milking insurance companies for every possible dime. It’s not isolated either — it’s rampant.

Then you have the corporate dental chains like the “Modern Dentistry” folks and “Mint Dentistry,” where they come in and they buy-up or run out all the private practices in an area. Corporate MBAs push their dentists to hit revenue goals and reward the highest earners with bonuses and all-expense-paid vacations. It’s just not how healthcare should be done, and it wouldn’t be tolerated in any other area of medicine. Imagine your primary care doctor recommending a cast for a bone that isn’t broken so he can meet a quota, or a pediatrician getting a cruise for prescribing the most antibiotics.

So when I’m on Instagram and I see a dentist in Raleigh North Carolina, posting pictures (on his business page) of his Rolex watch and his Gucci shoes and driving a $120k luxury SUV — and I know for a FACT that there are hundreds of people within walking distance of his office who will lose teeth because they can’t afford basic dental care, not only do I feel justified in the disruption we’re creating, it makes me want to magnify it five or 10 times.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

I think the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling has the best personal and business advice of anything I’ve ever read. He gives almost a lifetime’s worth of knowledge in just one stanza:

“If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;”

This taught me that there’s a big difference between thoughts and action. You need to plan and dream, but at some point, you have to get to work.

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

This was helpful to me as I went through the highs and the lows of a startup. Despite profits, and awards, and accolades, you’re never a success or a failure. Everyone falls somewhere in between. Any time I’ve thought I “made it,” I was wrong, and any time I thought I was down and out, I found my way back. So I don’t get caught up into believing I’m one or the other, I just keep working as if neither are true…yet.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;”

“Worn out tools” is a phrase we use all the time. We never want to wear out our people by not giving them what they need for the job, but we’re also very careful to not get caught up in feeling like we need more than we do. I’ve run this company out of the same location for the last 15 years. We’ve doubled our revenue five times over since then and a lot of people see our office and wonder why we haven’t moved to a nicer space, in a cooler neighborhood. I’ve been around long enough to see dozens of businesses invest in things like a show-pony office and then close up shop before they hit the end of their first lease agreement. Business is hard, and growth is even harder. Why add unnecessary pressure because you wanted a cooler looking breakroom? I’ve been there when things don’t go the way you thought they would. I’ve worked with those worn-out tools and you’re forced to learn your craft in a different way when you do that. So, we invest where we need to, but we also save wherever we can. We do that so when the time comes, we can out-maneuver, out-work and out-spend just about anyone else on the block.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I don’t know if I totally agree with that premise. I’m sure lead generation is critical if you’re a sales driven business, but that’s not a business model we try to emulate. We don’t have dedicated sales staff — we have a Client Service Team, who also happen to help people place orders. I’ve seen it happen so many times where a sales team is so focused on closing deals, they get pushy, they overpromise, and they take deals they should have turned down. On our team, we’ve found a natural solution to that problem.

The truth is, no matter how low we try to keep our prices, we’re usually in the top three (if not the #1) most expensive purchases someone will make that year. The work is custom, which adds to variability of the end result. When it’s something as sensitive as a person’s smile, there’s a lot of emotions tangled up in the transaction. It’s a recipe for a lot of bad feelings and a poor customer experience if it isn’t handled right.

When the person closing the sale knows they’re also going to be the one servicing that client’s case, answering their calls, helping them if something isn’t right — they’re going to be a lot more careful not to oversell what we can do. Everyone stays sober, expectations are managed up-front and the customer satisfaction goes way up.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Wow, there are so many things we have going right now. Probably the most pressing plans are to add physical locations in other countries. Waiting on international shipping is a pain point that’s slowing our growth potential in places like the UK and Australia. So, while we’ve always worked with clients in those regions (and continue to do so) putting boots on the ground will improve the level of service we can offer them.

We’re also working with some top-tier developers toward the goal of releasing our own proprietary smile design software. Additionally, we’ve also just recently launched our 501c3 non-profit, New Life Smile, with the goal of helping more people get the smile they deserve.

Really there’s never any “down” time at Brighter Image, we’re just always in growth mode.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

There are a lot of examples that I think back on but one that stands out currently is reading Purple Cow by Seth Godin and sharing it with my team. In terms of providing direction and insight, it’s definitely one of those resources we reference over and over again, both individually and as a group.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Know your enemy and know yourself.” You have to understand a problem or you won’t really have a clear understanding of where you’re starting from, or even why you’re doing what you’re doing. You also have to have a true picture of your own strengths and weaknesses. That helps inform you in how to go about solving the problem. You need both to be successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If there’s one thing my experience has taught me, it’s the value of a smile (the verb, not the noun). As valuable as a person’s smile is, it’s still directly related to how often they give a smile to someone else. We need so much more kindness in the world and a smile is the universal start of every good feeling, every meaningful conversation. That’s why we have the “SmileWithMe” hashtag. It’s just our way of trying to spread some positivity where maybe there wasn’t enough before. We hope to help people remember that it can mean everything to the people around them.

How can our readers follow you online?

We have a really great presence on YouTube where we’re always posting new videos of us traveling to see clients, giving insider information about the dental industry and showcasing our New Life Smile, nonprofit work. It’s a great way to get to know us and be a part of what we’re doing. We’re also active on Instagram and Facebook.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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