Lee’s is a long story that requires the connecting of a lot of dots to get from where he started to where he is now. A proud Asian-American and a member of the LGBTQ community, Lee traces the origins of Otis Dental back to a hate crime he suffered in 2008.
“Returning from dinner with friends in San Francisco after volunteering at an HIV/AIDS walk, and still wearing my staff T-shirt, I was attacked by two people who just didn’t like who I was,” he recalls. “I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about it over the years. I call myself a survivor instead of a victim because it was important for my mental health to tell myself I had survived this.”
In time, the physical injuries healed, but the mental pain remained. Lee would suffer from years of stress and depression that would ultimately result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seven years later. In the years between, Lee was unconsciously processing his stress and anxiety by grinding his teeth and clenching his jaw while he slept. Being a registered dental hygienist, he knew it could lead to serious oral health problems if it wasn’t addressed.
A changed man, for the better
The clinical term for teeth grinding is bruxism, which was something Lee saw first-hand in many patients he worked with. At the time there were two options to protect teeth from bruxism’s wear and physical pain: over-the-counter night guards that were inexpensive and cheaply made, or a custom-molded night guard sourced through a dentist, which can be prohibitively expensive.
“I tried several over-the-counter brands, but they were one-size-fits-all and too bulky. After tossing and turning all night I would wake up the next morning with the guard somewhere in my bed or on the floor,” Lee says. “And not just that, because they were made of such poor-quality materials, I chewed right through them. All of that finally led me to realize something had to change.”
Lee saw an unmet need for a dental night guard product combining quality and affordability. He set off to change the market, and thus Otis Dental was born.
“When I started the company, one of the main drivers of our mission was not just to provide a quality product and service, but to create a platform of transparency around bruxism that helps the public understand what the condition is, why it's happening and what we're doing to make people’s lives better,” he says.
Lee’s initial connection with Walgreens came at the same time the Walgreens oral care team was looking to address gaps in the category that included dental guards.
“A broker had initially sent me Otis Dental’s proposal for the Otis Mail-Order Custom Night Guard Teeth Impression Kit that would be sold in select Walgreens stores and online and fulfilled by Otis, which was exactly what we were looking for because we wanted to tackle bruxism and elevate our product offerings within the category,” says Kristi Takagishi, Walgreens oral care category manager.
“I saw the potential in the Otis Dental custom kit because our customers need quality products that are accessible, but to get one through a dentist costs around $500,” Takagishi says. “I thought there's no way everybody can afford that.”
The path to partnership required some initial collaboration between the supplier and the retailer, as is often the case. “In meeting with Andrew the first couple times, I asked him to make specific changes to packaging and his pricing model. He was very receptive to feedback, and he kept coming back with solutions to my concerns.
“It's amazing how nimble and responsive Andrew is,” Takagishi continues. “He'll ask me questions and I'll ask him questions and we're able to easily reinvent or restructure how we go to market. It's been great to work with a manufacturer that's on the smaller side because you have direct contact and can make decisions more quickly.”
What Lee appreciated most about the initial back-and-forth with Takagishi was how much he learned from her. “During our many conversations, I realized she was teaching me and not just trying to vet me as a supplier,” he says. “For a small business, that was invaluable input.”
The $99 OtisMail-Order Custom Night Guard Teeth Impression Kit was initially tested in approximately 1,500 Walgreens stores in 2019, and is now sold in more than 4,300 stores nationwide.
Small businesses, big success
Both Lee and Takagishi believe that suppliers of all sizes can be valuable partners with Walgreens. Lee offers his advice for businesses—particularly smaller ones—who want to become Walgreens suppliers:
- Be persistent and welcome constructive criticism: “Listen to objections and refine, then go back again. Be prepared with Plans B, C and D. As a business owner, you need to have thick skin and ask, ‘Why are they saying no?’ Don’t automatically walk away thinking you failed. In my case, Kristi wasn’t saying no, she was saying ‘We can work on this.’”
- Understand and embrace the unique things you offer: “This wasn’t just about me selling a product to Walgreens, it was the total package I was selling that included my 13 years as a registered dental hygienist, my expertise in oral care and personally suffering from bruxism. I had used the available night guard products and knew there had to be something better. I poured all that knowledge and experience into my product, and into my pitch to Walgreens.”
- Do your homework: “Before you approach a retailer like Walgreens, work to know more about them than they know about you. Understand their stores, their customers and the competitive products they already carry. If you can use the products, that’s even better. The background work will not only benefit you during the pitch, it will help tremendously once you get your product into their stores. And remember throughout the process that while the retailer is asking if you’re right for them, you also need to be asking whether the retailer is right for you. I’m thrilled that Walgreens and Otis Dental are the right partners for each other.”
- You don’t have to have a big business to get into Walgreens: “I’m not going to kid anyone, getting a product into Walgreens is hard, and it should be. But from my experience they believe in the little guy, the underdog, and if they see someone with potential and drive who has a product that meets their needs, that’s when they’ll bring you in.”
For Lee, getting his product into Walgreens stores meant more than just having doors opened into a large retailer.
“It’s been an amazing blessing to have this opportunity to be part of Walgreens and to see it grow to where it is now,” he says. “It’s also a really big deal to me to know that such a large and reputable retailer supports my business and communities like mine and wants us to know that we're all welcome to shop there. I mean, even my parents are proud. Now my mother tells all her friends to shop at Walgreens.”