Star Dentist Takes Unusual Route to Success

Long before informercials became mainstream, Dr. Irwin Smigel showcased his dental services on TV and attracted celebrity clients such as Elizabeth Taylor and Calvin Klein.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In 1979, an entrepreneurial dentist named Irwin Smigel appeared on the hit ABC show That's Incredible!, where he performed the first nationally televised demonstration of cosmetic tooth bonding -- a process he invented that pioneered the field of aesthetic dentistry.

Thirty-one years later, Smigel is one of New York's most sought-after dentists, with a patient roster that includes Elizabeth Taylor, Calvin Klein and Justin Timberlake. ("Kelly Ripa brags about me," he says.) His SuperSmile whitening toothpaste is a bestseller on

Liberty Media's

(LINTA)

QVC network. These days, he specializes in changing facial structures and removing wrinkles through dentistry. "I always had this dream to not let people look old," he says.

Smigel's career yields five lessons that could apply to all successful entrepreneurs:

1. If it sounds crazy, it just might work.

Smigel became a dentist because his father was a dentist. He had no passion for the field when he entered dental school until he started daydreaming about aesthetics. On graduation day, "the dean took my father aside and said, 'Your son is a good boy, but he has some crazy ideas about cosmetics. Straighten him out.'" (Irwin Smigel's son, Robert, also set out to be a dentist, per his mother's wishes, but he became a writer for

Saturday Night Live

and provided the voice of "

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

on

The Conan O'Brien Show

. "My son is a genius," Dr. Smigel says. "He has the intelligence. I have the imagination.")

2. If your idea threatens the competition, it's probably a winner.

Prior to bonding, aesthetic dentistry was limited to crowns, which were then about as luxurious as the name suggests.

"When crowns first came out, they used to call them 'Hollywood Crowns' because most people associated them with the rich and famous," he says. "You might think with something like bonding, everyone would immediately jump onto it. But all the big deals in dentistry who used to make money doing crowns felt threatened by it. They started badmouthing bonding."

3. Be judicious, and don't sign anything without a lawyer.

When the producers of

That's Incredible!

approached Smigel, he was intrigued by its popularity, but put off by oddball guests such as knife throwers and surfing rabbits.

"They would not ridicule things, exactly, but they would make them sort of a side show," he says.

Knowing that all publicity is not good publicity, and wanting to ensure that the program would not portray cosmetic dentistry freakishly, Smigel hired an entertainment lawyer. He insisted that Smigel not sign a release form until the producers let him review the tape before it aired. The producers reluctantly agreed. Smigel viewed the tape and signed the release. (The video is now on display at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore.) Fifty million viewers watched Smigel bond the teeth of a ballerina on national TV, and his career took off.

"Elizabeth Taylor came into the office," he says. "I was getting, believe it or not, four bags of mail every day."

4. If you can afford it, reinvest in yourself.

The overnight success of cosmetic bonding provided the capital for Smigel to bootstrap his next invention: a stain-removing toothpaste that became SuperSmile. Several major toothpaste companies tried to buy him out, he says, but he was afraid they would squelch the product. Instead, he decided to sell the product on QVC.

5. Selling products on QVC isn't as simple as it seems.

While shopping networks are known for their campy pitches, the

vetting process

for QVC is stringent, according to Smigel. "They make 1,000% sure that all your claims are correct," he says. "Thanks to QVC we're a player now, and life is unbelievable."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.