Clark Kent and Superman

Dr. Schwimmer counseling a patient during a taping of “Dr. Phil.”

Dr. Schwimmer counseling a patient during a taping of “Dr. Phil.”

“I’ve probably been told I make extremely loud, obnoxious snoring sounds since I was a young adult.”

The testimonial videos loop on a monitor next to the receptionist’s desk, as a middle aged man confesses his lifelong snoring problem. I look across the waiting room and see a young lady elbow her husband as that quote comes across the screen. They both grin, knowingly.

I’ve met Dr. Schwimmer at The Snoring Center in Dallas and Houston on a number of occasions, and without fail he’s come out to greet me with a headlamp affixed snugly onto his forehead. When we get to his office, he shrugs off the headpiece as he sits. Voila! It’s a Clark Kent-esque transformation from mild-mannered physician to grizzled entrepreneur.

Dr. Schwimmer tells me that he founded The Snoring Center in 2007 because he wanted to help ordinary people sleep better. For over 7 years, he’s been serving his patients with minimally invasive treatments for snoring and sleep apnea. He’s also grown The Snoring Center into a thriving business through hard work and intense commitment to his craft. The proof is in the seemingly permanent fingerprints on the sides of his headlamp.

Dr. Schwimmer is soft-spoken and has an aura of intense sincerity. I’m not a patient but I can feel the power of his bedside manner – it’s a mix of equal parts profound curiosity and domain mastery. We start to chat about his journey as a physician and an entrepreneur, his successes and challenges, and the lessons he learned along the way.

Did you always know you wanted to be a physician?

Yes, I was that kid. [laughs] My parents say that we all knew since I was about six years old. I was the kid who brought home the bird I found with a broken wing to try and nurse it back to health. It was apparent from an early age that it was what I was going to do.

That’s pretty early to have your path set!

It was, but I also had a conflicting interest in exploring the business world, so I took a bit of a circuitous path. I went to college intending to go to medical school. But when I graduated college, instead, I went and got a Master’s in Public Health at Emory and then worked in healthcare cost management. I worked at a large health benefits consulting firm in Manhattan, hoping to blend medicine and business. I did that for about a year and realized that it wasn’t right for me.

I went back to Emory for medical school and got my MD. I then did my residency training in otolaryngology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Otolaryngology is more commonly known as an ENT (ear, nose, throat) doctor, right?

It is, and it’s a surgical specialty focused around the head and neck. It’s a pretty small area, but there’s a lot there!

So how did you get into sleep apnea and snoring as a specialty?

It’s just serendipitous and a confluence of all of these things that just kind of made it happen. I happened to train at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit where a lot of sleep apnea surgery was introduced in this country and where a lot of sleep apnea thought leaders were. I trained under some heavy hitters in snoring and sleep apnea surgery space.

Then in 2001, we made the move to Dallas. And because we moved to a totally new place, my wife and I would have to introduce ourselves in a lot of new social settings. I started to notice a trend. If I told somebody that I was an ENT doctor, the response was always, “Oh, I see so-and-so, and he’s really nice.” But when I started telling people I treat snoring and sleep apnea in the office, I would get this visceral response of, “Can you see my husband tomorrow??”

That’s a very relatable issue!

Absolutely, and that happened over and over again. I quickly realized, there’s a real business here.

So we started running single-column ads in the Dallas Morning News. I’d run an ad, and people would come. I’d run a bigger ad, and more people would come. It started to take off.

Did you have a business philosophy when you launched The Snoring Center?

I believe in trying to really understand the patient’s perspective. Can I come in and be seen in a couple of days and not wait 3 or 4 weeks to see the doctor? Can I come in for an hour and fix my problem? Can I avoid going to the operating room, having pain and recovery periods, and having to take time off of work? We really structured the business by sitting in the patients’ position and thinking about the experience they would like to have.

Were there any particular experiences that shaped your perspective?

I think where I trained really has a lot to do with the business model I developed. In 1992 to 1997, Ford Hospital was one of the few places that had a vertically integrated healthcare system. We were educated not only in medicine but also in outcomes and efficiency and cost-benefit analysis – that was something that we thought a lot about.

So we were always asking “What’s the value of a test?” and “Is the information worth the cost?” That cost-effective philosophy has been a core value of my practice.

Who helped you make the transition from physician to businessman?

The entire process has been really collaborative, and I’ve had a lot of smart people to draw upon. And frankly, one of the things I’m amazed by and thankful for, is the community of Dallas.

I’ve ended up becoming friends with some very successful Dallas businesspeople who took the time to help me. I think this is very “Texas.” They saw me as an entrepreneur who was willing to work hard and take risks, and they wanted me to succeed. One person introduced me to a lawyer who had done similar stuff for another client, and an accountant who was extremely useful, and a marketing firm that was really good at direct to consumer… A lot of people just pitched in and introduced me to people and resources I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. That was really cool and something I’m really, really thankful for.

How has your business grown?

The first office I opened exclusively for The Snoring Center was in Dallas at the Snider Plaza location.

In 2007, we opened up Ft. Worth as sort of a learning lab. It was close enough that I could still manage it but it was far enough away to be distinct. And I could learn about marketing in a different area and managing from afar. We had that office from 2007 to 2012.

We opened up Houston in 2010, and we opened Austin in 2011. And of course, we’re really excited about the acquisition of the Pillar technology from Medtronic in 2014.

When Medtronic approached you about Pillar, were you surprised?

Yes and no. We had asked them to buy it in the past and the answer had always been no. But the deal made sense. Pillar was a business that was generating a couple million dollars a year, housed within a division that was generating $2 billion per year. Medtronic knew they could grow sales 10x, and it still wouldn’t move the needle for them. Yet it meant everything in the world to me. I ended up being able to buy it on very favorable terms, and we’re thrilled that Medtronic has maintained a 10% interest in the Pillar business. It’s great having them on our side because they’re pulling for us.

Sounds like a win-win. Have there been any missteps along the way?

We had the failure of the Chicago office, which we opened. Chicago was interesting. I think if we had greater resources, it ultimately would have been successful because our revenue curve was strong.

But we were buying market share at an unsustainable rate, and our marketing costs were simply too high. We made a couple of fundamental mistakes. It was a very expensive media market – a hundred media points in Chicago cost me twice what it cost here in Texas. And also our location was wrong. We were downtown, and we should have been in the suburbs. But you know, you live and learn.

What keeps you motivated?

I think the reason I’ve stuck with it and enjoyed it so much is because it’s rational, it makes sense from the patient’s perspective. And I really believe in my heart that our solution makes sense for ordinary people that struggle with sleep problems. I think that it’s a good value for the patient, and I think that it’s a smart approach. So it’s easy for me to be enthusiastic about it.

Last question – what’s your favorite Disney movie?

My kids are old, so I’m going to go old school. Mickey and the dancing broom sticks… Fantasia!

As I wrap up our interview, feeling a whole lot smarter than I did 30 minutes ago, Dr. Schwimmer thanks me for my time and reaches for his headlamp. I can’t help but smile. The hustle never stops. Oh, and my wife’s calling again. She wants me to book an appointment to treat my snoring…

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