You Might Think Making a Toothbrush Would Be Easy; Well Think Again
I decided to invent a toothbrush because I was annoyed. I didn’t know the first thing about engineering, business, or marketing, but having been involved in dentistry for 30 years I knew a whole hell of allot about the way people brushed their teeth. Plain and simple, they sucked at it. That’s why 70% of the population has active gum disease right now.
I’ve tried to get people to mend their ways. I’ve taught them to brush with the brush bristles at a 45 degree angle to the gum line. That’s the most effective way to get rid of the bacterial crud around the tooth and gum. But do they listen? No.
So, I became convinced that to eliminate gum disease I’d have to design a tooth brush that would FORCE people THINK about what they were doing. It was time to build a better toothbrush.
Part 1: Design – Making A Toothbrush
In retrospect coming up with the basic design turned out to be the easiest part of the entire saga. There is a brushing technique called the Bass Method. When done correctly it’s been proven by research to be the most effective way to prevent gum disease; It’s the technique taught to all dental students. An ordinary toothbrush can work just as well as a high dollar sonic brush when used properly.
The problem is Most manual toothbrushes don’t provide sufficient feedback allowing the user to determine if they’re brushing correctly. Our brush would. We would incorporate a 45 degree off set grip, 45 degree off set duel height bristle arrangement, and a visual indicator to check alignment. Luckily, we knew a guy who knew a guy who was an engineer named Charlie. He’s probably the sweetest man I’ve ever met. We set up a meeting with Charlie and got right down to the business of business. I had created a clay model that had the rough shape and dimension of the brush which we would use as a template. So, we bequeath Charlie with our clay prototype, agree on a price, and then set back and dreamed of getting rich; this was 2008.
Now not to take anything away from Charlie, but he was a little slow even for our naive minds. I could have attributed that to his 70 plus years, or the fact that he typed with only his index fingers, but I chose to believe that it was his pursuit of perfection. Nine long months and several updates later we had a design that we thought might work. It had twelve pieces that would be made out of plastic. It also had an inflatable bladder inside the handle to dispense a mouthwash.
We excitedly sent the design out for rapid prototyping. 3 weeks later I was utterly stoked to be holding an idea that came from my brain. The shape was right and it was going to save the world. We put it together, filled the reservoir and “POW”, it fell apart. It was an utter disaster, and would be almost impossible to manufacture, assemble and maintain.
So, we made a bunch of calls and mulled over our shattered prototype for about two months before deciding to scrap it. The outer shape and bristle design we would keep, just without all the moving parts. So back to the drawing board with Charlie for another session of brainstorming. We quickly agreed on a new design, and then set back and dreamed of getting rich… again.
Unfortunately, it was another10 months before we had a design worthy of prototyping. In retrospect, we probably should have moved on down the line with a new designer, but we were already committed and, he was just so nice, not to mention cheap. We had 6 different sized prototypes made, and over the next 2 months we had our dental patients (mostly women) try the brushes out for size. We asked them to tell us which one felt most comfortable in their hand, which one they would most likely buy, what they would pay and so on. We pooled about 500 people and decided on a size.
Part Two: Making the mold
Mike and I have always been avid proponents of (made in America). From the very beginning It was our goal to have “Made in the USA”, proudly printed on the back of our package. However, the calloused knuckles of reality soon made their presence felt. Of the three US companies, we talked to only one didn’t laugh directly in our face. We got answers like “you guys are stupid, and have no idea what you are doing”, “It’s too complicated”, “it’s going to cost too much” etc., etc.… This last statement being the most relevant as the one company who did talk to us, quoted 150,000 just for the tooling. I was getting deflated and started to understand why so many companies were going overseas to get their products made. Now it just so happens that Charlie knew a guy who dealt with injection molding factories in China. We set up a meeting and after several false starts eventually settled on a factory in China. Two weeks after receiving the design, China Skyped back saying that there was no way they could make this brush.
The problem was the design was based on something called the “Core Injection” method. What that means in a nutshell is that you fill the mold cavity from the inside out. The thermodynamic report showed that the pin for injecting the plastic into the mold would melt after about 50 brushes were made. Their recommendation, “come up with a new design”.
We spoke to several other factories and they all said the same thing. “Core injection won’t work for this design”. Turns out Charlie had been operating under the premise that core injection would be ideal due to the complexity of the design, and we, being absurdly naive about manufacturing, didn’t know to question his decision. At this point we had already spent about 30K of our own money and had absolutely nothing to show for it…except two pending patents. We knew the brush would work, and our patent applications were looking good. So, we went back to the drawing board, but this time without Charlie.
We found a new designer based out of Florida who also happened to be named Mike. Mike was a different breed of designer; younger, faster and more current on the latest methods of design and manufacturing. We had our new design in 3 months, and we couldn’t wait to get started.
At this point, we weren’t thinking of getting rich, we just wanted to get the darn brush built. We Re- resubmitted the design back to the same Chinese Company. They stated that the design was extremely unique, complicated and unlike anything they had ever seen. Most Toothbrush molds have three ejector pins; ours had 26. On their recommendation, we decided to make a single cavity prototype mold to test proof of concept and work out the bugs. It should have taken 60 days to complete, but as you can probably guess, it didn’t. China stated that they could make all aspects of the brush, including the bristling and packaging, but what we didn’t know was that they were outsourcing these elements.
I found all this out 4 months later when I flew to China to oversee final shots of the prototype mold. Let’s just say it was FUBAR. The brush looked like crap, and lacked the precision we knew American consumers would demand. The packaging looked cheap, and the outsourced bristling factory was an utter joke. They were attempting to cut the bristles using a flat piece of steel that looked like it had been hammered out on my garage floor. You’ve heard the phrase, Lost in Translation, well when it came to these guys it was selective.
Note to self: visit the factory before you spend the money.
Mike and I spent another six months trying to make it work with China, but in the end the frustration proved too much and we walked away.
Surprisingly we didn’t feel so bad about walking away. We were starting to learn what questions to ask, and feeling more confident about what we wanted and how to get it. China couldn’t give us the quality we wanted but they did demonstrate that the brush could be made, which for us was a huge win. What we learned is that there is a reason the bigger companies don’t make brushes like this. It’s difficult, slow and expensive. We designed the brush to help people become more effective brushers. We never really considered how difficult it would be to manufacture it.
While working with China our two patents were granted – which gave us design protection, but still no toothbrush.
Part Three: Vietnam
After China, I started to reevaluate how I would work with contractors and look for potential manufacturing companies. Firstly, they would need to be able to make and supply all components of the brush in house. I needed to have more insight and access to the multitude of small details and be able to make adjustments quickly if needed. They would need to speak good English, and most importantly I would need to visit the facility to gauge their merit and reliability prior to any agreement.
For those of you considering business overseas, I strongly recommend you visit a potential supplier before doing anything. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass taking time off work and flying half way around the world, but ultimately it will serve you better in the long run. I contacted several companies in Asia, but ultimately settled on one in Vietnam, owned by a Japanese family.
Let’s just say it was a world of difference compared to dealing with China. Instead of some dirty machine shop in the back alleys of Shenzhen we had upgraded to a highly efficient, state of the art factory with German-made machinery. The English was excellent, the tools were immaculate, and they used the latest design software. I felt confident that the precision we needed would be there. Now this is not to say it was easy, because it wasn’t. The design was still a beast to deal with and required some out of the box thinking to make it work. We spent about 5 months retooling the prototype mold and refining the design. Once we had everything lined out we wired $22,000.00 for the four-cavity production mold and $18,000 for the bristle tooling. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the bristle tooling. This was a challenge onto itself. Our bristles required a 5-step process instead of a 3 step process. Because we were using two types of bristles, (standard and tapered) at different heights, the outer rows had to be placed first, cut and sanded and then run through the machines again to place the longer tapered bristles for the center rows. The complexity was never ending.
Part Four: The Business
Have you ever heard of Dollar Shave Club? It’s a men’s shave club that sells discounted razors on a monthly subscription. The theme of the company was a ridiculously low price point, backed up by some extremely clever marketing videos. I think they recently sold for close to 1 Billion Dollars. It was our wish to follow this example using a similar method to promote and market our brand. We were going to need a website, packaging, marketing material, graphics, social media, fulfillment software and a really funny video that would somehow convince people to brush differently. Through word of mouth we were introduced to a small edgy marketing company here in Houston. Sara was the marketing brains and Zack was the graphic artist. From the moment, we met the friction between Zack and I was palpable. He had one vision of the company and I had another. He was overly focused on “HIS ART” and not the client. The only reason we stuck it out was because of Sara. She just told me to hang on and trust in his talent. Did I mention he had the word “FOCUS” tattooed on his wrist? Well we did stick it out for a while and got some pretty decent packaging for the brush, logo design, tag lines etc. But Hey, it can’t last, and of course, it didn’t. The couple of Zack and Sara decided to split up which meant that their small marketing company did too. So, this was where we had to make a decision. Go with Sara or stay with Zack. Of course, being newbies, we made the wrong decision and stayed with Zack. Our reasoning being that we were more in need of bad ass website and graphic marketing material. This was a huge mistake and would ultimately cost us our most valuable asset; Time. It took Zack 6 months to deliver the website and when we had our IT guys look at it didn’t even qualify as a POS. We would later find out that only thing previously keeping Zack on task, was Sarah. Once she was out of the picture he spent a little too much time swimming in the bong water to be effective with anything more complicated than finger paint. So, who’s fault was this? Mine of course. As much as I hated the feeling of being screwed over, losing money and losing time I had no one to blame but myself. I realized afterwards, that in business, never become so attached to a vision that you ignore your gut feeling or assume that there is only one person who can do the job. The only good thing that Zack did delivered on, was Dave Henry of I Film Productions. Dave was the producer for our launch video that later won a gold ADDY award, and Best Of Show in 2015. It’s the award given by the American Advertising Federation to award the creative advertising spirit. We still have high hopes for this video. It stars Kevin Dean of Houston’s AD Players Theatre and, Pearland, TX /Hollywood actress/ex “MAXIM” girl/, Jennifer Ann Massy.
Part Three Vietnam cont.,
Back in Vietnam the mold was coming along nicely and they sent over some samples. However, when they arrived something was off; it felt too big. We tried it out with several patients and they all agreed that “yeah, it’s too big”.
It took us awhile, but we ultimately figured out what happened. Typically, when mold is made, its tooled to be about 3% larger than what the final product design calls for. This allows for the contraction that occurs when hot plastic shrinks. The only problem is that because our design was so unique, it didn’t shrink. So, the 800lb injection mold that we spent the last 4 years developing is now useless junk. Even now, I don’t think the factory could have known this would happen. Our design was unfamiliar territory for them and they were just following protocol. Never the less we spent the next 2 months negotiating to find a solution. They ultimately ended up making a new mold at no cost.
Five months later I flew off to Vietnam to see the corrected mold trials first hand. I spent two days in the factory working with the designers and technicians, where we adjusted flow rates, temperatures, and took lots of measurements. In the end, we had our brush just like we had envisioned it to be. You would think I would be happy but the feeling was better described as relief. It shouldn’t have been that hard and it most definitely wouldn’t have been for somebody with more experience. Most business people I speak with just kind of smile and say “gotta pay your dues”. Yeah, I guess so. Not knowing anything about toothbrushes it took 7 years to bring the product into reality.
Ok so now we’ve got our brush; it’s time to make a splash. We took out a loan to buy the first order of 100,000 brushes and began work on the logistics of getting a 40-foot container of toothbrushes to Houston. Coincidentally, prior to my trip to Vietnam we got a call from Joe Palca of NPR. Joe wanted to do a radio bit on our story of invention. The only problem was that the story would air several weeks prior to us having any inventory in stock. Beggars can’t be choosers so we developed a pre-order list for the listeners.
Part 5; Launch November, 2014
With the understanding that our 1st order of 100,000 brushes would be arriving in the USA on or before November 15th we set our Company’s launch date for Nov 25th. This additional time was to allow for the transition of the product from the Huntington Beach Port to the fulfillment center in Houston. Once we had confirmation that the product had arrived at the Huntington Beach Port in California on Nov 16th we would started taking orders with customers, making them fully aware that their order wouldn’t be shipped until the 25th. What added a little pressure was that the NPR story was a hit, and 1600 people had signed up on a waiting list, and quickly placed orders as soon as we notified them we were open for business on Nov 16th. However, on November 18th we noticed that the shipment still hadn’t left the docks. Nov 19th still no movement, Nov 20th still not moving. After several frantic phone calls we were calmly notified that transport to Houston would be delayed upwards of 2 months due to a dock workers strike at the Huntington Beach Port.
This is not the way we wanted to start our business.
Ultimately, we were forced to come out of pocket, and hire an independent driver to bring the shipment to Houston via truck. We finally received the product on Nov 30. Orders started going out on Dec 3rd. Stress level 10.
Most of the orders placed on our website were single order buys, and about 30 % of orders were subscriptions with renewals occurring every 3 months. Almost immediately after launch we started receiving complaints from subscribers stating that they were unable to log into their account. We couldn’t see any valid reason that this would be happening. Our credit card processor was one of the largest in the country with an excellent pedigree. Countless hours were spent on the phone trying to resolve the problem, and all the while the complaints were stacking up. We ultimately found out that this 1st rate credit card processor had a coding error embedded within their system that even their best IT professionals were not aware of. This was a huge setback that created an enormous workload on our part as every botched order had to be manually entered and fulfilled directly by us.
Consequently, we were forced to transfer our entire data base to a different credit card processor which took about 2 months and another big wad of cash. Stress level 8.
At this point we had ironed out all the bugs of daily operations and were focused on scaling our marketing exposure via trade shows, private dental offices and website sales. We had received calls from potential distributors and oversees companies who were all very interested in our product. We had redesigned the website, marketing materials, and were starting to receive exceptionally positive reviews from customers. However, in a hyper competitive toothbrush sector, if your product is unique enough, and has the potential to impact another companies market share, watch out, it’s just a matter of time before the competition will try to take a bite out of you. It’s common practice for large companies to entangle smaller companies in litigation, to strategically outspend them into submission. These larger companies don’t really need a good reason to sue, as the burden of proof and the associated legal cost will fall to the defendant. It’s not fair but it’s a reality if you’re going to play with the big boys.
What is interesting is that most smaller companies will settle a case instead of fighting it. The reasoning is that its more cost effective. To advance a case to where a judge can make a ruling, the legal fees can exceed 500K. Many times, this strategy is successful as the smaller company will wilt under the increasing legal cost and cease to exist; case dismissed, and business as usual for the Goliath.
However, a company may settle at a significantly lesser cost, but this depends on how much pride that company is willing to swallow. As much as we love to hate them, good lawyers are a must in business. If you’ve got a great idea you WILL need a good lawyer. So, did this happen to us? The answer is yes. Remember when you were a kid running around in a blissful state of euphoria, relishing that warm summer day, laughing with not a care in the world, and then all the sudden “POW”, you get smacked in the head with an over inflated basketball? It’s traveling just over the sound barrier so you don’t hear it coming, and hits you so hard your legs go horizontal, your perfectly organized binder, and newly minted snow cone go flying, and you find yourself crumpled in the middle of oncoming traffic with snot coming out of your nose. Well that’s what it felt like for us. We had been in business for 6 months and 5 days, and the Goliath had just lawyer-ed up; and It didn’t matter that our brush was an utterly unique design, with two issued patents.
6/15 – Investor
Prior to our lawsuit, we’d been speaking with an accomplished business man by the name of Brad Wilson (CEO, Creeris Ventures). Brad’s experience would prove invaluable as he had acquired a long track record of success with multiple startup companies and retail sales via his flagship, (Perfect Fit Meals). At first our relationship was one of shared information and mentor-ship, but later evolved into him becoming a permanent shareholder in our company. In addition to his vast business acumen Brad also brought to bear a much-needed team of designers, IT professionals, MBA’s and legal counsel. The last of which proved extremely useful as our lawsuit developed.
One thing I feel worth mentioning, and speaks volumes about Brad’s business knowledge, and more directly, business in general, is a statement he made on the day we signed his partnership agreement. By law I was required to disclose all finances as well as any pending legal issues. I looked Brad in the eye and stated, “before you sign that agreement you do know that we are being aggressively sued by one of the largest toothbrush companies in the US”? I knew he was aware of the lawsuit, but I wanted to be forthright in our partnership. Here is what struck me. Now, if you’re a normal person; disclosing pending litigation at the inception of a partnership, you would rightly expect a seething look of betrayal followed by the sound of tearing paper and a stream of colorful insults. Not so with Brad. He returned my gaze and with an utterly calm expression said, “you have your own company now, you’re going to get sued”. It was like getting hit with the basketball for a second time.
It was the moment I realized something about business. Good intentions don’t mean shit to your competitors. If they can find a way to take you down and protect their market share they will, and the methods they employ are irrelevant, so long as they get the results they want. His statement hardened and saddened me, but also gave me hope. Let’s face it, if a small company like us can show up on the radar of one of the largest toothbrush company’s in the US – 6 months after launch, maybe there’s something to us. He further stated that depending on your perspective, lawsuits can be a bazaar form of complement,” It means you represent a potential threat”.
9/15 – Amazon sales Begin
Although originally opposed to the idea of selling on Amazon due to the 30% sellers fee; through Brad’s urging, it ultimately became the dominate channel for our business sales. Litigation was still pending without a clear settlement in site so our only option was to forge ahead as normal. Amazon is a unique engine, in that the algorithms that determine how well a product list on a search are updated every 4 hours. This ranking is determined by velocity of sales, conversion of sales, and search demand. So basically, the more you sell in a 4 hour span the higher your rank will be in the searches, equating to yet even more sales. It’s all about velocity. Amazon proved to be so successful that we redirected our home website sales to Amazon. Amazon taught us about marketing and the necessity for great curb appeal. It also provided a high level of feedback with our customers via the product reviews section. Within two months of listing the product, MD brush was listed as a Top-Rated Product. We knew we were onto something.
However, the bulk of manual toothbrush sales occurs in retail stores where customers are privy to a closer inspection”. Our success on Amazon proved that the market was interested in MD Brush, and would serve as a valuable metric for later use. Stress level 1. Now, somewhere in there we were approached by CVS Pharmacies, who initially showed great interest in stocking the brush but later recanted siting issues with the packaging. When we originally designed the package, it was based on being informative, with orders coming directly through our website. The back of the package was loaded with information relating to proper brushing technique, associations linking gum disease to systemic conditions; dental health, and so on; things that we typically discussed in our dental office, you know all that clinical shit. What was not included in the package was any consideration to retail appeal. Retail buyer psychology was not something we were used to thinking about and quite honestly had zero experience with. What will make a buyer pick up our brush instead of the competitors? This is where investors like Brad and his designers came in handy. We redesigned our package which went from a used 1991 Ford Crown Victoria to a 2017 Mercedes S Class AMG.
7/16 – Lawsuit settled – terms of settlement are confidential
8/16 – Filed 3rd patent (status – pending)
9/16 – Revise and retool
5/17 – launch MD Brush 2.0
8/18 – Joe Palca does follow up ( NPR – All Things Considered)
So, you’re probably asking us once again, “What kept you guys going”? The only answer I can give is stubborn resolve to see it through to the end and the customers. In a rough unscientific method, the breakdown is as follows
Eighty percent of people who use the brush absolutely love it, stating that although it took them a day or so get the hang of it, their mouth has never felt cleaner. Others who already knew about the BASS method were excited to finally see a brush designed specifically for the technique. We even had people writing in, opining about the exceptional reports from their dentist; the bleeding gums and bad breath were gone. Furthermore, in a small plaque study performed at the University of Texas School of Dentistry the brush was preferred by 8 out of 10 dental hygienists. The overall response was positive with the results to match.
Ten percent of people were concerned about the size. This pushback is expected when someone has spent a life time using a brush the width of a pencil. Yes, its larger than the normal brush but proportionally designed to fit the average human hand. When we designed, it we didn’t consider speed or cost of manufacturing.
Ten percent of people hated it, stating that they must “Think” about how they are brushing. Well duhh, thats the idea, we need you to think. Changing the behavior of anything will always be met with a degree of resistance.
The fact that roughly 80% of people enjoyed, and saw some benefit with our brush, told us that we had to keep going. Additionally, the fact that demand has only increased solidifies the markets desire for a new take on an older technology.
So, what have we learned?
1. In business, Murphy’s Law is a given. The only way to mitigate it is to jump in and learn from your mistakes; because there will be many. I’m not proud of some of the mistakes we’ve made but I wouldn’t take them back.
2. Adversity is to be expected and how you deal with it will determine your level of success.
3. You can’t do it all. You’re going to need help from people that have done it before so don’t be afraid to ask; In fact you need to ask as often as allowed. If you have a resource, use it.
4. You won’t make everybody happy and you shouldn’t try to. Learn to absorb the good and deflect the bad. Some people are open to change while others are not.
5. True failure only happens when you quit. If you going to quit, let it be on your own terms.
6. Stay positive, I can’t stress this enough. Negative thoughts and emotions will ruin you faster than any lawsuit.
7. Lastly, never hire anyone with the word “FOCUS” tattooed on their wrist
Written By, Mike Davidson, Maverick Dental Hygienist and CEO ( On Your Left)