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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 16, 2017 1 year ago

Smile File

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Some unlikely entrepreneurs transformed the ordinary toothbrush with an environmentally friendly bamboo handle. Against many odds, they are on the brink of successes.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Steve Hyde was chatting with his mother one day in 2011 about his brother's crazy idea to one day build a bicycle out of bamboo.

“He should make something useful like a bamboo toothbrush,” Hyde's mother remarked casually.

A Southwest Florida restaurant owner and operator hit hard by the recession, Hyde was immediately struck by his mom's remark. He rushed to his nearby drugstore. Hyde found the toothbrush section was full of plastic — no product was biodegradable. Turns out, Americans throw away more than 1 billion toothbrushes a year. Most end up in landfills. “There was an enormous hole in the market,” Hyde says he realized.

Hyde ran the idea of a biodegradable bamboo-handle toothbrush by his friend, Christopher Fous, a Fort Myers marketing entrepreneur whose business also suffered during the downturn. He, too, sought an entrepreneurial opportunity.

At first, Fous was skeptical about Hyde's idea. “This is like Idea No. 7 — after airport bingo,” he says, laughing.

Besides, Fous told Hyde, there's so much competition for toothbrushes it would be impossible to land shelf space. Still, Fous made a detour by the toothbrush section while shopping at Publix and came to the same conclusion as Hyde: There were no toothbrushes made of environmentally friendly materials. “It's all plastic garbage,” he says. “What looked like a sea of competition was down to zero.”

Both men say their lack of experience in retail and oral health care meant they didn't have any preconceived notions of how to proceed. “There's no reason we should be doing this,” Fous chuckles.

For one thing, Fous wanted to make toothbrushes fun, not sterile or spa-like. “We wanted it to be a celebration,” he says, dreaming up the name WooBamboo! with a panda mascot. “It's fun to say, it resonates with people.”

Although 95% of the toothbrush is biodegradable, Fous acknowledges that the nylon bristles aren't environmentally friendly. The alternative to nylon bristles is pig hair, which isn't exactly a big selling point with consumers. “It's a balance,” Fous says. “We can't change the world if no one buys our products.”

After eight months of tinkering with designs and $14,000 in savings to seed the business, the duo turned to Toothbrush Town. That's the nickname for Yangzhou, China, where half the world's toothbrushes are made.

There, they found a family-owned manufacturing plant that agreed to make an initial batch of 10,000 bamboo-handle toothbrushes. Armed with toothbrushes, the pair hit natural-product trade shows and launched WooBamboo! April 22, 2013 — Earth Day.

Attendees snapped up the environmentally friendly toothbrushes for adults, children and pets. “It was galvanizing,” Hyde recalls. “It convinced us we were onto something.” Within six months, WooBamboo! brushes were in 40 small independent natural-product stores.

With the help of additional financing from Thomas Burt, senior vice president at UBS in Fort Myers, Hyde and Fous were able to land bigger chains such as CVS, Target and Kroger. Their brushes are now in 8,000 stores. They have also boosted their private-label offerings, focusing on hotels and dental practices. By this time next year, they expect to be in 30,000 stores.

To date, WooBamboo! has sold more than 1 million toothbrushes (retail price: $4 each), distributing 10,000 a week from a small warehouse stacked with boxes and pallets behind a Hooter's restaurant in Cape Coral. They decline to disclose revenue, but growth, the executives say, has been in triple-digit annual percentages.

They've also introduced a biodegradable silk floss and plan to soon offer toothpaste with natural ingredients in eco-friendly packaging. More reasons to smile: Toothpicks and whitening strips are next on the horizon.

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