How These Sisters (and Doctors) Launched a Natural Toothpaste Brand With No Funding and a KitchenAid Mixer
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In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality -- and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Sisters Pooneh Ramezani and Paris Sabo are no strangers to hard work. Ramezani is a dentist, and Sabo is a breast-cancer surgeon. In 2013, their careers were both thriving, but when they discovered an unmet need for natural toothpaste, they set out to fill a hole in the market. And it changed their definition of hard work.
As doctors, mothers and now entrepreneurs, they worked nights and weekends on their side project, mixed their earliest batches by hand and launched a grassroots social media campaign that would lay the groundwork for their company, Dr. Brite, the mouth care products of which are now sold at Target and Urban Outfitters.
In 2017, the founders won the Tory Burch Foundation Pitch Competition, helping them further grow their brand. But they started small -- here’s how.
1. Identify a common problem
Ramezani has been a dentist for more than 20 years and had always used and recommended big-brand toothpastes. But in 2013, more and more patients started asking for natural-ingredient toothpastes -- and she was at a loss.
Around the same time, Sabo’s 18-month-old son couldn’t get enough of his child-approved toothpaste. “He would brush his teeth and ask for more,” she says. “He was eating it, and I thought it was so cute -- until I looked at the ingredients. Being a surgical oncologist, I was kind of shocked. I thought I was giving him the healthiest toothpaste out there, but it was all chemicals. I was like, Oh my God.”
So the two sisters set out to create a safer, non-fluoride product.
2. Start from scratch
Sabo came up with preferred ingredients based on a homemade paste she made and was using in lieu of her son’s beloved store-bought brand. “He could eat it all day long and it would be safe,” she says. “But it wasn’t ready for mass market.”
The sisters spent the bulk of 2013 and 2014 researching ingredients, talking to formulators and surveying friends and family as potential customers. They both kept their day jobs at first, and worked out of Ramezani’s dental practice on the weekends before securing a small office space at the end of 2013. “We were like, 'We can do research here!'” Sabo says.
They hustled hard and funded the company themselves -- but they felt the weight of their sacrifices. “It was very challenging for me with two kids, a full-time practice and a startup,” Ramezani says. “It was many sleepless nights. And at one point, my career supported a very lavish lifestyle -- leaving that to work on a startup that required both energy and money, it was difficult. But if we can do it, anyone can do it.”
3. Figure out how to scale -- even when the industry won’t help you
When Sabo was making the early paste at home, she could simply order natural ingredients from Amazon or online health stores. As they worked toward launch, she knew that wouldn’t cut it. She approached a formulator, but he wanted to pack their product with chemicals and artificial ingredients. “I’d call suppliers to ask for ingredients and they would tell me to have my manufacturer contact them,” Sabo says. “When I told them that we were the manufacturer, they were shocked -- they had never heard of a woman-owned manufacturing company. But I would beg them to send me ingredients in small batches and promise to double or triple our order the next year.”
She learned to take pleasure in small wins -- like when a bottle manufacturer agreed to sell to her but asked how many truckloads she wanted. “I was like…can I just have one case?” she recalls, laughing. “He charged me $500, it was ridiculous, but we got them, and I was so happy. There’s just no network that wanted to help us; it’s all proprietary and trade secrets. We just had to persist.”
4. Build a rapport with your audience before you launch
As soon as the women settled on the name Dr. Brite and purchased the domain, they launched an Instagram account and started building an audience.
“We’d post things about nature, recipes we liked, we’d talk about ingredients that would ultimately be in our product -- did you know coconut oil did this? -- and we just kept saying, coming soon,” Sabo says. “We’d post pictures of me in my kitchen with my KitchenAid mixer. People responded to it.”
It was a grassroots effort that earned them nearly 7,000 followers by the time they launched their first set of products in November 2015.
5. Focus on quality over quantity
In just two months, they earned $30,000 in sales. Right away, they offered international shipping, but they quickly realized it was cost-prohibitive. “The shipping cost us more than we were selling,” Sabo says. So the duo hit pause on international orders (they’ve since reopened them) and focused on making sure they could fill and deliver domestic orders perfectly.
6. Find the right partners to help you grow
The years that followed were a continued hustle -- Ramezani still sees her patients about one day a week, but Sabo is fully focused on Dr. Brite – and the women have done whatever they can to keep the company self-funded.
Thanks to their social media presence, brands including Target and Urban Outfitters reached out to the company and now carry Dr. Brite products in stores. That organic growth allowed the sisters to hire a lab assistant and a manufacturing team in 2017, the same year they won the Tory Burch Foundation pitch competition; that money will help them purchase new equipment and move into a larger, 10,000-square-foot space.
“We took everything slow and built the structure and foundation,” Ramezani says. “We’re not a fast company, and we’re not ready for funding yet. I tell everyone who asks: If you want to fund the company, you have to first be a customer and really love the product.”