James McKean wants to revolutionize the manual toothbrush. It’s January 2018. The 31-year-old MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School whirls his laptop around to show me the prototype designs.
Bristle, as the product might be called, has a detachable head and a colorful pattern on the handle—like faux wood grain, flowers, or plaid.Customers would pay somewhere around $15 for their first purchase, and then get replacement heads, at $3 or $4 a pop, through a subscription service.
There are a few reasons McKean likes this plan. A Bristle subscription would be more convenient than going to CVS when you need a new toothbrush—you’d order online, set your replacement-head frequency, and forget about it. Also, Bristle brushes are friendlier looking than, say, Oral-B’s spaceship-like aesthetic. “To me, brushing your teeth is such an intimate act. You engage with these products by putting them in your mouth,” he says. A toothbrush, he adds, is “almost an extension of your individuality.”
A former McKinsey consultant and private equity investor from Utah, McKean caught the entrepreneurial bug from watching his clients.
For most of its history, Wharton’s reputation has been built on turning out the world’s finest spreadsheet jockeys. But, a few years ago, four students met at Wharton and started a company that would help ignite a startup revolution: Warby Parker. The concept: selling eyeglasses directly to consumers (DTC) online. Few thought the idea would work, but today Warby is valued at $1.75 billion, and its founding story has become a fairy tale at Wharton. Co-founders and co- CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa give guest lectures at the business guest lectures at the business school—as does Jeff Raider, the third Warby co-founder, who went on to help hatch Harry’s, a DTC razor brand.
Wharton, in turn, has become a sort of incubator of DTC companies in product categories as diverse as lingerie, sofas, and, if McKean gets his way, manual toothbrushes. Wharton is by no means the only place such companies originate, but it is the most fertile ground—a fact that’s not lost on venture capitalists. “I’ve basically pitched a tent outside of Wharton,” says Andrew Mitchell, who founded the venture capital firm Brand Foundry to invest in digital-first consumer businesses.
The appeal of the DTC movement goes like this: By selling directly to consumers online, you can avoid exorbitant retail markups and therefore afford to offer some combination of better design, quality, and service, and lower prices, because you’ve cut out the middleman. By connecting directly with consumers online, you can also better control your messages to them and, in turn, gather data about their purchase behavior, thereby enabling you to build a smarter product engine. If you do this while developing an “authentic” brand—one that stands for something more than selling stuff—you can effectively steal the future out from under giant legacy corporations. There are now an estimated 400-plus DTC startups that have collectively raised some $3 billion in venture capital since 2012.
If Wharton has become the spiritual center of the DTC startup movement, David Bell is its guru. A tall and touslehaired Kiwi who comes off more like an edgy creative director than a professor, Bell has advised the founders of and invested in most of the DTC startups with Wharton roots (see “The DTC Mafia,” page 91). An expert in digital marketing and e-commerce, Bell first got a taste for investing when Jet.com founder Marc Lore (another Wharton alum, now at Walmart) invited him to put early money into his first startup, Diapers.com. When the Warby Parker founders were still in school and conceiving their company, the professor helped them refine its home-tryon program, arguably the key to getting people to purchase glasses online.
Bell sees an almost limitless potential for more companies to challenge the old guard by following the Warby playbook. “If you went to your kitchen, your bedroom, your bathroom, your living room, and you went through all the stuff that was in there, from your toothbrush to your sheets and towels and curtains— you name it—it could all be Warby-ed.”
Bristle promotes on three fronts. On is that their product is good. Their toothbrush bristles are soft – this is to stop you from damaging your gums during brushing and keeps your teeth strong and healthy. Many people insist on brushing their teeth with harder bristles because it feels like they’re doing a better job of scrubbing away debris; but all that scrubbing can damage your gums and enamel over time. Our brushes have a small head, so you can really spend time cleaning those hard to reach teeth, without it becoming uncomfortable. They’ve also added a wave shape to our bristles for more effective cleaning.
The other reason is to reduce plastic with plastic pollution being devastating to the environment. Recent environmental sampling estimates that a total of 12.2 million tonnes of plastic enters the marine environment each year. This toxic, petroleum-based waste takes hundreds of years to break down and can be found circulating in ocean currents. It has quickly entered the food chain contaminating what we eat and affecting the water. A recent test showed that 83% of drinking water samples taken across the globe contain plastic pollutants. Our addiction to plastic is choking the earth and threatening all life on it.
Finally, a flexible and simple bamboo toothbrush subscription service makes it really easy for you to change your recurring orders whenever you want. Simply log in to your account and change anything from the number of toothbrushes to the frequency of your orders. It is also easy to change your personal details and we have a number of easy to follow billing options. If you decide that Bristle isn’t for you, for whatever reason, you can cancel your subscription anytime.
Interesting stuff. Looks like everyone is trying to cut out the middlemen. But can every product go direct to customer?
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