They say “mother knows best,” but did yours give you a burgeoning business idea?
Steve Hyde’s did.
“About eight or nine years ago, I was talking to my mother in Australia about my brother who was struggling for many years to make a bamboo-framed bicycle,” Hyde says. “She said, ‘I don’t know why he doesn’t make something simple, like a bamboo toothbrush.’”
Hyde couldn’t shake the idea. When he later Googled “bamboo toothbrush” and found a hole in the dental marketplace, he called his friend, Christopher Fous, to help him fill it.
If you search online for bamboo toothbrushes today, you’ll see a gamut of related plant-based products, thanks to our increasingly eco-conscious society. But, in the early to mid-2000s, environmentally friendly products were more of a niche concept.
That’s why Fous agreed to join the business.
After talking to Hyde, he says, “I went to Publix and looked at the toothbrush section, and it was 10 feet of plastic, future landfill waste.” He didn’t see big name brands like Crest and Colgate as competitors. “Our competition was going to be other eco-friendly oral care brands.”
But back then, those alternative brands were scarce. So Fous, who has a background in branding and design, heeded the advice he gave to past clients: “You have to sharpen your focus and sharpen it until there’s no competition, then fill that market,” he says.
The two entrepreneurs got to work developing WooBamboo in Hyde’s garage. They started with 10 thousand bamboo toothbrushes and handed them to strangers while on a green expo excursion in New York City. It was Earth Day, 2013. “People went bananas over them,” Fous says. “They thought they were the coolest things they’d ever seen.”
Fast forward to today, and Cape Coral-based WooBamboo sells an average of 10,000 toothbrush orders per day. In the past few years, the 10-person company has unleashed a full line of eco-conscious oral products, selling to 19,000 stores across 50 countries.
That swift growth has been “like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” Thomas Burt, a longtime friend of Fous and Hyde and WooBamboo’s third co-founder, says. He handles the self-funded business’s finances, which more than doubles in revenue every year, he adds. (Hyde is in charge of sales, while Fous heads the creative team.)
Other eco-friendly oral-care brands have cropped up over the years—many of which sell their products online—but WooBamboo’s plan to focus on brick-and-mortar retails stores has paid off.
“Anyone with a website and a couple of bucks can make a bamboo toothbrush, unfortunately, but none are in as many stores or as widely marketed as we are,” Fous says. It’s true: In 2019, Forbes Travel Guide even named WooBamboo its first-ever exclusively recognized eco oral care brand. And, the company is now beginning to hit major hotels and airlines, offering their guests eco-friendly amenity kits.
“We went after [big chains] and distributors because it became very apparent to us that selling our toothbrushes online was never going to get us anywhere,” Burt says. “We thought we’d make the biggest impact and have the best business model by going after people who are going to put in an order for 40,000 to 50,000 toothbrushes.”
He adds: “It’s built a nice moat around our business because a lot of companies we work with are never going to carry two bamboo toothbrushes.” There’s not enough differentiation between them and the competitors to do so, he says. As a result, they can reign in the mass retail market.
Of course, making WooBamboo for the masses has not been without its challenges.
“There have been a lot of struggles as far as manufacturing capabilities,” Burt says. Remember, when the company started, eco-friendly oral care wasn’t big on the radar. “When you’re trying to introduce a different concept to [manufacturers] and you’re a small fish, [it can be challenging]. A lot of them made the mistake of not believing in us,” Burt adds. “We’ve had to get through a lot of rot to get to the diamonds so we can produce what we want in an affordable, high-quality manner.”
Creating packaging that is both eco-friendly and retail-friendly has also been a struggle. “We could be in an ugly brown box that’s 100% biodegradable and doesn’t use ink on it, but then no store is going to pick it up,” Fous says. “At the end of the day, we need to do what we need to do to make the best impact on the world.”
The company uses some recyclable plastic in its packaging, but the stuff they sell focuses on sustainability, biodegradability or eco-friendliness.
“Everything we provide our consumers with is an alternative to what they’re already using,” Fous says. “With over 7 billion people in the world, that’s a lot of mouths, that’s a lot of plastic, and lots of toothpaste containing toxic material. So, we’ve replaced all of these with products that are part of the solution, not the problem.”
Take their new mouthwash solution, for instance. “Instead of buying a bottle of mouthwash that’s 97% water in a plastic container, we’re selling a reusable steel water bottle with a powder that you put in with filtered water,” Fous says. “You shake it up, and now you’ve got mouth rinse.” The bottle can be used afterward as a water bottle for the office or gym, and customers can order a mouthwash powder refill online.
Chewable toothpaste tablets and bamboo interdental brush picks are just some of WooBamboo’s other soon-to-launch products. But even with a full line of eco-conscious dental goods, the owners don’t consider themselves as part of the oral-care industry.
“We like to feel like we’re in the world-changing business,” Fous says. “Our mission is not to make sure people use toothbrushes. It’s to help people make small changes to make the world a better place.”