Pando

This startup just made the best toothbrush I've ever tried -- no fancy gimmicks required

By David Holmes , written on February 2, 2015

From The News Desk

Over the last few weeks, I've written two posts that mocked the startup world's obsession with making everything old into something "new" and "connected" and "disruptive." There was the easily ridiculed barrage of useless gadgetry at CES that included connected baby bottles, smart belts, and other lame excuses to turn Silicon Valley's digital eye onto the most analog devices, in the desperate hope of pocketing a little reckless venture cash. Then when SkyMall went belly up, I assembled a quiz that highlighted the indistinguishability between many of the most-lauded CES products and the laughable crap sold through SkyMall's magazine, like treadmill desks and video-recording sunglasses.

So I was pretty skeptical when I received a pitch from Quip, a new company claiming to "reinvent the toothbrush." Great, I thought, what is it this time? Connected bristles that send your plaque data to the cloud? Social integration so you can share with friends what a responsible brusher you are? A gamification layer that lets users out-brush their Facebook contacts? No thanks.

But after meeting with Quip founders Simon Enever and Bill May -- and testing out their product myself -- I'm sold, not only on the product, but on the business model.

The beauty of Quip's toothbrush lies in its simplicity: There's none of the connectivity, social integration, or other flashy features which would make oral care more complicated than it ever needs to be. Instead, everything about Quip is designed to improve a brusher's oral health based on the recommendations of dentists. Essentially, good brushing boils down to three components: Brushing for 2 minutes, having evenly distributed bristles, and changing your brush every three months.

Here's how Quip works: Like many electronic toothbrushes, Quip vibrates, but the vibrations are not an end in themselves. The benefits of vibration -- beyond the fact that they feel nice -- are arguable, so instead Quip's vibrations are a mechanism to ensure that users brush for two uninterrupted minutes. The vibrations pulse every 30 seconds so equal time can be spent on each quadrant of the mouth. Other electronic toothbrushes do that too, but Quip's simplicity and lean business operation allows it to do so at a much lower price-point: $40 for a starter kit that includes the brush, a case, and a tube of toothpaste that is carefully measured out to last 3 months, assuming you use the dentist-recommended pea-sized allotment.

Meanwhile, the brushhead is designed as simply as possible with even bristles, unlike the elaborate bristle patterns toothbrush makers introduced to differentiate themselves from competitors. In truth, these supposedly-fancier designs mean that the bristles wear down unevenly, causing parts of the head to grow ineffective faster than others. Quip's head looks more like the cheapest toothbrushes you might find at Duane Reade, and that's precisely the point.

Finally, Quip features a subscription model like Harry's or Dollar Shave Club and will ship customers a new bristle head and toothpaste every three months, like dentists advise. Replacement packs cost $10 a piece, and shipping is included.

"We as designers felt much more equipped to attack and win, whereas Oral-B is engineering Bluetooth accelerometers to track your millimeter movement hand motion," May says. "It's just not working nearly as effective as approaching the problem at its core."

Enever puts it more succinctly: "You don't need to connect your toothbrush to your phone to brush for two minutes."

Quip is a relatively lean operation, having raised just $300,000 in capital. Assuming the product takes off like Quip hopes, it will look to raise more cash in order to manufacture enough brushes to meet demand. It's going up against giant entrenched corporations like Oral-B (owned by P&G), but because virtually everybody brushes their teeth, it doesn't need to chip away much of that market share to launch an incredibly successful business.

"Dollar Shave Club claims they have 5% or 4.5% of the global shave market," May says. That may not sound like much to a giant like Gillette, but according to Statista, the US shaving market is worth $3.8 billion a year. Unsurprisingly, the US oral care market is even bigger and is forecasted to reach annual sales of $8.4 billion by 2018. Like Dollar Shave Club, Quip is a good example of how startups can disrupt larger markets not because they are more tech-savvy, per se, but simply by virtue of their small, nimble size and the fact they don't need to copy competitors in order to maintain their incumbent position.

Like Harry's, Quip will look to popularize its product through partnerships with lifestyle brands like Birchbox. Quip's timing is also advantageous: Oral care has yet to make a big splash on the web. And while there are other startups like GoodMouth attempting to tackle this area, that reality serves to validate the space without introducing much direct competition. Multiple investors, Enever says, told the company they were already looking for a "toothbrush play."

With a background in industrial design, Enever looked to bring Apple's sleek simple design sense to the brush. As someone who's never been much of a design-head myself, I can attest that the brush's functionality alone makes it worth a look. Here's hoping that more startups looking to bring 21st-century design and convenience to century-old markets take a page from Quip. Enever and his team recognize that you don't need the latest tech buzzwords to make a fantastic product and -- more importantly -- make the world's mouths a little less disgusting.