Chances are, flossing your teeth doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of everyday activities screaming for disruptive innovation. After all, threading waxed string between your gums and pearly whites can be quite a drag, and it’s up to you and only you to remember to do the deed.
Inventor-entrepreneur Duc Duong wants to change that. The bioelectronics engineer is on a mission to remind people to floss with the help of an adorable gadget he and two fellow Stanford University alums created. It’s called Flosstime, and it’s an automated floss-dispensing device that you could say has, well, a bit of personality.
See, Duong and his Flosstime co-founders Michael Evans and Gregorio Faria designed the emotive little machine to build healthy flossing habits in adults and kids through a quirky approach that plays off of your emotions (and in some ways, your competitive spirit). The battery-powered gizmo — which mounts to your bathroom mirror — reminds you to floss your teeth by making “faces” at you from its round, smoke detector-reminiscent display.
When you use the “smart” machine to dispense floss, it smiles at you via embedded LED display lights, in blueish-purple hue. When you don’t, it frowns at you, with lights that glare in a pinkish-reddish hue.
The only way to turn the gizmo’s frown upside down is to — you guessed it — floss your chompers.
“With a push of a button, Flosstime dispenses the ideal length of floss, cuts it and then times your flossing routine,” Duong tells Free Enterprise. “The device also comes with easily replaceable floss cartridges and a dual user mode, so you can shame your partner into flossing every day…”
Before launching their offbeat dental product startup, Duong, Evans and Faria walked around downtown Palo Alto, Calif. — where Flosstime is now headquartered — and talked to “random strangers on the street” to learn more out about their oral care habits.
“What we found was that, even though more than two-thirds of American households own some kind of floss, less than 20 percent of us floss on a daily basis, and a third of us do not floss at all,” Duong says.
Next, after biting off weeks of oral hygiene market research, the budding entrepreneurs discovered that, according to Duong, the flossing products available today only aim to make flossing physically easier, but don’t actively encourage people to build and maintain daily flossing habits.
“This was when we knew Flosstime would be a huge success and dedicated ourselves to making it happen,” he says.
We reached out to Duong recently to learn more about his unusual inaugural product and entrepreneurial journey — and to find out what it’s like to launch a Silicon Valley tech startup devoted to making people’s smiles healthier, right down to the gingiva (gumline). Here’s what we learned:
Why are you so passionate about improving flossing through technology?
“Taking good care of your teeth not only helps with your oral health and self-confidence, it will also potentially save you thousands of dollars on dental services and treatments. What makes us so passionate about building Flosstime is the fact that our monetary success is completely in line with helping millions of people improve their oral and dental health. Our ultimate goal is to help the millions and billions of people all around the world maintain a white and healthy set of teeth for their entire life.
Furthermore, research shows that lack of flossing can lead to gum and periodontal diseases, which have been linked to heart problems, diabetes and numerous other serious medical issues. Bacteria build-up in between your teeth and gum pockets can enter the bloodstream and cause long-term cardiovascular complications. In fact, one study shows that daily flossing can add up to more than six years to your life!”
Why innovate in the dental product space versus another, trendier consumer tech product arena? Why specifically “disrupt” floss?
“At Flosstime, we believe in building products that can solve important problems in healthcare and positively impact the world. What drew us in so strongly was the fact that the lack of flossing is still such a prominent problem in the world and that, by solving it, we would help millions of people live happier and healthier lives.”
When did you officially launch and where in Palo Alto, Calif. are you located?
“We initially incorporated in August 2014 and worked out of our apartments and garage for the first two years. Since November 2016, however, we have moved into an office on 125 University Avenue in Palo Alto.”
How was Flosstime initially funded?
“In the first six months, we used our own money to file the initial intellectual properties, register trademarks and buy a 3D printer, as well as to fund the research and design supplies to build the very first working prototype.
Over the next two years, we would continuously raise money from angel investors to get us to where we are today. To date, we have raised around $970,000 from investors, and another $60,000 from our successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.”
How many people currently work for Flosstime and where do you manufacture out of?
“We currently have three full-time employees and manufacture products out of Shenzhen, China.”
How does Flosstime make flossing easier and more fun (i.e. less of a pain)?
“The device mounts to your mirror so it’s always present, and the daily flossing reminders act as visual cues to help you floss every day. The mechanical dispensing process makes flossing fun and the device also rewards the user with a beautiful blue smile. This cue-routine-reward cycle is founded in decades of neurological research and we believe it will help you build daily flossing habits.”
Why is it better than simply setting a reminder on your smartphone to floss?
“The problem with having a set reminder on your phone is that it will not remind you when you need it to the most, and there is no reward for having flossed. Imagine yourself laying on the couch, watching your favorite show with your family. If your phone beeps at you, chances are you will not get up, go to the bathroom and floss.
Whereas Flosstime is there to remind and reward you for flossing when you need it most: when you’re in the bathroom, getting ready for bed. Additionally, the dual user mode lets you compete with your partner, kids or roommate, and helps everyone in the family floss on a more regular basis.”
How much does a Flosstime dispenser cost?
“A Flosstime device currently retails for $29.99, with each floss replacement cartridge costing $5.99.
Included with each Flosstime unit at no additional cost are three colorful animal-shaped snap-ons. They mount directly on the dispenser to make flossing fun for kids as well.”
How are sales faring so far?
“We are still in the early stages of launching our product and still need to complete our full website and product deployment. However, we have sold more than 2,000 devices through our online crowdfunding campaigns and e-commerce efforts to date.”
What’s next for Flosstime?
“Our immediate goals are to work on deploying Flosstime to the more than 20,000 large retailers all across the U.S. and to build a subscription model with which we can ship users floss cartridges every three months. Over the next year, we’ll also be working to connect our device to the cloud and build towards a connected bathroom experience.”
What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
“My biggest advice would be to build products that have values beyond their selling price. For hardware in particular, the success of the company will depend on the number of users or subscribers it has, and the lifetime value to your customers. Recurring revenue can come from either disposable refills, like Flosstime’s replacement floss cartridges, and/or a related software service with a regular subscription.
It’s also important to note that good startups can take between five to 10 years to grow into maturity, so ask yourself if you are willing to dedicate the next decade of your life to this idea.
Starting a new company is like getting married — make sure you spend a lot of time finding the right co-founders who are open to honest discussions, and who will support and weather the storms with you through all of the ups and downs of growing your enterprise.”