Fueling Innovation Kim Lachance Shandrow  | June 22, 2017

How This Brother-and-Sister-Owned Sustainable Startup Reinvented the Toothbrush

Siblings-turned co-founders Heather and John McDougall didn’t fall far from the family tree. Their father is a dentist and active public health advocate, so the importance of good dental health — and giving back to the community — were on the tips of their tongues growing up. And that has everything to do with why the brother-sister duo decided to reinvent the toothbrush together.

The enterprising siblings are on a mission to make the Earth healthier, too. In 2012, they co-founded Bogobrush to put eco-friendly toothbrushes in the hands of those in need — and to keep them out of landfills. The North Dakota natives’ Detroit-based startup makes and sells modern, sleek and almost entirely biodegradable toothbrushes. John McDougall, Bogobrush’s chief creative officer and the younger sibling in the entrepreneurial duo, dreamed up the initial design for the toothbrush between shifts designing cars at General Motors in Detroit.

Partly inspired by TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie’s buy-one-give-one social good business model, Bogobrush donates one toothbrush — made of renewable sculpted flaxseed oil-based bioplastic and nylon bristles — to someone in need for every toothbrush it sells.

“There are over 80 million people in the USA alone who lack basic access to oral care,” John McDougall said. “Without a healthy mouth, there are dramatic consequences in nutrition and overall well-being. Supplying toothbrushes to those in need is just one small step towards addressing the issue, and we believe that if we can get people to truly care about the social mission of their toothbrush, it could be the start of something even bigger.”

Further extending their commitment to social responsibility, and to spreading healthy smiles, the McDougall siblings give Bogobrushes to charity partner organizations in the Motor City and beyond. One such partner is Detroit’s Covenant Community Care, a nonprofit that provides neighborhood health services, regardless of patients’ ability to pay.

We chatted with Heather McDougall, Bogobrush’s chief executive officer, to find out how her and her brother’s nascent enterprise is faring so far. We also asked what it’s like to run a business with your sibling and what’s next for their sustainable startup. What follows is our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What inspired you to start a socially and environmentally responsible toothbrush company?

“My brother and I grew up the kids of a dentist in a small town in North Dakota. We were active in the community and outdoors. We did a lot of sportsman-type activities what really connected us to the environment.

I’m two years older than Josh, but we’re the only siblings in our family and we have always been really close. We’re so similar that people ask us if we’re twins all the time.

If you fast forward to where we are now, neither of us were planning on pursuing careers in oral health at all, but we realized that we were both really passionate about sustainability and we wanted to do something together to help bring environmental and social awareness into people’s daily lives. So, we thought, ‘Well, what better way than a toothbrush?’”

Can you take us inside the moment when the entrepreneurial light bulb went off for you and your brother? How did you decide to take the leap and found Bogobrush?

“While we were both in college, we had a lot of conversations about philosophy and life together, and it was an evolving conversation about our coming of age, if you will, as well as about realizing our place in the world and in the environment.

I was in law school at the time. John was in design school. I was reading Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman at the time and something just jumped out at me. I called John and said, ‘Hey, what if we put our networks together and our minds together and try to do something?’

At that time, the entrepreneurial light bulb was a think tank group that we called ShareProject. It’s out of that think tank — a gathering of a whole bunch of different people from different walks of life — that this idea of Bogobrush was born. John and I thought if we could collaborate on a business idea or get a holistic perspective on some ideas, then the outcome would be a lot more valid and, in our opinion, more sustainable. We threw the people we had been meeting at our schools together to brainstorm business ideas. These were artists and people focused on food and wellness and business technology, individuals from different sectors of society, and together we chatted about a whole bunch of different sustainable products that we could make. A toothbrush was one of the ideas floated.

After we finished our conversation and dialogue with these people, John and I decided to work on one of the product ideas and we moved forward with the toothbrush. We started Bogobrush in 2012 and launched our product and website in the Fall of 2015.”

How has what you and your brother studied in college helped to prepare you for entrepreneurship?

“John went to school for car design, transportation design specifically, and he is currently full-time employed in the vehicle industry. We have a catchphrase that we use to describe what he does. It’s ‘John designs cars by day and toothbrushes by night.’ He works as a car designer for General Motors, in the company’s Global Advanced concept studio. Earlier, he worked in the company’s Buick Advance, Buick Interior and Chevrolet Interior studios.”

I went to undergraduate school at Oberlin in Moorhead, Minnesota, and went to law school at a private school in St. Paul, Minnesota that is now called Mitchell Hamline School of Law. My brother went to the College For Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan.”

Is Bogobrush the first business you founded with your brother?

“Yes. Though, before Bogobrush, like most siblings, we worked together on homespun lemonade stands [laughs], and with my best friend when we tried to make homemade Chapstick together when we just little kids.”

Why did you name your company Bogobrush, instead of perhaps a combination of your first names or maybe an homage to your shared last name?

“Bogobrush is a buy one, give one toothbrush, so the ‘bogo’ part is a nod to that, and it highlights that now more common approach to business. When you hear ‘bogo,’ you think of that — buy one, get another one of whatever you’re buying for yourself. But we wanted to make it buy one, give one to someone in need in your community.

We definitely were inspired by Blake Mycoskie and what he started with TOMS Shoes, but, for us, it wasn’t wanting to do exactly what he did step by step. Plus, our conversations kept coming back to environmental sustainability. We knew wanted a product that was environmentally friendly, but also social.

That said, we thought, ‘How can we include a social impact piece into our products and into our business model?’ We thought about several different ways to do that and, because of what TOMS Shoes has done with the one for one model, we thought that buy one, give one would be something that would be fairly recognizable for our customers. We would not have to do a lot of explanation up front on how we are a social good company. The idea was to have it click right away and our name, we feel, sets the tone for that.”

Can you walk us through how you give back to the community and through which charitable entities?

“We work with health clinics in the U.S. These are low-cost health clinics that provide care to either underinsured individuals or to folks who have no health insurance. Specifically, our partners are in Fargo, North Dakota, and part of our manufacturing is in North Dakota as well, so we have a connection there, though our warehouse is in Minnesota.

We also have partners in Detroit, Michigan that we donate toothbrushes to there, and that’s because Bogobrush is based out of Detroit right now. When we were first dreaming of Bogobrush, I was going to school in Minnesota, so we have clinics that we donate to there also, including Apple Tree Dental, which operates under a mission to ‘improve the oral health of all people, including those with special dental access needs who face barriers to care.’

These clinics are where we have strong networks and strong ties to Bogobrush. It’s really important to us that the giving is connected to the purchasing, in some emotional or awareness level way. We want our customers to feel connected to the place that they donate their brushes to. A few times a year we take account of how many brushes we’ve sold and then we donate that number between all of the clinics we work with.

We’ve built in the cost of making and donating toothbrushes, from an operational standpoint, so when our customers purchase a Bogobrush, they’re paying for the brush they’re receiving and also to provide a brush to these clinics. From a transparency standpoint, we’re really trying to take care of our communities through the sale of something that shouldn’t cost just $2 if we’re really giving back.”

Why did you choose to manufacture Bogobrushes in the U.S. versus overseas?

“We were in development for our brushes for a long time, maybe for three or four years before we were able to successfully manufacture the products that we offer today. Part of that journey was trying to manufacture Bogobrushes overseas, and even trying to make them out of bamboo. We were trying to work with suppliers in China.

We learned through that process that we were not getting the quality that we needed and communication was very difficult. We ran into a problem that we had heard of, but did not really want to believe, which was having our toothbrush designs being knocked off over there. We call them knock-off Bogobrushes in bamboo and they are available for purchase, which is not ideal for us. We had bamboo product from that time that had a lot of cracking, roughness and other usability and function problems like that.

Manufacturing domestically was a byproduct of our experiences around attempting to get it done overseas. Now the communication is clearer and the product is a higher quality, and things just generally go smoother all around.

Through our networking in communities to build pathways to donating the toothbrushes, we were introduced to c2renew, the Fargo, North Dakota-based biodegradable material manufacturing company that we use to make the material that comprises the body of the toothbrush. We were excited to partner with them for many reasons, but were also like, ‘Hey, they’re in North Dakota and that’s where we’re from!’ c2renew also connected us to a manufacturing site that we now used in North Dakota that happens to be in our grandma’s hometown, which is great. Our grandpa sang in church choir with the president of that manufacturing facility, and all these cool connections were unfolding for us, and were very helpful in enabling us to produce a quality sustainable toothbrush. It’s all connected!

Today, it’s really important to us that we produce our products in the U.S. because we’re keeping jobs local, and that’s also another way we can help our communities.”

Why did you move away from bamboo as a core Bogobrush material and transition to bioplastic instead?

“The reason we went with bamboo at first is that we thought that was the best material in terms of sustainability. Interestingly, around the time that we started developing the bamboo brush, c2renew developed their core product, the bioplastic. The whole timing of it all is remarkable, especially as the c2renew biocomposite material that we use now did not even exist when we first designed Bogobrush. In the end, it worked out better than we could have imagined.

We buy the material from c2renew and we make the toothbrushes in our manufacturing facility. We call the material the body of the toothbrush is made of biocomposite, which is basically a vegetable oil resin, a bioplastic-type substance. It’s not plastic like you might think of; it’s plant based. Mixed into the biocomposite is flax plant material and the flax enables the material to be molded similarly to a traditional plastic, but it breaks down into a compost pile.

We also use a recycled and recyclable plastic material for an additional type of toothbrush handle because some folks don’t compost. Or, some folks don’t have access to easy recycling and they prefer to compost. This way, with two options offered, we offer a solution for everyone.

The bristles on all of our toothbrushes are made from nylon, a type called Tynex nylon. There is no option for biodegradable toothbrush bristles other than boar’s hair, and boar’s hair doesn’t make a very quality toothbrush. Some people do use boar’s hair, however, but for our purposes, we decided to choose a bristle material that would be more comfortable for most folks and that has the softness and flexibility needed not to scratch tooth enamel. The bristles we have also dry out quickly to significantly reduce the amount of bacteria that can grow and live in them. Animal hair bristles don’t dry very quickly, so that was another factor in steering away from them.”

Can you give us a sense of how many traditional toothbrushes end up in landfills, and of the overall impact Bogobrush is making on reducing that waste?

“Currently in the U.S., about 450 million toothbrushes end up in landfills. If not in landfills, they end up in habitats where animals and foods are farmed, and that our water systems flow through.

We feel it is also important to point out that millions of Americans don’t have access to adequate oral health care. We’re at the very beginning stages of what we’re able to do, but so far we’ve given 5,000 toothbrushes to people in need, though that doesn’t totally encompass what we still need to and will donate based on recent sales numbers. We feel really great about what we’ve done so far, especially as our startup is so young, but there is still much to accomplish.”

How does your dentist dad feel about your and your brother’s budding business? He must be very proud of you both.

“Yes, definitely. Our dad is super supportive and excited for us, but he is also like, ‘Okay, this is your project together,’ and he doesn’t try to interject too much. At the same time, it’s really fun for us because, while we could never have imagined working in oral health care, now, through our own passions, we are able to connect with our dad on this whole other level.

Our dad is a longtime member of the American Dental Association and he’s currently a trustee on the board, so he is really involved in a lot of the policy and social issues surrounding oral healthcare in the U.S. Not only do we get to bond with our dad in a special way, we also have access to so many helpful resources in terms of knowledge from the folks that he is connected to.”

What’s your best advice for running a business alongside your sibling?

“Two things: Be honest and have fun. John and I have always gotten along and if we ever disagree on something, we don’t let resentment build and we both automatically respect each other a lot. If we happen to have different opinions on something, I always give his opinion 100 percent of my attention because I respect him as a smart, talented business person and my way is not always the right way.

Being able to listen and respect each other’s ideas is, for us, the most important thing. That said, we also put our sibling-ship ahead of everything. When we work on Bogobrush, we try to remember the spirit of fun and that we’re hanging out together, building something cool together.”

What does it mean to you to be a social entrepreneur?

“It means being a part of business in a direction that business needs to go. Right now people might think of corporations and might assume that they are just about the dollars and the bottom line. For us, being social entrepreneurs is proving that a company can care about the environment and can care about the community — and still be economically viable and successful. We’re trying to change the opinion of the business community and to help shape the future of business toward more of a social good mindset.”

How much does it cost to purchase a Bogobrush and do customers have to opt in to a subscription model, sort of like Dollar Shave Club?

“Customers can buy a one-time purchase of a Bogobrush for $9.50 on our website. We also sell a really fun toothbrush stand that helps you store your toothbrush upright. The stand, which costs $4 for one, helps you keep your toothbrush clean while also incorporating a modern design aesthetic into your bathroom.

We also offer subscription services, where you can automatically receive your Bogobrush every few months and you don’t have to even think about it. Right now, customers can buy two-, three- and four-month subscriptions for $7.13 per toothbrush and toothbrush stand combined.

Dentists recommend that you change to a new toothbrush every three months, but we know that some folks go through toothbrushes more quickly or less quickly than others, so we like to give our customers different choices around how often they’d like to receive new brushes.”

What’s next for Bogobrush?

“We’re looking forward to hiring a dedicated staff as our company grows, as opposed to contracting out. Also on the horizon, we have a website redevelopment in the works that should make our product descriptions more streamlined in ways that speak to more customers.

We’re also expanding our product family to a new, broader Bogo-product line, including other oral health care products and personal care products. We want to be a brand that people have fun with, that they can experience by filling their homes with meaningful, beautifully designed and environmentally-friendly products that make a difference.”