How a $ 250 toothbrush robot for kids became a staple
In this ongoing series, we’re sharing tips, tricks, and ideas from real entrepreneurs who struggle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Registered on Time the list of the magazine’s 100 best inventions even before its launch, Willo, a robot toothbrush for children, has found its place in many essential gift guides. We caught up with co-founder and CEO Hugo de Gentile to discuss the company’s growth during the pandemic and its place in the global wave of high-end home products in the market.
Your background is in impact investing. How did it get you to start a toothbrush business?
Impact investing is about funding projects that bring about the greatest positive changes for society. The quality of this change is not only measured by the number of people helped, but also by the depth of the impact it has on each of them. Does a project slightly improve their life? Or does it fundamentally change their happiness, their lifespan, or what they are capable of accomplishing?
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That’s what led me to Willo. As I try to invest my time in the most efficient way to make meaningful change, I have been struck by the magnitude of the oral health problem. There really isn’t much that everyone does every day, with such limited results and such a big impact on overall health. After carefully considering all the solutions to come, my father and I realized Willo’s potential and decided to take on the mission of bringing perfect oral health for everyone.
How did your father take his invention into account?
My dad is the brilliant mind behind Willo as a product. He’s a dentist, but he’s really more of a scientist outside of his dental practice – probably the most passionate I’ve ever met. He felt the same frustration that most dental professionals have at one point: “No matter how much I educate, no matter how hard they try, most of my patients aren’t able to maintain healthy teeth and gums. ” The solution he found was unprecedented.
How did you develop it from an idea to a functional product?
Willo is above all a laboratory. Science is in our DNA and everything we do begins with careful testing in vitro and in vivo. So whenever we engage in discussions with experts, they appreciate the scientific approach, the accumulated knowledge and the potential for change.
We were introduced to our current chief dentist early on by our investors. First with a part-time equity contract, then gradually towards a more traditional full-time position. It is important to be flexible with the nature of the partnership. As a startup, you typically take on more risk than the other options offered to key people. You can mitigate that risk first, build trust, and show that your business is not a house of cards.
What do early investors mean for a company’s potential?
Having the right investors is a great signal and a catalyst. You want investors who are known and respected for their depth of vision and expertise, and who already have a network that you can activate. Having Kleiner Perkins in the US, BPI in Europe and dental funds by our side has been a key factor in bringing in the right talent and experts.
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When it comes to joining the team, experts share the same concerns as all other employees: Will I have the resources to do a good job? Will I be able to make a difference and grow? What is the risk? Do I believe in the mission? Do I trust the people who run the business?
How has the pandemic affected the dental industry?
There is a great shortage of hygienists and dental assistants (the profession’s No. 1 problem in the United States today): many of them lost their jobs during the pandemic but did not return to dentistry by the following. It is a fight for dentists and it calls for better home support solutions, and better collaboration between companies in the oral care sector and dental professionals.
The pandemic has lowered the number of dental visits for prevention. We wait more and more and wait for more serious problems before visiting our dentist. In the meantime, it has increased awareness of wellness and personal care and contributed to the development of telemedicine.
In education, he increased the use of clinical simulation.
You mentioned the South African philosophy of Ubuntu: “I am because we are. Can you explain its meaning and how it can help entrepreneurs in their businesses?
Ubuntu is Willo’s first and most important asset. All of our employees live by this philosophy. We can sum it up by saying “I am aware that I am part of a community and I care about this community”. Although two shoes seem idealistic and goody, it’s the exact opposite.
First, this philosophy is energizing and gives you the right focus. If you are just doing one business for yourself, you will lack a sense of purpose and poorly connect with people’s needs. When difficulties arise, you may feel more easily discouraged. On the other hand, if your work makes sense, you will be more patient and tenacious.
The Ubuntu philosophy also gives you specific tools to increase the quality of your value proposition, which is obviously the key to a business’s success. If you truly care about your customers, you will empathize and connect on a deeper level with them, which eventually leads to providing better solutions to improve their lives. You’ll pay more attention to their comments and implement them faster.
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Finally, any entrepreneur knows how tensions can cripple a business. Tensions between two employees, between teammates and their manager, tensions with a stakeholder. Certain tensions are necessary and positive when managed intelligently. They usually emerge from the excitement of going forward with an idea combined with the frustration of competing views that slow down the process. But some other stresses are a waste of time and productivity and can cause a lot of damage to the business. These tensions usually arise from a misplaced ego, miscommunication, or suspicion. Having “Ubuntu” as the first value has been very helpful in keeping this type of incident to a minimum and maintaining harmony, alignment and high productivity.
Coming back to your dad, what are your tips for working as a family?
Building a business with someone you love is extremely rewarding and difficult at the same time. The ups and downs impinge on your personal life, not necessarily in reality, but emotionally for sure. This is how the brain works. You associate people with the events and emotions that you experience during the day. So whether or not you have clear boundaries, you will definitely carry these emotions with you in both business and personal spaces.
If you are building something that you know is ambitious and non-trivial, then the family bond should be sacred and take precedence over all other situations you come across, so that your relationship is never in danger. The respective territories you own and the rules of settlement must be transparent and clearly defined. There are times when you will have opposing views on crucial matters. It is important to be able to “accept your disagreement” while knowing how to proceed.
When your business grows and succeeds, there is a calm bliss in it. My father is not a businessman and he never wanted to be. But he’s excited to see how many people his ideas can help. So every time we stop to look at the progress being made, there is this satisfying feeling of going on an incredible journey that we never imagined while he was still prototyping brushing systems in his pajamas in our living room. We think of the amazing people we have met and all the obstacles that have been overcome.
What are your tips for innovating in a category where there is not a lot of disruption?
If a market hasn’t seen a major change for a few years or decades, there’s a reason. And this reason is usually not that “no one has ever identified this opportunity”. This could be because the market is mature enough or there is a blocker. For example, the market could be organized as an oligopoly with a high barrier to entry. Or there could be a significant technological barrier. These blockers must be clearly identified. This is the prelude to building a disruptive business, as it will have a huge impact on any choices you make along the way.
Regarding the oral hygiene sector and Willo, the automation of tooth brushing is not a new subject. The general state of oral health is a concern for all dental professionals. The vast majority of children cannot brush their teeth properly, and the vast majority of adults end up with gum disease. As an industry, we know we need to design and deliver better solutions for better prevention. Companies in the industry have been trying to do just that for decades. Hundreds of patents have been filed and probably as many prototyped products. The barrier here is technology and user experience. Automating tooth brushing for billions of unique mouths is a huge technological challenge. To overcome this, we knew we would need more funding and more patience than most companies.
If you’re ready to disrupt a market, you should probably be prepared for a long trip and surround yourself with like-minded partners. We have been fortunate to partner with visionary investors like Wen Hsieh of Kleiner Perkins who are passionate about cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to reinvent massive industries. These partners are essential because they will support your vision and help others to tell the difference between crazy and forward.