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Listed on Time magazine’s 100 Best Inventions list before it even launched, Willo, a toothbrush robot for kids, has found its way onto numerous gotta-have gift guides. We caught up with co-founder and CEO Hugo de Gentile to discuss the growth of the company during the pandemic, and its place in the overall surge of premium at-home products in the marketplace.
Your background is in impact investing. How did that lead you to start a toothbrush company?
Impact investing is about financing projects that are driving the biggest positive changes to society. The quality of this change is not only measured by the number of people being helped, but also by the depth of the impact it has on each one of them. Does a project make their lives marginally better? Or does it fundamentally change how happy they are, how long they live, or what they’re able to achieve?
That’s what led me to Willo. As I’m trying to invest my time in the most efficient way to bring significant changes, I was struck by the magnitude of the oral health issue. There are really not a lot of things that everyone is doing every day, with such limited results and with such an important impact on overall health. After carefully studying all the solutions in the making, my dad and I realized Willo’s potential and decided to take on the mission of bringing perfect oral health for everyone.
How did your dad factor into its invention?
My dad is the brilliant mind behind Willo as a product. He’s a dentist, but he really is more of a scientist outside of his dental office — probably the most passionate I’ve ever met. He felt the same frustration that most dental professionals feel at some point: “No matter how much I educate, no matter how much they try, most of my patients are not able to maintain healthy teeth and gums.” The solution he came up with was unprecedented.
How did you develop it from an idea to a functional product?
Willo is first and foremost a laboratory. Science is in our DNA and everything we do starts with careful in vitro and in vivo testing. So whenever we engage in discussions with experts, they appreciate the scientific approach, the knowledge accumulated and the potential for change.
We were introduced to our current Chief Dental Officer very early on by our investors. First with a part-time equity deal and then slowly ramping up toward a more classic full-time position. Being flexible with the nature of the partnership is important. As a startup, you usually bear more risks than other options key people are offered. You can mitigate that risk at first, build trust, and show that your company 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 catalyzer. You want investors who are known and respected for the depth of their vision and expertise, and who already have a network that you’ll be able to activate. Having Kleiner Perkins in the US, BPI in Europe and dental funds by our side has been a key factor to onboard the right talents and experts.
When it comes to joining the team, experts share similar concerns as every other employee: Will I have the resources to do a good job? Will I be able to make a difference and grow? What’s the risk? Do I believe in the mission? Do I trust the people leading the company?
How has the pandemic affected the dental industry?
There is a large shortage of hygienists and dental assistants (#1 issue in the profession in the US currently): a lot of them lost their jobs during the pandemic but didn’t go back to dentistry afterward. It’s a struggle for dentists and it calls for better supporting solutions at home, and better collaboration between companies of the oral care sector and dental professionals.
The pandemic lowered the number of visits to the dentist for prevention. We are waiting more and waiting for more serious issues before visiting our dentist. In the meantime, it increased awareness about wellness and self-care and helped the development of telemedicine.
In education, it increased the use of clinical simulation.
You’ve talked about the South African philosophy of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” Can you explain its meaning and how this can help entrepreneurs with their businesses?
Ubuntu is the first and most important value at Willo. All our employees live by that philosophy. It can be summarized by saying “I am aware that I’m part of a community, and I care for that community”. Though it seems idealistic and goody two shoes, it is the exact opposite.
First, this philosophy is energizing and gives you the right focus. If you’re only doing a business for yourself, you’ll lack a sense of purpose and you’ll poorly connect with people’s needs. When difficulties arise, you may feel discouraged more easily. On the other hand, if your work is meaningful, you’ll be more patient and tenacious.
The Ubuntu philosophy also gives you specific tools to increase the quality of your value proposition, which is obviously key in the success of a business. If you genuinely care about your customers, you’ll be empathetic and you’ll connect on a deeper level with them, which will eventually lead to delivering better solutions to improve their lives. You’ll pay closer attention to their feedback and implement them at a faster pace.
Finally, any entrepreneur knows how tensions can cripple a company. Tensions between two employees, between teammates and their manager, tensions with a stakeholder. Some tensions are necessary and positive when they’re dealt with smartly. They usually emerge from the excitement of going forward with an idea combined with the frustration of competing views slowing down the process. But some other tensions are pure loss of time and productivity and can cause a lot of damage to the company. These tensions usually emerge from misplaced ego, bad communication or suspicions. Having “Ubuntu” as our first value has been really helpful in limiting these kinds of incidents to a minimum, and maintaining harmony, alignment and high productivity.
Getting back to your dad, what are your tips for working with family?
Building a business with someone you love is both extremely rewarding and tough. The ups and downs intrude on your personal life, not necessarily in actuality, but emotionally for sure. That’s just how the brain works. You associate people with events and emotions you live during the day. So whether you have clear boundaries or not, you will definitely carry these emotions with you both in the professional and the personal spaces.
If you’re building something that you know is ambitious and nontrivial, then the family bond should be sacred and prevail over any other situations you encounter, so that your relationship is never at risk. The respective territories that you own and the settlement rules should be transparent and clearly defined. There are moments where you’ll have opposing views on crucial topics. It’s important to be able to “agree to disagree” and still know how to proceed.
When your company grows and is successful, there is calm happiness in there. My dad is not a businessman and he never wanted to be one. But he’s excited to see how many people his ideas can help. So whenever we pause to look at the progress made, there is this satisfying feeling of living an incredible journey that we would have never imagined when he was still prototyping brushing systems in his pjs in our living room. We think about the incredible people we’ve met and all the obstacles that were overcome.
What are your tips on how to innovate in a category where there isn’t much disruption?
If a market has seen no major evolution for a few years or decades, there is a reason. And that reason is usually not that “no one ever identified that opportunity.” It can be because the market is mature enough or because there’s a blocker. For instance, the market could be organized in an oligopoly with a high entry barrier. Or there could be an important technological barrier. These blockers need to be clearly identified. That’s the prelude to building a disruptive business as it will dramatically impact all of the choices you make along the way.
Regarding the oral care sector and Willo, the automation of toothbrushing is not a new topic. The overall state of oral health is preoccupying for all dental professionals. The vast majority of kids can’t brush properly, and the vast majority of adults end up having gum diseases. As an industry, we know we have to design and provide better solutions for better prevention. Companies in the sector have been trying to do just that for decades. Hundreds of patents were filed and probably as many products prototyped. The barrier here is technology and user experience. Automating toothbrushing 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 are willing to disrupt a market, you should probably prepare for a long ride and surround yourself with partners that have the same quality. We’ve been lucky enough to partner with visionary investors, like Wen Hsieh from Kleiner Perkins, who are passionate about deep techs that have the potential of reinventing massive industries. These partners are key as they will support your vision and help others see the difference between crazy and forward-thinking.