Heather McDougall, CEO of Bogobrush, shares how she launched a social impact business and what’s changed since then, while offering expert advice for aspiring causeartists.
What does it take to launch and run an eco-friendly oral care brand? We asked Heather McDougall, CEO of Bogobrush, how she turned a clever idea and a passion for sustainability into a successful impact business. The company’s innovative toothbrushes are made of recycled and biodegradable materials. With every sale, Bogobrush gives back to the people and the planet—donating toothbrushes, planting trees, supporting low and no-cost health clinics, and more.
Heather shared details with us about her journey to becoming a social entrepreneur and dished on what’s changed, the challenges she still faces nine years after the company launched, and how she made a side hustle into a full-time, real-deal gig.
How did your side hustle start? Where did the idea for sustainable toothbrushes come from?
My brother, John, and I founded Bogobrush together and we like to say the idea started when we were kids, growing up as children of a dentist in North Dakota. Neither of us had any plans to do anything in oral care. John became an industrial designer and I studied law. As we grew through our studies, we realized our shared passion for sustainability. We decided to use our talents to start a company that would bring more environmental and social values into a product and people’s daily lives. As fate would have it, we couldn’t resist starting with a toothbrush.
What were the first 3 steps you took to get this social impact business off the ground?
The first steps we took to start Bogobrush as a real business and not just an idea were:
- Filed the organizational documents and formed a legal entity. This was in my wheelhouse. We did it very early on.
- Designed the product. This was iterative and we still make improvements as we go, but because design was in John’s expertise, we tackled that right away with a design process that involved competitive research, material research, playing with clay, digital modeling, sketches and more.
- Built a pre-order campaign to raise funds and consumer awareness. The product has evolved since then, but that step forced us to rally a team, build the website, and put the brand into the world.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in starting this business and how did you work through it?
The earliest, most stressful challenge we faced was in 2013 when we scaled our first production up from pilot test runs of several hundred units to 10,000 units. In the early days, we were anticipating using bamboo for our product, but when we placed the initial 10,000 unit order, we experienced what felt like catastrophe. More than half of the heads shattered during bristling and with overseas manufacturing being very difficult to manage, we needed a better solution. (There are actually many reasons bamboo was not a good choice for a toothbrush.)
Left with thousands of orders to fulfill, we chose to soldier forward and looked for a better option for materials and manufacturing. Throughout the next several months of massive networking and sheer faith in our mission, we met up with our current material suppliers, C2Renew. Since then, we’ve faced more challenges and risen to overcome them each time. That first challenge, though, was an important passage into the realities of entrepreneurship.
You were featured in the first ever episode of the Disruptors for GOOD podcast! What has changed for Bogobrush since then?
First of all, that’s so cool that we were the first! Since then, we’ve hired a CSO and a Sales and Ops Coordinator who have helped us launch into mass retail, including CVS, Amazon, and Selfridges Department Store UK. This has shifted our cash flow and the needs of the business. We’ve launched new products and new packaging, brought on new really cool advisors, and are in the middle of actively looking for funding to keep up with scale and demand.
Also, I’d say that I’ve changed. I’ve stepped up and out of “doing it all” and into a seat of leadership. I’m still constantly learning and growing, but not at the expense of my health and well being. A team is where it’s at.
In that podcast episode you said, “Doing things more socially responsibly and environmentally friendly is harder because everyone’s learning and figuring it out. It’s getting easier as time goes on.” Do you find that to be true as your company has evolved since you launched in 2012?
Yes, this is still true. Working with the materials we do makes manufacturing a very niche project. We’ve evolved our supply chain a few times over the years and each time we get closer to the expertise we need. Currently we have a partner in manufacturing that is very aligned with our goals for the planet, and they recognize the limitations of making products in a world that, although the market says it wants better products, is still very behind in terms of resources and access for companies like Bogobrush. While there are partners like this in the world, in the US we are all still on the front edge of innovation and change. This is the nature of evolution.
What advice would you give a fellow causeartist who wants to turn their side hustle into a business?
I’d say stop thinking of your side hustle as a side hustle and acknowledge it for what it is: a real business. File your organizational docs. File taxes even if you don’t have income or profit. Act as though it’s real and it will be. Your startup idea and your day job—whether that’s at a different company, as a stay-at-home parent, or in school—and everything you do in your life is part of who you are. Your responsibility is to identify your goal, your “why”—both internal and external whys—and then decide who you need to become to achieve your goal. Be that person in all you do.
Also, get comfortable with money and numbers. Decide what you personally need for income and visualize your transition from your current income source to your business as the source. Know your value. You may not need to draw income from your business right away, but the more you know what your business must do for you, the more confident and empowered you’ll be to acknowledge your business as legitimate and not be dependent on any labels. Your confidence and energy is the foundation. Growth will naturally follow.
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Jenny is eager to shed light on the latest entrepreneurs, brands and products leading the sustainability movement and making a difference in our world. Her professional experience spans digital advertising, project management, client relations, and all things content—from branded content creation, to custom photo and video production, to social media. Throughout her career, Jenny’s focus has been helping brands identify creative, data-driven content opportunities to drive awareness and generate growth.