Dentistry.co.uk: Can you give us a brief background on yourself and how you got to designing the product that took you to Dragon’s Den?
Sian Ellingworth (SE): I went to study dentistry at Newcastle. Basically, I didn’t work hard enough and completely messed up my first year. However, I’m not sure dentistry would have suited me. I like to chat with people, and I think the idea of me being in a practice day in day out, interacting with people who can’t necessarily talk back wouldn’t have worked for me.
Instead I switched to biochemistry after that first year and qualified in that instead. That was much more open in terms of what you do afterwards. It felt to me there was lots of potential careers that biochemistry would be useful for and I chose the food industry.
The graduate job I got was with United Biscuits. They had a frozen and chilled business in Grimsby, which is where they sent me. I ended up staying there for about 10 years in total.
It was a really good business background there, I went into manufacturing first of all, spending two years in a factory, sometimes knee high in frozen pizzas. That gave me a good understanding on how things were made and in managing people. Then I moved into purchasing as a trainee buyer before getting my big career break moving to the head office in London to become a commodity buyer.
Finally, as a result of not seeing my kids very much and doing lots of travelling, I decided I needed to change things and started working for myself.
Dentistry.co.uk: So what brought you back into dentistry with the launch of this product?
SE: It was Adam, my eldest son. We’d had a real problem with him, right from being a toddler and trying to introduce him to brushing his teeth as he hated the taste of any toothpaste.
Sometimes kids can refuse things just because they’re in that kind of mood, but this was definite. Even now at 15 he hates the taste of mint and it makes him gag. It was only two or three years ago we discovered he is on the autism spectrum. People with autism are often taste sensitive, or can have particular sensitivity to all sorts of things, it could be noise or a combination of things.
When my son was young I was trying everything to find a toothpaste that would work for him and I wanted to make sure it had the right amount of fluoride. There was nothing on the market, so we ended up buying chocolate ice cream-flavoured toothpaste from America. It had the right amount of fluoride and he would use it, but it didn’t give him the right message and seemed counter intuitive.
Because of that I thought, perhaps naively, I’d create my own and get someone to make it for me. My links through previous jobs were very useful, for example to put me in touch with companies that do market research.
We questioned 200 mums asking whether it was just me or if other parents struggled in a similar way. We tried to be specific in terms of the flavour of toothpaste being an issue, and then broadened it to find out about any other issues when teaching children to brush teeth. The results showed that mint was the most common flavour children had an issue with. About 15% of parents questioned had some sort of issue when teaching their kids to brush.
That led to me developing toothpaste that is suited to even the most taste-sensitive children, but also aiming to tackle some of the other barriers to brushing.
It’s well recognised that brushing effectively twice a day for two minutes a day is the single most important step to good oral health for everybody. For some people there is a barrier to doing that. I think if you can try to resolve those issues and make the experience as pleasant as possible, they’re much more likely to do it or to allow others to do it for them.
That’s what this product was initially based on and it’s broadened since I’ve gone down this journey. It started off being very much about children, and I’ve realised through feedback, it’s not just about kids, there may be a bigger proportion who are adults, which this could help.
Dentistry.co.uk: What products does Buddies offer?
SE: I started off with toothpaste, which was mainly about the flavour but also texture, foaming and sinking into the bristles of the brush. The correct amount of toothpaste with one press and the right amount of fluoride.
Then, listening to the feedback that we had, some of the issues were again, volume control, which got us thinking about a brush that could dispense the paste directly to the bristles and the right amount.
Another thing some people said was using an electric toothbrush can be unpleasant because of the vibration and sense of movement in their mouths. I thought about having a toothbrush that was a stepping stone to a more powerful electric toothbrush.
We got manufacturers to create the product for us and patented it, which is what was featured on Dragon’s Den.
Dentistry.co.uk: What flavour toothpastes do you offer?
SE: At the moment we offer ‘Hint of mint’, a lot of kids hate mint but many find the taste OK as their tastebuds mature. This is a buttermint flavour, that is mild enough to appeal to many.
Then we’ve got ‘Apple fresh’, which outsells the mint three to one. A lot of children just hate mint, so this is for the mint haters. Between the two of them, probably 99% of children will like one of those. There’s still the 1% that have an issue with anything to do with fruit and mint.
We’re in the process of creating a flavour, which I thought of first but has been the hardest to get right, ‘Secret formula’. It’s designed to appeal to all kids, but they won’t quite know what flavour it is and it has a secret agent character.
So, one of our toothpastes will definitely hit the spot if you care and look after somebody who has an issue with taste.
Dentistry.co.uk: Then you moved onto the toothbrush, what is different about this toothbrush?
SE: It vibrates very gently to get children used to the sensation of vibration in their mouths. It’s rechargeable. The charging unit can operate as a night light as well. All the products are about engagement.
The brush is supplied with three toothpaste cartridges which last six weeks. Then you will need to buy replacement cartridges to fit in the handle of the brush to pump the toothpaste out.
The price of this toothbrush is currently £34.99, although we’re working with the manufacturer on version two, which we’re hoping to be able to sell at a lower price. At the moment the toothbrushes are only available on the Buddies website.
Dentistry.co.uk: What made you take the leap towards Dragon’s Den?
SE: I get some brilliant feedback from people who had bought the products so I knew engagement is really good for those that know about Buddies, but it felt like a well-kept secret. So I knew I needed to raise the profile of the brand and having ‘dragons’ on board would do that and also open doors.
Appearing on Dragon’s Den was something that scared me to death, I just needed to do it.
I was probably putting myself under extra pressure because I work as a procurement consultant. I thought if I mess up in the den and come across badly, it could really impact my business reputation. So, I was very relieved that I came out of the programme having been reasonably calm and prepared. It was so nerve wracking.
Dentistry.co.uk: What was the whole process like?
SE: You apply online and get an email back saying they have tens of thousands of emails so you might not get any response at all.
I got a phone call months later and it was them. It was a long and involved process, which seems surprising when you see some of the pitches on the programme. There were several long and involved interviews over the phone, then I had to be filmed doing my pitch to see how I was on camera. Then everything had to be approved, from the set we design and bring with us, to the boxes used to present the products to the ‘dragons’. Every detail is considered.
On the day, one of the things that surprised me was as the doors open, the ‘dragons’ have screens in front of them, so they can’t see the set until just before you walk in. I could hear them reacting to the set and then I walked in. The feeling was very surreal. You were stood there looking at them and it felt like I’d walked into my TV.
It was really nerve-wracking. I’d imagined if you did a pitch and messed up, you could start again. In reality, there is no going back. I was in the room for about an hour and a half and they only show 15 minutes maximum.
Dentistry.co.uk: You got a tough time on the programme. Is that what it was like when you were in there?
SE: No, I felt as though they were very supportive. They didn’t show everything, so Peter Jones for example didn’t just say no, he explained it didn’t fit his portfolio but wished me the best of luck.
They focused on the way I’d re-mortgaged my house to get the money and actually there were several ways I’d raised the capital.
When I watched it, I got the impression that they’d decided to back me because they felt sorry for me. It didn’t feel like that at all on the day. There were good business reasons they decided to back it.
Dentistry.co.uk: You got investment by the end of the show, who came on board?
SE: Touker Sulyman as he has extensive manufacturing experience and Tej Lalvani, because he’s got a global health supplement business. His wife is also a dentist, which they didn’t show, so it tied in quite well.
Dentistry.co.uk: And what happened next after the programme?
SE: A few weeks after the programme was filmed, I had meetings with their teams and had some really good ideas, it was very helpful. There were lots of positive comments about going to China and sorting out manufacturers and getting the costs down.
Then it all went a bit quiet and about a couple of months after that they informed me they were pulling out. I never actually got the investment at the end of the day.
I’d heard that can happen with Dragon’s Den, but I assumed it was for a particular reason like, something unexpected came up in due diligence. I was completely open and upfront about everything. They haven’t pinpointed any particular reason why they pulled out. I suppose it just wasn’t as attractive as some of their other opportunities.
It’s a shame, but I haven’t had to give 44% of my business away, I’ve had an increase in profile and in response to Dragon’s Den airing I’ve had someone come forward who is helping me achieve what the ‘Dragons’ were suggesting was needed.
Dentistry.co.uk: What are your plans going forward? Are you looking for dental practices to start offering your products?
SE: Since April 2017, I’ve been supplying the trade through CTS Dental Supplies, who have been really supportive. Any UK practice can get our products through CTS Dental Supplies.
My immediate priorities are to launch an adult range of toothpastes. And I’m doing some work to create a more adult-focused brand.
One thing I’m always being asked for is samples, so I’m having samples made.
I’m also hoping to broaden the range, so it’s not just all about toothpaste, it’s about removing barriers to oral health.
Dentistry.co.uk: How can any of our readers get in contact?
SE: They can contact me via our website – buddiestoothpaste.com – and on there is a link to CTS’ site on too.