1001 Uses For dental Floss #39- The Tooth Entrepreneur

This story, which I’ve edited a bit, appeared in The Gulf News, but seems to be from The Washington Post. This may be, but it seems that this tale is written by the subject of the story, so who knows about its credibility. I’ll use the man’s words to tell the story, because he tells it so well.

Puneet Nanda (the author of the story), aka Dr Fresh, has the world on a string, he says, or at least on a length (a very long length) of dental floss. His $20-million toothbrush business includes the Firefly, a toothbrush that blinks (kids love it–see photo above to see why), and owns 38 dental patents. He also provides the world with a billion yards of floss a year, enough for each person in the world to floss once a week using Nanda’s floss. Dr Fresh was once an irregular flosser. He owned a company that made toothbrushes but took string in hand only when something stuck in his teeth (like most of you, probably.

Then he got braces to close a gap between his front teeth. His breath became “not really fresh in the morning”. His dentist urged daily flossing. With that, Dr Fresh achieved not just morning freshness but a higher plane of dental awareness: when it comes to one’s teeth, he realised, “there’s always something stuck”. He had an epiphany: “Believe me or not,” he says, “my life changed after flossing.” Flossing was a crucial step towards personal transformation: from bewildered immigrant to oral-hygiene wizard, owner of 38 dental patents and worldwide provider of a billion yards of floss a year.

Dr Fresh’s story is both American and truly global, a tale of obsession, immigration and rebirth set against the oral hygiene industry. He arrived in Southern California in 1998 with big hopes for his small toothbrush company, Dr Fresh Inc. “What I wanted to do,” he says, “was revolutionise the oral hygiene industry in (the US).” Since then, his company has moved from an apartment to a 55,000-square-foot Buena Park warehouse in the Los Angeles area with space for 30 million toothbrushes and a research laboratory. Sales, he says, have gone from almost nothing to $20 million a year and rising. Dr. Fresh Inc. remains a pipsqueak compared to Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Yet the company requires two mottos to contain its owner’s aspirations: “The Brand America Loves” and “Worldwide Toothbrush King”.

He employs a thousand people in India and China making toothbrushes, mouthwash and dental floss. His 64 employees are the new Southern California workforce: Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Mexicans. “He can talk day and night about toothbrushes, and he’ll still be talking,” says his friend, Harshad Mody, an Indian music promoter. Indeed, after arriving in America, the Indian immigrant did almost nothing but tinker with toothbrushes, study their manufacture and analyse US marketing and distribution. He had scant room for a personal life; he took no vacation. His mind percolated with ideas for oral-care products. One of his proudest moments came when he embedded a red light in a toothbrush and set it to blink for a minute. The product – the Firefly – gets kids to brush until the light goes out. It is now Target’s best-selling toothbrush. He followed it with a line of dental travel-packs, mouthwash, even a dog toothpaste to fight canine halitosis. “The chicken and poultry flavour is hot,” he says. He strove to become America’s toothbrush leader. Finally, in his own mind, he became his brand – Dr Fresh, oral hygiene crusader.

Today, employees, buyers, friends, father, brothers all call him Dr Fresh. So does his wife. “I don’t know when I am Puneet Nanda any more. All I do is live, drink, eat, think as Dr. Fresh,” he says. Dr Fresh grew up in New Delhi, where his father ran a small toothbrush company called Denton. In college, he studied medicine and cheekily dated the dean’s daughter, for which his classmates nicknamed him Dr Fresh. In 1989, his father had a heart attack and couldn’t run the company. Dr Fresh stepped in. Indian toothbrushes, with hard bristles and cheap plastic, were as menacing as street thugs. “I thought, ‘I’m going to see if I can improve the quality’,” he says. He renamed the company Dr Fresh and designed a diamond-head toothbrush with glitter in a bright plastic handle. The Dr. Fresh Trendy was American-looking and cheap, exactly what Indians wanted, he says. Toothbrushes flew from his factory, many into Russian hands. Russian free-traders were chartering planes and flying across Asia looking for cheap consumer products to sell back home. Soon three or four Russians a day arrived at his factory, ordering dozens of cases of toothbrushes. He learned Russian and hired a chef to cook Russian food for his visitors.

The money rolled in. In 1993, Dr Fresh left wife and infant son in India to open a Moscow office. “I was young,” he says. “I was fearless.” In Moscow, he couldn’t import toothbrushes fast enough. He awoke one morning to snowballs against his apartment window. Below, 200 customers were lined up. Then one day a short man walked into his office, followed by three goons, he says. The limber little fellow put his foot up against Dr Fresh’s throat and pinned him against a wall. “You’ve grown too big too soon,” Dr Fresh recalls the little man saying, as his three henchmen punched their palms. “Did you know you have to pay your bosses here?” He paid up but in another run-in with the goons, he was shot in the back of the head. He recovered but still has a nasty scar. That ended Dr Fresh’s dream of revolutionizing Russian oral hygiene.

He returned to Delhi. But he found the city’s smog oppressive; besides, Russia had given him grand international plans for his company. Soon he set his sights on the US. His mother was terrified to have him travel again. “We have very close-knit families in India. He was going to be really far away,” his youngest brother, Nikhil, recalls. In April 1998, without telling his mother and again leaving his wife and this time two children in India, Dr Fresh set out for New York.

New York was not Russia. His toothbrushes raised nary a brow and he hated trying to sell brushes in the cold. That Christmas, the snow piled high on the sidewalks and he had a raging fever. Miserable, alone and walking on a bitter Christmas Eve to find an open pharmacy, Dr Fresh slipped and fell in the snow. Back at his apartment, he searched the internet for the US city with the highest temperature at that moment. He bought a ticket for Miami and went to the airport. The flight was cancelled. “I was almost in tears,” he says. “There was a Sikh guy in the airport. I told him, ‘I want to go where there’s sun 24/7.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go to LA?’ He took the first plane to Los Angeles, sleeping all the way, and woke to the nudging of a stewardess. At a hotel, he slept until late that afternoon.

“The sun was still shining,” he says. “I realised I was feeling much better.” A few days later, he moved to Los Angeles permanently. Within a year, he had moved his wife and family from India. “I found the real America,” says Dr Fresh. In Los Angeles, he scored his first big US deal, selling 180,000 toothbrush six-packs to the 99 Cents Only chain of stores. Emboldened, he cold-called 20 potential buyers each day, persisting even when one prospective client threatened to call the police.

His company grew relentlessly. He drove a nice car. He bought his family a spacious house in Cerritos, an enclave of upscale immigrants. About this time, Dr Fresh discovered the fulfilment of daily flossing. It allowed him to be reborn every day. “I started being more in control of the destiny of my teeth,” he says. “I feel I’ve increased the life of my teeth by at least 10 to 15 years … After I’m done flossing, I also rinse. After rinsing I feel I am the freshest person, really.” He wanted that fresh-flossed feeling for everyone. Today, Dr Fresh is one of the world’s leading floss makers at a billion yards a year.

One fall evening, Dr Fresh pushes a cart down Wal-Mart’s fluorescent aisles, looking for inspiration. He combs through toothbrushes, then stops in stationery. Pen packaging often gives him ideas. He says he eagerly awaits each October: “There’s a lot of innovation in Halloween packaging.” Looking like an art critic in a museum, he halts to admire curvy new bottles of Zest body wash … He says he’s been busy lately. He won a contract to make Wal-Mart’s private label Equate toothbrushes next year – 5 million units annually, he says. He’s opened an office in Bentonville, Arkansas, near Wal-Mart’s headquarters. Sales to the retail giant, he hopes, will top $20 million annually in a couple of years. He has grand hopes for his Firefly line. A new Firefly mouthwash has a cap that blinks. He wants more ideas for products that blink – big, refreshing, anti-bacterial ideas, not necessarily dental. Finding nothing, he leaves Wal-Mart with only a few pens and a box of Crest dental floss he wants to study.

“Oh, look at that,” he says, as he leaves the store. A woman in a wheelchair is selling tiny blinking pendants: a broken heart, an electric guitar, Betty Boop. They flutter in her lap. Just what he is looking for. He buys a bulbous blinking fish that catches his eye. An idea takes shape in his mind. “I’m going to put it in bottles of liquid soap,” he whispers conspiratorially, “so you can push on the top and it’ll light up.”

So, do you think this is a true story? This would make a great novel or a mini-series on cable TV. Sounds like The Most Interesting Man In The World.

Watch out, world.  This man’s going to make everything light up, not just toothbrushes.