We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
Lindsay McCormick has always loved nature and felt passionate about the environment. So when the former surf instructor noticed more and more plastic washing up on her surfboard, she knew she had to do something about it. She began working as a TV producer, hoping to one day make a nature documentary. But before that happened, the 36-year-old became frustrated with how many tiny tubes of toothpaste she was throwing away while traveling for work, knowing that many of them would end up in a landfill or the ocean. In 2016, she founded Bite, the maker of toothpaste bits.
What started as a quirky hobby quickly morphed into an eight-figure business, with an appearance on "Shark Tank" along the way. McCormick has since expanded Bite to include other oral care products, including mouthwash bits and a teeth-whitening kit, all without plastic packaging. She spoke to TMRW about how she became so obsessed with toothpaste — and why it's so important.
TMRW: What was your very first job?
Lindsay McCormick: I was a photographer for Santa Claus at the mall. I was one of the elves who wore a red apron and little pointy ears and took photos of the kids on Santa's lap. It was the only job that would take someone who was 15 years old with a work permit.
But I always loved animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian at one point. I wanted to work in animal rescue at one point, and I wanted to make nature documentaries.
Where did the idea for Bite come from?
I got a job in TV. I had to work my way up. I was 29 years old and working with 21- and 22-year-olds, but that's how I wanted to get my foot in the door. I got my first job as a producer and I was traveling all over the place. That's when I came up with the idea for Bite. When you're on TV shows, a lot of the time you're only in a place for a few days. We always traveled carry-on only. I had figured out (refillable containers) for everything else — my shampoo, my conditioner, my face wash. But I kept throwing out these little toothpaste tubes. And I was like, OK, I need to come up with a solution, because I'm creating all this plastic waste, and this is not something that I want to be a part of.
I try my best to avoid plastic, but I'll be honest, I've never really thought about toothpaste tubes.
It's something that's so innocuous in your life, right? You use it everyday, twice a day, and it's not something you question. When you throw out that big tube every two or three months, you don't think about how it really does add up. But it was through having to throw out those little ones back to back that I was like, wow, this is a really solid piece of plastic.
Can eliminating that waste really make a big difference?
Everyone has to brush their teeth. It adds up. Over a billion toothpaste tubes are thrown out every year, which is the equivalent of the Empire State Building 50 times over. These things can't be recycled. (Editor's note: Toothpaste tubes are difficult to recycle because they contain mixed materials, usually metal and plastic, although some manufacturers have begun introducing recyclable tubes.)
How did you actually start making the toothpaste tablets?
I took online chemistry classes. I started talking to dentists and digging into what toothpaste is, why we need it, what it's doing to your teeth. I think it was the TV producer in me: Once I scratched the surface, I had to know everything. Toothpaste actually started as a powder. People added glycerin and all these things not to benefit your teeth, but for a better customer experience. When you take out that stuff, you end up with something much more concentrated, without the chemicals and flavors and preservatives. I started to buy all these raw ingredients and experiment with them at home until I was able to press a tablet. That's a whole different thing — it's an actual science.
My first customers were myself, my family, my friends. They would say, "This doesn't taste good," or, "This doesn't foam enough," or, "I put it in my mouth and I just instinctively ate it because it felt like candy." It was a challenge. I bought a tableting machine, a $1,000 investment. It was a serious hobby at that point, so I started selling on Etsy, hoping I could cover the cost of the machine over a few years.
And then you went on "Shark Tank," where you turned down offers from both Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary. Tell me about that.
It was so amazing and so intense. We already had sales; we wanted a partner to grow the business with. My boyfriend, who's my co-founder, and I had decided before we even took the stage on a number that we would go up to, and that's all we could do. So when we were negotiating back and forth, we just couldn't get there. We had to walk away. Looking back, that was definitely the right call.
We're bootstrapped. I started the business with $6,000 in savings. My first year in business, I did about $6,000 in sales. We're customer-funded. Everyone who buys our products, they're funding our innovation for new products, they're paying our salaries.
We're 10 employees and hiring fast. We're growing. More people are thinking about the planet and ingredients and what they're putting in their bodies than ever before. It's a really exciting time to be a sustainable business.
Fast-forward 10, 15 years from now. Do you think toothpaste tubes will be a thing of the past?
I absolutely think that. I don't think every person is going to be a Bite customer — that's not even the point. Since we've started, the big toothpaste companies are now coming out with their own toothpaste tablets. It's so exciting because it means that they understand the market and they will help make it more accessible. That is the beginning of actual, real change.
What's your best advice for other female entrepreneurs?
You can get all the way from New York to L.A. seeing 20 feet ahead of your car with headlights. A lot of times, as founders, we want to see the whole plan, we want to have all the answers. But it's important to know that if you can just see 20 feet ahead, you can get all the way where you want to go.
What else do you think women hoping to launch businesses need to know?
Being a founder, at the very beginning, it is a lot of work. And it takes up an enormous amount of your time — at least it did for me. And people would ask me all the time, "What about your work-life balance?" We're always asked about our work-life balance, and I don't see a lot of male founders getting asked about their work-life balance.
I think it's OK if you're out of balance for a little bit. It's not something to feel guilty about. For me, I felt so fulfilled with what I was doing. If you're getting satisfaction from what you're doing, and it energizes you, just go with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.