Taking a Bite Out of Landfills

A few years ago Lindsay McCormick had one of those business ideas that make you instantly ask: why didn’t someone think of that before?  Lindsay was a TV producer when she began thinking about all the landfill waste we’re creating when we toss away toothpaste tubes. Soon she was talking to dentists learning about chemistry and on Reddit threads with, well, drug dealers who also wanted to make tablets at home. Hers were toothpaste tablets. 

From that clever idea she went on to build a multimillion-dollar oral care brand with a line of all-natural and sustainable products including mouthwash and a whitening gel. Just last month, Bite expanded into a new area of personal care products–deodorant. Bite has launched the first-ever 100% plastic-free deodorant with compostable refills to help fight the 15 million pounds of plastic deodorant packaging that ends up in our landfills and oceans every year. Bite is still Bite–but now it stands for Because it’s the Earth. 

In a recent conversation on Better Angels: Women Creating Change, Lindsay and I talked about the first steps she took to make a better-for-the-earth toothpaste, creating a brand story that resonates, what it really means to be a transparent brand, turning down investors, and her favorite, easy ways to do something good for the planet every day.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

LINDSAY McCORMICK:  I’ve always been passionate about the environment. I mean even when I was a little kid. I don’t know if you remember–actually they still have them now–but I would ask my parents to adopt a whale or a dolphin for my birthday in my name instead of gifts. I’ve always just been obsessed with the environment and protecting it.

I was a vegetarian as a kid and now I’m vegan. it’s always been something that’s really been on my radar. I was a surf instructor here in Los Angeles and I was out on my surfboard every day and seeing more and more plastic trash washing up on my board here in Malibu. It was something that was upsetting to me but I didn’t quite make the connection in my daily life.

After being a surf instructor I got into television. I was working as a TV producer and flying all around the country for filming and everything was carry-on only and I was going through those little toothpaste tubes. Here I am back in LA recycling and trying to use sustainable products. I had been using natural products as well but they were all packaged in plastic. This is back in 2017 and so the refillable formats weren’t a thing so I had my squeeze bottle of shampoo that I would just keep on refilling. 

But I was tossing out the toothpaste tube every single time. I had figured everything else out but I was tossing them, and there was no way that I could refill it. So started looking into alternatives and that’s kind of where it all started.

I had been using natural toothpaste and I started looking into the ingredients and I was like, oh my gosh, even in natural toothpaste they’re things like sodium lauryl sulfate, which I hadn’t used in my shampoo for over a year. I’m putting something in my mouth that I’m not even using on my scalp, and I was kind of like, why didn’t I even think to look at the back of a toothpaste tube?

And so it was from there that I started really researching toothpaste. What’s in it? Why do we need it? I  started talking to dentists and hygienists and then I actually started taking online chemistry courses. I tried a bunch of different ways to try to make some kind of refillable toothpaste situation but that didn’t work. I was doing it at night after work, so I was after dinner tinkering in the kitchen. Finally I said ‘I’m going to have to buy a tablet machine if I want to make these things.’ I had first tried to use a pastry bag and I tried to mix really good powders that were better for your teeth with a coconut oil base–thinking I could pipe this out into little tiny balls and dry that. And so I was like okay, I think I need to buy a tableting machine and it was really expensive for me at the time. But I did it. 

So that’s kind of how it all started. It was something where I was wondering about it, it seemed wasteful and then not so healthy. And then it became an obsession–how can I make this better?

SUSAN FERRY PRICE:  I’m always fascinated when someone has an idea and then goes out, as you said, and learns the chemistry behind it. What are the first steps that you take?

LM: Yeah, I mean, and that’s a great, great question, right? And it was figuring it out as you go along and that really doesn’t change. Here I am now still figuring it out as we go along. When I was first starting, I was spending time DMing with dentists on Facebook–my friends who are dentists–and spending time on Reddit threads looking up how to make tablets and how to do these things. When you look up online, the only information that I could find was big pharmaceutical tablet manufacturers, right? They’re making like hundreds of thousands every hour, and I was just like, wait, this is not helpful. 

So I was like, who else is making tablets in their living room? So drug dealers are making tablets in their living room. So I was literally spending time on Reddit threads looking up how to make drugs because they have to have a binder to put them together and they’re using the same machines as mine. I actually had to get vetted by the DEA when I bought my machine because they’re very strict about these machines. 

There’s so much trial and error. When I was looking at the ingredients that I needed, luckily they were all-natural and there was Whole Foods down the street from where I live. I was going there on a regular basis experimenting with different things that they had. The rest I was able to get off Amazon and and then chemistry connection, which is a website. I was just going online and Googling. It was just one Google search to the next.  

I tell people starting a business it will always feel like you’re not on super steady ground because the whole thing about having a business and doing something new is that you haven’t done it before, and so it does feel very unsteady, but that it means that you’re doing something that people haven’t that someone hasn’t done before and that’s a good thing.

SP: When did you realize it could be a real company?

LM: We had a pretty unique situation. I had started making my living room you know, like literally getting the labels done by printer at my work and then hand labeling these things and making the tablets in my living room and selling it on Etsy. I had a small Shopify site and a Shopify site had you know, it was like iPhone photos.

Luckily, my boyfriend has a background in design, and he had made our label, and then made the website look professional. And so we were we were selling just right there. It was the beginning of the vegan and zero waste movements bubbling up, and because I had been living a low waste lifestyle, and I was a vegan, so I already knew these communities. So when I started posting about it on my Instagram, and I had some friends who were in those communities as well, they started posting on their Instagram. So it started kind of bubbling up in this super small niche kind of pockets of the Internet. 

We actually had a video that just went really crazy viral on Facebook. And that was the beginning of really launching the company. Once we had that video go out, it had about 2 million views within less than two weeks–actually 2 million views within the first three days of going up. And then it just kept on going. And so that really launched our company, I had done $6,000 in sales before that. And I did $200,000 in sales that first week and a half. And so it was like, yeah, wait a minute, I need business insurance. I need a manufacturer. I kept on telling myself I can make this, I can do this. And then I was just like, Oh my gosh, no, we can’t–we need a manufacturer,  we need to actually grow up as a business and do this. So we ended up going into an out-of stock situation for two months–actually three months–and we were just kind of catching up and building after that. So that’s when I realized like, Whoa, wow, we have a business here. It wasn’t until we had the video that it just went crazy.

SP: Wow, that’s a great story. Though the rapid scaling is pretty frightening. 

LM: Yeah, you feel like you have this little kind of baby bird of a company. I started in 2017 and it was just this little tiny, like, cute baby bird that I was feeding and I loved very much. And then all of a sudden, it’s like the baby bird grew into this gigantic pterodactyl. Just like ferocious,and I was  just trying to like rein in. I’m so thankful and love it, but wow, wasn’t expecting this little tiny creature to be this thing. So yeah, it was definitely intense.

SP: I’m not surprised that your partner has a design background because one of the things that is so great about your brand is that the design is great.

LM: He loves it. It’s something beyond his profession. It’s his obsession. And it’s something that was really important to us, especially because I had used so many natural eco-friendly products before but I always felt like there was such a compromise. It doesn’t taste as good or it doesn’t look as good. So for this I really wanted it to be something you didn’t feel like you were compromising and you wanted to be part of your life, whether or not you’re trying to be more sustainable or more helpful to the planet.

SP: The statistic on your website that sums up why this product is needed to me was that 1 billion tubes are thrown out every year.

LM:  Yeah, and that’s, it’s so much and you know, the thing about toothpaste tubes, too, it’s a mixed material, it’s virtually impossible to recycle. And it’s a thick plastic, it’s like that’s kind of the whole realization for this company that to do this in the beginning. I was just like this is a piece of plastic that feels like it’s meant to last forever–and it does last forever, I guess. When I started researching and seeing that–the 1 billion statistic is an estimate and it’s very conservative. It’s a smaller number than the actual amount. And it’s so interesting that we just don’t think to question these kinds of things until you see that number and you’re like–wait. Translating that into something that my brain can wrap around a little better,  it’s the mass of 50 Empire State buildings every single year. So like 50 you know, New York City empire state buildings, just sitting in a landfill that are just just toothpaste tubes and that’s one year. So it does add up and really does make a difference, and you know there is no such thing as away when it comes to trash. It’s going somewhere and we’re all on the same planet. So yeah, it’s when you start looking at those kinds of things, it’s very sobering.

SP: One of the other things besides design challenges through the years that socially conscious products have had is storytelling, because most founders are very focused on their mission, and their passion, which is great. But then consumers are like, Well, does this work? Or is it overpriced? And all those other factors, So when did your story sort of come together? And what do you feel people are resonating with?

LM: From the beginning we’ve had a relationship with our customer that’s just incredibly transparent, which I feel like is kind of a word thrown around all over the place, like sustainable. Oh my God we’re using it so much it is losing the meaning. But you know, that’s something that’s been so important to where if customers ask a question–every decision that we’re making, from the materials that we’re using to the ingredients, and even why our product costs the way it does, when they ask us that on social media, we give a long answer explaining why. So if it’s someone who’s asking why does this cost more we break down–well, this is what the raw materials would be for a traditional toothpaste versus ours, and we use glass and not plastic, and we are made in the U.S. where we pay living wages as opposed to overseas. We kind of break down everything so it makes sense. 

I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to make a product that I thought was better for the planet, and then kind of found myself in this role. And so I am a customer. This is a product that I use, it’s a product that I would be buying from someone else if I  wasn’t making it myself. And so it’s, you know, it’s basically treating them the way that I would want to be treated and explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

If they ask us questions that we don’t know the answer to, we find the answer and get back to them. Because of that you end up with customers that are so pleased with the fact that a brand is being that transparent that they end up being your biggest advocates. 

When you’re an eco-friendly company, you get customers who want everything. And you know, if you can serve them the way that they deserve to be served they will then be megaphones online for you and or megaphones in real life for you as well. 

And so that’s always been something from the very beginning we’ve just done. And that’s really helped.I even see on some of our Instagram posts and our ads, people will be asking questions and we’ll have customers responding to them. Not even our social media person, it is just a customer who’s like, Oh, this is what they said, and this is why here’s a blog post on it that they wrote. And I’m like, Oh, my gosh, that’s, that’s so awesome.

We are a more expensive product, we do use ingredients that are not as standard as what we’re all used to. And we’ve done a lot of unconventional things. Through education and transparency we’ve been able to keep the story digestible for people.

SP:  We all know by now the incredibly depressing and tiresome statistics about how little funding female entrepreneurs receive– it’s just a little more than 2% of venture capital funds going to them last year, which is actually less than it was 10 years ago. So here you are a female founder with a great idea and you’ve turned down investors, including no less than Mark Cuban. What was going on there?

LM: Um, yeah, it’s not every not every day that you turn down Mark Cuban and I can’t I still when I look back, I’m like, I still can’t believe I did that. But it was Shark Tank. And so for us…it’s very depressing and unfair, which I feel like is such a basic word, but the fact that it is still so hard for women to get funding. For us, I think because it was something where, you know, we’ve been profitable since I started in the living room, simply because I had to be as it was run off of savings. So when we kind of started and then sort of grew, it was just something where we’ve always maintained profitability. I never thought about having investors, I was never really interested in having investors and then I was going on Shark Tank.

We  came in there with a deal that was very fair to what the valuation would be and it was even like Sharky fair. So it was very fair, I knew kind of in the background, I had been working in TV before so i was like, things are going to get wild and I’m going to feel very, very pressured. Because the lights are on you, the cameras are on you. And so Asher and I had really decided beforehand what our absolute max would be. And if we couldn’t get it, then we would have to turn it down. And so we had gone back and forth, it was actually Mark and Kevin who both made the offer. And we had gone back and forth to the point where I was like, we’re not there, we haven’t gotten there. So as much as I wanted to just say, do it, just do it. It’s Mark Cuban, I had to go with what we had, you know, we had made this decision when we were feeling sane, and calm in our apartment weeks before.  can’t just throw it all away because the camera saw me. It was a business decision. Looking back, l it would have been a really good deal to Mark. I mean, he doesn’t care, he’s a billionaire, so he doesn’t really care. But we went in there with something that we needed and wanted to entice them with, and so when we couldn’t kind of get to where we needed to be, it wasn’t it wasn’t gonna work out. 

Since then it’s kind of been interesting, because I think for each business there’s different things that they need, and some more money, some need more time or people. For us, money has not been a problem. And that’s because we want to grow the brand in a very sustainable way. And not just  eco-friendly, but business-wise, we don’t want to turn the balance sheet upside down, we don’t want to go into debt, we want to just continue to grow in a way that is even if it’s like slightly throttled, which I don’t think we’re are,  but we don’t want to irresponsibly grow. 

I think that a lot of times when you when you raise money you’re kind of pressured to have this growth at all costs mentality, which doesn’t align with my idea of what good business is and it also doesn’t align with my idea of sustainability which is important to me. I do want to be able to grow this in a very conscious way. And so I think because we haven’t needed investors we’re gonna keep going with that for as long as we can. But yeah, I think every business is different for sure.

SP:  Absolutely, but also, that has been a trap for many entrepreneurs through the years. It all sounds great, but they’re losing so much control and for many other reasons, they grow too fast, they make bad decisions…there’s a lot of reasons why the path you’re taking, as you say, might keep your company going longer over the years. 

LM: And we can make our own decisions the way that we need to without having to appease investors which I think is really important as well. We had gone palm oil free back like a year and a half ago. And it really killed our margins for a little bit and it really wreaks havoc with the whole company. It was reformulating, and it was incredibly expensive. It really messed with our margins. It was a really scary thing to do in a business sense. But I knew it was the right thing to do from an ethical, personal sense. I didn’t want to be contributing to deforestation and so it was something that I was like, ‘I’m going to do this whether it makes business sense or not.’ If we had investors they probably would have leen like, ‘this girl should not be a CEO’. 

It ended up being 100% the right choice. We ended up having our customers reward us for that, and we’ve grown exponentially since then. And being palm oil free is now a huge reason people buy our product. I don’t want to have to try to persuade people who maybe don’t think the same way as I do when I’m making choices like that.

SP: That’s really a perfect example and especially as you say, in an eco-friendly company, you have to stick to your vision or you’re going to end up  alienating people. Have you had to shift anything around during the pandemic? Has that had any kind of impact on your business or your supply chain or…?

LM:  So we’re lucky considering the circumstances especially because of the fact that we’ve always been made in the US. We’re made right here in California up the street from where I live. So although I used to be at the manufacturers on a very regular basis just checking in, saying hi, obviously that has not been the case this year. We have delayed a few products because normally it’s just easier sometimes to get things done faster in person, but I think that’s okay.. Because what it ended up happening…I think with more people shopping online and more people thinking about their health and kind of understanding how this is all connected, we’ve grown a lot during the pandemic. And I think it’s directly because of the fact that people are questioning more what they’re putting in their bodies, and what the impact is on the planet. And we’re kind of like, here is an option for them. Also, with more people shopping online, I mean, people who had never put their credit card in a website before or have done that multiple times this year. 

SP: Yeah, that’s true. We’re all sort of used to it. We do it automatically, without thinking, no resistance anymore to that. We’ve all become online shopping pros. But you know, it’s also interesting, that makes me think about how our habits are kind of changing during this time, too.

LM: There’s like a really refreshing new voice in the zero-waste movement of you don’t have to be perfect. It is about making those small changes. I’m not perfect, either, you know, I try my best. And here we are in the middle of a pandemic, I mean, come on, even if you were doing a really good job before that there’s just no way. So I think that that was a big wake up call, of being way more understanding and forgiving of each other. The advice that I give is, do what you can, and focus on what makes you happy. And the reason I say that is because if you feel like you’re giving up these things that you really want–when you look at the entirety of someone’s life, there’s so many opportunities to be more sustainable. So choose the ones that are not going to negatively impact your life. 

I’m not so into fashion, I never have been, and like I love that some people are, but for me, it’s really easy for me to just kind of not want to buy new clothes. Okay, I’m going to, you know, only buy clothes that I need, I’m going to have a very organized capsule wardrobe, I’m going to try to buy things off of Tradesy, which is a second-hand website, or ThreadUp and I’m going to do those things. But if I was someone who was really into fashion, then maybe it’s a good place for that person to be, maybe they want to try shampoo bars or trying to do things like that. And so I think it’s kind of figuring out where in your life it feels right to be sustainable and try to go at that. There are some things that I think are super easy, like switching to bamboo toilet paper. There’s some really great brands out there that feel just the same as tree toilet paper. And bamboo is a really good alternative because you’re not cutting down trees. Bamboo is a grass. So some things that are kind of like just really easy. Another really great one that I’ve done, that I just really love is I swapped out all of our napkins and paper towels. And instead we just use, you know, we have cloth napkins, and then we have rags that we use for paper towels. And I just throw it in with towels once a week. And it really it’s just been something that I don’t even think about and like we don’t have to it’s actually even less like drama than dealing with things like running out of napkins or running out of paper towels. It’s like no we always have like there’s something there’s you know, they’re here. 

And so I think you know, it’s looking at the easy wins that you can swap out that don’t negatively negatively impact your life and then looking at you know, some things that seemed like fun, you know, some things that you could try that, you know, seems like fun.

SP: It’s great because then you’re not feeling like you’re giving something up. You’re actually like, Oh, I like this. This is fun. What more can I do. In this process of building this company pretty quickly, what have you learned about yourself that maybe you really didn’t know? Anything that’s been surprising?

LM:  Great question. I think you know, I guess the first thing that I think is really exciting that I’ve learned in general would be like the fact that businesses can be used for good. I don’t think I saw that before, now that I have this and I’m seeing all of these businesses, not just ours, but these businesses that are doing really cool things and kind of wielding their influence and money to really do good stuff. I was a surf instructor and then a TV producer, I wanted to make documentaries, specifically nature documentaries. And so I had always kind of been like, corporations are not great. It’s exciting to now have a new view and being like, whoa, when we’re doing this right there’s a lot of good that can be done. So I think that’s something really cool. And then for me, personally, I don’t think I ever thought that I could be so dedicated to something. Being a founder is an incredible amount of work, but it doesn’t feel like it. And I don’t think I thought that I had that in me.