Belinda Lau is an entrepreneur and founder of Elims, a sustainable oral care brand, which despite being a newer business is already making waves in the sustainability sector and was the only lifestyle brand invited to the 2019 CleanTech Open, the largest sustainability business accelerator in the world. With oral products created by dentists and backed by clinical studies, Belinda has used her experience as a life-long entrepreneur and med-tech marketing executive to think through every detail of launching Elims.
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of Elims?
My story starting Elims was definitely a lightbulb moment. In 2019, I was studying business and entrepreneurship at UCLA, and I remember I was driving to meet my professor to pitch him a different idea. As I was driving, I was listening to my favorite podcast, NPR’s How I Built This and the episode was about TOMS Shoes. I loved their ethos and mission. Then the idea struck me like a lightning bolt! At that moment I knew I needed to do something that combined my biotech background with a mission to do something better for the world around me. I know it sounds cheesy, but I knew I was destined to do something to improve both healthcare and the planet.
Immediately, I called my friend Pradnya who worked in medical device manufacturing to ask her if it was even possible to create sustainable oral care products, and she said simply, “Yeah I think so”. Then I went to visit my professor, who is notoriously known as the “dream killer,” because whatever ideas you pitch to him, he shoots down.
So, on this day, I showed up with my original idea about a software company and the idea for Elims. When he heard the first pitch, he said “don't waste your time.” Then when it came to Elims, he said “it's not a bad idea, you should give it a try.” And that endorsement felt like winning an Academy Award!
Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?
The first thing I did was think through my connections to see if we even had the right people to make this happen. So, between myself, who has over 15 years of experience in medical devices and biotechnology, my business school friend, Pradnya, who had 20 years of manufacturing experience,
and my husband, Casey, who had been a dentist for about 18 years at that time, I felt like it was something that we could do.
Then I had to figure out, is there even a market for this? I found out that the oral care market is about $46 billion globally. Because basically everyone on the planet has to brush their teeth, the world needs something more sustainable, and if we could figure this out, our impact could be huge.
I also found this incredible 5-year long study done by NYU Sterns that showed that products that were marketed as sustainable grew 7.1 times faster than their competitors. So, with all of these pieces of data and the people in place, we felt like we could make a difference and knew there would be a market for what we created.
How did you validate the idea?
We spent almost two years validating the idea. One of the very first things we did was validate our target customers. Who was going to pay for our products? Will our solutions be good enough for them? Over the course of the last two and a half years, we've conducted about 400 hours of interviews, countless online surveys, and concept testing with these target customers to make sure that our products, our messages, and even our mission was attractive (and profitable!).
What helped us get started was being accepted into a program called the Cleantech Open, which is the largest and most well-known business accelerator for clean and sustainable technologies in the world. When we entered in 2019, we were one of the only healthcare companies to participate, which gave us a lot of credibility, tools, and resources to validate not just the product but the business idea. It was a six-month-long program and we got so much out of it.
Have you raised any money? How much?
To date, we have raised about $250k between friends and family, winnings from grants and business plan competitions (totaling $45k), and of course, bootstrapping.
How did you get your first three customers?
We got our first three customers mostly through my own networking. To get our e-commerce site up and running and get SEO started, we opened up the site early to a waitlist, which turned into early pre-orders. This allowed us to get our marketing message right and start the site optimization parts of our online shop. This also meant that we could start promoting, so we got our first few customers by posting on our own personal social media sites.
Who is your target demographic?
The age of our target consumer is between 18 and 40 years old and includes both men and women that live close to metropolitan cities. Overall, they care deeply about their oral health care and frequently see the dentist. They don't mind spending a little bit more money on products that they know are good for their health. As for our business customers, our target markets are dental professionals.
Our Magic Melt-Away Teeth Whitening Masks have a beauty element to it, so we're also exploring target consumers and retailers in the beauty space.
How did you fund the idea initially?
Initially, we funded the company ourselves through bootstrapping. I took some money out of my 401K to get us through product development and launch. We also applied to several grants and business competitions where we collectively won over $45,000. And as you can guess, those award winnings were extremely helpful in getting us through the early days.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I think I always wanted to start my own business because I love the idea of being creative and executing on your own visions, but I was always too scared to do it. When I was very young, my parents opened up a small gift shop in the city, which is where I grew up whenever I wasn't in school. At that little gift shop, I did everything from marketing, sales, inventory management, being the cashier, and even the janitor. You name it, I did it, all because my family needed the help. When I was a teenager my father moved to Hong Kong to start his own consumer luggage brand, so I spent a lot of my summers and winter breaks with him seeing what it takes to run a global product company.
When I was heading to college, I really wanted to go to business school, but my dad said, you don't need to go to business school, you have business in your blood. He encouraged me to study a major that would equal a job as soon as I graduated. So I studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. I thought about starting my own business, but to be honest, I wasn't a U.S. citizen. I was a Canadian citizen, so I needed a job in order to stay in the country, which makes it really hard to start your own thing.
After college, I went to work for Medtronic, the largest medical device company in the world. And that's where I grew up really. I loved the healthcare aspect of it, the mission, and helping patients live longer and healthier lives, but after 15 years, I was getting tired of the corporate life. Everything just took so long and there was so much bureaucracy. I wanted to do something where I could create my own destiny and the only way to do that is to start your own business.
What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?
When I first started the company, my friends and family thought that I was working on a school project! I think it's because I started it when I was in business school. When I graduated, my mom asked me, so when are you going back to work at Medtronic? She was pretty sad to hear that I wasn't going to go back to Medtronic and that I was going to run this business full time. It wasn't that my mom wasn't supportive, it was that she knew exactly what it took to run a small business, like that small gift shop that I was raised in. She wanted her kids to get educated and go find comfortable jobs in big corporations where you don't have to worry about payroll, inventory, taxes, or just making it every day.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
While things go wrong every single day, I had no idea when I started this company just how hard and grueling it would be on a day-to-day basis. So when things go wrong, I remind myself that I can do hard things and I have done hard things before. Usually, when something goes wrong, it's not as bad as other situations I've experienced in my life, like my father dying of cancer at an early age. So I think about those moments when things go wrong in business and remind myself that it's not so bad and could certainly be worse.
What has driven the most sales?
So far, for the consumer side of our business, what's grown the most or driven the most sales is reaching out to my own network. I have a lot of people in my LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram networks, and so I put the word out there that I was starting Elims and that drove the first 50 or so sales. Something else that helped promote the most sales early on, was being featured on the most popular morning show here in Los Angeles, Good Day LA.
One of the reporters did a segment on our Magic Melt Away Teeth Whitening Masks as her current product obsession. At the time, my Shopify site was linked to my watch, so anytime a sale would come in, I would see it. That morning was phenomenal. My watch was pinging every few minutes with new sales! It was really exciting!
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
The main thing stopping us from being three times the size we are now is a lack of funding to do the marketing campaigns that we need to run and invest in the inventory needed for other products to fill our product line. We also have a tiny team so we're totally overloaded doing everything ourselves.
What are your favorite books?
They're not necessarily my favorite books, but there are two books that I constantly go back to as reference points. The first book is called The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, and the second book is called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone. At least once or twice a year, I read each of these books, or I will reference sections of it whenever things get really tough. For example, recently I had to separate from one of my business partners, who is also a dear friend. I use this book to guide me on how to professionally separate from a friend while still trying to keep a friendly relationship. Those are really hard things!
What are your favorite podcasts?
My absolute favorite podcast is NPR's How I Built This
What are the next products you’re working on?
As for our next step, we are working on a phenomenal floss product! It is both extremely sustainable and is clinically proven to clean teeth better than any other floss out there.
Are there any releases you can tell us about?
We also have a really cool partnership in place with a nonprofit called Carbonfund.org, and we are working closely with them to be completely carbon-free in a few months!
Would you ever sell?
Would I ever sell the business? Right now that feels like asking me if I would give away one of my children. But who knows? On this entrepreneurship journey, every day, every week, every month is different. If it makes sense, we might sell, but I'm not thinking about that right now. Right now, I'm only focused on building the best company I can.