Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Mano, I live in London (England) and my Entrepreneurial mission has been 2-fold:
1) To help establish and grow the market for tongue cleaning in Europe and North America, based on extensive peer-reviewed medical and dental research detailing the benefits of a clean tongue.
A little science background first: Our tongue is one-third of the surface area of our mouth and can be an excellent trap for food and bacterial debris which, if ignored, will lead to bad breath, plaque buildup, dental decay - and much worse.
2) Building THE Premium tongue cleaning brand offer in the market (or the ‘Rolex’ of tongue scrapers I like to say). Recognizing that the global market will be crowded with cheap and disposable tongue scrapers sourced from China and India. We are aiming for a slice of the potentially lucrative top end.
Our ‘AMANO’ range of ‘Tongue Cleansers’ are made in Italy and now extend to 12 designs to suit all tastes, tongues, and wallets - priced from £12 ($16) to £92 ($120).
We started out targeting the purely oral care conscious market (‘a clean tongue removes 90% of bad breath’ was our initial strap-line) but have been able to piggyback off evolving medical and dental research to attract wine drinkers, elite athletes via Premier League Football Medical Teams, Charities dealing with malnutrition amongst the old, those fighting the aging process and improving heart health and wellbeing. So just about everyone. And in the last year, we seem to have also become a hit with Yoga and Vegan devotees.
I should say this is a bootstrap operation since I promised my long-suffering wife (who often jokes she; “isn’t cut out to be an Entrepreneurs Wife”) that I would not take out another mortgage on our house - after nearly losing our home in the 2010 recession, whilst involved in another business.
That said AMANO made a small profit last year.
Or as I put it to my Wife; “We are more profitable than Uber and WeWork combined!”
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My career started out pretty conventional … qualifying as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst & Young (EY) in the 1980s and then heading into Blue-Chip land.
Albeit this was the Film and Music sector, doing accounting work but in a slightly surreal environment, where famous Directors, Actors, and Pop Stars would drift around the offices.
I ended up in the marketing department of EMI Records (known as Capitol Records in the States). Moving from finance to a general management role, where I got the chance to really hobnob with the likes of Iron Maiden (once even playing darts with the band in a pub on Sunset Boulevard), Heart, Pink Floyd and the Pet Shop Boys.
And in the process, I learned some nifty promo techniques (or gimmicks) for getting the undivided attention of low attention span artists, radio DJs, and journalists. Very useful for later …
I also realized that famous people can be ‘just like us’. Open to conversation and engagement - if you adopt the right approach. Again useful for later ...
My EMI Records hours were late, often involving dining with visiting artists and managers (really that was part of my job description!), I drank and smoked way too much and often woke up with a disgusting case of toxic breath. We’ve all been there.
Which is where my school friend Jay came in.
He gave me a cheap and cheerful Indian tongue scraper to remove, or scrape away, the alcohol, tobacco and rich food from my tortured tongue before going to bed.
Hey Presto! It worked.
I would wake up with fresher breath and even my hangovers seemed to be diminished!
Who knew? Going to bed with a toxic chemical reaction raging in your mouth - all night long - isn’t perhaps the best way to get a good night’s sleep and recovery ...
Which got me wondering …
Why didn’t more people use this simple, effective and quick routine?
Afterall some 95% of people brush their teeth daily - yet less than 1% clean their tongue - in the UK and the USA. This was the 1990s remember virtually no one used a dedicated tongue scraper.
Was it down to the “Ugg that’s disgusting” Factor?
Or confusing messages from the Dental Profession and Oral Care FMCGs?
A bit of both it turns out.
Validating the concept
Luckily enough I had a friend who worked in the Eastman Dental Hospital (the leading Dental School in the UK). He helped provide medical research supporting the benefits of a simple tongue scrape, not just for removing bad breath, but also removing a major source of plaque-forming bacteria and (the real surprise) improving taste perception - particularly for the elderly (a de-clogged tongue can better register food flavors).
Another friend who worked for a Blue-Chip Oral Care FMCG intimated that more money could be made from dealing with the symptoms of poor oral care (mouthwash and tooth whitening products for instance) than actually comprehensively eradicating the causes.
So the Majors would not necessarily be interested in marketing dedicated tongue scrapers (and 25 years on this seems to still be the case).
A third friend, who worked in market research, spent 2 days with me questioning 200 or so Shoppers in Hampstead and Highgate (affluent places with what I thought was our target consumer market) on their attitudes to cleaning the tongue and what would be the circumstances to make them buy a dedicated scraper.
My conclusion after this process was:
There was a solid body of peer-reviewed medical research supporting the benefits of a clean tongue.
FMCGs were unlikely to enter the market in the short term - because it would cannibalize their more lucrative offers.
If the benefits were explained and a tongue scraper was designed to look safe and unthreatening some consumers would overcome their Ugg Factor and try the routine.
The Jeff Daniels Accountant character in the film Something Wild said;
“It’s better to live a day as a lion - than a lifetime as a Sheep''.
I agreed. With seed money from some friends and my cashed-in EMI Pension, I decided to do something wild …!
To avoid confusion:
Phase One of my AMANO tongue cleanser project was in the early 1990s. In the pre-internet and globalization age. Virtually no Westerner used a dedicated tongue scraper at this time, I was ‘market-making’ as it were. Phase One lasted 2-3 years.
I then pivoted and spent some 20 years co-founding and building a Top10 Branding Agency, working with FMCGs like, Coke Cola, Colgate and Unilever, which I exited in 2015.
Phase Two of my AMANO tongue cleanser passion project resumed in 2016. Now in the internet age. Where, as The Economist rallying cry put it;
“Niche E-Commerce offers can mint it”.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In Phase One of my AMANO tongue cleanser project, I was introducing a totally new concept to 99% of the population. Basically asking someone to stick a sharpish tool into the mouth and scrape their tongue with it.
So I considered my biggest risk to be if my tongue scraper design caused personal injury to a customer’s tongue. Any lawsuit could crush us I feared.
The biggest opportunity was in creating a premium offer since I knew if I did succeed in building a western market, with low barriers to entry, I would have intense competition from cheap and cheerful Indian scraper businesses (where there are 100 million+ tongue scraping consumers).
So I approached the leading manufacturer of Dental equipment in the UK and USA - Dentsply. This would help ensure I created the best quality, safest and long-lasting scraper possible - all key equities for building a premium brand.
I worked with Dentsply’s slightly bemused designers to create a technical drawing of a 100% austenitic steel scraper, based on a Roman design I had once seen in a Museum (yes the Romans were keen tongue scrapers as was George Washington!).
The fact I was working with an expert in the Oral Care sector minimized the risk of error. The standard handles, the austenitic steel used and the sealants were all within Dentsply’s area of comfort.
As regards packaging I liked the idea of a KitKat chocolate wrap and clear pack so fed this to some Packaging Designers I knew who came up with this finished design:
Our AMANO1992 still going strong
Since details are hazy let’s skip to Phase Two.
This time around in 2016, after intense qualitative research feedback, from my ever supportive Mother-in-Law, Sylvia (friends and family are so key to making the Entrepreneurial process less stressful, rewarding and potentially successful I’d say) I decided to look at tongue scraper handles which afforded a better grip.
One of the biggest consumer resistances to trying out tongue scraping and sticking to it is the fear of the ‘gag effect’. The better the grip the less likely the tongue reflex action can try to drag the scraper into the mouth (that is why the gag effect occurs). So having 2 handles and thicker handles were key design choices if I was to encourage takeup.
Secondly, it was important to get the correct level of scraper sharpness. Too sharp and you will discourage use (and risk injury and bad reviews).
Not sharp enough and you end up with; “Why not use a spoon?” type comments.
I realize that a Western consumer will not be comfortable with a scraper as sharp as those used by Indians, so I played safe.
(Serendipity Footnote: As luck would have it a few years ago a Dutch Dental Academic came out with a study that concluded:
"The perception of effectiveness varied among the various tongue-cleaning device designs. No single feature stood out as being specifically related to (a) perception of effectiveness. Sharpness and comfort were negatively correlated. Comfort and effectiveness were positively correlated".
So with these comfort requirements in mind, I decided to approach Cutlery makers in Europe. They had the quality control and hygiene standards already in place and the scope to offer a range of handles and design flexibility.
Despite the lure of China, globalization and a far lower COG I did not want the risk of substandard materials potentially compromising our premium offer. Plus choosing a local manufacturer reduces the carbon footprint in keeping with our desire to be eco-friendly as possible.
I wanted to offer as wide a range of designs as possible to increase gifting opportunities. Since my original tongue scrapers from the 1990s were still going strong, I was relying on gifting and word of mouth, rather than replacement sales, to get multiple sales from each customer (our record is 54 AMANOs from one single Harrods customer spending £800 / $1050).
At the time I was thinking about handles with flags of the World, Football Team colors, famous paintings - maybe 24 plus designs to launch with …
In the end, reality intruded and my chosen manufacturer in Milan, Italy required a MOQ of 1,000 units per design, plus a steep tooling charge (over $10,000). So I had to scale down my grandiose ideas and settle for 6 launch variants. Again using a relative expert in producing tools that go safely into the mouth minimized trial and error. And thus costs and time.
I hired a Graphic Designer who came up with these initial design concepts.
Eventually, after several design rounds, we agreed to go with these slightly more sophisticated designs to accentuate ‘premium-ness’:
And this highly individual packaging (we chose plastic cases to safeguard the tongue scrapers).
Describe the process of launching the business.
Remember Phase One launch was in the pre-internet age, in the 1990s.
It was also a time when the Media was more receptive than now where, with paid Advertorials and PR tie-ups with Big Players, it is far harder for upstart start-ups to get both noticed and free publicity.
Back in the 1990s, I came up with a 3-stage Teaser campaign, inspired by my EMI Records days. Teasing Journalists with a sequence of postcard images (sent via the post - no internet then) of famous film stars and an enigmatic statement that steadily built up - to a ‘reveal’. One was Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (yes that scene) and the last was Jack Nicolson in The Shining - with a “tip of the tongue” solution to his “problem”.
My offer on the back of the Jack postcard of breakfast at a 5-star hotel was eagerly taken up.
In a whirlwind 2 weeks, I met 20 or so Journalists, had multiple breakfasts (often on the same day - well I couldn’t give the impression I was seeing other Journos could I).
And as a result in one heady week, we were on TV 3 times, Radio a dozen times (including The BBC and PBS USA) Newspapers and (after the publishing lag) GQ, Esquire, Cosmo, Details and Marie Claire.
The only negative was TV star Chris Evans on Big Breakfast broadcasting that we were on sale in Top Peoples store Harrods before I had asked PR permission and Harrods read me the riot act and threatened to delist us - before we had even listed!
Actually the second negative was being asked to demonstrate the AMANO live in SKY News Studio. Visibly effective performance by myself I thought. But a visibly disgusting reaction from the SKY Presenter, as my tongue gunge fell onto the newsdesk.
In summary Phase One was immense fun, I got to stretch my skillset, got rather adept at giving great interviews, particularly on radio. I even ended up doing Christmas promotions in Harrods for 2 years running. It was particularly rewarding when a man came in during one promo event and said; “I bought one yesterday - it was really good, give me 4 more”.
But the downside was I was totally reliant on PR to drive real (postal) profitable sales. I only had a few notable retailers. It was hard going.
The upshot of this was when an offer came to start a design business I made the decision to put my passion project on hold.
Fast forward 20 years to 2016
Launching AMANO in Phase Two - the internet age - was I thought going to be a cake.
I had raised £60,000 ($100,000) from a group of friends (all of whom owned original AMANOs from Phase One - so they were real advocates).
I did try crowdfunding - which was in its infant stage at the time in the UK - but failed to get my target amount. Any available money was heading for any startup with the word Incubator dot.com in its name, I seem to recall.
This time around my Co-Director Gill had her own PR Company, Third City, to help out.
And a video company, The Cuillin Collective, made two showcase videos - one featuring the opening scene to Star Wars and characters based on Modern Family. Heck, that’s one of the joys of being an Entrepreneur - you get to be creative and slightly indulgent!
I incentivized all my agencies with sweat equity - based on an exit scenario. That helped to keep their fees down (slightly) and motivate them to constructively support me over the long term.
Given my past success at getting PR, I thought I was on my way to “making a mint” (as The Economist had said was within the grasp of all niche eCommerce offers).
On launch on the plus side The British Dental Journal featured us (the first of many supportive features in the last few years) as did Decanter Wine Magazine (‘A clean tongue will enhance the wine experience’ no less) and Tatler, Journal to the British Aristocracy.
We also got back into Harrods plus Selfridges - the two most prestigious Stores in the Country.
I felt I had the correct elements in place, yet disconcertingly I was not getting much e-commerce action, beyond surges every time I got some PR.
I should stress at this time I was not on Amazon or using Google, Facebook & Instagram.
I was not going to be an overnight success it seemed.
So this is the bit where you, as the entrepreneur, have to try and honestly consider what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ with the strategy.
So in the ‘right’ column I felt I could put:
- Design of AMANO range √ indeed we had very favorable feedback from long term users and new
- Packaging √
- Supporting medical science √
- Potential unexploited market √ (<1% using a tongue scraper cf 95% brushing their teeth is a galvanizing statistic for me)
- Premium equities √
In the ‘wrong’ column I felt we were weak in these areas:
- Limited Premium retail presence X
- No Social Media presence X
- Poor SEO X
- Lack of (famous/real) Advocates X
- Lack of Capital to address above vigorously X
- High direct COG (over £3 / $4) reducing our ability to expand via Distribution deals X
So what did I do?
I needed to strike the right balance between broadening our retail base and social media strategy without compromising our premium look and feel.
We went onto Amazon (with mixed results, having gained almost 200 5 star Reviews and Top 10 sales ratings for individual SKUs, a technical glitch on the system wiped out our entire listing last October forcing us to - start all over again!).
Based on some very exciting breakthrough research on how a clean tongue can:
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Improve blood flow - so reducing blood pressure
- Improve stem cell efficacy (this is the ‘anti-aging’ angle we use)
- And even reduce ED (erectile dysfunction)
We were able to garner some great PR - notably, an anti-aging article in The Daily Mail led to £10,000 / $13,000 of sales in 3 days.
We use Twitter and LinkedIn (mostly to target Journalists and Academics), Google Ads, Facebook, and Instagram - spending approximately £500 / $650 a month.
We now get 1,500 to 2,000 visits per month to our dedicated AMANO site + on top of this Amazon.
We have broadened our retail footprint to top Vegan Chains like Planet Organic in the UK. And Yoga retailers in the UK, France, Holland, and even Iceland.
We thus have a steady flow of sales, breaking even or profitable. But no breakthrough.
I should add we are experiencing Brexit depression in the UK right now. Sales in my West End of London retailers are up, but only because they have tourist footfall and are in relatively well off catchment areas. Sales from Overseas are also up. But our UK online consumer sales are down in 2019/20 compared to 2 years ago.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Most people would say, the best way to build a brand is to have a product that consumers genuinely love and cherish. I agree.
I have been astonished at the feedback I have received from satisfied customers, particularly ones that have owned the very same AMANO since 1992 and are now buying their family and friends new ones. Or the cancer patient who revived their taste buds after using an AMANO. Or the Indian man who has used tongue scrapers, of various shapes and designs, all his life and says ours is the best he has used!
It makes the journey so worthwhile.
And piggybacking off great medical research has been the best way to widen the market.
When I see the research that may be of help I often contact the Medical and Dental Academics directly. They tend to be very helpful - they need publicity after all. Some have even carried out specific tests on our request - such as whether tongue scraping increases Nitric Oxide production from ‘good’ bacteria on the tongue (it does).
This science-based approach:
Deepens consumers’ knowledge and enhances trust and attachment to the AMANO brand.
It establishes AMANO as a serious brand within the Academic Community - we are not ‘just’ a bad breath tool (we are very proud to have featured in The British Dental Journal at least 6 times).
It distinguishes us from the cheap and cheerful competition.
And Journalists pay attention. Since we are not paying for PR we need genuine fact-based stories to get them to engage.
These are some of the great PR angles (and examples of the leverage achieved)
Anti-aging and Nitric Oxide: “Could this £13 gadget be the secret to staying young?” This Daily Mail article led to £10,000 / $13,000 of online sales in 3 days.
Footballers performance impacted by poor oral care: Incredibly this enabled us to get 5 Premier League Football Teams to try our scrapers. And one Team Medical Head was very keen.
I tried contacting some NFL Football Team Medical Staff with no success ...
Miracle Drug Nitric Oxide (more than a one-trick pony): This was a revelation for me! Up to 50% of our daily Nitric Oxide needs can come from ‘good’ oral bacteria. This ‘miracle molecule’ aids blood flow, stem cell efficacy, reduces heart disease risk - and even reduces the risk of Erectile Dysfunction! Bear in mind my initial mission was to market a bad breath solution - and 25 years on we arrive at this point!
We were so excited we made an explainer video:
Malnutrition due to fading taste perception: In the UK, 1 million elderly are suffering from malnutrition - many due to a fading appetite. Often this is because their taste buds have diminished in efficacy and number. A simple tongue scrape can revive and reboot those taste buds and thus restimulate appetite. We teamed up with charity Age Concern to highlight this simple solution. Lives could be saved.
Wine appreciation: On the same principle, rebooted taste buds can better appreciate good food and wine. We managed to gain the attention of Wine Writers, Wine Buyers and Wine Producers - following this Decanter Wine feature on ‘looking after your tongue’.
In all cases, any PR we get is then rotated on our AMANO website as a blog and Facebook to increase visits and improve conversions.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our sales strategy is:
- On-line (our dedicated website and Amazon)
- Retail in the UK - select stores mainly in London
- Dental Practices in UK (not many)
- Retail and Distribution deals in Europe and Canada (we were in the USA but the annual FDA fees became too onerous)
The split of on-line to retail can vary - but since the Brexit downturn in the UK market, we do far more retail revenue than on-line right now - thanks to our overseas sales.
Based on specific bulk retail orders monthly turnover thus varies between £4000 ($5,000) and £7,000 ($9,000) per month.
We are a lean operation:
- 2 Directors
- Part-time staff to pack/fulfill AMANOs
- Specialist services (design, website, videos) are brought-in by long term service providers - who have been incentivized by sweat equity deals (this helps to keep fees down and keep them engaged with the project, for the longer term)
Our 2020 todos are:
- More aggressively target Elite Sports Athletes, on the principle of “small differences can make a big performance impact on the pitch” (oral care issues impact on performance - say 32% of elite athletes surveyed in one study)
- Introduce a new range of designs this Christmas
- Try and get a genuine brand Ambassador (could be an Elite Sportsperson)
Our Long term goal remains...
To continue to build the AMANO brand - carefully nurturing our key equities and positioning the brand at the premium end of the crowded but growing tongue cleaning market.
The goal? To attract a Bigger Player who values our brand equities, who can then take AMANO to the next level.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Do not burn relationship bridges!
Don’t give up on the 1st or 2nd rejection …
- Retail Buyers blocking you move on pretty quickly or can have a change of heart
- Journalists can be having a bad day …
- Even an abandoned cart can be revived (usually with a juicy extra discount)
That said - Everything takes longer!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify, which we find is excellent. And that’s about it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I read The Economist - yes it covers business but also nuggets of inspiration in the science section that get you thinking.
Luke Johnson (a UK restaurant serial Entrepreneur) has been motivational over the years, particularly when things have been difficult (he wrote a column in The FT).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
“The harder I work - the luckier I get” works for me …!
You must love what you are doing.
If you don’t you will not maximize the potential (that’s a gentle way of saying you increase your chances of failure if you aren’t enjoying the journey).
Being an entrepreneur can be a 24/7 job
It is far more difficult to switch off, compared to being part of a larger business with others taking responsibility. So it’s essential to have sympathetic friends and family - who can help you relax, switch off (and gently tell you to shut up when you get too obsessively boring).
Make sure you build up a good set of trusted Experts (Accountant, Lawyer, Designer, etc). The better your relationship with them the better the advice you’ll get - and the less it will cost you. Never be afraid to ask them what they are doing or saying (to help you). Do not assume they 100% understand your brief 1st time. Fear of dealing with and challenging your ‘Experts’ can lead to money and time wasted. And poorer decision making. So be confident enough with them to ask the ‘stupid questions’.
Everything takes longer (!)
Make sure you build this into your cash flow. Forewarn your Wife/Husband ...
Best of Luck
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We need to replenish our network of part-time packers from time to time.
That’s all for now.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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