How one serial inventor brought a revolutionary approach to flossing from idea to launch
Today we are talking about the journey from initial insight to launched product. The featured product is Instafloss, a revolutionary approach to flossing your teeth.
With us is the creator of Instafloss, serial inventor, and two-time founder, Eli Packouz.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:03] Tell us about Instafloss.
I found myself in a position that many people may find themselves in—you’re in a rush and trying to clean your teeth and flossing is just taking too long. I thought there had to be a way to make this go quicker. At the time I had already founded a company, and we had come out with seven products. I was thinking about how we could solve this problem, and within a week about five other people told me they hated flossing and asked if we could make a product to do something about that. I started reading periodontal textbooks and finding out more about the problem.
I found there are two problems: In the U.S. 70% of people regularly skip flossing, and of the people who do floss almost all of them are flossing incorrectly. If we break down the first problem, there are three reasons people don’t floss: It takes too much time. It hurts. And it’s difficult to do correctly.
I looked at existing solutions. Water flossers have been on the market since the 60s, and research shows they are more effective than string floss if done correctly. However, there are a few issues: Nobody does it correctly; in order to do it correctly, you have to hold the jet at a 90 degree angle, trace the gum line, and do it on the inside. It’s messy, and it takes even longer.
We had to create a floss that people will love and that will be quick and automatic. After five years, it’s been quite a journey, but I believe we’ve accomplished that.
[6:10] What is the form of the product?
The insight was that in order to floss correctly you need the water jets at a 90 degree angle to the gum line and they need to cover 100% of the gum line. The first iteration was a mouth guard with jets pointing at various areas. There were two issues with this: The mouth guard is stagnant, so the jets mostly point only between the teeth, and we would need to create a customer mouth guard for every individual, so the product would have to be $900. That didn’t seem like a path we wanted to go down.
The breakthrough was taking a cross section of the mouth guard and moving it across the mouth. We have an H-shaped manifold. The top of the H goes over the top of the teeth, and the bottom of the H goes over the both teeth. It spins around in the middle, which is attached to the handle. It flosses the top, front, back, and bottom simultaneously. It has 12 jets aimed at the correct 90 degree angle. We can ensure 100% coverage at the right angle, and we can do it in just 10 seconds. The water pressure is adjustable, and it is painless.
[9:20] Were there other paths you went down before you got to a water jet?
Yes, I did a deep dive into all the possibilities. My initial sketches were trying to figure out ways to automate flossing with string, but that requires an insane amount of dexterity and intelligence. You don’t want to cut your gums and cause problems in your mouth. I looked into air as a medium, but that is incredibly ineffective. Overflossing might be the only thing worse than not flossing. That was a problem we ran into in the development. We had giant reservoirs of water because we don’t want people to have to refill the reservoir often. We noticed that people were enjoying it so much, but they were used to flossing for two to three minutes. Ten seconds with Instafloss is the equivalent of two minutes with an alternative flossing method, so two minutes of Instafloss is equivalent to 36 minutes of flossing. If you’re doing that two or three times a day, that’s a big problem. Sometimes when you solve a problem you uncover a problem you had not realized existed before. We had to develop into the UX a way to let people know the floss is over and they should stop. We built in a stop and LED feedback and made the reservoir so it must be filled before each use.
[13:13] What was your prototyping process?
One of the first things we started with was math. What is the capacity for water jets in the mouth? How much power would the necessary flow rate take? How much room is there in the mouth? We had to know what those constraints were. First we made sketches and then we 3D-printed some parts to get measurements. We ordered basic parts and then machined parts out of metal.
After we had something we thought worked, I started talking to local scientists and professionals in dental science. I got connected to Dr. Ana Mascarenhas, who was the chair of the American Dental Association Council of Scientific Affairs. We showed her diagrams and prototypes, and she guided us on a long journey of testing and iteration. It started with flossing pigs. We got pig heads from a butcher and cut them vertically so we could look at the outside and inside of the molars at the same time. We used our prototypes to floss the pigs and then cut away the gums and looked underneath to see how deep we were penetrating and whether we were missing any areas. We iterated until we could demonstrate our prototype could be effective.
We then tested on humans and compared it to three different groups: people who use a manual water flosser, people who use string floss, and people who don’t floss. Luckily this part didn’t require iteration because we had so much theoretical basis already. Our group outperformed all the other groups by a significant margin, and that is when we realized we are ready to move into mass manufacturing.
[20:25] What were some challenges that you learned from?
There was a component that was supposed to be sonic welded, and the whole design depended on this. We had already built the molds because our consulting firm had assured us this part could be sonic welded. It turns out it can’t. That is something even experts in the field somehow missed. We had to scramble to change our mold and find other ways to connect these parts. That was a large, expensive headache. If you are coming up with a hardware product for the first time, it is absolutely crucial you have someone experienced with manufacturing on your team. We did, and even when you have experience there are surprises. Think how screwed you’re going to be if there’s no one on your team with experience.
We had to move from sonic welding to adhesives. We had to run through about 45 different adhesives because we needed something food-safe and FDA-approved. That caused almost a year of delay.
[23:32] Where are you in the emotional journey of developing a product?
The product isn’t in customers’ hands yet, so it certainly is going to be a moment of truth when people get it into their hands. But I’m pretty confident about that because we’ve been testing it and had users for these last five years. I believe we have a representative sample of what our customers are going to experience.
I am glad that five years ago I decided to go on this journey. Five years ago I don’t know if I would have made that choice knowing everything I know now, but if I knew everything back then I could have also avoided a lot of obstacles.
[24:57] When did it become real that you were going to move forward making a solution for this problem?
It’s hard to give one specific answer because there were so many individual moments of truth—when I realized how big the problem was, when I saw there is a solution conceptually, when I had a physical prototype delivering the solution, when I got a letter from the patent office saying the patent has been granted, when I got scientific results, when I got manufacturing costs, and what I’m experiencing right now when products are coming off the line en masse. In a month or two I’m going to experience the feedback from customers as they receive it, and then I’m going to experience ordering more and contacting retailers and growing the team. All of these are very real moments, and the real moments never stop because on a journey every step on the journey gets you to where you’re going.
[31:03] What is a key lesson you learned or something you would do differently next time?
One of the biggest mistakes I made was I did not anticipate how long it was going to take or how many details were going to be required. I started the journey with a lot less funding than was actually required. I spent a lot of my effort hobbling between engineering and switching to something else because the funding was not there, and that was quite a stressful thing. You need optimism, but you also need realism. I’m glad we managed to pull through, but it would have been a lot more please experience if I had outlined far more what the development would take. You can say there’s no way I could have known, and you’re right, but it’s always better to have more runway than less because you never know when you’re going to need to keep moving on the runway.
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- Learn more about Instafloss
“This is life’s blessing; this is life’s curse: It’s never so bad that it can’t get worse.” – Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes (paraphrased)
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.