Small California business owner takes on the titans of toothpaste
A layoff and a knack for making things pushed Eric Buss into the sticky, opaque world of toothpaste.
The story of the La Mirada kid who grew up to be a Temecula manufacturer selling minty paste to the masses is a head-spinning tale of ingenuity and good old-fashioned serendipity.
His story goes something like this: Thirty-something gets fired from Ingram Micro’s sales department, his job of eight years outsourced to the Philippines. In his downtime, an Internet search for a backyard fountain turns into a DIY adventure, and suddenly the jobless man is making and selling water fountains built in his garage. Then Cheesecake Factory’s designers call and ask, ‘Hey, can you build us fountains for our restaurants, only make them 15-feet wide instead of 2?’
The jobless man turned small business owner leases a 2,000-square-foot workshop and makes fountains for 11 years until the welding fumes and cross-country installations are just too much. A random conversation with himself about the incomprehensible contents of toothpaste leads to a three-year odyssey to create a product people will buy “over and over and over again.”
Such was the trajectory of Davids Natural Toothpaste, a plain, pale-mint-green tube of $10 paste sourced with American products because that galling moment at the end with Ingram Micro left a bad taste in Buss’ mouth.
Ten years after first googling “toothpaste ingredients,” 51-year-old Buss and his team of 14 employees can barely keep up, packing thousands of tubes of Davids weekly for an all-star lineup of retailers including URBN, Target, Wegman’s, Amazon and Whole Foods. (URBN is the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie.)
Davids, which marks its seventh birthday this year, is one of many “natural” toothpaste competitors including Tom’s and Hello. Demand is growing, too, as more shoppers look for oral products without fluoride. Industry watchers expect the “herbal” segment to increase 5% in the next two to five years to $1.16 billion annually. Helping that trend is a booming online marketplace that got a big push from pandemic lockdowns. For comparison’s sake, the overall toothpaste market is expected to grow 3.8% by 2027 to $28 billion annually.
We talked to Buss from his office on Date Street in Murrieta where he’s plotting his next big thing: a complete line of oral care by Davids. His answers have been edited for length.
Q: From sales at Ingram Micro to making fountains for Cheesecake Factory. How in the world did that happen?
A: I was online shopping for a water fountain, and I found this company in LA that made these custom water fountains. They were selling them — a small one — for $15,000. I’m like, wow, that’s a lot of money for a small water fountain! I pictured I could make one myself.
So, I started playing around. I drew it all up. I designed it and I started building them.
Then me and my dad, more often than not, would load up a 26-foot Penske rental truck and drive (the fountain) cross-country and do the install. I mean, we drove to Pennsylvania, we drove to Chicago, we drove down to Naples, Florida.
Q: Why did you leave such a lucrative business and switch to toothpaste?
A: Every single time I did a job I had to reinvent the wheel. I had to work with an architect who would have some digital rendering of a water fountain, and then I’d have to re-engineer it. I was like building everything from scratch every time.
I was doing a lot of welding, a lot of metal fabrication. So I kept thinking, ‘this can’t be great for me.’ All these metals give off some pretty funky fumes. I can’t do this until I’m 65. I wish I could just create something once that I can scale into something that people repurchase over and over and over again.
Q: And toothpaste came to mind?
A: One evening (it’s 2011), I was at home, and I was looking on my tube of toothpaste at all the ingredients. What are all these funny names? What is all this stuff that I’m putting in my mouth twice a day? And out of curiosity, I started Google searching, and it didn’t really take too long to figure out that a lot of the ingredients really aren’t that great for you. I had this harebrained idea: I bet I can come up with a better toothpaste. And that was the inception of the company, right there.
My friends thought I was crazy when I started making water fountains, and then they saw the success that I had with that. When they heard I was gonna go from water fountains to toothpaste, I think they thought that I may officially have gone crazy. They were thinking, ‘You’re gonna go up against the biggest behemoth, you know, Unilever and Colgate Palmolive? That’s not going to happen.’
Q: Where did you get the name?
A: Yeah, it’s really confusing because usually halfway through a conversation people start calling me David. My middle name is David. I didn’t like how Eric’s toothpaste sounded. So I went with my middle name. Plus, it’s like David versus Goliath.
Q: How did you get that idea all the way to a product on a shelf?
A: I spent thousands of hours doing a very deep dive on all the ingredients, all the manufacturing processes, figuring out all the players. Who are all the industrial suppliers of all the reagents? Who are all my competitors? I spent three years doing all of this. In July 2015, I launched with one SKU. (The barcode seen on most store-bought items is called a “stock keeping unit,” pronounced “skew.”)
I immediately put it on Amazon so when people start typing in ‘natural toothpaste,’ we would be there, too. We originally started off on page 10 (of the search results) and then got a little traction. (Now, Davids’ toothpaste appears on page one.)
Q: And from there?
A: I made sure we went to all the right trade shows, and the biggest for us is the natural products Expo West. I put my $6,000 down and got my little 10-by-10 booth. In our first year, we launched in July, sales were like $60,000 for the first six months.
Q: Did you fund Davids entirely on your own or were there financial backers?
A: I bootstrapped this business with my own money, using income from the fountain business (Buss Studio) to self-fund. It took about $25K to get Davids off the ground.
Q: How did the styling of Davids evolve? (BTW, the metal tube wringer to squeeze the toothpaste is fun.)
A: I developed all of the branding/styling myself. The packaging has had minor tweaks, but if you saw the original box we launched, it looks 95% the same as today. I had experience using Adobe Photoshop, so I did all the packaging design myself, built our website and did all the photography. Literally hired nobody at the beginning and did everything myself. I still continue to do all the package design and still maintain our website, but we use outside photographers now.
Q: Do you think the pandemic affected your sales up or down?
A: We’re sold at such a broad assortment of retailers. Like, 90% of our business is wholesale and only about 10% is through Amazon and our website. We really are reliant on how well our retailers are doing. And our brochure of customers was doing gangbuster business. Target and Amazon were both doing phenomenal business. So when it was all said and done, we’ve grown year over year over year.
Buss said the company in the near future will be looking at expanding the manufacturing facility beyond its current 7,000 square feet. Though he’s mostly mum on new products, he said a bigger line of Davids oral care is ahead.
More about Eric Buss
College: degree in business administration, entrepreneurial management, at Cal State Fullerton
Worked at Ingram Micro from 1997-2005.
Buss Studio: His fountain business ran from 2005 to 2016.
In 2021, Buss took on investors by selling shares in Davids. He currently owns just over 80% of the company.
More about Davids Natural Toothpaste
Launched: July 2015.
Making it: First big customer was URBN (Free People) where sales were mostly online. Davids then launched in 2017 at 500-plus Whole Foods locations. Just before the pandemic struck, Buss signed with Target in Feb. 2020.
The paste: Davids toothpaste is made in Southern California in five flavors: peppermint (original), charcoal, spearmint, herbal citrus mint, and peppermint sensitive-plus-whitening with hydroxyapatite.