5 Lessons Learned from My Social Entrepreneurship Journey

06/03/2015 09:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Since my wife, Geri, and I founded Smile Squared in 2011, we have donated more than 125,000 toothbrushes to children in need all over the world. It's our small way of helping improve the oral health of children who, because of where they live, low socio-economic status, lack of access to health care or other circumstances, are unable to properly care for their teeth.

Our buy-one, give-one toothbrushes are sold online and in retail stores throughout the country, including 1,500 Walmart stores. We have had some good successes -- and many struggles -- along the way. As we approach our fifth year, here are five nuggets of advice from the trenches of social entrepreneurship.

1. Keep your mission at the heart of everything you do. If you created your company to do some sort of good in the world, don't lose your focus. Every time I feel myself waffling on some business decision or wanting to give up, I recall the faces of the children I first met at the dental clinic in Guatemala in 2010. They were so happy to learn how to brush and take care of their teeth. Their smiles keep me going every single day.

2. Just because you don't know doesn't mean you can't know. I own a toothbrush company but I'm not a dentist or expert on oral health. I simply saw a need and had a desire to help. When we started Smile Squared, I had a steep learning curve about everything from navigating Food and Drug Administration regulations to toothbrush bristle technology. I'm still no expert, but I could probably fill a book with the thousands of things I've learned. If you are committed to your idea and your mission (and have some basic computer skills), you can learn almost anything. Take your time. Do your research. Keep good notes. Truly, I learn something new almost every day.

3. Make friends, lots of them. One of the things I have loved the most is the people I have met along the way. Don't be afraid to reach out to other business owners, fellow social entrepreneurs and others. Most people want to help others. Get involved in business clubs and take advantage of networking opportunities. I've been humbled by the number of people -- many of them strangers -- who have been willing to take a few minutes to offer advice, provide an introduction or help Smile Squared in some way just because they connected with our mission.

4. Don't listen to the naysayers. Smile Squared is the David in a field of oral care Goliaths. I could have easily been discouraged by the many people who said my idea would never work. But we had a sound value proposition. We offer something the big guys don't offer: an easy way for consumers to change a child's life through the routine purchase of a toothbrush. Many people said we could never sell toothbrushes online or even get appointments with the big buyers. When we meet with prospective retail partners, we're not just selling toothbrushes. We're inviting them and their customers to join our mission. Some get it. Some don't, and that's OK.

5. Change would do you good. So sings Sheryl Crow. Don't be afraid to shift your model, your product, your marketing approach, etc. As a small business owner, you have to be willing to change just to keep current and relevant -- and stay in business. One example: We started Smile Squared with a bamboo toothbrush, but we learned bamboo didn't appeal to the mass U.S. market. Knowing our mission is to give 1 million toothbrushes, we needed a product with more mass appeal. Since most Americans prefer traditional, plastic toothbrushes, Smile Squared began offering traditional toothbrushes that are made in the United States in 2014. (We continue to provide our bamboo toothbrushes online and through select boutiques.) This brush has opened up a whole new field of potential retail partners.

The bottom line is this: I want my life and vocation to matter. I want to make a positive difference in the lives of others around the world, especially children, who are not as fortunate. Smile Squared has given me a way to do just that. It's been an amazing and rewarding journey so far.

I welcome learning even more lessons. If you have any nuggets you'd like to share with me, please drop me a line at info@smilesquared.com.

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