Enterprise
Brushing up on hygiene
Calyn Yap 
Chaco Polish is the brand’s flagship product and bestseller
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CHACO Polish, a homegrown tooth brightening paste, is attempting to reinvent oral care by using unique natural ingredients.

The product, co-developed with help from Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Institute of Bioscience, has received the nod from the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency.

With the growing success of the product, Chaco Polish’s creator and company founder Ida Othman, a serial entrepreneur, is looking to export it to the Asean and Middle East markets.

Like most entrepreneurial ideas, her company Chaco too had humble beginnings with Ida failing several times before finally succeeding.

But with Chaco Polish, it appears that she finally found her calling in the oral care industry.

Ida says there are also social and emotional aspects of Chaco Polish’s creation, as having a nice smile give people more confidence in themselves.

“People tend to forget that brighter teeth give one greater confidence. For me, I was self-conscious when my teeth started turning yellow and I didn’t want to smile as much because I was embarrassed,” she says.

Her search began when Ida had a conversation with her friend, Pial Khadilla Abdullah. They were discussing issues related to the yellowing of teeth, and Ida was keen to find a natural solution to the problem.

“I was complaining to Pial about yellow teeth and how I didn’t like going to the dentist. She suggested trying bamboo charcoal powder to brighten my teeth.

“I saw a difference in just a week, but felt it was too messy dipping my toothbrush into the powder,” recalls Ida.

This spurred her to try formulating the tooth polish in a paste form, using bamboo charcoal powder and other locally sourced ingredients as a “magnet” to remove and clean dirt and stains from the teeth.

Tooth polish is a concentrated black paste used once a day. After brushing teeth with regular toothpaste, the stains eventually disappear.

Hence, Ida came up with the Chaco brand, a play on the key ingredients in its products, bamboo charcoal and virgin coconut oil.

She was even more excited as she could use locally produced bamboo charcoal.

“Although there were recommendations that I could get ready-made bamboo charcoal products from China, I was a bit sceptical on what they were putting into the products. Besides, I was passionate to get it done locally,” she says.

Furthermore, Ida says Malaysia has one of the best grades of bamboo charcoal owing to the abundance of such trees in the country.

Soon, she began to create and test several batches of handmade tooth polish concoctions. It took the better part of a year before she found the right formula and manufacturer.

While the research and development (R&D) process were time-consuming, finding a manufacturer willing to produce a small batch of the product was also a challenge.

Ida discovered that the country did not have a governing body or proper centre with a one-stop directory of manufacturers able to produce bamboo charcoal.

As a result, this prolonged the process of securing a manufacturer for it.

“I wanted to promote Malaysian-made products. But it was easier to search for a list of bamboo charcoal manufacturers on Alibaba.com compared to locally, and that was my biggest challenge,” she says.

Nonetheless, she finally found her manufacturer and, overcoming the odds, she eventually launched her flagship product in April last year.

“I decided that [last year] was the year I was going to sell small batches of Chaco Polish for market validation,” she says.

She also introduced another product using a coconut oil-based blend, which is swished in the mouth to kill bacteria that cause bad breath.

The product is sold in the form of sachets under the same brand. However, until today, the tooth polish remains her best-selling product.

 

Gaining attention

Several months after the launch, Chaco got the attention of UPM’s Institute of Bioscience. UPM offered Ida its services to test the product and even improve its formula.

“It (UPM) saw our product on Instagram and was keen to test and improve it, so I thought, why not?” says Ida.

The flagship product then went through several batches of testing over a period of six months. UPM’s team added 18 natural and organic ingredients to make the product a more holistic offering. This included activated charcoal powder, Vitamin C and clove oil.

With that, a new-and-improved version was launched in February with better packaging. Thus far, says Ida, feedback from customers has been very positive. They say the new formula is more effective than our first batch.

Chaco’s products are now registered and approved to be distributed and sold to the public.

Ida is selling Chaco Polish online via its website, as well as through online beauty portal MySmink.com. The product is also sold offline through pop-up-booths in different locations across the country.

“Ultimately, it’ll be an online business. We won’t have as many pop-up stores as we do now. The idea of having physical booths serves to explain to customers how our products work,” she says.

 

Obstacles

Marketing and promotions are usually key challenges for entrepreneurs. The main obstacle is to get the word out and convince consumers to try its oral care products.

Despite the challenge, Chaco has already garnered a base of repeat customers, which are passing the word to family and friends.

Surprisingly, Ida reveals that 65% of he company’s customers are men. “That was a surprise for me. But nowadays, men are more conscious about grooming.

“Hence, I want to make sure whatever products I sell are quality ones that help people and benefit,” says Ida, who is also looking to increase her female customers.

As in any new business, having enough working capital is a challenge.

Ida says this is because government funding is mostly focused on technology companies and start-ups.

That said, she gives credit to the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and the Malaysia Technology Development Corporation (MTDC).

MDEC, for example, lowered the barriers for exporting to the Middle East, where Chaco Polish hopes to enter.

On the other hand, MTDC is helping it to build and promote the brand to its overseas networks.

There are also other organisations that have taken the time to listen to pitches and provide guidance on how to strengthen the business model and act as a bridge to the right networks. But Ida says more needs to be done.

“We need support for companies that aren’t tech start-ups. There are a lot of smart entrepreneurs running small businesses. And they face major hurdles in [securing] funding,” she says.

 

Growing the business

Having established a stable foundation in terms of its product development, Ida is looking to apply for halal certification and even has plans to expand her export markets.

She currently receives product orders from Singapore. Encouraged, Ida also wants to expand to more Asean countries.

Expansion into Brunei is on the cards, but she is still mulling the best options to penetrate the market. Though there is strong demand from that country, it is hampered by expensive shipping costs.

Apart from that, Ida is also eyeing possibilities to develop complementary products that focus on unmet needs, in order to build Chaco into a strong Malaysia-based oral care player that serves local and international markets.

She believes in constantly challenging herself to come up with unique products by working with UPM’s bioscience team on the R&D for them.

Ida is also considering tweaking Chaco Polish to offer different versions of the product. This includes experimenting with different oils and flavours for product development.

“My vision and mission are to be a global Malaysian player in oral care.

“I want my product to be the top-selling and biggest player in its category globally. At the same time, I also want to promote Malaysian-made products.

“I want Malaysian-made products to be the number one trusted oral care brand. That’s the long-term vision,” she says.

Journey in entrepreneurship

MALAYSIAN oral care brand Chaco was not Ida Othman’s first venture into entrepreneurship. After more than a decade in the media industry, working for Astro All Asia Networks plc’s TV and radio division, she decided to enter business and bought an old spa.

Ida says tooth polish is not a replacement for toothpaste but serves to brighten teeth to its natural natural state

Partnering with local songstress Sheila Majid, she launched Jentayu Spa by Sheila Majid in 2007.

At the same time, Ida promoted do-it-yourself body care products by concocting various body washes and lotions, which were sold at the outlet.

Although she offered a mobile spa as a service, she soon realised that there was no demand for it.

Consumers preferred going to physical locations to pamper themselves rather than mobile spas.

Moreover, back then, social media was in its infancy, so it was difficult and expensive to market, promote, and build a brand without deep pockets.

Rising rental rates and increased regulatory intervention when seeking foreign talents for the spa service made it too tough for the business to grow.

“It had a good run and was successful, lasting some eight years. But it was a tough business. The social media element and culture wasn’t so strong at the time, so its success was mostly due to word-of-mouth from our clients,” she says.

When Ida decided to move on, she had a short stint doing consulting work for media companies before dabbling in the health food delivery business.

It was only recently that she founded Chaco, which offers tooth polish and “oil pulling” products.

Ida says there are several misconceptions when it comes to tooth polish. For one, consumers believe tooth polish helps whiten teeth.

Another mistaken belief is that tooth polish is a replacement for toothpaste, which is not the case.

She clears the misunderstanding by clarifying that tooth polish serves to “brighten” teeth to its natural state by removing the stains and plaque that have built up over time.

“So bit by bit, it removes the ‘yellowness’ that stains our teeth over the years. It doesn’t result in changes overnight.

“Since these are natural products, it takes time. The tougher the stains, the longer it takes,” she says.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 278.