Michael Bracciale worked full-time and then some. He spent all day, five of them a week, at a desk with a South Florida zip code, a recent college-grad carving out a career in healthcare recruiting. He made calls and sent emails. He cracked jokes with coworkers and, when necessary, nodded in meetings. He did the things he needed to do, the things he’d been told his whole life he had to do, but it wasn’t enough. That didn’t bother him much, though, because he had a plan. It wasn’t like most plans, the kind where you bide your time and bite your tongue and climb the corporate ladder. Instead, this plan involved a billion dollar chemist, fresh breath on the fly, and a business partner up north in Tallahassee named Nick Telford.
Then one day, as summer set in on 2017, the plan went into motion. After months of meeting the chemist on his lunch hour, months of coming home to work on the plan at night, Bracciale’s partner called him and said the time had come. It was now or never. “Burn the boats,” Telford told him. “We can’t go back.”
Before the plan was the plan, it was December 2015 and final exam week at Florida State University. Bracciale and Telford sat studying at Strozier library when they suddenly faced something of a serious collegiate problem. An attractive classmate walked up and asked Bracciale for help studying. He’d have been game if it weren’t for the ghost of malodorous meals past. Without a quick way to fix his breath, he made up an excuse and went home to rinse with mouthwash, but by the time he got back to the library the girl and, as it were, his newly freshened breath were gone.
This left the duo with a question, “Why isn’t there anything that’s effective at killing bad breath AND easily portable?”
For the next couple of weeks, Bracciale and Telford spent time researching small, on-the-go products that got rid of bad breath as opposed to just providing short, temporary relief. They came up empty-handed, which, to a couple of entrepreneurs, meant only one thing: It was time to create. And so, the plan for FLY Mouthwash, a highly concentrated product designed to deliver the same effectiveness as an at-home mouthwash with the convenience of fitting in your pocket, was laid.
By 2025, the global oral care industry is expected to reach $41 billion in value. In the U.S., the industry has significant penetration, with experts anticipating a mere 1-2% growth annually. New product development remains one of the few ways the industry will expand, but corporate behemoths write the rules and control the playing field. Just four major firms--The Procter & Gamble Co, Colgate-Palmolive Co, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products Inc and GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Health--control 73% of oral care retail.
But FLY isn’t intimidated. On the contrary, they’re motivated by the opportunity to compete. Bracciale said that precisely because of the size of the industry, the FLY team feels they can create a brand that capitalizes on what established players have overlooked. “We see room for the chance to innovate upon a widely used product,” said Bracciale.
Talking a big innovation game is one thing. Delivering on it is another, which is why Bracciale and Telford have been focused on product quality from day one. “It had to be good,” said Telford.
After that fateful finals day in the library, the two ordered potential ingredients and created the first prototype in Bracciale’s kitchen. But the results were less than, shall we say, fresh. Looking back on those first batches, Bracciale admits, “It couldn’t have gone much worse---it made the smell worse, actually.” They knew they needed professional help, and so they did it old school, knocking on doors and burning up the phone lines.
The team searched for someone to develop the product, but faced hurdles attracting chemists to come on board. At one point, they flew to New Jersey to meet with a manufacturer only to wait for months without word and then be turned down. But instead of closing up shop and updating their resumes, they dug in.
Telford googled ‘oral care chemist,’ picked up the phone, and went down the list, cold calling everyone he could find. Turned down by more than 20 chemists, Telford finally stumbled into a call with Dr. Martin Giniger, an oral-care chemist with 20 years experience in the industry who has helped create products grossing more than $10 billion. Dr. Giniger’s formula now fills every bottle of FLY Mouthwash.
FLY’s chemist isn’t the only experienced advisor to have thrown their weight behind the bold, young company. In fact, if the mouthwash business doesn’t work out, Bracciale and Telford could make a mint traveling the country and selling out seminars on how to build all-star teams.
First to join was Tracey Priest, Owner of Strategic Marketing Partners and 25-year veteran of the consumer product goods industry. Priest was recruited after he walked, unsuspecting, onto FSU’s campus and gave a guest lecture to an entrepreneurship class. Telford received a text from a friend in the class: “You need to get over here right now, this guy would be a perfect fit for FLY.” Telford ran across campus, breathing hard but arriving with a homemade bottle sample in hand. Priest would later become FLY’s Chief Marketing Officer.
Over the summer, the team landed their first investor, Stuart Lasher. Lasher, the Tampa-based Founder, Chairman & CEO of Quantum Capital Partners, Inc. is a fellow FSU-alum and College of Business Hall of Fame Inductee. His $100,000 seed investment gave FLY the ability to manufacture an initial order of 7,000 bottles in Ohio, build a new website, run clinical trials, and invest in marketing their product launch. The team had been in contact with Lasher for more than a year, sometimes without a response, working to prove the value of their idea.
“We are grateful that Stuart believed in us. It wasn’t easy to convince him either...We lost a lot of sleep, but it was all worth it. I’ve never learned more about business strategy, detailed planning and myself over those four months,” Telford said. “It came to a point where we weren’t even chasing the money anymore, it was more about the partnership we wanted with Stuart. Working with him was way more valuable than any dollar figure we could receive.”
Last fall, FLY dove into Get Started, Domi Station’s incubator program for early-stage entrepreneurs. They attended weekly cohort classes, interviewed customers, and even earned a $1,000 pitch prize courtesy of Tallahassee’s Chamber of Commerce. Having recently completed the second half of Get Started, the team is now preparing for a November soft launch (they’ve recruited a brand ambassador force to distribute and sell across FSU) and an official rollout in January 2018, when they will begin fulfilling orders direct to consumers through both their website and Amazon. The goal now--bottomline--is to sell bottles, and with the help of the Tallahassee community, FLY hopes to gain enough traction to get into big box retail by the summer of 2018.
“FSU’s College of Business and Jim Moran Institute were great launch pads, and Domi Station was really the gasoline that ignited the fire,” said Telford. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to see or speak to people who have been through the journey, people who have failed, who have succeeded and who are always willing to help.”
For Dominick Ard’is, Domi’s Director of Incubation Programs and facilitator through the Get Started process, the most inspiring thing has been FLY’s commitment to their vision. “Nick and Mike were told no so many times,” he said.
Care for an example? Telford was an early-adopter of Cyber Dust, a messaging app that debuted in 2014 with support from Mark Cuban, billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Through the app, Telford connected with Cuban, wasting no time to pitch the Shark himself on FLY’s vision for concentrated, on-the-go mouthwash. Cuban told him, frankly, “I would rather use gum or mints.”
Undeterred, Telford fired back, “Well, you can try it on the shelves someday.”
“They trusted the process,” Ard’is said. “They questioned their assumptions through countless focus groups and product testing, refined their product, and became very clear on their brand objectives, not just in having a logo but having a brand that customers can truly experience."
That plan they have? You better believe it’s backed up by hard work.
In some ways, FLY’s story is like any other startup taking on the world--that compelling moment when an entrepreneur recognizes a problem firsthand, their brashness in thinking they can solve it, and the absurdity of actually trying--but in more important ways it isn’t.
Because FLY’s is a story of relentlessness and getting-their-hands-dirty grind (both co-founders still pick up bartending shifts on nights and weekends). It’s a story of leveraging every resource and snowballing intros across networks. A story of being motivated by ‘No.’ That’s the story of FLY, of how it got where it is today, and, if Bracciale and Telford keep at it, it’ll be the story of how they get where they are going, wherever that may be, armed with their audacity, a burning desire to make their own way through the world, and yes, it must be said, the freshest breath around.
To follow FLY, sign up on their website.