My toothbrush was good enough

My toothbrush was good enough.  In fact, it had been good enough for a while.  I didn’t need the Colgate 360 toothbrush, and I doubt you did either.

Admittedly, it’s an impressive toothbrush.  Look at all the features packed into this baby: a tongue and cheek cleaner, multi-function bristles, polishing cups, a raised cleaning tip to “tackle those hard-to-reach places at the back of your mouth,” and (of course) those handy-dandy “raised rubber grips for better grip, and wide thumb grips for better control.”

I’ve got nothing against good oral hygiene.  Please brush and floss daily, with whatever toothbrush works for you.

My point is that it’s obvious that we are WAY down the curve of declining marginal benefits for innovation on the toothbrush as a product.  Do we need a no-slip handle with gel and little knobby bits?  No. I don’t think toothbrushes were flying across bathrooms across America, causing anger and frustration for millions, and leaving mouths full of unsanitary plaque and gingivitis.

Even if the handy-dandy Colgate 360 is demonstrably better than the straight-handled, one-type-of-bristle toothbrush I got for free from the dentist in the 70s, you’ve gotta believe that we are, today, somewhere near the pinnacle of how much better the manual toothbrush can get.

Yet the world is set up so that it makes good sense to keep on tricking out our toothbrushes.  On the back of the 360, Colgate’s share of the toothbrush market has jumped from 28% to 36% in the last two years.  The better brush is paying off for them, for now.

But what will the next 50 years bring?  How much better can our toothbrushes get?  We’re hitting a wall in terms of improvements here, yet that won’t stop armies of our best and brightest from fighting over toothbrush market share for the next few decades and beyond.

So the question becomes: how do we shift the frameworks and the incentives so that more of our massive ability to innovate gets applied to things that – we can all agree – matter more and are harder to tackle?    Because I for one am betting on the power of innovation, much more than more money, as the greatest lever in accelerating the fight on poverty and social exclusion.  Yes, the rise of social enterprise, the entry of the Gates Foundation on the scene, more progressive philanthropy and the overall improvement in the quality of analysis and thinking in our space are all encouraging, but we’re still getting lapped by the toothbrush-makers, the razor-blade improvers, and the folks rolling out ever-more-clever financial products.

So when I’m asked whether I think the social enterprise space has gotten too “hot” for its own good and whether there are too many people chasing too few jobs, I think nothing of the sort.  My hope is that we’re at the beginning of a generation-long trend in which our best and brightest feel a sense of calling, of responsibility, and of service that will fundamentally transform our labor force, how we live our values, and, ultimately, the societies we build here and around the globe.

A big piece of this will be a shift in incentives, in what we value, and in who we hold up as heroes.  The faster we can make this shift, the better, because I for one am not looking forward to the inevitable wunder-razor that no doubt will dominate supermarket shelves in 2050 (thanks Russell!!):

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7 Responses to My toothbrush was good enough

  1. And don’t forget the 82 kinds of toothpaste to go with those 36 different toothbrushes! UGH. As Simon Sinek would say, “Where’s the WHY?” I absolutely agree that the sooner we can focus on the WHY (and away from the teeny tiny tweaks on toothbrushes!) the better off we’ll all be and the more quickly our sector will grow and tackle the big problems…and I’m pretty sure our teeth will still be fine.

  2. Much like when horse-drawn carriages were the rage, nobody thought there could be anything better. “What will you do next, add another horse?” they would ask. Then Henry Ford came along.

    We need more Henry Fords. Not more rubber ribs on our toothbrushes.

  3. Laura Weed says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Sasha! I’m sharing this one with everyone. I was in the grocery store a few weeks back and there were (seriously) 14 varieties of Wheat Thins. Really? 14? Is that necessary? Couldn’t that brilliant innovation be used for social good somehow? Sigh!!! Thanks for a humorous look at the American acquisition machine.

  4. Sasha says:

    Laura, I remember one day my wife asked me to buy some M&M’s for a birthday party, and I was able to find every variety EXCEPT plain M&Ms (mini, almond, jumbo, dark chocolate….). If it weren’t so sad it would be funny.

  5. Krin says:

    Some light entertainment to accompany the excellent thought: the satire of Britihs Comedians Mitchell and Webb, with a skit about a sales meeting in a toothbrush company: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHI01BbtwZs
    Fast forward to 2:17 point

  6. Pingback: Jobs with a purpose: the manifesto

  7. Pingback: What I didn’t need to worry about | Sasha Dichter's Blog

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