The Key Lesson This Founder Learned After Listening to Her Customers: ‘Eco’ Doesn’t Always Equal Good

Photo: Courtesy company.

“This can’t be true.”

That was Bite founder Lindsay McCormick’s first thought when, in 2019, she received feedback from a customer who challenged the zero-waste company’s usage of eco-certified palm oil in its toothpaste bits.

McCormick, 37, was aware of the ethical issues associated with using palm oil at the time, but thought that eco-certified palm oil would pass muster and that she could use the ingredient at her Los Angeles-based company. But after hearing from at least three other customers who wrote in expressing similar concerns, the Bite founder knew she needed to reexamine her company’s product.

“The thing about mistakes is that you don’t know you’re making them until you do,” she says. “And then it’s up to you to fix it and fix it fast.”

Like many mission-driven businesses before Bite, the company faced a perennial question: Retool and sacrifice sales, or uphold your policies and risk long-term still unknown consequences?

McCormick hit the books for two weeks to conduct research and look into the issue brought up by her customers. She explains that in 2019, palm oil was rather controversial while eco-certified palm oil was more accepted as a sustainable alternative. But after she dug into the research, she learned that there are transparency issues–and other problems as well–that are associated with eco-certified versions. For example, palm oil harvesting, of any kind, contributes to forest destruction and negatively affects the habitats for wildlife.

“When you start the research-gathering phase, it’s important to understand what assumptions you are going in to begin with, because with so much information at our fingertips, it’s easy to find data to back up your point,” she explains.

McCormick admits that it was tough to wrap her head around reworking her product’s formula, but now says that there wasn’t much of a decision to make–there was only one clear answer: Reformulate. It was helpful, McCormick says, that she outlined her company’s sustainable values back in 2016 when she started the company out of her living room, where she pressed toothpaste tablets and hand-filled them in glass jars and compostable refill pouches. The company’s tablets are created in the U.S.

It was also a tough ask, though, as Bite doesn’t have the R&D budget of Unilever or Procter & Gamble. McCormick worked with a small team of four people at the time. Plus, the palm oil-free options were scarce. “The ones that were available were extremely expensive, hard to get a hold of, and were only sold in high volumes,” she says. “They also didn’t work well with other ingredients in our formula, which meant the entire tablet formula would need to be reworked.”

Lindsay McCormick.


But McCormick had experience in tight spots. The founder had previously turned down two investment offers: one from Mark Cuban and the other from Kevin O’Leary. The founder walked away from $650,000 when she was on Shark Tank in March 2020. McCormick declined to provide revenue specifics with Inc. beyond saying that her company generates eight figures.

But with a lot of hard work, McCormick and her team redesigned the formula after spending weeks in a lab to test new ratios and ingredients, all while fulfilling current orders and creating new products. Eventually, the company created a new product that’s 100 percent free of palm oil. And within five months, Bite had a new product ready to ship out.

“It’s really impressive what you can do as a small team when everyone understands the mission and is rowing in the same direction,” McCormick says.

While the reformulation process isn’t cheap–and indeed cost more than $80,000 to expedite as opposed to $45,000 to $50,000–McCormick has no regrets.

“Everything we do at Bite is to create products that are better for the planet and our bodies,” McCormick explains. “Once I realized the issue with eco-certified palm oil, the question wasn’t if we would do something about it, it was how and how fast we could make the change.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an erroneous revenue figure, which was provided by the company’s public relations representative. Bite says it has revenue in the eight figures.