- Natalie Quail struggled to find at-home teeth-whitening products while working a stressful job.
- She quit her international tax lawyer role to set up Smile Time which provides at-home products.
- This is how it’s generated seven figures in three years, as told to Insider’s Amber Sunner.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Natalie Quail, a 31-year-old founder from Hertfordshire, England, about starting her own business. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I started my own business after working as an international tax lawyer for four years at Winckworth Sherwood on an 80,000-pound salary. I walked away to pursue my passion; the joy I get in helping people smile with confidence is not an opportunity I had in the legal field.
Working as a lawyer meant I didn’t have much time for myself. Whitening my teeth was key to my self-assurance in a high-powered job, and I didn’t have time to do it.
I like to say that dentistry is in my DNA. I grew up working in my parent’s dental practices during the summertime. I’ve been whitening my teeth since I was 16, which helped me feel more confident.
When my job as a lawyer meant I couldn’t book appointments to do it, I began searching for at-home products. I found a lot of products on the market, but it was difficult to gauge what worked and what was safe to use.
I wanted to create a business that helped build people’s confidence while remaining affordable, safe, and easy to do at home. I left my job in June 2019, and we launched the website for Smile Time, an at-home oral-care cosmetics company, in September. It was a rapid-fire effort.
I began by establishing my supply chain in China, enhancing our product development, and then employing a graphic designer for the packaging. Setting up the website and joining Shopify were also very important goals in the first four months.
The product development took longer than expected. I didn’t initially understand how much work goes into creating an easy message to convey to your buyers. That was one of the biggest hurdles.
I started with an initial 30,000-pound investment that I was lucky to have from personal savings. My parents also helped. The largest cost was the marketing, as is the case in a lot of early-stage growth. It still remains our biggest cost to date and can go into hundreds of thousands.
Product development has cost 10,000 pounds, or about $13,000. Supply-chain costs have been another big factor due to the global energy crisis. These costs can vary, and finding the right supplier is key — I had to ensure that my products were meeting the right safety qualifications and standards. Smile Time has also diversified its supply chain to the US and UK now.
COVID-19 hit the company too, and we had to adapt. I received a loan of between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds from the UK government during the pandemic because for some time we couldn’t get our product from our suppliers due to factory closures.
Being a lawyer was stressful, but it taught me important transferable skills that have helped my business today — including project management and communication.
Our best-selling product is our teeth-whitening kit, which costs 40 pounds. The kit accounts for 80% of our sales, and we’ve sold a total of 2 million. Our full turnover for the business has been about 2.3 million pounds, or about $3 million since we started.
Teeth whitening will often set you back thousands of pounds if done professionally. But because we can manufacture products and sell directly to consumers, we have affordable margins. We’ve had 60,000 customers to date with a returning customer rate of 25% at our peak, which was from November to December.
We have 10 employees, some of whom are permanent staff and some of whom are freelance. A digital-marketing agency also helps to support us. We are looking to expand with new hires, so we expect this to be a big cost in the future.
The company is backed by a national UK dental chain called Smileright. We are also approaching angel investors and certain venture capitalists while also discussing crowdfunding for our first fundraiser.
I received two offers for stakes in my business on the entrepreneur-investing show “Dragons’ Den.” I cried after hearing them because I felt overwhelmed. I applied to be on the show and made it in front of the Dragons in June, and it was broadcast in February.
Despite giving away more of my business than I walked into the Den proposing, I am glad for the response I received from entrepreneurs who are ahead of me in their journeys. I got a 20% overall investment from Steven Bartlett and Touker Suleyman. They received 10% each for a combined 50,000-pound investment.
As we progress through our careers, we tend to live in a vacuum, where the only feedback we really get is negative. This is especially true if you are operating in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment like law. “Dragons’ Den” has given my brand confidence, awareness, and credibility.
The key to a successful startup is to keep pushing the boundaries. If we pretend that obstacles don’t exist, then there are ways we can overcome them. Ups and downs are expected, and failures can also be defining moments of pushing forward that make you stronger.
Insider has verified Quail’s revenue with documentation.