A combination of a sustainability mindset and a “fake it till you make it attitude” was the toothbrush king Noel Abdayem’s recipe for global impact and billion-dollar business deals.
Swedes often say you must succeed in Sweden first before expanding internationally. Noel Abdayem, founder of The Humble Co. has a different opinion.
“To put it plainly, I have not succeeded yet in Sweden,”
he says, laughing.
He can say it with a smile because he is still happy. He is 30 years old and has a company that manufactures bamboo toothbrushes sold in the US, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany – and Sweden. And he is the major stakeholder of the health-brand Humble Group, which is listed on Nasdaq First North with a company value of SEK 7 billion. Humble took a back route into the stock market when it merged in early 2021 with the already First North-listed foodtech and health company Bayn.
“I have earned more money than I can spend, but of course it has also come at a cost – in the form of relationships. It has taken time away from my social life, away from family and friends,” says Noel Abdayem.
The idea for the toothbrushes came to Noel Abdayem when he was a dental student and volunteered in Jamaica, where the organisation A Child’s Smile helped poor children with dental care. Noel Abdayem realised the reason so many children had cavities was simply due to the fact that they did not have access to a toothbrush.
Inspired by the American company Toms Shoes, which started the “one for one movement,” where for every pair of shoes sold, a pair is donated to a poor child, Noel Abdayem wanted to try selling toothbrushes with the same concept. And for the toothbrushes to really feel ethical, they also needed to be environmentally friendly.
“After a bit of research, I realised that bamboo was the best material. It is antibacterial and does not become mouldy as wood does. When I asked a factory to make 20,000 toothbrushes in bamboo, they laughed heartily at my quirky idea. They did not believe in it. But today we sell two million toothbrushes a month worldwide.”
Just as many toothbrushes are donated to poor children, but Noel Abdayem does not see himself as a dental saviour.
“There is rightful criticism of the ‘one for one model.’ Because what happens when the child has grown out of his shoes or the toothbrush has become worn out, but you cannot afford to buy a new one?
So, after a few years, Noel Abdayem also started a foundation that works with preventive dentistry and which, among other things, trains teachers and staff in orphanages in Romania, Sri Lanka, Zambia and South Africa.
Noel Abdayem believes his success is due to his background. He was born in Sweden but has Lebanese parents and says that the cultural mix has been beneficial. From his upbringing, he has acquired Swedish, structured thinking together with a Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit.
“I like to bargain. If it is possible to bargain, I do it, even in everyday life. It’s a bit un-Swedish, but fun.”
Well aware that they themselves had difficulty achieving success in their new homeland, Noel Abdayem’s parents invested in their children, and among other things, put their son in a Catholic school in Enskede in suburban Stockholm.
“I may have had nuns teaching me sports, but I avoided going to a school in a segregated area.”
That his father worked as a self-employed person in the candy industry is not the reason Noel Abdayem chose to become a dentist – on the contrary.
“My dad was a dental technician, but could not get a job as one in Sweden. That is why he wanted me to be a dentist. My parents were careful to emphasise the importance of education. Money can be earned in many ways, but cultural status can only be gained through education. In my case, they were right; the fact that I am a dentist has given me credibility in the industry.”
Noel Abdayem started his company whilst still in school, with the help of money saved from his student grants and a lot of drive. His background played a role as well.
“Many have no faith in young people with an immigrant background, at least that was how I felt as a young person, which made me think “I will show them.” So never underestimate an underdog. Regardless of ethnicity, age or unusual business idea, it is possible to succeed.”
For several years, The Humble Co. was a one-man company run in the spirit of “fake it till you make it.”
He pushed hard in those first years, working full time as a dentist and focusing on the company evenings and weekends.
Despite ambition and putting in the hours, it is no easy thing to get a physical product onto store shelves.
Why have your bamboo brushes been a hit in shops?
“I have never had to explain my product. Everyone benefits from an environmentally friendly toothbrush, so the pitch is about two seconds long.”
Today, the toothbrushes are available in 50 markets, including at large chains such as Target and Boots, the hotel chain Four Seasons and airlines such as Delta and Lufthansa. Noel Abdayem does not find it particularly fragmented to sell in so many countries because it goes through smart distributors. But it is important to adapt the concept to the different markets, because consumers care about different things.
“In Sweden, people like that the toothbrush is environmentally friendly. In the US, the eco-aspect is not so interesting, however, Americans like the company’s social values. In the Middle East, both aspects are ignored, and the toothbrush is bought because it looks exclusive.”
Earlier this year, Humble merged with food tech and health group Bayn, which changed its name to Humble Group, where Noel Abdayem is primary owner and vice president – giving him his back route to the stock market.
“The growth plans are aggressive. The Humble Group now has a turnover of approximately SEK 3.5 billion per year; by 2025, the goal is to have a turnover of 16 billion,” he says. “Imagine a Unilever that is better for the planet and health.”
Noel Abdayem believes the time is ripe for sustainable business ideas, even if, according to him, the idea of sustainability should not be exaggerated.
“We could, for example, change the bristles on the toothbrush from nylon to pig hair, but the odder something feels to consumers, the fewer products you sell. It’s a nice balance.”
In general, he tries to take a sober approach to the benefit the company offers. He believes wholeheartedly in helping poor children, but at the same time he is fully aware that many of them will still grow up with bad teeth. In the same way, he does not want to magnify the company’s positive environmental impact. But...
“We sell 20 million environmentally friendly toothbrushes a year while 10 billion in plastic are sold. So it’s a drop in the ocean. Still, I am happy, because we have forced the giants into a corner. None of them were interested in environmentally friendly products before, but due to the Humble Brush, Colgate and Jordan have started to think about the environment and the climate. We have changed the giants, which
I am proud of. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”