How an experience with teeth whitening led Marcia Hilliard-Baird on an unexpected and highly successful entrepreneurial journey
As founder and CEO of Spa Dent, Marcia shares how help from TD Bank helped grow her business.
Marcia Hilliard-Baird might not have expected that a childhood experience with teeth brushing would be the catalyst for a wildly successful career, but in her case, that’s just what happened.
As the founder and CEO of Spa Dent, a clinical cosmetic oral care product development and manufacturing company, Marcia says that in more ways than one, her upbringing played a large role in where she’s at today.
Born and raised in Waterloo, Ontario and the youngest of seven children, Marcia says her childhood home was a very busy place. “My mom had been a nurse in England and came across the ocean by herself to Canada. After having her children, she didn’t want to return to nursing, so she got a job with Sears, first in cosmetics and then in sales of men’s suits.”
She credits her mom with showing her what true confidence looks like — she was the first woman in all of Sears Canada to work on 100 percent commission — and she was also an excellent listener.
But, while Marcia recalls being reminded to brush her teeth as a child, she says she didn’t always heed that advice and in a hectic household it was at times overlooked. As a result, she grew up comparing the results of her oral hygiene with others which left her feeling shy about her appearance. “I didn’t smile much,” she recalls.
Though she had a successful early career, first with a foray into entrepreneurship that saw her importing Mexican art, and later, many years in liquid packaging, supply chain management, and ISO implementation, there was always something missing when it came to Marcia’s self-confidence. “The opportunity to have my teeth professionally whitened changed all of that,” she says. “The experience was life-changing in more ways than one.”
When Marcia met her husband, she wanted to share the teeth whitening experience with him, but due to his many sensitivities and intolerances, he wasn’t able to find a product he could safely use. “I was shocked to find out how many harsh chemicals were in oral care products, but I wasn’t able to find an alternate solution,” she says. “We had just about given up on teeth whitening for him when I was on a cruise ship and saw a new whitening service being offered onboard.”
The emergence of LED technology for teeth whitening inspired Marcia to dream up her own whitening solution. “That discovery formed part of the baseline for our first product: a light activated teeth whitening gel made with natural, better for you ingredients.”
While neither Marcia nor her husband had any prior dental experience, they decided to venture into the business together — though it would be owned solely by her.
In 2007, they began to work with a chemist to develop their first product which would combine a natural whitening formulation with LED technology, using both blue and red light. “At the time, in office teeth whitening treatments were time consuming, painful, and expensive and the ingredients were harsh,” Marcia explains. “Retail products were more affordable, but the results were unpredictable and sensitivity was an issue.” In time, Spa Dent would be a solution for both of these issues.
The goal was to become the first teeth whitening company to get an NPN, Natural Product Number, with a commitment to using natural, safe ingredients that would not only help in the whitening process, but also provide other oral care benefits. “We consulted Whole Foods’ list of acceptable ingredients and based all of our formulations on those,” she says.
“We combined research of emerging ingredients like Xylitol which neutralised harmful bacteria and has great oral care benefits, with ingredients like Neem which has been used in India for centuries to clean teeth, along with calcium lactate, zinc, peppermint oil, and aloe, among others.”
Like many start-ups, business development began in Marcia’s basement. “I was on maternity leave when I started the process and I left my job soon after to take it on full time,” she recalls. “While we had a lot to learn about the industry, we drew upon past experience to get Spa Dent off the ground.”
Marcia sold the initial product to the first 60 dental officers herself and from there, growth came quickly.
Marcia credits a number of early decisions with helping ensure her success. “When we decided to launch Spa Dent, I walked into TD with my husband, but knowing the business would be in my name,” Marcia recalls. “As a woman-owned business, I knew Spa Dent needed the right support early on. I had to work with someone who would believe in me and my vision. Our TD small business advisor was a great resource and we got very lucky with her.”
It was important to Marcia to have a banking provider who could recommend the appropriate tools such a revolving credit line and credit cards that would best meet her financial needs and support her growth. “I think it’s very important to have someone you can meet with in person, especially when you’re starting out, someone you’re comfortable discussing all aspects of business with.”
Spa Dent quickly moved out of Marcia’s home into a 1,000 square foot facility from which they were distributing products that were being produced by contract manufacturers. “While this made sense for us at the time, it often felt stressful relying on someone else to make our products, so in 2016, we decided to bring our manufacturing in-house to have more control over our innovation and development,” she says.
“With a 20,000 square foot, fully certified manufacturing facility and in-house research and development lab and regulatory team,” Marcia says, “TD’s support, increasing our credit line when we needed flexibility and providing us with equipment financing, was key to helping us grow.”
Today, Spa Dent continues to sell their kid-friendly, pet-friendly, and adult products under the SD Naturals brand, both to dental offices and direct-to-consumer through a number of channels. Additionally, they also supply private label products to major retailers like Walgreens, Rite Aid, Metro, and Kroger.
Starting a business came with a lot of lessons for Marcia, and she shares an important one about finance. “When it comes to managing the finances of a growing business, I’ve learned that it’s always best to be proactive, rather than reactive,” she says. “Having a financial advisor in place to review costs, goals, and budgets on a regular basis has been essential. I advise other entrepreneurs to start this practice early, because there are certainly things I would have done differently early on if I knew then what I know now.”
Recently, Marcia’s son — who was just three when they launched Spa Dent — has come to work for the company full-time. “When my son was young, I had to consciously work to balance my personal and professional life like many women entrepreneurs,” she says. “But, before I knew it, he was 12 and busy with his own things, and that was really my time to dig deep into the business.”
As a woman founder, Marcia turned to other women in the industry for advice and guidance. “I have a mentor in dental manufacturing who is about 15 years my senior who came into the industry when it was an old boys’ club, and she dominated it. She became my customer, and we met regularly over the years until she sold her business in 2019. I’m completely inspired by her; she’s played a big part in who I am today.”
Relationships have been key to Marcia’s success all along, as has the self-confidence she first inherited from her mother. “If I could be a quarter of the woman my mom was, I would be happy,” she says. “When people ask me what keeps me up at night, I’m lucky to be able to say ‘not much.’ I look at challenges and tasks, and instead of trying to take them all on at once, I break them up until they seem manageable and I tackle them one at a time.”