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What lessons mask startup Totobobo have learned from China

China’s smog issue has sparked the growth of a special industry – face masks.

The face mask business has grown to be a lucrative one. In one of China’s worst air-polluted weeks in December 2016, it was reported that internet retailer sold about 15 million US-branded filtration masks.

Some manufacturers claim that there is technology behind these masks, but not many masks have been proven to protect you from fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Among hundreds of thousands of mask makers in the China market, Singaporean startup Totobobo entered China as early as 2012, and has grown into a sizable business ever since.

Totobobo’s masks are made of plastic that is washable, and have filters that can be replaced. The semi-transparent mask has two sets of filters, placed on both sides of the mask that look like a pair of fish gills. The distinct look and the technology behind the mask have helped Totobobo establish a reputation in China.

Francis Chu, founder and CEO of Totobobo, recently spoke with AllChinaTech on his foray into the face mask business in China, and his insights on face mask effectiveness.

A hobby that became a business

Like any concerned parent, Francis Chu was looking for masks to protect his sons, then aged seven and nine, at the height of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.

As a product designer in Singapore, Chu searched for masks in the market that would be suitable for children to wear. After some research, he understood that the fitting of masks must be skin-tight and sealed in order for the mask to be effective.

Photo credit: Totobobo

The most well known mask at that time was the N95, which was produced by 3M. However, the N95 was designed for medical workers in industry. It was an adult sized mask that was not a proper fit for children. Chu observed that many children were wearing N95 masks at the peak of the SARS epidemic, and it did not serve its purpose for children.

That is how Totobobo started. Totobobo, a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese words meaning ‘transparent protection’, is a reusable face mask designed by Chu that would be suitable for both adults and children.

After several years of research to develop and design the mask, the first Totobobo mask started selling in 2009. With good feedback and encouraging product sales, Chu left his job as an electronic products designer and decided to focus on growing Totobobo in 2010.

Gaps in the face mask industry

Two conditions that affect the suitability of the mask for the wearer are the seal condition and the quality of mask filter. If either one of these conditions are affected, wearing any face mask will be of no use, according to Chu.

Before you wear a Totobobo mask for the first time, Chu strongly advises doing a water seal test to check if the mask is a good fit, as everyone has a different face shape.

So what is lacking in the face mask industry now? Chu said that most customers do not have the luxury of testing a mask’s quality, but buy based on their gut feelings – and that is the biggest question now in the market. How do you know which face mask is of good quality?

“Face masks should be able to filter out small particles which are otherwise inhaled,” said Associate Professor Rajasekhar Balasubramaniam from the National University of Singapore in an email interview.

“Filtration efficiency of face masks for particles of different sizes should be provided. If not, consumers will be tempted to purchase cheap masks rather than effective ones,” said Balasubramaniam.

The effectiveness of face masks also depends on many factors, including the severity of air pollution, the kind of particles in terms of its size and shape, existing health conditions of exposed individuals, and the duration and frequency of exposure to air pollution, Balasubramaniam added.

Worsening smog, burgeoning face mask demand

Like all other masks sold in China, sales of Totobobo masks also started to increase in China from 2012 onward. This was a year after the United States embassy used Twitter to inform Americans working in China on the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels in Beijing. This caught the attention of many Chinese, and they questioned why the Chinese government’s reported PM2.5 figures were lower than the United States embassy’s reported figures. The Chinese government later released an AQI index, and this in turn led to a huge surge in mask sales.

Totobobo was among those that benefitted from the mask sale boom in 2013.

However, Totobobo’s sales growth in China has slowed down this year, as more and more new products enter the market.

“Judging from the current trend, we estimate 10 to 15 percent growth this year,” said Chu. “That is significantly slower than last year, with 30 percent increases over the previous year.”

Chu also thinks that some consumers in China are likely to be attracted to Totobobo’s competitors’ prettier, friendlier and trendier looking designs, as compared to Totobobo’s “unique” look.

Totobobo masks. The one on the left was developed for women wearers in 2014 after customer feedback.

Word-of-mouth strategy

Impossible as it sounds, Chu said that Totobobo does not spend on advertising. Mostly an online business, Totobobo products are known by other people through word-of-mouth, which Chu admits is a slow process.

When Totobobo first started, Chu initially tried to send out emails to promote his products, but felt that it was not a good use of their time.

Chu said that he will continue to maintain Totobobo’s marketing promotions through word-of-mouth recommendations. He believes in having customers and dealers understand the value of his products, rather than engaging with potential buyers trying to make a “quick buck” out of Totobobo products.

After hearing feedback from customers, a new Totobobo mask was produced in late 2014. It is a smoother and more comfortable mask tailored for female wearers who found the original mask too big for their faces, Chu said.

Chu also hopes to continue to focus on enhancing the mask with more protective features, and he hopes to focus on producing masks for more active users – those who use masks while playing sports in particular.

(Top photo from Baidu images. Bottom photo by writer)

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