IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Smooth Operator

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 19, 2013

It all started as a simple solution to a common problem.

Working as a hair colourist for 18 years, one of the constant challenges Mr Shaun Pulfrey faced was brushing his clients' dry and damaged hair. The brushes would break the brittle strands in a stroke.

Eventually, it led the Briton, now 51, to invent the Tangle Teezer hairbrush in 2004, which promises to smoothen the most delicate tresses.

Priced from $26.90, the brand's brushes were launched here in January and are available at Metro Paragon, Robinsons The Centrepoint and Topshop at Knightsbridge. Mr Pulfrey was here for a market visit last month.

The ergonomic hairbrush, which comes in black as well as bright colours, features teeth that clasp and slide over knotted hair without pulling or tugging. The teeth are made of a flexible polymer material that bends and springs back so hair will not get caught in it. Regular brushes are usually made of stiff plastic or animal hair.

"You can also use the Tangle Teezer in the shower to make sure the shampoo and conditioner are evenly distributed and it will not break the wet, delicate strands," he says.

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Celebrities who apparently cannot do without their Tangle Teezer include models Cara Delevingne and Georgia May Jagger, actress Emma Watson and celebrity make-up artist Pat McGrath.

It has been reported that the Duchess of Cambridge's hairstylist also uses it to keep her royal locks tangle-free.

Last month, British singer-turned-designer Victoria Beckham tweeted that she uses the Magic Flowerpot Tangle Teezer for babies on her year-old daughter, Harper, to keep her curls smooth.

To date, more than three million brushes have been sold, says Mr Pulfrey.

A 'HARE-BRAINED' IDEA

The idea for the Tangle Teezer did not come overnight though.

The tool was created from a brushing method that Mr Pulfrey had perfected over 15 years to detangle fragile tresses.

"I would hold a paddle brush (which comes with a handle and bristles spread across a flat surface) in one hand and a comb in another. Then I would sort of wave them around, hack at and flick the hair without actually pulling on it," recalls the bachelor, waving his hands animatedly.

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"There wasn't any brush in the market that could detangle brittle hair effectively, so that was how I made my clients' hair smooth again for more than a decade."

Mr Pulfrey knew that if he could turn his method into a single tool, it would be successful.

In 2004, he created the first prototype of the Tangle Teezer. Over the next three years, he spent £98,000 to get the business up and running.

In 2007, he quit his full-time job at Vidal Sassoon and launched the Tangle Teezer at a trade show.

The turning point came that same year when a friend told him about Dragons' Den, a BBC reality TV show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists to secure seed money.

At the time, Mr Pulfrey had remortgaged his flat to keep the business afloat.

"I had given myself another six months to make it work before I went back to hairdressing," he recalls.

Deciding that he had nothing to lose, MrPulfrey signed up for the show.

He had just three minutes to pitch his idea to the panel and was given the brush-off on national television.

"One of them told me the Tangle Teezer was a hare-brained idea, while another said it was not a business."

Mr Pulfrey did not receive a single cent from the venture capitalists but the public exposure the show gave the Tangle Teezer was priceless.

"The night the show aired in October 2007, we racked up more than 1,000 orders at the online store," he recalls.

"My BlackBerry, which was linked to the site, froze."

The Tangle Teezer soon caught the attention of British health and beauty chain Boots, as well as salons, which came knocking and asked to carry the hairbrush.

By 2009, Mr Pulfrey had recouped his initial £98,000 investment. He estimates that his company is currently worth at least £50 million (S$95 million).

Today, the patented Tangle Teezer is sold in more than 25markets, including Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and Peru.

There are five ranges of Tangle Teezers, including a line for children and a Compact Styler, which has a protective cover for the teeth so it can be thrown into a handbag.

One of the latest products from the brand is the Aqua Splash range, which comes in the shape of a non-slip, easy-to-grip cylinder that allows you to brush wet hair in gentle, rolling movements.

Blowdry hair brushes that are said to give you the perfect blowout pronto are up next.

With millions in the bank, Mr Pulfrey has bought himself a three-storey house in London and a caravan for his mother - "so she can live anywhere she wants to".

He has also bought a house and a flat in Thailand where his elder brother lives and his mum visits during winter.

He has set aside money to send his six nieces and nephews through university too.

Next on his shopping list is an Audi R8 Spyder convertible, for himself.

Not bad for a business built on a "hare-brained" idea.

gladysc@sph.com.sg