Australian Plumbing Industry magazine’s roving reporter Matt Reynolds recently sat down with ‘Who Gives a Crap’ Co-founder Simon Griffiths to discuss how he built an empire on toilet rolls. Five years ago, Simon sat on a toilet for 50 straight hours as a publicity stunt to raise awareness for their crowd funding campaign. The plan was to start a toilet paper company and it worked, far better than they ever thought possible! Raising $50,000, the company that donates 50 per cent of its profits to help solve sanitation problems in emerging countries was finally off the ground. Strap yourself in to soak up this incredible story.
I was recently gifted a roll of your toilet paper for Christmas, which surprised me a little, but was certainly unique. Have you heard of before?
Yes! (laughing) Toilet paper sales are generally quite flat, there is no seasonality at all, except in our business. We do a roaring trade at Christmas, people do love gifting it. We have a Christmas range we release every November for the holiday season.
Tell us about ‘Who Gives a Crap’ and what you do?
We are a forest-friendly toilet paper, tissue and paper towel business. We are predominantly online and sell direct to our customers. We use 50 per cent of our profits to help build toilets in various parts of the developing world. You can purchase single orders, or, you can get a subscription service, where we predict when you will run out and ship to you, so you never run out or have to worry about buying toilet paper again.
And that’s not guess work is it, you actually work each shipment out individually based on order history?
That’s right. We start with set frequency based on your household size and then, with the customer’s help, we tweak that and normally over the first two to three orders, we get a really good order history. We can then figure out when you will run out of toilet paper. Before you do, as if by magic, you get a new box shipped to you.
How did this company get underway?
We started with a crowd funding campaign as we thought we had a product people would enjoy. Although we needed capital to get started, we realised we had probably the most boring product that had ever been crowd funded. It wasn’t just about making the first batch of product, it was also about finding people to take it all. $50,000 of toilet paper takes up quite a bit of room. We had no following and no media to leverage to get going. So, I got roped into sitting on a toilet on a live web feed until we sold the first batch.
Which took 50 hours right?
50 horrible, never ever to be repeated hours. Basically, it was a huge success, we got national print and television coverage in Australia, as well as huge print coverage all over the United States. Strangely, we were also extremely popular in Brazil and Greece. We managed to generate about $1,000,000 of equivalent PR value and 2,500,000 social media hit from that campaign.
Did you ever think it would go that well?
It was always going to be a challenge to make it work. We thought it was crazy to try and get people to buy toilet paper on-line when 99.9 per cent of toilet paper was bought in supermarkets. We did our first production run about eight months later and fulfilled all our orders, it was basically a one-man team at that point. We didn’t do any marketing, but we started to see our sales build, basically doubling every day. We thought we had too much stock, but sold out of what we had five days after the launch. Those orders basically came from our initial customers posting photos on social media and telling their friends about what we did. We now have 30+ employees and have donated $1.25m.
Where does this passion for social entrepreneurship come from?
For me, I get frustrated when I can see there’s a better way to do things. It’s not about the money piece, it’s about the impact piece and that’s part of the reason I get up every morning. We understand that we are not going to solve the sanitation problem by ourselves, let alone all the other problems that are out there. The way that we think about the whole situation is that we need to show that it possible to run a successful business, which gives a return for the owners and creates social impact at the same time, which is why we donate 50 per cent of our profits and ultimately build more toilets. If we can demonstrate that, we’ll help attract more entrepreneurs and investors into this space and see more business following this model, that’s how we will get the most impact.
Why focus on sanitation?
We have seen some horrible situations first hand. At the time we started this business, it was the most off-track of the millennium development goals, partly because it’s not often the choice dinner table conversation. We thought with toilet paper we could raise that
awareness and do it in a fun way.
Are you seeing improvements?
We definitely are, but there is still a long way to go. Our goal as a company is for everyone to have access to a toilet globally by 2050. At current rates we are looking at about 2080, so we really want to see our current pace accelerate and make sure we are still alive to see that happen.
How do you measure your impact, does it go beyond just the dollars donated?
There are three pillars. There is raising the money, how we deploy it and then how we tell that story to our customers to keep them interested in the cause. The way we go about that at the moment is that we provide unrestricted funding. If you think about it, if you donate the money with restrictions on how it is to be spent, you may actually be slowing the process because there may be a better use for the funds or something that is necessary. So, because we are not tied to one specific project, we cannot tie the outcome specifically, like to the construction of a particular block of toilets at a school for example. We can draw comparisons with restricted funding causes who can do that and measure our impact that way. We believe that is the best way to go.
You are an inspiring man Simon and it’s a great cause, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Thank you, it’s been great to chat.
The full audio version of my interview with Simon can be found at xrm.com.au/podcast
From the trenches [MATT REYNOLDS]
Matt Reynolds is an award winning plumber who writes about the game as an industry insider. You can connect with him on Twitter @MrMattReynolds or find him as the Director of XRM Plumbing Services on LinkedIn.