Simon Griffiths is the Australia and New Zealand regional honoree for the 2020 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
Who Gives A Crap, a direct-to-consumer toilet paper company co-founded by Simon Griffiths, Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander, is proving that toilet paper is about more than cleaning bottoms.
“We’re a toilet paper company that would not be anywhere near where we are today if we were just a regular for-profit toilet paper company,” says Griffiths.
A serial social entrepreneur who previously founded a click-to-give and search-to-give website as well as a nonprofit bar, which donated profits to organizations in each drink’s country of origin, has turned his attention to everyday products with higher demand and more potential to scale for bigger impact. After spying a six-pack of toilet paper in a bathroom, Griffiths came up with the idea to sell toilet paper to build toilets.
Nearly 40% of the world’s population — 2.3 billion people — don’t have access to a toilet. In developing countries, sanitation is the No.1 filler of hospital beds and the No.2 killer of children under the age of five. Each day, about 700 children die from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation.
“We realized there was an opportunity to work with an everyday product that we all use to help people in need,” says Griffiths. “And that’s where that spark happened: We could talk about a really boring product and a really serious issue and do it in a fun way to make it engaging.”
Crowdfunding and going viral
In 2012, Griffiths and his partners set out an initial production run of approximately 50,000 rolls of toilet paper. To test demand, validate the business concept, raise the necessary capital and find the first 1,000 customers, Who Gives a Crap launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. Griffiths pledged to sit on a toilet via livestream until they had presold the first AUD50,000 worth of product. The story went viral, generating 2.5 million social media hits; the company reached its target in just 50 hours; and it took Griffiths three days to recover from his perch.
“It was fun to pull something off that we will never ever do again,” says Griffiths.
Even with the support and success generated by the viral campaign, the founders thought it would take time to convince customers to purchase toilet paper in bulk online on a regular basis and develop a loyal customer base. People typically buy toilet paper while at the supermarket out of necessity. However, after fulfilling the crowdfunding orders, daily sales started to double day-on-day without any marketing. Within five days, Who Gives A Crap had sold out of an expected three-months supply of inventory.
“We’re a toilet paper company that would not be anywhere near where we are today if we were just a regular for-profit toilet paper company.”— — Simon Griffiths, Co-Founder of Who Gives A Crap
“Our customers were sharing photos of our product, taking rolls to work and giving them to colleagues, and telling everyone they knew about what we were doing,” says Griffiths. “It created this huge word-of-mouth groundswell and we realized we were going to be more successful online than we ever thought was possible.”
After launching in the United States and Australia in 2013, Who Gives A Crap scaled back in early 2014 to focus solely on the faster growing market of Australia. Over three years, the company took the time to learn more about the product, organically grow by word of mouth, and build its capability and capacity before expanding back into the United States and United Kingdom in 2017.
Who Gives A Crap tripled the size of its business every year for the first two years and has continued to double the size of the business every year since 2015 — growing from a team of one to more than 70 worldwide. And they’ve been able to bootstrap the business without any venture capital or selling any equity.
While Who Gives A Crap has all the elements of a dream startup success story with a campaign that raised impressive funds and even more impressive backers, Griffiths admits the first production run could have been their last. After shipping the presales, customers wrote in that they loved the paper but couldn’t tear the sheets without scissors. While overseeing the quality control, Griffiths had forgotten to check that the perforating blades were being sharpened on a regular basis. The result: 200,000 rolls of imperfectly perforated and essentially unsellable toilet paper. Griffiths says his only option was to take ownership of his mistake and make “getting it right” a top priority.
“From that, we learned our customers would often forgive us for our mistakes, as long as we’re open and honest about them,” says Griffiths.
Social entrepreneur ideals meet top-notch customer service
Customer service has been at the heart of the company’s innovation. With little room to improve the physical product, the company instead focused its efforts on improving the customer experience through fun, well-designed wrappers, fast and free delivery, and three emergency rolls in every box. The first toilet paper subscription model on the market, Who Gives A Crap works with households to predict their unique household usage and ensure a supply ships three days before they run out.
Who Gives a Crap has taken a boring item once relegated to a cabinet and made it “something that people are proud to have on display,” says Griffiths. Its limited editions, such as the Play Edition, which featured different heads, bodies and legs that could be stacked to create different characters, sell out quickly. “We’ve been able to create something that has captured the minds of our customers in ways we never thought was possible,” says Griffiths, who mentioned a couple who created a toilet paper roll wedding cake as an example. Who Gives A Crap is currently developing new cost-competitive products outside the tissue category that can add value and delight to customers’ households.
Good for your bum, great for the world
The company not only sells good looking toilet paper, paper towels and tissues but it also does much good. The product itself is made from recycled fibers and bamboo rather than virgin pulp fibers so more trees can stay in the forests. These alternative sources are better for the climate, animals and their natural habitats as well as communities.
Beyond its sustainability efforts, Who Gives a Crap donates 50% of profits to help fund sanitation options in the world’s most underserved communities. Access to adequate sanitation impacts many areas beyond health, including dignity, education and overall quality of life. The good news is research shows just one dollar invested in sanitation pays big dividends: a four-fold return in economic prosperity.
“We’ve been able to create something that has captured the minds of our customers in ways we never thought was possible.”— — Simon Griffiths, Co-Founder of Who Gives A Crap
That’s why Who Gives a Crap has partnered with organizations like WaterAid Australia, WaterSHED, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), Sanergy and Lwala Community Alliance. All have deep experience in implementing high-impact sanitation projects that improve access to hygiene, water and basic sanitation throughout the developing world. To date, they’ve donated USD1.7 million to charity, helping tens of thousands of people in need.
“We’ve done the math, and we can see there is a version of the future where we can grow to a scale and genuinely solve this problem,” says Griffiths. “That’s what really motivates our team and our customers to go on this journey and try to build this thing that’s never been done before.”
Doing good not only has helped Who Gives A Crap acquire and retain customers, it also has shaped the company culture. Just like with its customers, Griffiths and his co-founders know open, honest feedback builds an incredible level of trust and dedication in a team. Sharing what is working and what isn’t working is the key to continuous improvement and happiness in the workplace.
“There was this opportunity to amplify how much everyone in the business could achieve if we were able to unlock their full potential by encouraging a great culture of feedback,” says Griffiths.
Each person in the business receives feedback — praise as well as improvement opportunities — every month from direct reports and managers. Weekly one-on-ones focus on the actual work and how to support, unblock or move things along. An additional monthly one-on-one emphasizes the individual — how happy the team member is and what can be done to make that person happier, safer, etc. Both require self-reflection from the individual as well as the manager.
“I’m always thinking about how to make sure I can ideally change the lives of the most people possible,” says Griffiths, “which often means making the most people possible happy.”