I had the distinct pleasure to interview Simon Griffiths, co-founder of “Who Gives a Crap”. Simon decided a few years ago that he wanted to figure out a new concept for a scalable social business with a product that everyone could buy. One day he walked into the bathroom, saw a 6 pack of toilet paper and had an a-ha moment… I should sell toilet paper, use the profits to build toilets and call it Who Gives A Crap. He immediately called three friends and the venture began. Through Simon’s university years, he spent time in Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa, looking at different developmental organizations to gain an understanding of what ‘good development’ looked like. He found that many organizations who were trying to have as much impact as possible, were spending 30% of their time competing for limited funding – so he thought about how you could create a new channel (i.e. selling toilet paper and donating 50% of profits) to expand the funding pool and help accelerate development.
Simon and the other co-founders wanted a product that would make it easy for anyone to do good with their money. Between a background of starting social enterprises before, spending enough time in developing countries to understand the real need, and a love of design and humor that created a valuable point of difference from many other businesses, Who Gives a Crap has donated approximately $1M dollars to-date to developing countries to help build toilets. All products are made with 100% bamboo or recycled paper to be sustainable and not harm the environment. And packaging is meant to make people smile. Simon set out to give back through a common household product, and as a result has improved millions of lives, and will continue to do so.
Yitzi: What is your “backstory”?
While I was studying a double degree in Engineering and Economics (I loved development economics in particular) at The University of Melbourne, I spent time in Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa looking at different development organizations to gain an understanding of what ‘good development’ looked like. I found that many organizations who were trying to have as much impact as possible, were spending 30% of their time competing for limited funding – so I started to think about creating a new funding channel to expand the pool of money available and help accelerate development. Through this process, I became really taken by the idea of turning a product that everyone could buy into a scalable social business. One day I had that classic business idea epiphany – I walked into the bathroom, saw a 6-pack of toilet paper and had thought why don’t we sell toilet paper, use the profits to build toilets and call it Who Gives A Crap? I immediately called three friends and they all said I had to do it…and Who Gives A Crap was born!
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
To launch Who Gives A Crap’s initial crowdfunding campaign, I got roped into sitting on a toilet in a draughty warehouse on a live web feed until we had raised enough pre-orders to start production. (you can watch the video here). About 50 hours and one cold bottom later, we’d raised over $50,000!
Yitzi: Are you working on any meaningful non profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Who Gives A Crap exists to give back. We sell toilet paper, paper towels and tissues, primarily direct-to-customer, and donate 50% of our profits to help build toilets in less developed countries. We’ve been operational for a little over 4 years and have donated $1,175,000 to date. We’re incredibly proud of the achievement, but it’s a drop in the bucket (or toilet bowl) when faced with the scale of the sanitation problem, so we’re even more excited by what is still to come. Who Gives A Crap has awesome potential to scale and impact the live of millions, or even billions, of people. I’m unbelievably excited to be taking on this challenge!
Yitzi: Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Earlier this year a few of our team members visited Timor Leste with our charity partner WaterAid Australia, and had the chance to see first hand the types of work that our donation dollars are supporting. During the visit they met a young guy named Paulo, who lived in a community where WaterAid had been working to help build toilets, and a reliable water supply. He had a great smile and was more than happy to pose for photos outside the toilet he and his dad had built together. It took them about two weeks, and meant that his family, including his mother and two younger sisters, had access to a toilet for the first time ever. Not having a toilet isn’t just an inconvenience. Toilets drastically improve health, life expectancy, school attendance rates, and provide dignity and safety. Toilets are magical!
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. The role of the CEO is ever changing: when Who Gives A Crap first started, it was just me working on the business full-time. I literally did everything – production, marketing, sales, customer service, logistics,…, you get the picture! I was the technician, or the Chief-doer. As the business grew, I was able to hire a team and train each person to take on the tasks that I had done, one-by-one. Once the team hit about 20 people, my job became transitioning out of the Chief-doer role, letting go of the day-to-day task and trusting the team to take the reins, and into the role of Chief-company-builder role, which is what I do now. Today my focus is on building a great company which has a clear vision, world-class culture, and enough capital to execute on the strategy required to meet our vision (and a few crazy ideas too!). This is the current iteration in my role, but it’s no doubt going to change again soon.
2. Scale is key when it comes to solving development problems: when you’re trying to solve really big problems, you need to make sure you’re working on a solution that can change the lives of 1 million plus people, otherwise you’re simply not going to make a dent! One of my first social businesses was a non-profit bar – we sold exotic beers and wines from the developing world and donated 100% of our profits to projects in each drink’s country of origin. Realizing that brick and mortar businesses are really tricky to scale quickly is what led me to the idea of using toilet paper as a vehicle for change – I realized that one bar could never solve a huge problem, like global access to sanitation. But if everyone in the world’s wealthiest countries switched to Who Gives A Crap, we would be able to solve the global sanitation problem (meaning all 2.3 billion people without access to a decent toilet!) pretty quickly. The rest is history!
3. Check your ego at the door: it’s well documented that on the journey of entrepreneurship you’re going to fail… a lot. Each time you fail you have to pick yourself up, dust off, and start moving forward (or sometimes sideways) so that you ultimately get to where you need to go. If you’ve got a big ego, failing really hurts and it can be hard to mentally recover. So before you go down the path of entrepreneurship, check your ego and get ready to embrace some of the lows that come with failing – it takes some getting used to!
4. Doing good isn’t always easy: I think that doing good is the future of business, but it’s important to note that businesses that do good are held to a higher standard. That’s usually a good thing, but it can also be challenging – for example, Who Gives A Crap could be questioned for paying our staff too little (we’re a bootstrapped start-up, so our wages aren’t as good as the big guys just yet), but we could also be questioned for paying our staff too much because it would eat into our donations! So every day we tread a fine line, using our mission to guide the decisions that we make. To help our customers understand the thought that we put into things, we put a lot of extra information on our website about how we’ve assessed the environmental impact of our production and operation decisions, how we vet new production partners, why we’ve chosen a 50% donation model rather than 100% and a bunch of other things. We also don’t shy away from publicly answering tough questions sent our way over social media. Our effort to be as transparent as possible isn’t only reflecting our values – it’s good business, because we build trust with our customers, who are ultimately our biggest advocates.
5. Don’t sit on a toilet for more than 1 hour: this may be obvious, but it’s actually really painful! I had to get checked for deep vein thromboses afterwards because after 50 hours on the loo my legs swelled up and were really sore. Everything was fine in the end, but it took a few years for my legs to get back to normal!
Yitzi: Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
I’d really love to meet Richard Branson. He’s the quintessential entrepreneur that I grew up hearing and reading about, so I’ve looked up to him since I was young – as a business person, but also as an adventurer (I used to be really into extreme sports!) and a philanthropist. Recently he’s started to use his brand to help popularize the social business space, which is awesome. I strongly believe that the only way we’re going to solve huge social problems is by having more and more people working on social business concepts, so I think social entrepreneurs have a responsibility to market the space as much as we can. Plus, it would be amazing to get Who Gives A Crap into all Virgin bathrooms around the world, and in the sky!
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.