The irreverent toilet paper startup that cleaned up during the pandemic lockdown
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Who Gives a Crap was founded by Simon Griffiths, Danny Alexander, and Jehan Ratnatunga when they learned how many people live without access to a toilet. Currently, that figure hovers around a staggering 2 billion. The startup says it donates half its profits from the sale of everyday products (like toilet paper) to do good globally.
Most recently, the company announced a carbon neutral shipping program in which the direct-to-consumer toilet paper brand will purchase carbon offsets through Pachama—which supports emissions reductions through forestry projects—at no extra cost to its customers.
Fortune recently spoke with cofounder and CEO Simon Griffiths about how the first few months are going and what the company plans to do next.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: What inspired the launch of Who Gives a Crap—as well as the irreverent name? Why would consumers turn to this brand instead of one they might be familiar with on store shelves?
Griffiths: Back in 2012, I learnt that 2.4 billion people didn’t have access to a toilet, and that number wasn’t improving very quickly. I spent some time thinking about how overwhelmingly big that statistic was, then one day I walked into the bathroom and had a quarter-second epiphany: I could sell toilet paper, donate half of the profits to help fund organizations building toilets, and call it Who Gives a Crap.
Besides our name—and our love of puns—I think people reach for our product because they care about our mission and want to be a part of it. Not having a toilet isn’t just inconvenient, it’s also really dangerous. To put it in perspective, 297,000 die annually from diseases caused by improper sanitation. That’s why we donate 50% of our profits to our charity partners working in water, sanitation, and hygiene. We given $5.8 million USD, to date. We’ve definitely come a long way since our first $2,200 donation in 2013.
We’re also dedicated to sustainability—something we know our customers care about. All of our products are plastic-free and made from recycled materials or fast-growing bamboo, and we just launched global carbon neutral shipping.
Along with hand sanitizer and face masks, toilet paper could be described as one of the most coveted items of 2020, especially in the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown. What was business like in the spring? How has it progressed since?
It certainly was quite a time to be in the toilet paper business. At the start of March, we saw our daily sales double, then increase fourfold, then twelvefold. It looked like we were going to do a 30x to 40x day-of-sales next, so we decided to mark our store as sold out so that we could make sure that we had enough product for our subscribers. At the panic-buying peak, we were selling 28 rolls of toilet paper per second, and our wait list grew to over half a million people.
Since then, as a product category, toilet paper sales are a bit slower because people stocked up earlier in the year. However, we’re seeing our direct-to-consumer sales channel remain high because more people are shopping online. We’re happy to be fully stocked and ready to ship to all of the new customers that have recently discovered us, as well as our subscribers who are ready to stock up again.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for your startup? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
We’re totally self-funded, starting with a crowdfunding campaign in 2012. We realized toilet paper wasn’t the most exciting product to crowdfund, so to help get people’s attention I agreed to sit on a toilet in a [drafty] warehouse until we had presold the first $50,000 of product. Since then, we’ve bootstrapped the business, using debt to help us manage our working capital and annual donations. We repaid all of our debt about 18 months ago and are now able to grow the business from the sales that we make.
If I think back at all we have accomplished by bootstrapping, it’s pretty incredible. We now have operations in Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States, with more expansion in the works.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see this company in the market?
Two of our core goals are to grow our donations and to try to be a positive influence over other businesses.
To grow our donations we need to find more people who will be excited to use our products, or we need to create new products that our existing customers can fall in love with. So when I look forward five years, I’d love to see us being a household name globally, selling into even more countries with a broader range of products.
In terms of influencing other businesses, I think society is currently at a tipping point of a big ethical business movement, similar to where sustainability was 10 years ago. People are looking for products that do more than look good and provide a delightful customer experience; they’re looking for companies that do good. Companies with ethics and values that align with their own. Companies with a soul. This makes me incredibly excited to be an “ethical business” playing a role in this movement, and even more excited to think about what the business world will look like in five years’ time. If the biggest companies in the world adopt the same values and passion to give back that we have at Who Gives a Crap, the world will be a very different place.
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