Paper chase

Wednesday, 01 March 2023

Susan Muldowney

    You can be forgiven for thinking Who Gives a Crap CEO Simon Griffiths’ business life is down the toilet — especially given that the co-founder of the profit-for-purpose company is so flushed with success. 

    When panic-buying consumers began stockpiling toilet paper in the early months of 2020, Simon Griffiths could have had a minor panic of his own. Who Gives A Crap, the profit-for-purpose toilet paper enterprise he co-founded in 2012, was suddenly selling 28 rolls every second. At 8am on 4 March, the company ran out of stock and faced a waitlist of 500,000 people.

    Amid a global shortage of the humble commodity, Griffiths launched one of the most coveted associations of the early COVID-19 era — a secret toilet paper club.

    “We knew that we would never have enough inventory to email half a million people to say, we were back in stock of the hottest item of 2020,” says Griffiths, chief executive of the company, which donates 50 per cent of its profits to improving sanitation in developing countries. “And we didn’t want to email them and then sell out 30 seconds later. That’s just not a great customer service experience — and we’re playing the repeat game.”

    Griffiths and his team worked around the clock to “break the back of the problem”. The company hired and trained 25 freelancers in a week, repackaged its 48-roll boxes into smaller versions to fulfil more orders, and set up a secret, invitation-only version of its website. It emailed just enough people each day to buy just enough products to remain within its limit. The secret club ran for eight weeks until the company could restock its warehouse shelves.

    “We officially came back in stock in June 2020 and started emailing those half a million people,” says Griffiths. “And when we got to the end of the financial year, we were able to make a $5.85m donation off the back of what was already a good year coming into February.”

    Powered by purpose

    It’s been just over a decade since Griffiths and co-founders Danny Alexander and Jehan Ratnatunga launched Who Gives a Crap via a crowdfunding stunt that saw Griffiths sitting on a toilet in a warehouse until $50,000 worth of product was presold. The target was reached in 50 hours and its first box of toilet rolls were delivered in March 2013.

    The company employs about 150 people globally and has warehouses in Australia, the US, UK and the Netherlands. It provides carbon- neutral shipping of its plastic-free, 100 per cent recycled products to 36 countries and has given almost $11m to its six charity partners.

    Who Gives a Crap’s 2020–21 donation represented a 750 per cent increase on the year before, thanks largely to pandemic panic buying. But Griffiths describes its donations to date as “the smallest splash in the ocean” towards solving the global sanitation problem that affects more than two billion people worldwide.

    “We know our donations have to be up into the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars a year before we’re able to really have an impact,” says Griffiths. “And that means we need to be a company that’s massively larger than where we are today.”

    New territory

    Griffiths’ interest in social entrepreneurship was sparked while studying engineering and economics at the University of Melbourne in the early 2000s. He spent study breaks volunteering in developing countries throughout Asia and Africa, and saw the work of aid agencies stymied by a lack of sustainable funding.

    After a brief stint as an investment banker, he launched several innovative yet short-lived social enterprises, including online fundraising platform Ripple and Melbourne non-profit bar Shebeen. While mulling over ideas for a new venture with a mass-market appeal, he spotted a six-pack of toilet paper on his laundry shelf and his focus quickly shifted to global sanitation.

    Data from the World Health Organization shows more than 1.7 billion people lack basic sanitation services such as private toilets, and at least 10 per cent of the world’s population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater. Poor sanitation is linked to transmission of diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Better water, sanitation and hygiene could prevent the deaths of 297,000 children aged under five each year.

    While helping to build toilets, Who Gives a Crap has also removed the consumer hassle of lugging bulk packs of toilet paper in and out of shopping baskets. The world’s first online toilet paper company was also the first in its category to build a brand in a way that spoke to the product’s purpose, says Griffiths.

    “We realised that literally everyone else was building their brand on images of puppies or feathers,” says Griffiths. “We could create something that had potential for word-of- mouth marketing and it was a territory that no incumbent could go after, because they had built their brand on pillars that don’t allow them to talk about what the product is used for.”

    Playing the long game

    Who Gives a Crap’s irreverent brand voice belies its serious intentions. “The problem we’re trying to solve affects billions of people and it takes time to reach scale where you can impact millions of people, then tens of millions, hundreds of millions, and so on,” says Griffiths. “That’s helped us to find that healthy balance between what’s happening this year and what’s happening in 20 or 30 years from now.”

    The company’s goal is to ensure that everyone has access to a toilet by 2050, but Griffiths says the pathway is “non-linear”. “Our donations, for example, may be lumpy, depending on how profitable we are. We’ve recently set up a foundation and we’ll start being able to make multi-year grants from it, which gives more certainty, with a smoother kind of donation profile, to the beneficiaries we’re working with.”

    Who Gives a Crap has also launched a sister brand — Good Time — which sells shampoo, conditioner and bodycare products, and has expanded its presence to the shelves of Aldi supermarkets in Australia with the aim of “getting into as many bathrooms as possible”.

    “Online penetration is 15–20 per cent,” says Griffiths. “So, there’s still another 75–85 per cent of the population going to bricks-and-mortar stores to purchase goods, and we won’t reach them if we’re just focused on digital channels.”

    The company’s growth will also be fuelled by its first major funding round. In 2021, it raised $41.5m from investors including Verlinvest, The Craftery, JamJar Investments and Grok Ventures, the private investing channel of Atlassian co- founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.

    It also secured contributions from high- profile individual investors, including Adore Beauty founders Kate Morris and James Height, Canva co-founder Cameron Adams MAICD, former Unilever chief executive Paul Polman, plus a number of sports stars who invested through Athletic Ventures.

    “We spent a long time doing reverse due diligence on our investors to make sure they were the right people to bring into the business,” says Griffiths. “We wanted capital for growth, but we also needed mission-aligned investors who truly believed in what we were doing and who could provide patient capital without expectations of a return in five to seven years because, like us, they have a long-term vision.”

    Along with financial investment, the backers have given Griffiths sound advice that he likens to a “phone-a-friend moment” on television gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

    “The great thing is, it’s not just one friend, and we don’t just get one call,” he says. “It’s been amazing to have that network of people we can reach out to and ask what they are seeing or what we need to be trying to get in front of,” says Griffiths. “In other instances, the advice could be really tactical, like if we were thinking about switching from a more traditional reporting structure into a matrix structure, what should we watch out for?”

    New governance goals

    In early 2022, rising inflation and supply chain costs prompted Who Gives a Crap to increase its prices by 15 per cent. “The past 18 months have been incredibly challenging from a supply chain perspective,” says Griffiths. “We’ve onshored manufacturing into American and UK markets, and this has helped us to reduce exposure to container freight, which was a big problem. We also saw the impact of inflation early on, but we held off on our price changes until inflation was acknowledged as here to stay.”

    Along with scaling the business, Griffiths plans to cement the company’s governance structure in the year ahead. Its board currently consists of Griffiths and Raphael Thiolon, executive director of lead investor Verlinvest.

    “I’m a strong believer that young companies should have small boards so they can move quickly and nimbly and then, in time, build more rigour and process around that,” says Griffiths. “Our current structure isn’t ideal from a representation or governance perspective. It’s important to us that our diversity, equity and inclusion goals are role-modelled at the top. In the spirit of transparency, we know this is something we’re not doing right at the moment. But we’re working on it. We kicked off some really exciting work on the makeup of our future board in 2020, which we’re looking forward to reprioritising now we’re starting to resume our regular operating cadence post-pandemic. We want to make that change, but we just haven’t had the capacity. The past two years have been somewhat challenging.”

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.