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Exclusive interview: Simon Griffiths - Co-founder of Who Gives a Crap

Meet the man who made toilet paper cool (and with a conscience.)

Simon Griffiths is holidng pile of brightly wrapped toilet rolls and is smiling - he wears a blue shirt with big polka dots on it.
Simon Griffiths started out with an unlikely mission of selling toilet paper to help save the world. So far his social enterprise Who Gives a Crap has have donated over $11 million and this little Aussie company has gone global.

Simon Griffiths is an Australian entrepreneur and social activist but is best known as the founder of Who Gives a Crap, the sustainable toilet paper company that is instantly recognisable by its cool packaging and even cooler mission to donate 50% of its profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in developing countries.

Over the last ten years Who Gives a Crap has grown into a successful global brand and has donated 11 million dollars and counting to support sanitation projects around the world.

Yahoo Finance Editor in Chief Kate Browne talks to Griffiths about his unlikely road to becoming a toilet paper mogul and how sometimes the biggest roadblocks in business can become the biggest opportunities.

Simon, why toilet paper?

For us it was never about the product, toilet paper was just the vehicle.

Our aim when we started out was to use a consumer business model as a way to be philanthropic - we figured we could scale faster and grow our profits quicker in order to donate than by going down that more traditional route and get the philanthropy from the economy.

So why toilet paper? After thinking about how we wanted to set up a business in this way I literally walked into the bathroom and saw a six pack of toilet paper and said, oh my god, we should sell toilet paper and use the profits to build toilets.

I called my friends (and co-founders Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander) and they said, it's amazing, you've got to do it. You know that you are onto something when you get a response like that - it was also so simple.

It could have been easy also to say this was an industry already dominated by some big players and too hard to disrupt. Do you need an optimistic mindset when you are an entrepreneur?

Optimism kind of plays a role in that but there's a certain naivety that I think every entrepreneur would talk about when they're starting a business, and that can really work in your favour especially if you don't overthink it.

It can be an advantage to not be an expert in whatever market you are moving into, because you aren't going to have those inherent biases that can throw up all the reasons why you won't be a success.

I think every entrepreneur must probably have that same naivety that allows them to think that you know, what's previously been deemed impossible is actually possible.

More Rich Thinking:

Resilience must play a big part in starting a new business - did you hit any big roadblocks on the way to starting Who Gives a Crap?

I think I think the biggest one for us was that after we ran this very successful crowdfunding campaign which had millions of eyeballs on it that we were convinced we would get the attention of the supermarkets so we could sell through them - but that didn’t happen at all.

99.9% of toilet paper is sold in supermarkets - so to sell in this market it seemed critical that we were in those stores, supermarkets were a really important piece of the puzzle.

When that didn’t happen we had to take a step back and refocus and try to be the world’s first online toilet paper company and what that might look like. That freedom from conforming to how supermarkets sell toilet paper, the big packs wrapped in plastic meant we could look at how we marketed our products, and how we could supply a better customer experience than what you can get in a supermarket.

We put a whole lot of thought into the design and how we presented our products. As we started sending out our products to our crowdfunding supporters they started taking photos and sharing them online and on social media. Seriously I can’t really imagine anyone putting pics of a toilet roll online before, let alone giving them as gifts to friends and telling everyone about it.

Our sales doubled for five days straight and at one point we sold out of our inventory, and we knew that our direct-to-consumer approach and our designs were working.

It’s funny that what was a roadblock turned into a massive opportunity for us, we sell far more than we could have ever done by selling through the supermarkets. Now the tables have turned and we are now being approached by the supermarkets, not the other way around.

You’ve had a lot of success but can you identify any real ‘Cinderella’ moments along the way?

For us, there were three moments.

The first was when we started sending our products out to our crowdfunding campaign supporters, and the demand was so much higher than we had ever expected.

The second moment was when we had chased the supermarkets for 18 months convinced that selling in supermarkets was critical to growing the business but we could barely get them to return our calls and then realising we didn’t need to sell through the supermarkets at all.

These were both pivotal moments where we realised how much potential this idea really had to be much bigger.

The third was when we hit our first $1 million in donations, which happened in 2017. And that was this amazing moment where you know, we've seen our donations grow year on year.

A million dollars is a huge amount of money but as a donation is still a very small amount of money in the grand scheme of just how big this problem is. But hitting that million showed that this approach could work and we had to just figure out how to continue growing and scaling that business up to get those donations bigger and bigger over time.

Tell me about some of the initiatives that you support by donating.

Our donations have gone on to help in East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and East Africa which tends to be a bit of a kind of hotspot for sanitation. So Kenya is kind of where a few of our organisations have been based.

We provide what's called unrestricted funding as well. So instead of saying ‘Hey, you can only use this money to go and build that specific toilet block over there? When we donate we know that the organisations are the ones best placed to know how to allocate the money as they have the expertise, not us.

Do you and the team get to visit these projects sometimes?

Yeah, I’ve been to see more than a few toilets in my time. I haven’t been out since covid but we had some of our team in Cambodia just a few weeks ago to see one of the projects we support in action.

What feels better, making money or giving it away?

Giving it away! But still, many people would question that, one of our investors that we brought into the business said "you know, a lot of people would look at your business and say, Damn, I have to give away half of my profits?" yes we do AND we get to keep the other half.

But that's not even how we look at it - the reason why we even existed was to help solve this global problem so giving our profits away is how we do this.

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Smiling women and piles of Australian cash
Smiling women and piles of Australian cash