Simon Griffiths may have studied engineering and economics, but he’s no by-the-book soul. In fact, in his career as a social entrepreneur, he’s routinely dismissed the rules entirely and opted instead for a path totally uncharted.
After immersing himself in developing nations and analyzing how NGOs were raising money – inefficiently, it seems – he “started to think about creating a new funding channel that expanded the pool of money available and helped accelerate development.” And thus, Who Gives A Crap was born. A “profit-for-purpose” business, Who Gives A Crap sells cheeky, environmentally-friendly toilet paper and donates a whopping 50% of its profits to build toilets for those in need. Since launching in 2012, the company has donated $1.7 million to five charity partners.
We sat down with Simon to pick his brain about how he built such a successful business and how we can all bring a little more care to our entrepreneurship.
I've read a story about how you had an aha moment in a bathroom which spurred you to create Who Gives A Crap. Can you tell us that story and also speak a bit to the role that following your instincts has in your business?
While I was earning a double degree in Engineering and Economics (I loved development economics in particular) at The University of Melbourne, I spent time in Asia and Africa studying various organisations to understand what “good development” looked like. I found that many NGOs were spending up to 30% of their time competing for limited funding, and only winning a handful of the grants they were applying for. I started to think about creating a new funding channel that expanded the pool of money available and helped accelerate development.
Through this process, I became really taken with 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 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. Who Gives A Crap was born!
When it first started, Who Gives A Crap was a one person operation – I was doing everything from production and logistics to marketing and customer service, so I had no choice but to rely on my instincts. As the company’s grown, my role has shifted substantially. Now, I have the distinct pleasure of trusting my incredible team’s instincts! I focus more 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 throw a few crazy ideas in the mix too!).
Part of what makes Who Gives A Crap so fascinating is that it deals with large issues – like environmental conservation and providing access to sanitary waste systems – in such a silly and uplifting way. Why is keeping it playful important to you?
We made a conscious decision early on that we didn’t want to make our customers feel guilty, despite the magnitude of the social and environmental problems that we’re aiming to tackle. So our marketing has always focussed on the solutions that our customers are a part of. We try to use positive language to create a delightful experience. Our philosophy is that if we can make our customers feel good, they will be more likely to tell friends and family about what we’re doing, which will ultimately help us all to have more impact. Of course, when it comes to being silly there’s a line and we try very hard not to cross it. There are times to be fun and there are times you should be serious, but still human and conversational.
If there was one fact you wanted people to know about the world of toilets, what would it be?
Toilets save more lives than any other technology! According to WaterAid, diarrhea caused by dirty water and poor toilets kills a child under 5 every 2 minutes. And this disease is totally preventable – even the most simple latrine is a proven tool to prevent debilitating, sometimes deadly, illness. Knowing that we can make a real difference to communities (with the help of our customers and our charity partners, of course) is what motivates us to keep doing what we’re doing.
Which WGAC milestone or achievement do you feel most proud of?
Each June we make a big donation to our charity partners - our annual donations are a nice milestone for us to stop, take stock and celebrate what we’ve achieved. Our first donation was in 2013 to WaterAid for a little under $2000 USD, and it was a huge deal for us. Fast forward six years and we have donated a total of $1.7 million USD to our five charity partners – it’s pretty incredible. We’re lucky to have such a talented team and really loyal customers that have helped grow Who Gives A Crap from this little toilet paper company that could, into a much bigger toilet paper company that does good. I can’t wait to see what our donations look like in another six years from now!
You’re proof it's possible to be socially impactful and turn a profit. What's some advice you can give to founders struggling with this concept?
I think one of the best pieces of business advice is to never underestimate the importance of focus. This means understanding that being focused often means saying no. In the early days, we pretty much said yes to everything because we were so desperate not to miss an opportunity. In hindsight, this meant we ended up spending a lot of time on high involvement, low return activities that were a distraction from what we were really good at. We’ve gotten a lot better at saying no since then!