Flushed with Success
30 October 2013 at 10:50 am
In this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise, journalist Nadia Boyce speaks to a serial social entrepreneur turning the world of toilet paper on its head.
A Melbourne social enterprise stalwart has yet another venture to his name – a model to flush out sanitation problems in developing countries.
‘Who Gives A Crap’ peddles toilet paper and donates a portion of the profits to community sanitation projects overseas.
Its founder, Simon Griffiths, is perhaps best known in the social enterprise community for his other social enterprise – Melbourne city bar, Shebeen, which also donates its profits to charitable causes.
Griffiths says its limitations prompted him to explore new business models for his latest venture.
“One of the problems [with Shebeen] is that its not a hugely scalable concept because it’s a bricks and mortar business.
“It’s not an easy business model, you’ve got this huge rent hanging over your head. Donating a portion of your profits, you want to avoid overheads to start with.”
This time around, Griffiths set his sights on the fast moving, mass-market consumer goods sector. His idea came to him out of the blue.
“I literally walked into a bathroom one day and saw a six pack!” he exclaims.
‘Who Gives A Crap’ was the resulting concept and in March this year the internet based venture officially launched.
Teamwork for toilets
‘Who Gives A Crap’ donates 50 per cent of its profits to charity partner Wateraid, an organisation implementing sanitation projects in developing countries. The social enterprise consults closely with the charity to decide which projects would be most suitable to fund.
Griffiths has worked with Wateraid previously as part of Ripple, one of his previous ventures providing advertising to fund development and aid organisations.
He says the latest collaboration was borne of a process to evaluate who could best assist ‘Who Gives A Crap’ in achieving its impact goals effectively.
“We’re excited by their approach and their way of making things happen,” he adds.
Griffiths says Wateraid advocates a system of sanitation development he supports, known as community-led total sanitation, a three-pronged approach focusing on clean water, education and sanitation systems.
One roll of his toilet paper, he notes, is roughly equivalent to providing a person in a developing nation with access to a toilet for a week.
Yet Griffiths is under no illusion that the current methods used to improve sanitation conditions are perfect.
“What we’re doing is risky. It’s a risky business model. We couldn’t spend a bunch of time working out the smartest, best sanitation method out there.
“For now we’re focused on showing that our model can work.”
In sanitation terms, Griffiths says, “potentially the most impactful solutions are the most high-risk.”
“We need to work with solutions that are low-risk. We can’t use our money to hedge our bets on something that might not work. Then there might not be any impact at all.”
‘Who Gives A Crap’’s impact is tied to its profit-making. For any impact to be made, the business needs to succeed, Griffiths says.
His team has a particular interest in sanitation progress as a prospect for innovative solutions and business opportunities, but that kind of thinking is still in its early stages worldwide, he says.
Experimentation, Griffiths adds, will be “something to do five years down the line.”
While Griffiths agrees the delegation of sanitation projects required relinquishing control to Wateraid, the arrangement has allowed experts to tackle the issue, he says.
“We do want them to feed us data to show how long term it is – three years or 10 years down the track.”
A wrap for ‘Crap’
Griffiths says that while people may have “a bit of a chuckle” at the name, it has an underlying and more serious strategic purpose.
That purpose is to get people confronting sanitation issues.
“It’s a way to get people to talk about a problem nobody wants to talk about.”
“It’s not sexy, you can’t sell toilets,” Griffiths says. “It’s not easy to get people to latch onto it and get excited about it.”
“We’re doing a taboo topic and to talk about it in a tongue in cheek way makes it more approachable.”
“Look at the toilet paper landscape – it’s all puppies, babies and feathers, everything unrelated to the product itself.”
Quirky wrapping, a subscription service and designated ‘emergency rolls’ add value to the regular toilet paper experience, Griffiths says.
Distinguishing the brand among a sea of others has not proven difficult, he says.
“To be honest, it kind of takes care of itself. Our conversion rates are much higher than those of other websites. We have a unique product and brand proposition.”
On a roll
Griffiths’ small team includes staff with backgrounds in engineering and economics – he also worked in finance before his foray into social enterprise. The group draws on their experience in business and financial modelling.
“We’re always looking at cashflow, and we’re really looking at what we’re doing as a business, Griffiths says.
“Starting a business is always difficult so if you don’t have the passion, drive and hunger to learn, it’s hard. “
While he is in no doubt his team’s business experience has been an asset, he says business acumen is not a prerequisite for success in social enterprise.
“I think that really depends on what your product or service is,” Griffiths says.
Since opening, Who Gives A Crap has overshot revenue projections by 800 to 1000 per cent.
Griffiths says sales doubled day to day for five days straight without any marketing efforts.
Taking the business online has been an advantage this time around.
“We wanted to reach scale quickly and easily,” he says, yet the process has not been without its complexities.
“The really hard thing for us is that we’re doing it all – production, logistics, quality control, shipping and management. It’s quite a sophisticated operation.
“I think what has caught us out is that unless you really know what you’re doing in each of those areas it becomes difficult. We’ve made tons of mistakes!”
A full flush
Times are changing for the better in the social enterprise world, Griffiths says.
In the period before he started Shebeen, the social enterprise community was markedly different.
“People didn’t know what social business was,” he says.
“There weren’t people you could go to and learn from and use to cut your teeth.
“Because there are more people in the space now there’s that opportunity to find someone to learn from and you don’t have to go through things alone.
“Baptism by fire is not the smartest or best way of doing things.”
A man with multiple ventures to his name, Griffiths does not play favourites.
“There is definitely a cross-pollination that occurs but they sit entirely separately. Either would have been successful without the other,” he says.
Griffiths appears quietly optimistic about the future of his latest project.
It’s telling, given his low-key approach.
“I don’t really get excited about it unless it has the potential to get a million people out of poverty,” he says.
By Griffiths’ standards, ‘Who Gives A Crap’ appears set to be a success.
Read more about ‘Who Gives A Crap’ here.