Who Gives A Crap has secured its first $40 million investment. So what does that mean for the business?
5 October 2021 at 7:59 am
For the first time ever beloved toilet paper social enterprise Who Gives A Crap is bringing on investors to grow the business and its impact. We sat down with CEO and co-founder, Simon Griffiths, to find out the thinking behind the decision and how it will change the way the business runs.
Talk to any aspiring social entrepreneur and chances are they will mention Who Gives A Crap as an enterprise they look up to.
Launched nine years ago by Simon Griffiths, Danny Alexander, and Jehan Ratnatunga, the enterprise is guided by a belief that the business world can and should take an active part in social change.
The founders said that the business was less about selling great toilet paper, and more about reaching their goal of ensuring everyone has access to clean water and a toilet.
The business donates 50 per cent of profits to charity partners working on clean water and sanitation projects. To date, it’s managed to funnel over $10 million to charity.
The company now sells its toilet paper, paper towels and tissues in 40 countries and has 135 employees.
Up until now, the business has only ever been self-funded, which Griffiths said was “incredibly unusual” for a high-growth startup. The reason for this is that they wanted to prove their business model actually worked and become profitable as quickly as possible so they could make donations
The decision to bring investors into the picture wasn’t made lightly, with specific criteria laid out to ensure the right people were brought into the business.
The eco-friendly company’s first funding round, which secured $41.5 million, attracted some of Australia’s most high profile investors including tech billionaire and founder of Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Kate Morris and James Height from Adore Beauty, and Didier Elzinga and Doug English from Culture Amp.
But how will this investment change the way Who Gives A Crap does business? And what does an investment like this signal for the broader social enterprise sector? We sat down with Griffiths to find out.
What triggered the need to bring investors on?
We’re eight and a half years deep and have bootstrapped for most of that time. We are incredibly proud of what we’ve done, and all the millions of dollars we’ve donated. But there’s still two billion people globally that don’t have access to adequate sanitation. If you play out what we have to do as a company to be able to put a significant dent in that problem, it means taking our donations into the billions of dollars instead of the millions of dollars. And that means huge amounts of growth. We could continue growing and bootstrapping in the way that we had done, but we felt like it was time to accelerate the path that we’re on by taking on external capital to help us go further and hopefully faster as well.
Every big decision we make in the business is through the lens of how we have the most impact, and this one was no different. It was really about thinking about the long-term impact that we can have as a company and using the capital and the expertise of the people we’re putting around the business to help us accelerate the rate at which we can achieve that impact.
And what will this investment do in terms of how you operate and the impact you can create?
It really allows us to continue what we’re doing but doing it at a faster pace, such as expanding into new markets. We’re currently going into Europe and Canada, Europe being the first [predominantly] non-English speaking market that we’ve entered into. Doing so becomes a more capital intensive process because we’re having to think about translation and local language support, and all of this stuff that when we went into the US and the UK, we could just do with our existing team.
Similarly, we’re rolling out new products for the first time in many years. New product development is a very laborious process and requires lots of testing to get right. And then [we’re creating] new marketing channels, so we are starting to expand into a variety of different channels as we move into a full funnel of marketing.
And can you talk me through the process of selecting the investors?
So the three criteria we used were mission alignment, deep consumer expertise and patient capital. It was also about having investors that made us feel safe and supported.
Mission alignment is obvious for a business like the one we have, because without our mission, we wouldn’t exist.
We also wanted people with deep consumer expertise. Ten years ago, we probably could have found mission-aligned investors, but they wouldn’t necessarily have known how to build and grow international brands. But what we were so excited about with this funding round is bringing on investors who have deep understanding of what it’s like to build, internationalise and create global brands.
And then the final piece was patient capital. Usually when you take investment, you’re essentially signing up to either sell the business or go through an initial public offering, and it’s usually on a five to seven year time frame. And that’s just not what we want to do, that’s not the way that our business operates. [We have a big 30-year vision that we’re executing against.] And so patient capital allows us to execute on a much longer horizon to see through the vision in the way that we need to in order to do it justice.
The mission and the purpose of Who Gives A Crap is really important. How will you ensure that this isn’t compromised by bringing investors into the picture?
This is again another reason why we have done this later on rather than earlier on. I think it’s much easier to drift from your mission early on than years later, and that can be because you’re bringing on investors who potentially aren’t mission aligned with the organisation.
By doing this later, it means our vision is very firmly set. It’s very clear what that looks like and everyone in our company can articulate that as well as our investor base. And so that leaves less likelihood of having misalignment because everyone is very clear on what we’re doing. But the other piece of it is that I think by doing it later, what we’ve shown is that the purpose is actually the special sauce in our business, and without having the purpose and the donations built into our business, we would not have been able to scale to the point that we’re at today. We’ve brought in investors who deeply understand that phenomenon.
Another consideration is that suppose things did go badly, we have our mission enshrined into our constitution, and it’s very hard to change it. So it’s not just a 50 per cent vote in order to make changes, we’ve made it so that it’s a much higher hurdle to jump. You currently wouldn’t be able to change our model without all three of the founders voting in that direction, and we’re by far the majority shareholders of the business.
An investment of this size is obviously a big moment for the social enterprise sector. Do you think that achievements such as this signal a greater interest in the sector?
Totally. What our business model has always been about is combining philanthropy with the traditional tools of business in order to create something that is stronger than it would be without the philanthropy embedded in there. In a way, what we’ve done is bend the physics of capitalism because we’ve shown that by giving away your profits, you can actually build a business that’s more successful in the long run. And that fundamentally goes in a different direction to the way that capitalism has been thought about in the decades that have come before us. That’s super exciting, and I think the point we’re trying to make is if you can do that with toilet paper, you can do that with just about any product.
And what does this tell you about the way that people are choosing to consume everyday products?
To be able to get to where we are, I think it shows that there is this big shift in the way that consumers are consuming. If you think about where we were at in 2010, Tesla had just IPO’d and was worth $1 billion, carbon neutrality was a concept that was being used by small eco-conscious businesses, reusable water bottles and coffee cups were being used by a very small proportion of the world.
Fast-forward to 2021 and Tesla is the most valuable car company in the world, some of the world’s biggest brands like Apple and Nike have plans to become net-zero, and everyone’s using reusable coffee cups and water bottles. The world has shifted massively towards sustainability in the last decade. It feels like we’re at this massive tipping point in the way that sustainability was 10 years ago around businesses that have ethics and values built into who they are.
Consumers are asking more about who they’re buying from than ever before. And what we’ve shown is that consumption is out there and it’s shifted. The capital markets are starting to really come in and see that shift as well. It’s super exciting when you think about what the decade in front of us will look like with that shift in consumption, but also the shift in capital that’s going to come and help accelerate it as well.
Find out more information about the investment here.