People, Planet and Profit

Simon Griffiths, the co-founder and CEO of Who Gives a Crap, talks about his experience taking a Kickstarter project and turning it into a global multi-million dollar company that donates 50% of its profits.

Aaron Foley

Thousands of innovative micro-brands, driven by communities of passionate followers, are striving to do good by challenging traditional business models and proving that profit and purpose can go hand in hand.

In this episode, we chat to Simon Griffiths and explore the foundations of his company Who Gives a Crap, who set out to improve access to hygiene, water and basic sanitation in developing countries through the production and distribution of environmentally friendly toilet paper. 

The Where the World’s Moving podcast is a BBC Storyworks Commercial Production, presented by OFX.  It explores our ever-changing world, and how technological and social shifts are enabling collaboration, contribution, and human progress.

Subscribe and listen: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher.

Podcast Transcript 

Ross Dawson: Hello and welcome. I'm Ross Dawson. A futurist, speaker and author, hosting the Where the World's Moving podcast series, presented by OFX, the global money transfer specialist for Where the World is Moving. Through this podcast series we explore our fast moving, every changing world, and some of the extraordinary technological and social shifts that are shaping business and society, driving collaboration and globalization, and supporting human progress. To find out more about the exciting ideas in this podcast, and the rest of the OFX series go to wheretheworldsmoving.com.

Ross Dawson: To many people entrepreneurship means Silicon Valley, vast ambition, and massive rounds of venture capital. However, that's not the only path. There's a growing movement of smaller community based start-ups and initiatives aimed at tackling real world problems for local communities. In this podcast we'll look at the vital role of community in entrepreneurial and social ventures. To give us insight into what's happening in this world we are very fortunate to speak to Simon Griffiths, the co-founder and CEO of Who Gives a Crap.

Ross Dawson: Welcome to the show Simon.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ross Dawson: You're delightfully named organization "Who Gives a Crap" is having a real impact supporting people in developing countries. So can you tell us in a nutshell what this is and how it works?

Simon Griffiths: Yes, sure. So we're a direct to consumer toilet paper, paper towel and tissue company, and we use half of our profits to help build toilets in different parts of the developing world. We started selling online, which is our main sales channel, about five years ago and we're now selling products in 36 countries around the world, and we've donated just over 1.8 million Australian dollars in the last five years.

Ross Dawson: That certainly sounds like a successful venture in terms of impact. So you're helping families and households, but also the communities they live in. So how have you seen that communities are coming together to help themselves?

Simon Griffiths: Our main partner that we work with in terms of where our money goes and how we go about funding is WaterAid Australia. They're working in the poorest of the poor regions, so the kind of regional areas of places like East Timor and Papua New Guinea, adopting an approach called Community-Led Total Sanitation. All the research has pointed to us being the best way to go about solving the sanitation problem. And the idea there is that they go into a community, work with the community to first of all make sure everyone's bought into the idea of putting sanitation into that particular community, because if there isn't a buy-in there then people won't use and won't maintain it on ongoing basis. And then they work with them to figure out the best way to fund it. So obviously a lot of that funding comes from WaterAid. There might be some partial funding coming from the community itself, again to get that level of buy-in, and they go about implementing three things.

Simon Griffiths: So, clean water. Toilets, which is obviously what we're really passionate about. And then also the sanitation education that goes with that. And the research shows that if you do one of those three things by itself you're about 10% as effective as when you do all three of those things together, which is why we always go in with those three things side by side as opposed to just doing one of them. And so the community's really heavily involved in that process, then is also trained up so they've got the ability to maintain both the water supply and the toilets that have put in there. And that's how we go about making sure that the approach that we're taking has got the greatest chance of being successful in the long run.

Ross Dawson: That's fantastic. This all began, I believe, with a successful crowdfunding venture to kick off Who Gives a Crap where you built a community of supporters to basically make this possible. So, at the outset, what do you think made the campaign successful, and how did you develop that as community to help support your initiative?

Simon Griffiths: We started Who Gives a Crap with a crowdfunding campaign and realized really quickly that we're probably selling one of the most boring products that have ever had a crowdfunding campaign behind it. And so we had to do something a little bit different in order to attract people's attention. And so basically someone had the idea that we should shoot the whole crowdfunding campaign video with me sitting on a toilet, and I should pledge to not get off that toilet until we'd pre-sold the first $50,000 worth of product. And so we basically ran a live feed of me sitting there while the pledges were coming in, and publish that globally on the internet, and use that to generate a lot of interest in what we're doing, first of all, in terms of media.

Simon Griffiths: So we ended up on national television in Australia, then national print, and then also through the digital community that we started to foster around the product that we're building. And so we really relied on people supporting us, both in terms of financially and coming on board with the pre-sales campaign, but then also telling other people about what we were doing and building this initial community around the brand that we'd launched publicly for the first time. We managed to generate that first $50,000 worth of sales in 50 of the most horrible never, ever to be repeated hours of my life. And I had to go and get my legs checked for deep vein thrombosis afterwards, because it was an incredibly painful process to go through.

Ross Dawson: Well, it sounds like it was worth it despite that pain. So I guess part of the community there was not just those who were paying, but also those who were connected, who were sharing the ideas, spreading the word to be able to get the engagement which made that work for you?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. And so over the 50 hours that the campaign ran we managed to generate 2.5 million social media hits. And so that kind of gives you an idea of the scale upon which you can sort of build these digital communities and then use their reach to help you kind of get momentum around an idea that you're pushing out for the first time.

Ross Dawson: So crowdfunding has been used extensively in terms of helping new products being developed, and so on, but a lot of it seems to be in terms of social good, social impact, people things want to contribute to. So are there any other examples of crowdfunding for social good that you have found inspiring or provided a lead to you?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. I guess we watched the crowdfunding campaigns space really closely when we were about to launch our campaign, and that was six years ago now. So at that time we saw some cool campaigns come out around the same time as ours. There were some guys in the US called Soma who launched a water filter jug and were using a portion of profits to help provide access to clean water. Kuli Kuli also launched around the same time who were bringing Moringa to market and helping to generate revenue for Moringa farmers. So we really liked watching their campaigns which used kind of similar tools and tactics to us to be successful. And then I guess closer to home more recently we've seen the Good Beer Co. with a very similar donation model to as launching a craft beer brand essentially. And they've had a lot of success over the last couple of years, which has been great to see. But there's actually now a whole crowd funding platform that's dedicated to creating social good called StartSomeGood.

Simon Griffiths: So that's a good place to check out if you're interested in looking at what's happening in the impact space around crowdfunding.

Ross Dawson: Indeed. Also coming from Australia?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. So Australia and Silicon Valley, I think, they've got a co-founder in each location.

Ross Dawson: Sounds like you've been inspiring others as well as being inspired by others.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, we think about impact as having kind of several prongs to it. And one of those is changing the way that people think about business. So if we can inspire other people to adopt a similar full impact model to ours, that's ultimately a great outcome in terms of what we see as having the impact of our company.

Ross Dawson: If you're enjoying this episode, listen to the rest of the OFX series at wheretheworlds moving.com.

Ross Dawson: So you are of course having a social impact. You are an entrepreneurial adventure and you are making money and that's the only way in which you can give money to others. So I think one of the trends that we're seen is that entrepreneurial ventures don't need to have a massive scale necessarily. So, you've seeing this trend of I suppose smaller entrepreneurial ventures that are not necessarily looking to take over the world?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, definitely. I think the Internet really has changed things in a huge way when it comes to entrepreneurship. It's now so fast to be able to take an idea to market. There's incredible SAS platforms like Shopify out there that allow you to set up an online store and less than an hour. I think when we first launched, we used Shopify and built our store in about four hours. And that's literally still the same store that we use today. So it's just incredible the pace at which you can take ideas to market. Things like Alibaba have enabled that in terms of sourcing as well. And so I think, we see now if anyone's using Instagram, I'm sure they're getting targeted by these kind tiny micro brands that are launching very specific niche products and trying to drum up interest for them using social advertising. And so that's a huge trend that's kind of emerged over the last probably three or four years I guess.

Simon Griffiths: We're seeing thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of these tiny little brands emerging. And then the ones that are really resonating with customers are the ones that are building community around them, having their customers tell other people about what they're doing and kind of leveraging that community in order to drive demand for their products. And so that's kind of exactly where we've come from. It's our roots and the ones that are really good at it become the bigger companies and eventually they're going to become the companies that overtake the incumbents. And we're seeing that in places like Australia with quality. We've done that with mattresses. In the US Casper has done a similar thing with mattresses as well. This is kind of how Uber got started and how they managed to grow so quickly. So yeah. It's definitely a huge trend in the entrepreneurial space at the moment.

Ross Dawson: So those communities don't necessarily need to be local though. They can be an off nog global.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, totally. I think the ones that are really successful will go global quite quickly. But especially coming from Australia, there's almost a need to go global because the market in Australia is quite small compared to tapping into the UK or Europe or the US. And so, Australian entrepreneurs I think tend to look globally faster than what, say, an American entrepreneur would because that's part of living in the part of the world where we come from.

Ross Dawson: So in a complex world, entrepreneurship has to be about learning as you go. Have you seen entrepreneurs and communities experimenting, learning from that, sharing with each other?

Simon Griffiths: This is a really interesting one because there's kind of like two ways that you learn how to do something. And one of them is definitely the lean startup where you're testing something out, seeing if it's working, learning from your mistakes, learning from the things that do work and using that to ultimately take you a step closer to being successful the next time. And the other way that you learn is by tapping into your community and finding people who've done it before and sharing notes on the things that have worked for you and for them, and kind of using that as a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ross Dawson: What are the other trends that you're seeing in terms of where entrepreneurship is going? Where's the future of entrepreneurship?

Simon Griffiths: This is a tough one. We really think about it a lot in terms of where's the demand of the customer going. And so a big shift that we've seen in the last few years is certainly towards products like ours where consumer demand now is really shifting towards products that are doing good, whether that's through the donations they're making as a company and kind of embedding that into their business model, how they're going about sourcing their products or having some other element of do good in there. So, farmer's markets are a great example of this and the explosion of farmer's markets over the past decade or so. And so we see that really continuing and becoming the next big trends similar to what we've seen with sustainability over probably the past 15 or 20 or so years. And now we're expecting to see big companies start to bring this kind of approach of doing good into their business in order to remain relevant for their customers.

Simon Griffiths: And so for us, that's hugely exciting. If we can see these potentially very large companies starting to sell products that have impact embedded in them, that's going to be a huge win for, for the sector.

Ross Dawson: So we talked before about how you are basically having an impact on communities and developing countries. You have communities help support and launch the company. You have communities of customers. So, are there ways in which these are all being tied together, other ways of connecting? How are these communities being linked?

Simon Griffiths: Generally speaking, those communities that you mentioned tend to sort of sit quite separate from each other I suppose, but they're all using similar tools in order to communicate with each other, with people within their community and to bring that community closer together. So for customers that's really about social media and email and customer service and building that relationship between the brand and the customer, and then allowing customers to talk to each other through social media in order to kind of strengthen how that community works. With entrepreneurs, Slack's been an incredible tool for building communities of people that are like-minded. So there's certainly a lot of Slack groups that exist around shared interests or groups of entrepreneurs that want to kind of swap notes or be there as a support network for each other as well. And so all of these different communities I guess use similar tools like that, but probably the platform is different depending on the different type of community that they're in.

Simon Griffiths: And so again, the Internet is kind of played a huge role in shaping how people go about building those communities today. A great example is a slack group that I'm a member of that one of my friends set up, I think it's called the Friendly Aussie Founders Slack group. And basically it's a network of kind of 70 entrepreneurs who've founded companies and reside in Australia. And basically you can sort of jump in there and ask someone a question, "Has anyone done this before?" And people can jump in with a response and point you in the right direction of an expert who might be able to help or share notes on how they've gone about approaching that themselves. I've used that to help us figure out how to get the right type of insurance for us as a company, as an example where you're kind of going into something that you probably don't have any domain expertise in yourself and you can rely on the previous work that's been done by people that have had similar experiences or similar problems to solve and use that to help you find the right solution faster.

Ross Dawson: Right. So it's not just communities those you help, the communities of customers and so on, is in fact the communities of entrepreneurs who are helping each other succeed.
Simon Griffiths: Yeah, exactly.

Ross Dawson: In a way, your company as well seems to be built as a community. You've got a global business, you've got team members, I believe in Melbourne, LA, Manila, Bogota, and beyond. So how is it that you can nurture a company as a community which works cohesively even though you're in different places almost all the time.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. We think this is such a core part of building a strong business. And so, we think of this as the culture of the business essentially. And I think building a great culture is something that it's easy to do when you have sort of probably less than 10 or 20 stuff because you're all very close and you're working together every single day. And so you basically exchanging like either conversation, if you're in the same room or if you're a distributed company like ours, you're on Slack or email or Skype calls really regularly and use that to kind of strengthen the community that you have and also to figure out how to protect the community. So if you see something coming up that could damage that community, how you go about addressing that to make sure that you protect the culture of the company as you're growing. We found it started to get harder to do that once we went above 20 people.

Simon Griffiths: And so that's actually when we hired a head of people and culture who really kind of focuses on making sure that we're building a great culture as we continue to grow as a business. And what we've done more recently is rather than having everyone 100% distributed, so working from home or a coworking space by themselves all of the time, we've now moved to have regional hubs. So Melbourne, Los Angeles, Manila, and Hong Kong are kind of the hubs that we now have globally. And each of those hubs, we think that it's actually really important to have face time rather than just have people work 100% remotely all of the time. So in Los Angeles, for example, the team works together in their hub three days a week and they're kind of a more collaborative hub. They're working on marketing, creative and digital growth, which tends to be more collaborative functions.

Simon Griffiths: So we like to have ... when they get together sort of more regularly than say in Melbourne, which is coming together one day a week. In Manila, I think the team gets together about once a month because traffic in Manila is such a huge issue that they want to meet less frequently, so they don't have to spend up to three hours a day in traffic getting to and from wherever the hubs meeting up on that day. And so we started to build these face-to-face relationships because nothing really beats the strength of the relationship that's formed face to face. And then once a year we also bring the whole company together for our annual IRL or In Real Life. And so we did that this year in Cambodia with WaterAid and we went on a field trip with I think 32 people in our team at that point in time to see WaterAid's work in the field and then also work on our strategy for FY19 which we launched a couple of months off to that.

Simon Griffiths: So we invest really heavily in kind of building that face time into part of our corporate culture and do a lot of things to make sure that we're kind of strengthening that culture as we continue to grow as a business.

Ross Dawson: So as a global business, what differences have you seen between countries and cultures or demographics in terms of engagement with what you're doing in the ideas? I mean, what sort of landscape have you've seen in terms of engagement around the world?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. I mean, this has been a really interesting one as we've started to really focus on selling and in the US and the UK is our next biggest markets after Australia. And so when we were looking at entering the US market ... I guess it's taking a step back, it's kind of easy to think that people in the US and the UK are very similar to that in Australia. But we started to get really negative feedback around the brand in the US in particular where we had quite positive feedback around the brand in the UK. And so we thought that was really interesting, but we didn't want to change our brand name in one country because we'd have to have different social media, different packaging, different content for that channel only, which would be really challenging in terms of keeping a case of global brand. And so we decided in the end to launch with Who Gives a Crap in the US as well as in the UK. And we ended up seeing that the sales in both of those countries actually became quite similar very quickly.

Ross Dawson: Which is, I think, probably suggesting in a way that that sense of community is similar across the different countries or markets.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly right.

Ross Dawson: So, as you mentioned earlier that your business keeps half the profits and donates off of them. So, is that model working well for you? If you were going to do it over, would you stick by that original a decision?

Simon Griffiths: Yeah. We initially had the idea to launch as a nonprofit toilet paper company and when we were kind of working out how it would potentially work, we realized early on that it didn't make sense to be 100% nonprofit because you have to make these very large donations at the end of each financial year in order to get all of the profit out of the company before the end of the financial year so that you're not paying tax on the profit that is leftover. And that creates a huge cash flow challenge for the business. And if you're growing the business and then constantly trying to pay out 100% of your profits before the end of the financial year, you end up having to take on just more and more debt over time, which creates a really, really risky business model that isn't sustainable. It doesn't allow you to scale in a way that will be successful in the long run.

Simon Griffiths: And so we took a step back and said, this doesn't make sense, but impact is at the absolute core of who we are as a business. Can we change the percentage that we're donating and still have that as kind of a core brand message for who we are as a company. And we landed on 50% as the right number because it really conveyed to the customer that the impact is the reason why we exist, but it also allows us to generate enough cashflow to keep the business alive while we're making these large donations at the end of each financial year. On top of that, it gave us the benefit of being able to have equity in the business. There's no equity in a nonprofit business that there is in a for profit business that's donating half of its profits, which meant that we could really increase the pace at which we could grow. And we thought it would allow us to grow more than twice as quickly as we would if we were just a nonprofit.

Simon Griffiths: And so that meant that we could potentially sell equity to get capital into the business to help us grow. But also we could use equity to incentivize staff who in the early days often joining us on a lower salary than what they might be able to earn somewhere else. And then lastly, I sort of touched on this before, but we really see the impacts that we're having as, yes, being the donations that were generating. Yes, how we create impact among the team members that we're employing, who are part of our company, but also in terms of other businesses that are potentially looking at how we're doing business. And so, we really see these huge social problems that exist globally. They're so big that we're not going to be able to tackle them alone.

Simon Griffiths: And we're just looking at the sanitation problem and there's a lot of other massive social issues out there that as a company aren't part of our mandate. And so we believe that if we're going to go about solving these huge social problems, we have to show that there's a business model that we'll be able to work and attract investment that comes in from the investors and also entrepreneurs who were interested in creating impact but also want to be able to generate a financial return for themselves. And if we can show that it's possible with our business model, that's how we'll attract tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of more entrepreneurs into the space, which is ultimately going to create the impact that's necessary to solve these massive social issues that we have globally.

Ross Dawson: Be sure to subscribe to Where the World's Moving on your favorite podcast app, and never miss an episode.

Ross Dawson: What else have you been learning? I suppose both in terms of doing a global business, one of the things which you want to share with the entrepreneurial world are those who are looking to, to have an impact. What insights have you gained over these years of building this?

Simon Griffiths: We learn new stuff every single day, every single hour, every single week. And so I think probably the biggest thing is that you have to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable because you're constantly going to be doing things where you've never done them before in your entire life and being able to get better at it over time until you become an expert and then can pass it onto someone else and start on the next thing. So that's probably the biggest one. I think another big lesson that we've learned is that in order to build these really strong communities that we're talking about, and to create great advocates for your brand, not only do you have to be able to develop a very strong level of trust in your customer base and to do that and you have to be open and transparent about the things that you're doing well as well as the things that you're not doing so well. But I think importantly you have to be able to create something that is just way better than anything that they could have expected.

Simon Griffiths: And so that's a big part of the feedback that we get from our customers is that, yes, the product's great quality and it's awesome to have home delivery on something that they used to lugging home from the supermarket, which is a huge inconvenience. But the impact piece and being able to kind of close the loop on the purchase of the customer's making and generate in a really meaningful impact for someone in the developing world, from their purchase, that's the part that really blows their minds and encourages them to tell the people about what we're doing. Instead of build one of these really strong communities, we have to think about how to go above and beyond what everyone else in the marketplace is doing to really take customers to a place that they've never been before.

Ross Dawson: We all come from somewhere, but as you said, the business and entrepreneurship is now more and more global. Is there anything that we can do to assist ourselves or help ourselves to be ready to do global business and to learn and to adapt to all of these different countries and cultures and systems and economies?

Simon Griffiths: I think there's, there's a couple of things. So, if you are looking at going global, bringing a global team into their business as soon as possible is a great way of doing that. And so we have three co-founders, when we launched, I was in Melbourne, and the other two were in Los Angeles and New York. So it gave us really good insight into the US market before we really even started trading there. And so having that global team from day one allowed us to work through all of the challenges that come with going global really early on in our trajectory as a business. And so we got used to juggling time zones and turn those into advantages where one person could finish work for the day at 5:00 PM and hand something over to someone else in New York who would pick it up and finish it off overnight before you looked back on again at 8:00 AM in the morning.

Simon Griffiths: And so doing that very early on in the last cycle of the business is the absolute best way to go about setting yourself up for success when you want to turn on those new markets in the future.

Ross Dawson: Community as we've heard is big part of your business of entrepreneurship and where it's going. So from here, if community is the future of business, where's this going to go? What is the potential? How do we need to treat community at the heart of business?

Simon Griffiths: We talked about the future of business being a very large number of small brands that are emerging as it becomes easier and easier to take products to market very quickly. And we're only going to see more of these brands entering the marketplace. And that means that you've got more brands competing for customers attention, but also more brands competing for the same advertising space on social media or billboards or television. And so advertising is getting more and more expensive as a brand that's looking to get your message out there. And so the best way to create or to get your message out is to build a community around your products, that massive fans of what you're doing. And then we tell other people about that. And if you can build that very strong community that's going to stay with you for years and years to come rather than just being a once off kind of hit, which is what happens when you spend money on advertising. And so we really see community as being the future of building very strong businesses from the ground up.

Ross Dawson: Community is likely at the heart of all commercial business, not just that, not just a social entrepreneurship.

Simon Griffiths: Yeah, that's exactly right. And so I think the challenge for ... particularly for larger incumbents that haven't had a community around them before is how they start building that community now and how they start fostering those relationships with their customers that can be made so strong that their customers will stay loyal but also tell other people about what they're doing and become brand advocates for them. And so, as a smaller business, we've learned to do this from day zero. This is going to be the big challenge in the years to come for the larger incumbents that are out there if they're going to stay relevant to customers.

Ross Dawson: So you've shown us, both through your business in the course of our conversation, I suppose, community at the heart of business. And so, thank you for your insights and I hope that they continue to inspire others to build community based business for everyone's benefit. So thank you so much for your time, Simon, and your insights and I wish you all the best and success with Who Gives a Crap moving forward.

Simon Griffiths: Great. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Ross Dawson: Find out more about how OFX is helping their customers move money around the world. Go to ofx.com. This podcast is presented by OFX, and is a BBC StoryWorks commercial production.

Where The World's Moving

Welcome to the Where the World's Moving content series that celebrates what it means to be a global citizen told through the eyes of the people that are living and breathing this ethos every day.