“We need to have fun solving problems,” says Simon Griffiths, the co-founder of the profit-for-purpose toilet paper company Who Gives a Crap, which he launched with Danny Alexander and Jehan Ratnatunga in 2012. It’s a simple-sounding maxim but a tough ask — one that speaks to Griffiths’ gift of distilling sizeable challenges into actionable parts and transforming obstacles into opportunities.
Griffiths, who has been honing these skills since he was a child, builds businesses with social impact at their core. With Who Gives a Crap, he has struck success with a business model that donates 50 per cent of profits to solving the global sanitation crisis — a leading factor in child deaths due to diarrhoeal disease — and has already donated more than $10 million since the company’s launch. The genius of Griffiths’ business model is that he has been able to shift the way we think about giving back by working with — not against — existing purchasing behaviours.
When Griffiths was four, his family moved to Australia from England, and they would regularly return to visit. “In the ’80s that was not a super-straightforward trip,” he says, “so we’d end up stopping in different places along the way.” Zimbabwe, Egypt, Malaysia and Japan were added to the itinerary at various points. Griffiths recalls “travelling through these countries and meeting kids my age, playing games with them without speaking the same language and having an amazing time”. As he grew up, these experiences became embroidered in his consciousness, piquing his interest in development economics. Time spent in Southeast Asia throughout university crystallised what he’d felt as a child. “I started to realise that the set of opportunities available to me was vastly different to that of those kids I’d met along the way,” he says. “How being born in one place can result in a set of outcomes or an opportunity set that’s completely different to somewhere else, and how you might be able to shift that opportunity set. What are the levers you can pull to make that change?”
First, there was the fundraising platform Ripple. The concept was click-to-give: upon clicking on a charity, users would be presented with an advertisement, the revenue from which would be donated to that organisation. The idea was to democratise philanthropy, but Griffiths says it “didn’t end up expanding the audience that was exposed to philanthropy. We tapped into the same audience.” He realised that changing the behaviour of people who weren’t already engaging in or interested in philanthropy was “very, very hard”.
Griffiths channelled this takeaway into Shebeen, a now-shuttered nonprofit bar in Melbourne. Opened in 2013, the venue sold beer and wine produced in developing countries, with 100 per cent of profits directed to each drink’s place of origin. This time, Griffiths veered away from incentivising new behaviours, instead optimising ordinary habits and refining his sui generis business playbook. “A lot of people will go to a bar and let their hair down on a Friday evening,” says Griffiths of the concept. “What if we could make that experience — which has typically been seen as quite hedonistic and one that potentially has negative outcomes — what if we could embed some positive outcomes into that as well?”
Shebeen faced its own challenges, top of the list being scale. “When you’re solving social problems that affect billions of people, scale is a necessary part of reaching a solution,” says Griffiths. But amplifying the impact of the bricks-and-mortar nonprofit would leave little room or money for growth. “If the business is successful, then you end up taking on more and more debt every year and building a business that gets less and less stable as it grows,” he says. “This working capital problem is a big one in a 100 per cent profit-donating business.” When the odds become unfavourable and you are confronted with Goliath-sized global issues, how do you pivot? How does one conjure steadfast self-belief and an endless arsenal of optimism and resilience in the face of “no”? “Understand that you don’t have all the answers and the world doesn’t necessarily conform to the way you see it,” says Griffiths by way of a starting point. “When you can let go of that belief and be somewhat egoless in how you think about developing products and bringing things out into the world, and [realise] that you’re a student there to learn, that vastly changes the cost of getting things wrong.” This attitude has paid off for Who Gives a Crap.
In 2012, Griffiths famously crowdfunded more than $50,000 to pay for its first production run by sitting on a toilet seat for 50 hours, embedding humour and creativity into a brand whose serious mission is flush with fun. “Traditionally, the marketing of nonprofits has focused on making people feel bad,” says Griffiths, who emphasises the importance of tempering funniness with focus. “I don’t think you can only cut the brand from the blade of humour or only cut a brand from the blade of impact. You need to have multiple facets to the personality of the brand that make it something fun for people to engage with.” During the early months of the pandemic, Who Gives a Crap experienced unprecedented growth; at its peak, it was selling 28 rolls of toilet paper every second and when stock ran out, it added half a million people to its waitlist. Griffiths and his team innovated immediately. They hired and trained 25 freelancers in a single week, repackaged the 48-roll boxes into smaller versions to maximise orders and founded “the coolest club anywhere in the world in 2020”: a secret online hangout for the brand’s loo roll-obsessed community. By the end of the year, Who Gives a Crap was able to donate $5.85 million to the sanitation charity WaterAid and other partners.
After bootstrapping the business for nine years, Griffiths raised $41.5 million in funding in 2021. He says it signified the company’s coming of age — and a revision of investment old-think. “The idea that you could build a business that was better than a regular for-profit business by donating its profits — that would never have made any sense in the curriculum I learned 20 years ago,” says Griffiths. In the decade since he launched Who Gives a Crap, he says, “we felt capital markets had shifted and the way people started to see our business was that, actually, the donation element was a strength rather than a weakness”. Like his attitude to problem-solving, Griffiths’ most valuable learning is unequivocally easy to understand, even as other companies struggle to catch up: “Doing good is actually good for business.”