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The irreverent toilet paper startup that cleaned up during the pandemic lockdown

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This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

Who Gives a Crap was founded by Simon Griffiths, Danny Alexander, and Jehan Ratnatunga when they learned how many people live without access to a toilet. Currently, that figure hovers around a staggering 2 billion. The startup says it donates half its profits from the sale of everyday products (like toilet paper) to do good globally.

Most recently, the company announced a carbon neutral shipping program in which the direct-to-consumer toilet paper brand will purchase carbon offsets through Pachama—which supports emissions reductions through forestry projects—at no extra cost to its customers.

Fortune recently spoke with cofounder and CEO Simon Griffiths about how the first few months are going and what the company plans to do next.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Startup_WHo-Gives-a-Crap-SIMON GRIFFITHS
Simon Griffiths of Who Gives a Crap
Courtesy of Who Gives A Crap

Fortune: What inspired the launch of Who Gives a Crap—as well as the irreverent name? Why would consumers turn to this brand instead of one they might be familiar with on store shelves?

Griffiths: Back in 2012, I learnt that 2.4 billion people didn’t have access to a toilet, and that number wasn’t improving very quickly. I spent some time thinking about how overwhelmingly big that statistic was, then one day I walked into the bathroom and had a quarter-second epiphany: I could sell toilet paper, donate half of the profits to help fund organizations building toilets, and call it Who Gives a Crap.

Besides our name—and our love of puns—I think people reach for our product because they care about our mission and want to be a part of it. Not having a toilet isn’t just inconvenient, it’s also really dangerous. To put it in perspective, 297,000 die annually from diseases caused by improper sanitation. That’s why we donate 50% of our profits to our charity partners working in water, sanitation, and hygiene. We given $5.8 million USD, to date. We’ve definitely come a long way since our first $2,200 donation in 2013.

We’re also dedicated to sustainability—something we know our customers care about. All of our products are plastic-free and made from recycled materials or fast-growing bamboo, and we just launched global carbon neutral shipping.

The company’s 100% recycled toilet paper was rated the most sustainable toilet paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Courtesy of Who Gives A Crap

Along with hand sanitizer and face masks, toilet paper could be described as one of the most coveted items of 2020, especially in the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown. What was business like in the spring? How has it progressed since?

It certainly was quite a time to be in the toilet paper business. At the start of March, we saw our daily sales double, then increase fourfold, then twelvefold. It looked like we were going to do a 30x to 40x day-of-sales next, so we decided to mark our store as sold out so that we could make sure that we had enough product for our subscribers. At the panic-buying peak, we were selling 28 rolls of toilet paper per second, and our wait list grew to over half a million people.

Since then, as a product category, toilet paper sales are a bit slower because people stocked up earlier in the year. However, we’re seeing our direct-to-consumer sales channel remain high because more people are shopping online. We’re happy to be fully stocked and ready to ship to all of the new customers that have recently discovered us, as well as our subscribers who are ready to stock up again.

The rolls are packed in paper—not plastic.
Courtesy of Who Gives A Crap

That said, what has it been like to secure funding for your startup? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
We’re totally self-funded, starting with a crowdfunding campaign in 2012. We realized toilet paper wasn’t the most exciting product to crowdfund, so to help get people’s attention I agreed to sit on a toilet in a [drafty] warehouse until we had presold the first $50,000 of product. Since then, we’ve bootstrapped the business, using debt to help us manage our working capital and annual donations. We repaid all of our debt about 18 months ago and are now able to grow the business from the sales that we make.

If I think back at all we have accomplished by bootstrapping, it’s pretty incredible. We now have operations in Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States, with more expansion in the works.

“I realized the size of the global philanthropy market is relatively fixed: To double the market size we would have to get everyone to give twice as much every year for forever, which simply isn’t possible. So the current system meant that organizations were competing against each other for funding,” Griffiths says.
Courtesy of Who Gives A Crap

Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see this company in the market?

Two of our core goals are to grow our donations and to try to be a positive influence over other businesses.

To grow our donations we need to find more people who will be excited to use our products, or we need to create new products that our existing customers can fall in love with. So when I look forward five years, I’d love to see us being a household name globally, selling into even more countries with a broader range of products.

In terms of influencing other businesses, I think society is currently at a tipping point of a big ethical business movement, similar to where sustainability was 10 years ago. People are looking for products that do more than look good and provide a delightful customer experience; they’re looking for companies that do good. Companies with ethics and values that align with their own. Companies with a soul. This makes me incredibly excited to be an “ethical business” playing a role in this movement, and even more excited to think about what the business world will look like in five years’ time. If the biggest companies in the world adopt the same values and passion to give back that we have at Who Gives a Crap, the world will be a very different place.

More must-read lifestyle coverage from Fortune:

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This Platform Uses Analytics to Help You Find the Best Real Estate Investing Opportunities

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They say the best investment on Earth is earth, but real estate is a risky business. While it’s undoubtedly a lucrative form of investment, your success isn’t guaranteed unless you play your cards right and study the field with utmost scrutiny.

It pays to have tools that can help you with the process and reap profits, and luckily, there’s one platform that can help you on that front: Mashvisor.

A one-stop site to find traditional or Airbnb properties worth investing in, Mashvisor uses automation to assist you in identifying potential investments within mere minutes. Instead of having you pore over spreadsheets and spend months on tedious research, it leverages technology, real estate data, and analytics to shorten the process to identify the best investment opportunity for you.

Here’s how it works:

Just key in any city of interest, and you’ll immediately receive an overview of the investment opportunities within that area. You’ll get the lowdown on the kind of returns a property will be able to provide, as well as the things you’ll need to do to outperform the rental market. Plus, thanks to the interactive filters available, you’ll also get other pertinent data, including sales history, tax history, market performance, occupancy rates, and many more.

Real estate investing doesn’t have to be tough. For a limited time, you can grab a lifetime subscription to Mashvisor for only $39.99 — 97% off the usual cost of $1,499.

 


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Meeting the reskilling challenge

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Good morning.

If there is one issue that motivates CEOs at the forefront of the stakeholder capitalism movement, it is training and upskilling. They see the dangerous fissures that exist between the highly educated and the less so—a gap that widened during the pandemic. And they understand that technological change is driving that gap ever wider. While the pandemic, racial injustice and climate change may get more attention from society at large, it’s the reskilling challenge for which CEOs feel most directly responsible.

Deanna Mulligan, who is stepping down as CEO of Guardian Life Insurance at year’s end, is one of those CEOs, and she has put her passion into a new book out next week: Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills <em>Gap. I spoke with Mulligan earlier this week, and she told me about her evolution on the issue.

Mulligan joined Guardian in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. Guardian “wasn’t wildly impacted by the recession, but I was looking around and seeing so many of my friends losing jobs.” When she became CEO in 2011, she realized a combination of pervasive low interest rates and technological change was going to drive huge disruption for her company and her employees. “I said to myself, I don’t want to be one of those companies that has to turn all these people out on the streets.”

She started a program to teach people in the company’s call centers to write code, teamed with General Assembly to teach actuaries to be data analysts, and developed a program of “train in, train out”—providing two years tuition at a local community college for workers whose jobs were eliminated.

“Companies have an obligation to society to try and do this,” she said. “And it’s less expensive than firing people.” Like a number of her CEO colleagues, she is committed to extending such programs beyond her own employees. “It’s very important that we do this at scale.”

We’ll be talking about this topic more on Monday, at the annual meeting of the Fortune CEO Initiative. Mulligan will be there, along with a great group of CEOs. A partial list: Vas Narasimhan of Novartis, Mark Schneider of Nestle, Aneel Bhusri of Workday, Michelle Gass of Kohl’s, Francesco Starace of Enel, Tiger Tyagarajan of Genpact, Jim Fitterling of Dow, Julie Sweet of Accenture, Enrique Lores of HP, Antonio Neeri of HPE, Kevin Sneader of McKinsey, Joe Ucuzoglu of Deloitte, and Sonia Syngal of Gap. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker also will join, along with two U.S. governors who have been working on the retraining challenge: Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo.

More news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

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Debate night was a tamer affair, as are stock markets today

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This is the web version of the Bull Sheet, Fortune’s no-BS daily newsletter on the markets. Sign up to receive it in your inbox here.

Happy Friday, Bull Sheeters. There’s still no progress on a stimulus deal, but there’s plenty of economic data, corporate and political news to focus on.

On that note, we’re a mere eleven days to the presidential election. More than 47 million Americans have already voted. That’s a record.

Meanwhile, U.S. futures have been trading sideways all morning. Stock gains have been muted for much of the past two weeks as investors brace for the likeliness there won’t be a stimulus deal before Election Day.

Let’s check in on the action.

Markets update

Asia

  • The major Asia indexes were mostly higher in afternoon trading with Japan’s Nikkei up 0.2%.
  • Not long ago Chinese startup Renrenche was a darling, fetching unicorn valuation status and a roster of bluechip investors, including Goldman Sachs. Now it may need to sell its core asset for little more than 1,200 bucks.
  • Goldman Sachs is hoping to finally put the 1MDB bribery scandal behind it after agreeing to pay nearly $3 billion in fines to settle the affair that started a decade ago in Malaysia. The settlement “includes the highest penalty ever under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” Bloomberg reports.

Europe

  • The European bourses were flat at the open. And then Germany reported better than expected manufacturing data, lifting the euro and stocks. The Europe Stoxx 600 was up roughly 0.5% two hours into the trading session.
  • Economists now predict the ECB will boost monetary stimulus by a further €500 billion—bringing the total to €1.85 trillion ($2.18 trillion)—as soon as next month to keep the COVID-stricken economy from falling into a deep recession.
  • Daimler shares were up 1.7% in mid-morning trade after the carmaker revised upwards its full-year forecast thanks to solid growth in China.

U.S.

  • U.S. futures are in the red. That’s after the three major indexes eked out gains yesterday in incredibly volatile trade.
  • In premarket trading, Gilead Sciences shares were up as much as 7% after its remdesivir got FDA approval to treat COVID-19. As Fortune‘s Sy Mukherjee notes, remdesivir is “not a save-all” treatment, but the regulatory approval is significant.
  • Shares in Tesla are flat in pre-market trading after a modest bump yesterday. Investors cheered the latest profit beat, but doubts linger over whether that will be enough to vault the EV maker into the S&P 500.
  • Looking ahead: we get the latest batch of manufacturing data before the bell. Let’s see if it can match today’s rosy German numbers.

Elsewhere

  • Gold is up, trading just above $1,910/ounce.
  • The dollar is down.
  • Crude is down. Brent continues to trade just above $42/barrel.

***

By the numbers

13K

We don’t talk often about Bitcoin and its ilk here on Bull Sheet, if only because there’s so much to say about equities and other asset classes. But cryptocurrencies are on a tear at the moment, and worth talking about today. Yesterday, Bitcoin hit a 16-month high, topping $13,100, after PayPal announced it would let users buy a handful of cryptocurrencies, including Ethereum and Bitcoin. As Fortune‘s Bitcoin specialist Jeff John Roberts notes, “Bitcoin is notoriously volatile (though considerably less so than during its early days), and it is often hard to identify single factors that explain price swings. While this week’s surge was almost certainly spurred in large part by the PayPal news, there may be other tailwinds driving the price up.” One theory is that investors are souring on the gold trade, and hopping on the crypto bull run.

-130.54

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed yesterday at 28363.66—that’s a loss of 130.54 points (-0.4%) over the past five trading days. The stimulus rally continues to show signs of running out of gas. The three major exchanges have been trading in a tight range for much of the past two weeks—going sideways.

5 vs. 495

We’ve talked a lot here about the incredible 2020 bull run for the S&P Five, a.k.a., the FAAMG—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google—stocks. Their dominance appears locked in for quarters—and perhaps years—to come as they are not just out-growing the pack, they’re also out-investing the pack. According to Goldman Sachs, the cash-rich FAAMG quintet have a sizable edge in Capex and R&D spending, suggesting they’re sinking big sums into longterm bets while the laggards pull back. It also helps that FAAMG stocks are well ahead in plowing cash into buybacks and dividends, helping driving up their stock prices.

***

Have a nice weekend, everyone. I’ll see you here on Monday. 

Bernhard Warner
@BernhardWarner
Bernhard.Warner@Fortune.com

As always, you can write to bullsheet@fortune.com or reply to this email with suggestions and feedback.

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