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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.

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Why Small Businesses Are The Pawns of This Election Cycle

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Some guidelines for navigating through the red, blue, or purple uncertainty.

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We don’t know enough about COVID antibodies to count on them

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One of the biggest outstanding questions about the coronavirus, and one which could well determine the course of the pandemic, is the role that antibodies play in immunity.

By now you’ve probably heard plenty about antibodies in the context of immunity and developing a COVID vaccine. These Y-shaped proteins form because of an immune response to a pathogen or other hostile biological material. They may be personalized to sites on an individual virus called antigens, to which they attach and help prevent infection.

As with many viruses, antibodies form during the course of a COVID case and should offer protection against against a second coronavirus infection. But it’s still unclear just how potent these antibodies are and whether or not they may provide stronger immunity for some people more than others. And that raises the question of whether or not you can contract COVID-19 twice.

One central mystery that may take years to answer is how long COVID antibodies last. First off, antibodies don’t always behave the same everyone. Some may form powerful antibodies with staying power; others whose body’s so-called adaptive immune system produces weaker ones may face a much more brutal fight with COVID and be at a higher risk for reinfection. Human biology can react in unpredictable ways to new adversaries.

Then there’s the type of pathogen that the novel coronavirus is itself. Coronaviruses encompass a broad class of bugs which can include everything from some types of the common cold to SARS and MERS. There is to date no cure or vaccine for the common cold since there is such a variety of strains. There also aren’t any commercially available ones for SARS or MERS—or any coronaviruses for that matter.

Part of the reason for that is both the SARS and MERS outbreaks cause milder disease than COVID-19, and the former were contained relatively quickly. Patients who contracted SARS during that outbreak were found that have protective antibodies for an average of two years.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with the novel coronavirus—at least for certain COVID patients. In those who suffer from a mild case, antibody levels may be cut in half in just over two months, according to one study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Another new analysis by Imperial College London scientists released this week examined antibody levels among the British population. The report found that antibody prevalence dropped sharply and quickly in the study population: from 6% in late June to 4.4% in late September.

“This very large study has shown that the proportion of people with detectable antibodies is falling over time,” said Helen Ward, one of the lead study authors.

But there’s another twist: Those falling antibody levels don’t necessarily mean you’ll be reinfected with COVID. “We don’t yet know whether this will leave these people at risk of reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19, but it is essential that everyone continues to follow guidance to reduce the risk to themselves and others,” she said.

Other studies have shown there is a non-zero number of people who have been reinfected after recovering from COVID. A Lancet report published two weeks ago examined the case of a 25-year-old man from Washoe County in Nevada who contracted COVID-19 once in April and again at the end of May.

“The degree of protective immunity conferred by infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is currently unknown. As such, the possibility of reinfection with SARS-CoV-2 is not well understood,” wrote the authors from the University of Nevada and Nevada State Public Health Library.

To date, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts it, “confirmed and suspected cases of reinfection of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been reported, but remain rare​.”​

Experts stress that the mere presence of coronavirus antibodies is no reason to assume you’ll have long-lasting immunity or protect others from infection. The latter point throws a big wrench into proponents of a “herd immunity” approach wherein you simply let enough people get infected and become immune.

At the end of the day, it is still be important to wash your hands, wear a mask, socially distance, and be generally responsible—antibodies or otherwise.

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Who is Ryan Smith, new owner of the Utah Jazz?

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The NBA’s Utah Jazz has been owned for close to 35 years by Utah businessman Larry H. Miller or his family. But in a move that stunned locals, the Miller family announced today that it would sell a controlling stake in the team to Ryan Smith, cofounder of tech company Qualtrics.

So who is the new owner of the Utah Jazz?

Here are the high points: Smith is young (42), loves basketball, and has signaled a strong commitment to social justice, particularly racial justice issues. And of course, he’s very wealthy.

Prior Jazz owner Miller was born in Salt Lake City and built a business empire starting with car dealerships, then expanding to a television station and movie theaters before purchasing the Jazz in 1985. The price tag was reportedly $22 million for 100% of the Jazz. Miller died in 2009 and passed control of the Jazz to his family.

The contrasts between Miller and Smith start with that price tag: Smith’s takeover of the Jazz will cost him a reported $1.66 billion. It’s not entirely clear how large the Smith’ stake will be, though the team was recently estimated to be worth $1.55 billion by Forbes. However much he got, Smith paid nearly thirty times what Miller paid for the entire team, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Smith can afford the markup. He co-founded Qualtrics, with his brother and father, a marketing professor at Brigham Young University, in 2002. In 2018, the company was sold to German business software giant SAP for $8 billion, though it remains an independently run unit and Smith still serves as CEO. The founders’ share of that payday was estimated at $3 billion, and Forbes now estimates Ryan Smith’s personal net worth at $1.3 billion.

What exactly did SAP buy? Qualtrics started off by offering customer surveys online, but has expanded considerably. It’s now best known for its so-called “customer experience management” software, which brings together a variety of data sources, including surveys, social media chatter, and direct customer feedback. The software is meant to track both broad sentiment about a company’s products and services, and specific customer interactions, such as repair or refund requests. One of Qualtrics’ closer competitors is Salesforce, which draws on a similarly broad array of data sources to help companies manage sales and customer relationships.

As Fortune detailed when we named him to its 40 Under 40 list in 2016, Smith is a lifelong Utah resident and, like the majority of Utah residents, a Mormon. He’s been a major booster of the local business community, helping found a coalition of central Utah tech businesses called Silicon Slopes.

Smith has been notably active on social justice causes. In June, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Smith announced he would personally match donations by Qualtrics employees to legal defense funds for the movement. In a 2017 Forbes profile, he strategizes with fellow founders about how to attract more diversity to Utah.

Those commitments should serve Smith well as an NBA owner, given recent collisions between sport and politics that included a brief NBA player strike in August in response to police shootings of African-Americans. They also mark something of a contrast with Miller, who in 2005 raised the ire of activists by refusing to show Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain at theaters he owned because it depicted a gay relationship.

Smith also clearly loves basketball. He has a court in his basement, as well as in the lobby of Qualtrics’ headquarters building in Orem, Utah. Smith’s Twitter feed is sports-heavy, and he has partnered with the Jazz before, including a sponsorship this year that helped raise $25 million for cancer research.

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