When Simon Griffiths had his first “toilet paper problem”, he couldn’t have predicted he’d solve it through a chat with a friend of a friend who provided the capital injection needed to cover his first big order.
Today, Griffiths’ social enterprise, Who Gives a Crap, is facing a whole new toilet paper problem as the baffling stockpiling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen demand for its “feel good” loo roll surge, sales rising 12-fold one day last fortnight.
Such is the panic, Griffiths had to temporarily halt new orders.
“At our peak, we were selling 27 rolls of toilet paper a second,” says Griffiths, adding that although its toilet paper is produced in China, it’s been demand rather than supply chain disruption that led to the decision to halt new orders.
“We probably became the largest toilet paper retailer on that day because the supermarkets started to run out. And all of the sales that have come through really help with our mission.”
Who Gives a Crap, a Westpac “Businesses of Tomorrow” program winner, donates 50 per cent of all profit to help build toilets and fix water sanitation in parts of the world where it's critically needed, such as Cambodia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.
“While Australia is freaking out about toilet paper, there's 2.3 billion people who don't have access to a toilet, let alone toilet paper,” explains Griffiths, who co-founded the social enterprise in 2012 with Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander, and is CEO.
“It affects 40 percent of the entire world and creates diarrheal related disease that basically is the second largest killer of kids under the age of five."
While too early to put a final figure on it, Griffiths expects the sales boost will help his business lift its donations to its partner non-profit organisations above $4 million by the end of the financial year, up from $2.5m as at January. But he notes having to halt new sales of toilet paper – made from 100 per cent recycled materials diverted from landfill such as pulped office stationery and bamboo – in order to continue servicing regular business customers and subscribers, isn’t ideal for customers.
"The problem with toilet paper is in supermarkets … you're selling a very bulky, low cost item and the supermarkets don't want to carry too much,” he says, adding the demand spike was being compounded by “shocking” images of empty shelves and panic-buying.
“There's no real substitute for toilet paper. Once it runs out, it's kind of shocking. People take a photo of that and post it online and it creates this … loop where people … go from this mindset of having an abundant product to a mindset of scarcity.”
The comments come as applications open for Westpac's 2020 Business of Tomorrow program, which provides 200 small businesses access to support from the bank, learning and networking opportunities.
Initial findings from Westpac research show more than half of Australian business leaders turn to their business networks when looking for advice and 68 per cent believe a business “can’t survive without professional networks”. A further 47 per cent say their most valuable contacts for career progression and job success have come from referrals through friends or clients, according to the survey of 1017 business leaders conducted by Lonergan.
“Networks are immensely powerful, and highly underestimated by those who haven't invested in them," says Ganesh Chandrasekkar, Westpac's general manager of small business banking.
He says while the findings aren’t surprising, many small business owners feel time poor as it is, let alone investing in seemingly unrelated “networking” activities.
But over the long run, Chandrasekkar says investing in professional networks – such as joining business leaders' groups, taking part in forums (more likely to be online while "social distancing" recommendations remain in force to combat the COVID-19 spread), social media groups or the Business of Tomorrow program – can save business owners time by “removing the friction” from tapping into other people’s knowledge, ideas, contacts and referrals. They often also provide developmental support such as mentoring, a benefit named as the key value of a professional network by a third of Australian millennial business leaders, according to the Westpac research.
Griffiths says he realised early on he’d need to tap into people who knew a lot more than him and help him “get up the learning curve”.
“Whenever we're faced with a new problem… the first thing we do is think about who we might know that can tell us more about this problem than anyone else and see if we can spend half an hour with them. That’s way more efficient than searching the Internet or a podcast,” he says.
Chandrasekkar acknowledges this year’s Businesses of Tomorrow program comes at a particularly tough time for many business owners due to COVID-19, the summer bushfires and years of drought, compounding existing pressures such as new competition and technologies, and mixed demand. The one positive, he says, is that it’s sparked a national conversation about the critical need to support small businesses.
Small business was a major focus of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package announced last week, while Westpac has also unveiled support measures relating to the virus and the bushfires.
Despite the traumatic period, Chandrasekkar says once business owners are back on track there is an opportunity to “take the time to pause and reflect”.
“If you've been affected by the bushfires or the virus and you’re getting help with a package or insurance payout, think carefully about the business you want to build, potentially rebuilding the business in a different way as to before,” he says.
“Yes, it's challenging, but…it also brings an opportunity to rethink how you're going to be reborn.”
Applications for the 2020 Westpac Businesses of Tomorrow program are open until April 30.