Episodes > Season 3 Episode 18

Who Gives a Crap Hit Subscribe podcast cover

How Who Gives A Crap gives back to the global community

Mike Altman, Director of Lifecycle & CRM, Who Gives a Crap

What's in this episode?

On this episode we’re chatting with Mike Altman Director of Lifecycle & CRM at Who Gives A Crap, the 100% Bamboo premium toilet paper company.

We chat with Mike about the origins of Who Gives A Crap, with their roots in giving back to the global community (backed up by consistently donating 50% of all their profits). We also dive into how Who Gives A Crap navigated the rush on toilet paper during the early days of the pandemic as well as raising awareness about the almost two million trees that are cut down to make traditional toilet paper every day.

So let’s get started!

Connect with Mike on LinkedIn. Check out Who Gives A Crap.

Episode transcript

Scott Meiklejohn: Mike, thank you so much for joining us.

Mike Altman: Thank you for having me.

Scott Meiklejohn: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about Who Gives A Crap?

Mike Altman: Yes. Well, I worked for Who Gives A Crap. My name is Mike Altman and I am the Director of Lifecycle Marketing and CRM. And Who Gives A Crap is a amazing company. I think I have to start at a founding story to share a little bit about what we do. Well, actually first, Who Gives A Crap is a B Corp. We sell plastic free and sustainable products made with sustainable materials and deliver to 40 countries. So with carbon neutral shipping, we sell toilet paper as in the name for towels, tissues and a Swedish dishcloth called the Dream Cloth. And we think that we make it a really awesome product that we think is better than the one that you get at the grocery store. And I think the way the path there is super interesting. The business started in 2012.

Mike Altman: So we have three co-founders Simon Griffith, Danny Alexander, and Jehan Ratnatunga. And it was started on the precipice that they learned that billions of people on the earth don't have access to a toilet, and which is wild. I think that it's something that we don't think about every day and maybe more over the past couple years in terms of us washing our hands more and being more, noticing our habits in terms of hygiene and sanitation. But they wanted to do something about it, so they decided to start a toilet paper company. And to do that, Simon sat on a toilet in our first warehouse and refused not to move for, I think over 40 hour, 50 hours until they had crowd funds $50,000 for the first run of the product. And they delivered the first product in March 2013 and we've been growing ever since.

Mike Altman: So we have two types of toilet paper, a hundred percent recycled based toilet paper and a bamboo based toilet paper, which we call our premium product. And we think they're both better options for the environment. And the other thing that's really critical towards our model and our mission is that since the beginning of our company, we donate 50% of our profits to clean water and sanitation nonprofits. So 50% is a lot.

Scott Meiklejohn: 50 is a lot.

Mike Altman: 50 is a lot. And because we've grown a ton since 2012, we've donated over 10 million Australian dollars to those nonprofits. And I don't have that translation to Canadian dollars, but in US dollars it's around 7.1 million and so growing. And so we work with local partners that work with local communities to improve access to toilets, water and sanitation solutions. So the idea around you can make better choices that are more environmentally friendly for the planet while also doing good for the world. That's Who Gives A Crap.

Scott Meiklejohn: I appreciate even the Canadian currency shout out from Torontonian like me, so appreciate that a lot.

Mike Altman: No worries.

Scott Meiklejohn: I loved that as the origin of Who Gives A Crap, but I'd love to talk about for you as well. What drew you to Who Gives A Crap specifically? I remember you mentioning when you saw it in your inbox, you had a strange reaction. You were like, what is this?

Mike Altman: Yeah, I'd be very open to say that my background, I'm not a traditional marketer. I think that's a really common for a lot of marketers to say. I come from background in public health. That's what I studied in university. But I've always loved engaging with people and online movements, and no pun intended, but really thinking about how people can take actions with others, either strangers or people they know to make changes in the world. So my background, actually, I've been in the water and sanitation business for a little bit in a different capacity. I started on the nonprofit side. So I started my career with a amazing nonprofit in New York city. Based here and called charity: water. And charity: water, there I worked to help facilitate an online fundraising movement of people campaigning, donating their birthdays, donating weddings, to wedding gifts, subscribing to raise money for clean water projects around the world.

Mike Altman: And I was a person that was helping facilitate those campaigns, but then also tie that value back to the impact that people were making through that, through communicating, sharing stories about the changes that happen when people get access to clean water for the first time, sometimes for the first time in their whole life or in a generation. So that was an amazing experience, a fantastic organization. And then I cut some of my ecommerce shops. I was really curious in ecommerce right here in New York. I think there's an amazing ecommerce community, as well as just a marketing community in New York. And I moved into Casper, selling sleep. Focused on the idea of selling sleep, selling a better night's sleep.

Mike Altman: And I think in both of those experiences, obviously with donating to clean water and not necessarily a tangible thing, but also this aspirational idea of making something better, having better sleep, being healthier, affecting someone else in the world. So went from Casper and then got an email, phone call from someone amazing. They were a recruiter and they said, "Hey, do you want to check out this company Who Gives A Crap?" Honestly they didn't know if it was real or not and turned out to be very real. So here I am four and a half years later being in the toilet paper business, which has been a intense rewarding roller coaster few years for toilet paper.

Mike Altman: And my job is to help create delight in the experience and help customers seamlessly purchase toilet paper that does good for the world. So to create a feel-good experience is really my job in all aspects.

Scott Meiklejohn: I really want to get into that, because we were talking about that a bit before storytelling and branding, and how you tie that into Who Gives A Crap. But I was wondering, and forgive me that I don't know the answer to this. Was subscriptions always part of Who Gives A Crap from, I guess when you joined in 2017 or was it always there or is that something that evolved over time?

Mike Altman: It was there for sure. And I think we started with Recharge really early. I think we've been with y'all for quite some time. And I believe some of the first subscriptions were starting in 2015. Around that area and the program was just consistently grown. So it existed in 2017 when I joined and over we've seen a lot of growth in the program, people deciding to get their toilet paper sent in bulk, a set and forget. Lots of flexibility in the idea of, you have something running in the background, right, that is doing better for the world and comes just when you need it. And then if it's... Maybe you are traveling or maybe you have lots of people over toilet paper use has changed. So we've built a lot of functionality to make the whole experience really flexible. And I think working with Recharge has been super helpful in doing that, but we've been in the subscription game for sure for a little bit now.

Scott Meiklejohn: So before we get into that brand and storytelling, let's walk back to a little known month called March 2020 when toilet paper was top of mind for everyone. Could you walk me through those days? What is it probably like, March 12th things start to change?

Mike Altman: Yeah, I think potentially I have flashbacks here and there to that few days. I mean, toilet paper consumption really changed in the whole market really fast for a variety of reasons. And I think actually this comes into the idea of where our product sits and how we position ourselves and how people learn about the brand. But really in a span of few days, our sales started to double. Daily sales double, triple to the point where we had to reconfigure our entire store to a reserve experience. So what we had to do really quickly was, one work with our logistics team, finance team production team, growth, creative marketing, to create an experience that one was really customer forward. Because obviously there's so much stress, right? There's so much people are worrying about.

Mike Altman: And when you're going into the supermarket, you're seeing empty shelves, you're seeing suppliers, all of a sudden now people are no longer going to work. Ways of entire supply chain of how people are honestly going to the bathroom, going to a bathroom in a lot different places. And that was a real shock, in the same ways that our supply chain has been shocked in many ways over the past few years.

Mike Altman: But the first thing we did was we created a system to reserve stock consistently for spokes that were subscribed to us, so that we never had us sell out for our subscribers. I think that was super important and something that we're obviously doing to this day, we have a promise that we make to our customers and people who sign up for subscriptions with us that they will never run out.

Mike Altman: And so, one logistical challenge was just never running out. That's a really hard thing to do. And thankfully we have an amazing team that worked super hard to make sure that happened, even so that we were repacking and reconfiguring some of our 48 packs. Our product comes in, it's 48 rolls in a box. It's a lot of toilet paper. And we do have versions that are 24 packs. And we were reconfiguring our 48 packs into 24 packs on our ecommerce side, just to keep selling as making sure that people did have some toilet paper. On our ecommerce side we ended up creating this VIP store, where there was a wait list. You came to our site, you entered your email, we I think created a wait list of over half a million people.

Mike Altman: And then slowly started to... As our product came into our warehouses, we were slowly deploying, essentially selling through the wait list. And everyday we'd invite customers into the store. They'd enter in their email address, they'd check out. And we ran that store for three months until we got through that entire list. So it was definitely something I don't recommend. It wasn't a fun time, but I think it was really important that we really worked hard for our customers. I think it's really important to live your values and make sure that you can consistently deliver on your brand promise. And one of those promises is that it's going to be toilet paper. You don't have to worry about a toilet paper. It's an easy experience, even though a lot of things in life could be hard. This is easy. And I think that really came through in that period of time.

Scott Meiklejohn: So let's talk a bit about those missions though, they're soul behind the brand. I'm going to quote you here, because I love this quote. We had a pre-call earlier for the listener and you mentioned, how do you build a brand about a complex idea that may not sound complex from the beginning, but also make it super easy to do good in the world? That's I guess a little bit of the mission of Who Gives A Crap, but could you talk a little bit about the importance of communicating those brand values to your customers?

Mike Altman: Yeah. Or not even communicating to aligning right. Aligning to those values. So we sell toilet paper, like I said, and other products and tissues and paper towels and more to come soon, which is really exciting. At the surface, first you have to say, " Well, how am I buying these products now?" Right. Most people are still going to the grocery store, to their bodega too. Buying toilet paper online is still not necessarily like a thing that everyone does. I mean, we want people to, but just getting to that point of being like, "Okay, I buy this product online. I buy it in bulk. I store it in new ways, and I use it. It's not made from other types of products that contribute towards deforestation."

Mike Altman: I'm using a recycled based product or more environmentally friendly materials and that it's still going to be an amazing quality, that's for the first part. Right? Being willing to make that shift, a lot of eco-friendly products or products that... sometimes we make shifts that we're just not used to. Right? So we have to be open to making a change. And then on top of that, thinking that this toilet paper is not only better for the environment, but has a donation component and that the actions that I'm taking are affecting someone else. And that's a complex idea, right? Sometimes I think we tend to look at our donations that we make at the end of the year, right.

Mike Altman: Or maybe traditionally you've seen someone on a sidewalk saying, "Hey, sign. Maybe you want to sign up to help your local animal shelter." Or I think the ways that we've thought about giving has not always been traditionally tied to commerce. I mean, some classic examples might be round up at the point of sale or you have brands like TOMS 1%, Give Get, these have been really amazing companies that have trailblazed in that space. But now you also have a company that's giving 50% of their profits away, which again is a lot more and really a whole different model and something that also, we want other brands to copy, right? We want to... You create a movement around this.

Mike Altman: And I think telling that story is definitely not necessarily like an A to Z or an A to B story, right? You don't see one of our ads maybe, or CA billboard, we want you to get it really fast. Right. But there's a lot to get to the story. So one of my jobs in the jobs of our brand teams is to tell a story that connects with the consumer at where they are in their experience. Maybe they're just floating from us from a friend, right. They might say, "Hey, it's that toilet favorite company with a funky name." Right. And it hopefully sparks a conversation. Maybe they saw it in your bathroom. "Oh, it's really fun colors. It's really fun design."

Mike Altman: Oh, well also it's like this consistent story that we try not to tell to our customers and the way that we try to approach that is one by being really accessible, being superhuman, talking like a friend would talk to you and not... These are topics in terms of water and sanitation. And the challenges that people have around the world are hard things. Right. But this doesn't have to be hard. Right? You don't have to... And it's great to support nonprofits. It's great to donate. We're giving a different avenue on how to do this and how to incorporate this into your life. And I think that's a complicated story. So I think we, one, approach it in chunks, right.

Mike Altman: We meet someone where they're at and continuously introduce the story over time. We don't focus on all of our value props at once, right, on why we think that we are different where our white space is, why we are a better toilet paper company than X, Y, and Z brand or better eco-friendly business. But we tell in chunks and I think that we also use our tone of voice, use humor. All of our channels have a unique look and feel, but also again, tell a story that, again it doesn't have to be hard to do good. And again, that's a complicated story.

Mike Altman: There's toilet paper, there's making toilet paper. There's what the toilet paper is made of. There's how those donations... Then we engage with their nonprofit partners, what they do, because we work with amazing partners. We work with an amazing partner in Kenyan called Chaco who has a completely different model than maybe one of our other partners. WaterAid which again is another amazing nonprofit partner that does builds water, sanitation projects around the world. So it's a complicated story, but again, a really important one.

Scott Meiklejohn: Not even a complicated story. I remember you mentioned as well, how do you build or where was it? How do you take the brand out of the bathroom? Because people aren't traditionally like seeing it or talking about toilet paper. So just another challenge to communicate the brand and get in front of people's faces.

Mike Altman: I think that one of the keys to getting the brand out of the bathroom is almost getting, making sure that people are so stoked to talk about your product and your experience that they are bringing it out of the bathroom. I mean, there's one thing to maybe drive a Tesla, right? People see the Tesla, it's not every day that everyone goes into your bathroom and sees toilet paper. But I think that there is a really key emotional and functional need. There's a functional need. I guess if you think about Maslow's hierarchy, really classic psychology, right?

Scott Meiklejohn: Let's do this.

Mike Altman: There are psychological and safety needs, right, that are being met by having access to the things you need every day, replenishables. Right. It's one of the reasons why during a pandemic, people really were concerned about buying quickly toilet paper. But at the same time where I think the brand shines is within this space between that really functional need, a good product, quality product that is there when you need it with more of this higher part in the Maslow funnel, in terms of almost self... I'm not saying it's self-actualization or transcendence, but the idea of we're focusing on not only ourselves but society, right.

Mike Altman: Focusing on our community, focusing on other people that need. And that's where the product sits, right? It's a product that does better for the world. And so I think the easier we make it to tell that story and resonate with what people care about. People care about the environment, people care about others' wellbeing. And I think really people are generous. I truly believe that people are generous. And so I think people can be genero... When people align their own aspirations and their own values with your brand, they're going to talk about you. They're going to make sure that they want their communities to be engaging with your product and being part of what you're doing. And so I think that's part of it. It's like, how do you make that story easy to tell and then align your values with your addressable audience.

Scott Meiklejohn: I love that, yeah. I love that aspirational stuff. I love the Maslow's hierarchy, it's all great. Let's talk a little bit about sustainability. We are recording this, little spoilers behind the scenes, just at the end of April. So it was just Earth Day. I know that's very close to your heart set, who Gives A Crap. Could you talk about some of the initiatives you guys went through?

Mike Altman: Well, Earth Day is a special day for us. I mean, I'd like to think that every day is Earth Day.

Scott Meiklejohn: I feel that too.

Mike Altman: We're all citizens earth guys. We all are on the earth indeed. A big part of why we exist is our planet. We love our planet. This Earth Day we just completed a really fun campaign called Trees-A-Thon harkening back to those old phonathon days of very 80s television and trying to gather donations that couldn't come, playing on the ways that really traditional type of ways that folks engaged with nonprofit organizations and raised money.

Mike Altman: But it was the idea of Trees-A-Thon was on the idea around trees and the trees that are cut down to make toilet paper which, spoil alert, it's a lot. And so we worked with a specialist, a study with a third party called Edge Environmental and just released a report that over 1 million trees are cut down to make traditional toilet paper, assuming over half the world's folks who wipe use traditional toilet paper.

Mike Altman: So basically if everyone in the world used traditional toilet paper, 1.9 million trees would be needed to do that every day.

Scott Meiklejohn: Every day.

Mike Altman: Every day. So it is really wild and we think it's super important that folks choose a more environmentally friendly product because not only are we donating 50%, but we are helping reduce that number of trees coming down and that's... Again, it's one of those things where it's not something we think about every day.

Mike Altman: So part of the report, it came out, it was over 50% of people in the US had no idea that their choice in toilet paper was contributing to do deforestation. And so it becomes like an awareness thing. And again, we don't want people to feel guilty about that, right. We want to make it easy. We want to make it easy to be like, "Okay, cool. We'll damp and dust it. We'll just make a different choice there." So, that was part of our... We found that shocking.

Mike Altman: And so, we love trees and we want to save them and make sure that they are there for our planet and preserving ecosystems. So other things that were interesting about that report is that we found that 52% of Americans spend their toilet time scrolling on social media, which is we do a lot of...we have some not third party, but some first party data on the number of customers who are folders versus scrumptious.

Scott Meiklejohn: That's hilarious.

Mike Altman: If you know what I mean, and I think that's proprietary data. So I'm not actually going to share that with you.

Scott Meiklejohn: It's behind the scenes. It's behind the vault.

Mike Altman: But we have some data on it, for sure. But I mean, our customers, I think this is really important to them and important to us on what we can do for our environment. So I mean, we are really proud of the water and sanitation projects that we help fund with our nonprofit partners. We are also really excited about doing something about these trees being cut down.

Scott Meiklejohn: This is the data I want. I need to know how many people do the classic, like waterfall cascade with their toilet paper or do they switch it around and it flows underneath when you're setting up the toilet paper.

Mike Altman: There's only one good answer to that, which is over.

Scott Meiklejohn: Thank you.

Mike Altman: And I'm sorry that, and maybe I'm alienating some of your listeners. But I'm sorry if you were at home, go into your bathroom and correct that immediately. But [crosstalk 00:24:41] happily we definitely... I think we've actually asked some folks on social about that, but I'm pretty sure we also said that there is a right way. It's important to take a strong point of view sometimes as a brand.

Scott Meiklejohn: Of course. Listen, it's part of your brand values. I hope that's part of it. Something else I saw on your website to get a little more serious again. I mean, you were mentioning there with that staggering statistic on every day, the amount of toilet paper used. But even here seeing it now, recycled toilet paper requires 90% less land per finish sheet to produce. Just such an obvious choice. Just like you said, letting that awareness grow and just making it an obvious and easy fit to transition over.

Mike Altman: Again, there are a lot of... It's a complicated system, right? It is not always so cut and dry, but there are a lot of benefits towards using recycled toilet paper. And again, we don't expect... The information's there on our website, right. What we were talking about before on the journey, we don't expect everyone to become toilet paper buffs. Maybe we hope you do.

Mike Altman: But there's a lot of value in making a simple switch in terms of land usage, in terms of the trees. And then also just fun, we're just very fun. I think we really embrace puns. We're not afraid of them. We release really fun products. And towing on the idea of the product telling the story itself.

Mike Altman: We have a limited edition right now of toilet paper, which is we have special wrappings on each roll. And we wrap each of the roles because of sanitary purposes. And we also think they look really beautiful, the home. But we have [crosstalk 00:26:31] we really focus on the packaging experience and unboxing. And our box has lots of fun little delight moments all over the place. And we have a addition out right now called, Where's The Loo, and it's inspired by the, Where's Waldo, Where's Wally depending on where you're listening idea. And there are 12 fantastical worlds where you have to search our wrappers for a hidden loo. And the idea around there being hidden loo and loos that are missing around the world, that this toilet paper is actually helping find.

Mike Altman: And again, so trying to going back, communicating a complicated idea in a way you can really get it quickly, but it's also fun. And so we have kids, we have pictured people sending in photos of... The inside of our boxes are outlined in the character so that you can color them in. So people coloring in the boxes, people finding the loos. And so it's just a really fun time. We launched a coffee product that called number two, coffee that help you go. And so we're just trying to get people to make more number twos. So again, we can get more folks wiping with Who Gives A Crap. So yeah, I mean, we have a lot of fun and we try to make it fun, not take ourselves too seriously.

Scott Meiklejohn: That's so great to hear. I love hearing about all that innovation, and finding all these opportunities that maybe are overlooked to carry home the brand message and make it fun, make it a positive experience. As we move to wrap things up, we always ask every guest this, what advice would you give to any subscription brand that's maybe just launching or has launched, but it is looking to grow and scale up?

Mike Altman: I think that what's really important is to have a point of view, and have a voice that aligns with the customers that you are engaging with, even at the early stage and then continue to evolve that point of view and grow with your customers. I think that the idea around having a shared set of values and being really true to those values is what's going to continue to cut through and show why people care about you, and then really also fuel some of that word of mouth that can really grow your brand.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yep. Love that. We've seen that here too. If you're not sharing those values, you're just missing a huge opportunity to create a community or connect with a community that's already existing there. One more classic question for you. Do you have any fiscal subscription products outside of Who Gives A Crap that you subscribe to yourself that you're getting on the regular?

Mike Altman: Yes. Actually I am. Actually both of them are coffee.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love it. It ties in nicely. Just like you mentioned.

Mike Altman: I mean, I definitely love to try different subscription products and see what other folks are doing, seeing what other people's membership programs are like. I guess shout out to wandering bear. I like their coffee and I think during... I've always worked from home, but I think that after a while I was really getting tired of making my own coffee. And so I need a little bit of a supplement there. So I think that they've created a cool experience and fun brand. My friend Ross, shouts for Ross if you're listening. [crosstalk 00:29:57] He sent us coffee too. I think it's mostly coffee. I guess all the coffee brands will send me your coffee. Definitely a big coffee drinker. And I think just really open to trying other ones too. I think there's a lot of great brands doing interesting things in subscription and yeah, just love to see it.

Scott Meiklejohn: Well, one of those great brands is Who Gives A Crap. Mike, we've loved chatting with you today.

Mike Altman: Thank you.

Scott Meiklejohn: Hearing about sustainability, all the innovation you guys are doing over there. And we'd just like to wish you and Who Gives A Crap, the rest of luck for the rest of the year.

Mike Altman: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it. And it's what an honor to be here. Appreciate it.

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