The Dreamers.

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Simon Griffiths

After spending several years volunteering in the developing world, Simon Griffiths saw that there were two things that could help make a difference to global poverty: beer and toilet paper. More specifically, the solution was the concept of consumer-driven philanthropy – giving people the opportunity to make a difference by buying products that they use every day. Firstly, Simon co-founded Shebeen, a bar in Melbourne that donates 100% of its profits to the developing world. His second business, created with friends Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander, is An online recycled toilet paper company, the business donates 50% of its profits to WaterAid in a bid to provide people in developing countries with access to a toilet, helping prevent diarrhoea-related illnesses. 

I was definitely entrepreneurial as a kid … but it was of a more capitalist bent. I’d always sell my friends things at school and start up small businesses doing this and that.

I studied … engineering and commerce at uni, which sort of fed through into the way I think now. Within commerce, I studied finance and economics, and while finance teaches you how to make money work, economics is more about problem- solving with business-like scenarios. And then engineering is almost pure problem- solving. So pretty much everything I did was about how to problem-solve with money, which is basically what I do in my day-to-day job now.

I was dissatisfied … working in corporate environments, because the work was fine but I never felt like I was doing something that I cared about. I tried a few different things and thought I’d eventually figure it out, but I got to point where I realised that maybe I was just doing the wrong thing.

I spent some time in the developing world … and realised that I loved the outcome of the work I was doing. I’d found the right outcome, but the process still wasn’t quite right, so I had to find a middle ground.

The thing that slapped me in the face … while I was volunteering, was the inefficiency that can come through a lot of volunteer positions like the ones I had. There were a lot of inefficiencies because people didn’t have the flexibility to think creatively and to solve problems that were going to be impact-maximising. I felt like there needed to be a much more entrepreneurial approach to the creation of social impact.

I realised that … everyone working in the developing world was under-funded and was competing for the same funds and was spending a lot of wasted time doing that. Basically one third of an organisation’s time is spent trying to attract funding, but, in doing that, they’re just taking funding away from somebody else. I saw that as a huge problem – we had to figure out other ways of funding the same sort of thing but through a new funding channel. And that was by using goods that we all purchase, like beer and toilet paper, and using the profits to create social impact.

The government is notoriously bad at innovation … and we need to find new and better solutions. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to be innovating, but I think it does need to look at the people who are innovating and being successful and become a partner with those innovators to make things faster, easier and more impactful.

Shebeen was a very convoluted project to get started … because the idea of a non-profit bar pushed the boundaries of what people thought businesses could do and should be doing. The hardest part was raising the capital to get it off the ground. When we started four years ago, no one knew what social enterprise was, so there was a lot of education. And the idea of giving us money and getting a financial return but also creating social impact didn’t yet exist in Australia, so we went for a non-profit model, which maybe we wouldn’t have done if we were looking at it now.

We don’t refer to what we do as social enterprise … because it’s a term that gets thrown around but doesn’t actually define what anyone does. We just think of what we do as being a business that does good.

We started crowdfunding for Who Gives A Crap … in mid-2012, but we only started fulfilling orders in April this year. We ordered enough product to have a back stock for two to three months, but the demand for it was much higher than what we anticipated and – even though we didn’t do any active marketing – we ended up selling out of the product that we had in about five days.

The greatest challenge we’ve faced is … that we’re competing with some of the biggest producers in Australia and the world, because our product reaches every single person in the developed world. It’s really quite difficult to sell toilet paper outside the supermarket and getting into a supermarket before you’ve got a product is also very difficult. So we’ve had to try to define a completely new retail opportunity by getting people to buy online.

We recently made our first donation to WaterAid … and while we’re still confirming it, it looks like one of our 48-roll boxes is able to provide someone with access to a toilet for 12 months. To see that donation go to WaterAid and see them realise that it’s something that will only grow is something that I’m really proud of.  

My parents have always been supportive … whether it was because they were foolish
enough not to question what I was doing, or smart enough to keep their mouths shut! They were very encouraging in letting me try different things to figure out what did and didn’t make sense, and they would watch me make mistakes and also have victories. It was only a few years ago that they came clean and told me that they didn’t really understand what I was doing, but it looked like I was on the right track and they wanted to do everything they could to support me.

I’m inspired by … people from all sorts of fields. There’s the guys who do some amazing work on the ground like Sanergy – who are pioneering the idea of selling sanitation as a product in the developing world and turning it into a business model. And then there’s the people like who help organisations that don’t have the ability to access smart, well-paid consultants to get in there and solve some of their complex problems. I’m really inspired, too, by the people who get into the marketplace and make a lot of noise and change the way consumers engage with products.

I’m really motivated by … being able to get someone to change the way they’re thinking or to get people to buy something because it’s doing something better. It’s about making the small changes in order to have a product that’s completely different and gets people thinking.

My dream now is … to grow these businesses and see what the opportunities are and make sure we’re doing everything we can to drive this movement. I’d like to start even more businesses that can increase the level of impact that we have as a society. But for now I think it’s important to see these current businesses through to their absolute highest level of success.

Stay foolish … because the more you know about something, the less likely you are to do it. If we knew how hard it was to start a toilet paper company or get a non-profit bar off the ground, there’s no way we would have embarked on it in the first place. But it was totally worth it.