After 150 years, toilet paper is getting an update from a new flock of startups that claim their rolls can seriously improve the butt-wiping experience. All of them have made a sense of humor part of their brands, with names like No. 2, Who Gives A Crap, Tushy, Cheeky Monkey, Bippy, and Peach, a nod to the emoji that’s become code for “butt.”
While all of them are relatively small—most are self-funded or have received pre-seed rounds of under a million dollars—the industry they want to disrupt is worth $31 billion. For decades, the major players in the tissue industry, including conglomerates like Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific, and Kimberly-Clark, have treated their products (think Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, Scott, and Charmin) as a commodity, competing largely based on price. And none of them have done much to innovate besides simply selling larger rolls so you don’t need to replace them as often.
The slew of new, TP-focused startups see an opportunity in this staunchly unchanging industry. Their strategies include using more sustainable materials, eschewing plastic wrap, improving texture, and perhaps most importantly, designing rolls that look beautiful enough to double as bathroom decor. In exchange, they’re charging more than their old-school competitors, which generally sell a standard roll for under $1. Though Who Gives A Crap has prices starting at $1 a pop, Peach charges as much as $3.
While these innovations may seem like the modern pinnacle of direct-to-consumer marketing, these startups are actually taking a page from the very old playbook of the original inventor of toilet paper, Joseph Gayetty. In 1857, the New York entrepreneur came up with a new post-loo wiping alternative to the most commonly used toilet paper at the time: pages from the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog. Gayetty developed sheets of manila hemp infused with aloe and delivered in handy boxes that sat neatly in your bathroom. At a price of 1,000 sheets for $1 (which is equivalent to $28.86 in today’s money), toilet paper was a wildly indulgent luxury. But it was a huge hit. Before long, toilet paper became a must-have item in every American household.
Today’s startups are betting that consumers will pay more for a higher-end version of a commodified product. It’s an approach that’s been wildly successful for some lifestyle brands, like the razor startup Harry’s, and Away, which did this with suitcases. As crazy as it sounds, these toilet paper startups want to sell an elevated toilet experience. Aaron Doades, CEO of Peach Goods, puts it this way on the Peach Goods website: “We believe in moments for ourselves. To give every part of us—and our bathrooms—something better.”