When Bobby Edwards’s mother, Judy, finally went to the doctor to tackle her chronic constipation, her son didn’t think she would come back with an idea worth millions of dollars. But she couldn’t stop talking to her family and friends about the doctor’s simple recommendation — using a small footstool to raise her knees while on the toilet, so her puborectalis muscle could unkink her colon. “She became almost evangelical in her quest to help people poop better,” says Edwards.
So he sat down with some of the research around proper poop posture, and it seemed to add up for him. But when he looked online for devices that would help people squat on the toilet, the Internet came up empty. He even took the studies to his friends in the medical field, to see if there was something he was missing. “I would ask them and show them the diagrams, and they would say, ‘yes, this is exactly what we’re taught in medical school.’ And I would ask, ‘Why is there nothing out there to help people do this?’ And they said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
To the enterprising 41-year-old from Utah, who was running a specialty construction company with his brother at the time, that was music to his ears: a giant niche in a mostly unseen market, backed by some scientific studies, waiting to be filled by a simple, basic product — essentially, a formula for business success. He sold $700,000 worth of Squatty Potties online in 2012; two years later, they got nationwide retail distribution, and last year, stools for your stool raked in USD $33-million in sales.
Squatty Potty isn’t the only company taking advantage of this flush opportunity. Poo-Pourri, an oil-based spray that tamps down foul odours, has turned into an empire that reportedly has sold more than 17 million bottles since 2007. Tushy, which sells stylish bidets that can be affixed inside toilet bowls at home, has sold more than 50,000 units since 2016, having raised $1.4 million in capital for the still-small company. And new companies like Omigo continue to follow the path owned by Toto, a Japanese company whose sales of their flagship washlet (a high-tech toilet seat) have grown by nearly 30 per cent in just four years, to more than 40 million units worldwide.
And with innovations for every room of the house flooding the market, and money clearly to be made inside the one where our most sensitive business takes place, Edwards’s question is the right one: Why haven’t more businesses made number two their number-one priority?
Just look around your house, and consider how much it has evolved in just the last decade. You wake up in your bedroom on a high-tech foam mattress, perhaps delivered straight to your door, more refreshed because of the sleep-cycle monitor that buzzed you out of sleep at the ideal time. You walk into your kitchen, and press a button to turn a plastic pod into hot coffee in seconds, while the internet of things helps your fridge keep stock of the steak you’ll make in your home sous-vide precision cooker later tonight. In your living room, you use your phone to stream some music or a TV episode from one of the many services that give you instantaneous access to a huge chunk of the world’s media from your television. By infusing our homes, technology has made our day-to-day life better.
Our bathrooms, on the other hand, have remained largely innovation-free for decades. By the 1940s, more than half of Americans had access to a bathroom that had included cold and hot running water, a bathtub or shower, and of course, a flush toilet, about a century after they were first commercially produced. While the superficial items and design within the washroom has varied over time — shag carpeting, luxe towels, make-up vanities, jacuzzi tubs — the tools and structure of a washroom themselves have basically remained frozen in time. And for entrepreneurs, that unexplored frontier suggests brown could mean gold.
“Yes, I knew it helped my mother, but more importantly to me, I thought it was freaking hilarious that we’re supposed to be squatting to poop, and we’re not,” says Edwards. “It’s all about the better bathroom experience. We were all hiding out in our bathrooms, and now we’re talking.”
Indeed, the most significant blockage, these scat speculators say, has been the stigma of discussing something everyone does, but no one wants to talk about.
Just read the 1993 Publishers’ Weekly review of the English translation of the delightful Japanese kids’ book Everybody Poops, as our prudish Victorian mores shiver through the text: “Okay, so everyone does it — does everyone have to talk about it? True, kids at a certain stage of development may find the subject riveting — but their parents may well not want to read to them about it. … Call it what you will, by euphemism or by expletive, poop by any name seems an unsuitable picture book subject.” And it took until 1960 for a toilet to even be flushed on an American movie screen, in a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
“Traditional bookstores were reluctant to embrace our book,” says Anish Sheth, a gastroenterologist and the bestselling author of the What’s Your Poo Telling You? series. His interest dates back to his childhood, talking openly about poop quality over the dinner table with his physician father. “For whatever reason, he got a kick out of it,” he says, laughing.
But since the first book came out in 2007, the culture has changed. “We’ve seen a breakdown in culture and media in some of those barriers to discussing it — acknowledging it’s awkward and uncomfortable for some people, but at the same time, it can definitely be a big indicator for health,” Sheth says.
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Every person interviewed for this story points to a singular moment in popular culture that brought about a watershed for the water closet: In May 2005, just three weeks before Tom Cruise leapt upon her couches, Oprah Winfrey invited celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz onto her much-watched show to discuss the importance of human excrement. As she plays up her discomfort with the sound of poop for laughs and you hear the audience giggle uncomfortably, the segment turns when Dr. Oz suggests that actually, everyone looks at their poop but doesn’t admit it. “I thought I was the only one,” she says, shocked. If Oprah — arguably the most famous person in America at the time — poops, why couldn’t we talk about it?
The dung dialogue has opened up since. A New York group called The Poop Project was started in 2010 to spark these conversations through theatre and educational programs. In 2013, the United Nations recognized Nov. 19 as World Toilet Day, which calls for safe, sustainable and hygienic facilities around the world. Gut health has flourished as a mainstream study and widely applied health trend. And This Is Us star Chrissy Metz joined the chorus of celebrities who are bringing what comes out from our rear to the front burner. “People take pictures of their poop now,” marvels Sheth. “Who’d have thought of that?”
What makes North America’s belated awareness of bathroom improvement even more baffling is that it’s not particularly innovative if you take a global view. In places across Asia and Europe, squatting and bidets are a way of life. Indeed, Tushy is effectively a North American rebrand of basic Chinese bidet attachments.
“I’m half-Japanese and half-Indian, so… I’ve been questioning why we use dry paper to wipe the dirtiest parts of our body since the beginning of my existence,” says Miki Agrawal, the Montreal-raised founder of Tushy. In 2012, her then-boyfriend gifted her a Chinese-made bidet attachment for Valentine’s Day, which sparked a brain wave. “I thought, ‘it’s so ugly and irrelevant in today’s culture, so let me take this concept and make a beautifully designed product that looks like an iPhone next to your toilet; let me rebrand this category and make North Americans excited about the bidet.’ ”
She faced an uphill challenge: America’s aversion to bidets have long historic roots, with theories suggesting that it stems from their British forefathers’ distaste for French things, or from the Second World War, when American soldiers visited brothels, only to find bidets that they would then associate with immorality.
But Tushy — as well as many of the other companies — have used smart branding and marketing to help start socially stigmatized conversations, while taking advantage of the new business lanes those conversations opened. In ads for the Tushy, which Agrawal has attractively designed with wooden knobs and other millennial lures, a cheery anus informs its millennial watchers of the “simple, sleek modern bidet attachment that’ll wash your crusty crap cannon after you drop a few dos ickies”; at a Tushy launch party that billed 2018 as “the year of the asshole,” guests received anal beads as party favours. Poo-Pourri’s initial ad campaign features a prim British woman freely discussing the “creamy behemoth” she births from her “cavernous bowels,” a spot that has earned 40 million views and reportedly boosting web traffic for the site by 13,000 per cent. And Squatty Potty earned market share on the strength of its own 2015 TV ad (made by the same team that produced Poo-Pourri’s ad) wherein a unicorn squats over a series of cones and smoothly squeezes out rainbow-coloured “ice-cream sundaes,” racking up 66 million views and 1 million Facebook shares in four months while earning endorsements from ABC’s Shark Tank and Howard Stern. “You wonder if the Squatty Potty came out 10 or 15 years ago, would it have taken off?” muses Sheth. “I think it wouldn’t have. It’s a hard thing to market.”
That marketing has changed the terms of arguments against some of these products. With more awareness about the environment, Agrawal suggests the climate impact (and financial cost) of creating and disposing toilet paper has become harder to justify. And now that discussing poop has come out from the shadows, a cleaner, smoother, smarter excretion is being seen as an aspirational lifestyle issue, like anything else.
“I always say to people, it may not change your life, but it’s a tool you can use to improve your life and make yourself more happy,” Edwards says of the Squatty Potty. “I think it’s the final frontier of lifestyle upgrade,” agrees Agrawal. “I believe this is a billion-dollar opportunity. It’s now: ‘can we shift culture, can we shift behaviour, can we use branding and aesthetics for the right products and conversations.’ It’s an idea whose time has come.”
Indeed, whether these companies can make bowel movements become a movement with staying power remains an open question — but they’ll be trying new things to find out. Squatty Potty has released the animal-themed SquattyPottymus footstool, aimed at children, while Tushy has plans for kid bidets. Edwards is aiming even higher, revealing that he’s working with the Mayo Clinic for a definitive study on constipation, and is working with a toilet maker to reinvent the throne itself to induce good gut posture and better fit the human anatomy.
But it all has to start somewhere. Or, in this case, it has to start with how our bowels end.