The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0028

The Myth of the Overnight Sensation

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Before the viral unicorn poop video, before the appearances on Shark Tank and Dr. Oz and Howard Stern—Bobby Edwards was showing his invention at conventions and sending it to alternative health bloggers in hopes of getting coverage. The invention? Squatty Potty, a plastic stool that puts you in a squatting position to poop better. Today Squatty Potty brings in over $30 million in annual revenue, but the quirky company’s ascent to viral fame was far from assured. In today’s episode, CEO Bobby Edwards talks about the years of work that went into marketing the Squatty Potty before it got national attention.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:06] And I’m Wailin Wong. In our last episodes we interviewed Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson about a new book that he coauthored with Jason Fried. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. And one thing we talked about was managing expectations for this new book. Basically, David said that they reject any pressure around making the book into an instant bestseller. They’re willing to play the long game and they’re not trying to get the new book to explode right out of the gate. It got me thinking about a section in the earlier book, Rework, called “The myth of the overnight sensation.” It’s about how brands and companies often take time and work to build. You have to develop a story and make people care about it.

Shaun: [00:00:48] From our point of view as consumers, it sometimes looks like these massive breakout products and businesses come out of nowhere. Like I’ll see a viral video or read an article somewhere and think, man, that just blew up. But, we very rarely get to see all the wrong turns and years of toiling and anonymity behind these things.

Wailin: [00:01:07] I thought it would be fun to interview a company that a lot of people have heard of. So today on the show, I talked to Bobby Edwards of Squatty Potty. A company that makes a stool that helps position your body so you poop in a squatting position, which Bobby says is the anatomically correct way to do it.

Shaun: [00:01:23] I don’t know about you, Wailin, but I first heard of the squatty potty when an incredibly funny ad started popping up all over the Internet.

Wailin: [00:01:30] Same. It turns out Squatty Potty was also on Shark Tank, so you might’ve seen them on there. They’re one of these companies that seems like it instantly catapulted to superstardom, but there’s more to the story, not the least of which is that it took them two tries to get on Shark Tank. And before that it was years of trying to get health bloggers to write about them and other unglamorous things.

Bobby: [00:01:58] My name is Bobby Edwards and I am the co-creator and CEO of squatty potty. The squatty potty was just a simple stool that is ergonomic and designed to fit around the toilet to help you achieve a natural squat without actually squatting. So, it gives you the posture of a squat and all the benefits. But without… you don’t have to climb up on your toilet and actually squat.

Wailin: [00:02:19] The idea for a product that would help you achieve an anatomically correct position for pooping came from Bobby’s mother.

Bobby: [00:02:26] She noticed the change when she built a house with a taller toilet and that’s when she really found the benefits of the stool to help her get back into that, you know, lower squat type position. So, mom had a poop stool for years, but it was in 2011 that the light went on that after doing a little research and finding out that people were actually looking for this product or talking about the concept and there was nothing out there. And we were like, let’s try it. Let’s just build a website and see what happens.

[00:02:53] The first prototype and the first, I would say 3000 units were all made by wood. A friend of mine had a CNC machine, so he would, you know, type in the plans into the computer and the little machine would cut them out and wood and we’d screw them together and paint them white and send them out.

[00:03:11] So, and that was the first one I made for my mom that, you know, initially was the initial first squatty potty. And she was like, voilà, this is so much better than what I’ve been using. It’s the perfect size, the perfect height. It tucks away when I’m not using it, etc., etc. And that’s what got her on board with creating… making a product out of this as well. So the first… we initially made them, you know, in a garage.

Wailin: [00:03:33] How did you find those initial customers after your mom was sold on it? What did you do next?

Bobby: [00:03:38] Oh, so we just built a website. I mean, I had been in website design and in online marketing at Fox television. So, I went online and I researched what people were searching for. What were people looking for with squatting to poop and what was out there? Right. You know, keywords that talked about, you know, constipation and how alternatives to Ex-Lax, and so I built a website based on that data.

Wailin: [00:04:03] Back then there wasn’t a lot of competition on Google AdWords for terms related to this stuff. So with a few hundred dollars, Bobby was able to get Squatty Potty to the top of Google search results.

[00:04:14] What was your thinking around the kind of tone you wanted to take with the website and with your marketing materials? Were you thinking, this is quirky and we should lean into the quirky and the weirdness of it or where you thinking we should be really serious?

Bobby: [00:04:25] No, it was all health based. It was all like, you know, my customer was my mom. And old people are going through, they’re starting to take medicines that help to slow them down and you know, things start to slow down and they’ve had children. And so I thought, you know, we’re going to go after this very medical, very like pelvic floor health, you know. Women, mothers that are having constipation and pelvic floor issues and this is going to be the product that helped them. So, it was very medical and clinical and very boring. Very boring. In fact, we had like an image of a skeleton on a toilet and it’s like your toilet’s killing you.

Wailin: [00:05:12] Is it like you’ve been waiting so long to poop, you just died and turned into a skeleton on the toilet?

Bobby: [00:05:16] Yeah. Your toilets killing you. You might as well, you know. The way you’re using your toilet is killing you. It’s… I don’t know. It was a little bit scare tactic a little bit like, you know, I don’t know. It’s funny because even before we went online, we started doing like roadshows. It’s the weirdest thing. Trust me.

[00:05:36] So we’d show up at this like expo for like what women want. It’s essentially an expo of like Botox and glitter scarfs and like bedazzled jeans and strange thing that people think that women want. And I thought, well, women want a squatty potty. What woman wouldn’t want a squatty potty? Right? So we show up at this toilet with this weird messaging with my mom and myself and we’re getting crazy looks like, oh, I don’t even want to talk about poop. That’s the last thing… I want to talk about Botox, not poop. Or, you know, it’s like, I didn’t come here for this. Got some strange looks.

[00:06:13] However, let me tell you, this was the most beneficial thing ever because it allowed me, I listened to the people and it allowed me to construct my message to be something that was more palatable. We could navigate the topic better after these experiences of being one on one with these people, right? We’re face-to-face and they’re excited. They’re embarrassed. They’re all these things. So it allowed us to construct a message that was much more palatable because we did have a topic that was really strange.

But that’s why I was attracted to it because actually I thought it was fricking hilarious that we’re supposed to be squatting to poop and nobody’s talking about it. That’s my sense of humor, right? Like I’m like around the dinner table, Oh you know, you’re supposed to be squatting to poop. And people were like, no, that’s crazy. Weird.

[00:07:01] And I’m just like, at least enough people… that I was interested in it. So, I kind of took that, my kind of sense of humor and then married it with what I learned from being one on one with people on the road. And that’s how we were able to kind of like come up with that tongue-in-cheek message that people could relate to.

Wailin: [00:07:20] Right. Where you were taking away the stigma of talking about poop cause you were lighthearted about it.

Bobby: [00:07:25] We’re lighthearted about it, yeah. And being more frank. I think people are uncomfortable if you’re uncomfortable with your message. If you’re like trying to dance around something, people pick up on that. And it’s like the second we said poop just went right to the word poop. It was like, oh okay. And it was right around the time when Oprah was talking about poop and Doctor Oz. It was really strange. It was this kind of strange, weird time. And when Internet marketing was just starting out, you know, these direct to consumer brands like, Casper had just started and you see all these things that manufacturers and brands were able to reach out directly to consumers in a way they never had been able to. And I just like copied that. You know, it’s like, look, this is the way we can at least try and do this. But it all started with crafting the message. That’s what took… it took a year or two.

Wailin: [00:08:17] I have to say Kudos to your mom for being so open to talking about it, too. Because it seems like the story of your mom and how she found this to be so useful for her. It’s like a huge part of the story of your company and it really helps kind of bring it to life.

Bobby: [00:08:32] You have to have a story to stand out, I think. Otherwise you’re just another company. There’s nothing that people connect to emotionally. And people really connected to that. And my mom was genuine. She thinks it’s divine inspiration that she’s selling this product.

Wailin: [00:08:48] Everyone’s got a calling.

Bobby: [00:08:50] Yeah, it’s her calling, right? She’s like, I’m helping all these people, all these colons everywhere. So happy. And I’m like, good. You know, that’s your, you’re adorable. That’s great. I love you mom.

Wailin: [00:09:02] So you were going to expos and did I also read that you were giving away product to health bloggers, too, hoping that it would catch on that way?

Bobby: [00:09:10] Yeah. So initially we went to those expos, we crafted our message. So we finally got that message down. You know, I sat down with a friend and I created a video that, and it’s online, it’s way before the unicorn. It’s like, it’s an animated graphic video that talks about the concept of squatting and how you’re sitting. And so I’d send these health influencers a link to the video and the squatty potty and a little note that said, you know, this is, this is the squatty potty, this is what it does and this is how it helped my mom. And it might help you and if it helps you write about it.

Wailin: [00:09:43] Yeah. You know what’s interesting is, I mean that was a pretty big expense for you, right? I mean the thing is substantial. And so you had, you were shipping it.

Bobby: [00:09:50] Yeah. It’s like for us to… Back then it was about $20 to ship a box that big. Because it was a heavy wood, large box assembled and then the, for the cost of the product. So that was initially about $40 a pop to send a squatty potty. And then I sent about over a hundred over the course of, you know, four or five months. And again, this was, you know, back before influencer marketing was kind of a thing. I think it was just kind of starting and then, you know, so these people were interested in topics like this and this was something new and interesting and even off-topic people like, you know, vegan bloggers or mommy bloggers were talking about it cause it would help them, you know, everyone gets hemorrhoids when they’re pregnant, etc., etc. And so I was able to kind of reach out to these people that I’d never thought were going to be our market. And that really helped. That kind of snowballed, you know, that that really got things going that got traffic coming much more than going to a convention center and schlepping your goods.

Wailin: [00:10:55] And then when you’re going on Dr. Oz, was that the first really big break?

Bobby: [00:10:59] Yeah, it was the first big break. We had just moved into a new space out of the garage and we had just started getting the plastic stools from China. And my dad was in the office and I miss driving to California. We live in southern Utah. It’s about a six-hour drive. Driving down there, and I get a call from, you know, my dad’s saying we’re going to be on Dr Oz. I’m like, what? He goes, I just got a call. And it was from one of the producers and he didn’t believe that it was really a producer from Dr. Oz. He thought it was me or one of my friends or one of my brothers playing a trick on him. But it turned out to be real. So yeah, that was, that was a big win. Thank God we were ready to go at that point. We had just got those plastic stools so we were able to make it happen.

Wailin: [00:11:46] Yeah. And then after that you got Howard Stern and then you went on Shark Tank. It just seems like you hit all of the… any one of these would be a dream for a small business, but then you got all of them.

Bobby: [00:12:00] Yeah, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was like… this was one year apart. So Dr. Oz happened in 2012. Howard Stern happened in 2013, and then Shark Tank was 2014.

Wailin: [00:12:11] And so did you feel like Shark Tank, you really needed it even though you had already gotten such a big splash from Dr. Oz and from Howard Stern, what were you looking to get out of a Shark Tank appearance that you might not have gotten out of those other two?

Bobby: [00:12:24] Publicity. It’s more publicity to be honest. To get eight minutes in front of America, it’s incredibly valuable. It’s worth millions of dollars, even if you don’t get a deal. Look at what—to buy that programming would be hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars depending on how much extra publicity you get on top of that because you get added bonuses if you get follow-ups. You get follow-ups with all these other news organizations for being on Shark Tank. So that’s essentially why I wanted Shark Tank. And it took work. It took twice. They said no the first time.

Wailin: [00:13:03] Oh really? Do they give you a reason when they turn you down or is it just a form letter.

Bobby: [00:13:08] They did that time. Because we were pretty far along and all of a sudden they’re like, we have a producer that just doesn’t like the product, doesn’t like the content. It’s a family show. You’re talking about poop. It’s not right for our brand.

Wailin: [00:13:21] Oh really? That seems… well, I guess you went on eventually. So they kind of saw that…

Bobby: [00:13:27] I think we had a different… and we had also changed our message within that year to the second time we went on. We were more legitimate. We’d had more success as well. So I think that helped us, as well.

Wailin: [00:13:40] Yeah. Was there ever a moment leading up to, and then including the Shark Tank appearance where you thought to yourself, oh, we’ve made it because we got this, or we got this mentioned, or we have this many sales now, or did you constantly feel like we still have to be looking for that next…?

Bobby: [00:13:56] Yeah, it’s funny you think that once you get there, that you’ve it. And when you look at the bank account, you’re like, where’s all the money going?

[00:14:12] It still seems like that to me. It’s still… you’re able to finally pay yourself some money, but what you get is you have a business that’s valuable now, right? So that’s the value. That’s what you get as a business owner. Unless you’re just like printing cash. But that’s very rare. In most cases, a business is not going to make money or make gobs of money until you sell it. Or until you make enough revenue that you can actually start pulling out dividends. But you always want to put the money back in though, you always want to make it successful and bounce it up and bolster it and make it as big as it can be. It’s a fantasy that you’re going to just be rich from making it big.

Wailin: [00:14:52] Sure. Even, post-Shark Tank and on, which I think a lot of people might not realize.

Bobby: [00:14:54] Even post-Shark Tank. And even bigger than Shark Tank was the unicorn video that went viral, right? That was, that was like five times what Shark Tank was.

Squatty Potty Clip: [00:15:05] This is where your ice cream comes from. The creamy poop of a mystic unicorn. Totally clean, totally cool and soft serve straight from a sphincter. Mmm. They’re good at pooping.

Shaun: [00:15:18] Let me break down what’s happening in this video, in case you haven’t seen it. A man dressed in sort of fancy Renaissance Faire garb is standing in front of a conveyor belt and perched over that conveyor belt is a tiny unicorn puppet that is squatting and pooping rainbow soft serve into ice cream cones.

Wailin: [00:15:38] Can you talk to me about how you decided to go after a viral video? And I don’t even know if that’s kind of the concept you had in mind or if you just wanted to make a video and were surprised by the virality of it.

Bobby: [00:15:48] Both. Both. I had found that company years ago, they had done videos that I really liked and so I really was going after this company to make a video for us, but we couldn’t afford it. And after Shark Tank, we finally, again, this is why you save your money and not spend it. We could finally afford it. We finally had some money in our account that I could go and pay their $250,000 that they wanted to make this video. And we did it. It was a huge gamble. In fact, there were people that did not want to do it, right? We had a new shark. We had other partners, too, that had come in to help us. But my parents saw the value. My parents stood behind me and they went—we went and did it.

Wailin: [00:16:31] Were you drawn to, it’s the Harmon Brothers, right? That’s the name of the—

Bobby: [00:16:35] It’s the Harmon Brothers, yeah.

Wailin: [00:16:36] Harmon Brothers. And were you drawn to them because they had a quirky style? The videos that you saw before? They were in a similar vein?

Bobby: [00:16:41] I was, and the reason I liked them is because not only do they make funny videos, they make videos that sell. If you’ve seen the product Poo-Pouri, they did that video as well. Very similar topic. And when they, when that video came out, I was almost sad because I’m like, this is my video. It’s not the same product, but it’s like my video. Right?

[00:17:03] So I called him and I said, you know, this—of course they got so much attention on that video. So, they were hard to reach. But I finally got in touch with, with one of the Harmon Brothers. So I said, you know, this is our product. I’m interested in you guys. And they were very interested in our product to, they liked it, they thought this was right up their alley. Right? But then they gave me the price and I was like, that’s not gonna happen.

[00:17:25] So that was a full year and a half before we even did the video. So when we finally had the money to do it, we did it.

[00:17:33] We bootstrapped everything. We started out buying $35 banner ads on random weird alternative health websites. They had these exchanges where you could buy ad space on just any website. You know, you’ve got to like a blogger exchange and you’d have like, I’d literally have an ad budget of $180 and do it. And we just did it and built it from there. So you don’t have to have, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a business. With $35,000, we were able to start a business that’s now doing over $30 million a year. And it started with me buying ads and sending out product to influencers, and just… awe had the money, we did it.

Wailin: [00:18:18] Do you remember what your first reaction to the ad was? And I’m sure the ad went through a few iterations before you released the final version, but were you like, this is exactly what I dreamed of? Or was it… were you like this is even weirder than I thought.

Bobby: [00:18:31] This is even weirder than I thought. I was like, oh my gosh, what are we doing? Because we had spent so much time babying this brand and trying to become a legitimate health product, you know, and I was like this could go either way. It could have gone either way. It still could go either way. It’s like, you never know. And then, and it wasn’t till like day three or four that it started to go viral. And so, the first two days I was like, oh my gosh, we just spent $250,000 and it’s got 3,000 views.

[00:19:10] And then on day three, I remember I was in bed and I woke up at like 6:30 AM and looked at the numbers and it had spiked to like 300,000 views overnight. And then I looked at sales and I was like, oh, I reached over, gave my partner a high five and I’m like, look at this, look at this, look at this. You know, it’s happening. It’s happening.

Wailin: [00:19:29] So your instincts about what these videos can do were correct. Because you said these videos, they’re not just eye catching or, they don’t just go viral, but they sell. And in your case, you saw a direct correlation. Like someone would watch the video and then buy it.

Bobby: [00:19:42] Exactly.

Wailin: [00:19:42] Which is pretty remarkable.

Bobby: [00:19:44] It’s a hybrid of kind of a response ad, because, if you watched the video thing, nail it three or four times, problem, solution, problem, solution, buy now, buy now, buy now, buy now, problem, solution, problem, solution, buy now. It’s like they… it’s not just funny. It’s buy now. This is the problem. This is the solution. Buy now.

Wailin: [00:20:04] Right, right. And it’s this dressed up in this like really wacky psychedelic story. Right. So.

Bobby: [00:20:08] It is. Which is strange, but, and you know, you’ve seen a lot of people try and copy that and some of them are successful and some of them are not. But you know, so it’s weird. You never know. It’s still a mystery to me what’s going to make… So, in worst case, if you’re doing a video, make sure there is a strong call to action and make sure it is problem, solution. And it’s not just funny because just funny we’ve made videos that are funny and not, it hasn’t moved the dial, you know, we’ve been on Saturday Night Live, and it didn’t move the dial. It was funny and hilarious and millions of people saw it but it didn’t push them to buy. So, it’s not just mention. People need to be asked to buy. They do. It’s funny, I didn’t believe it and I was against it too cause I’m like well it’s too salesy. I’m not a salesy person. I learned that you have to have a hook, you have to get them to buy.

Wailin: [00:21:06] Did you give yourself a moment after the video came out and you saw how well it did and how much of a difference in sales. Did you give yourself a moment to be like, okay, we can coast on this for a little bit? We don’t have to be immediately thinking of what is the next big thing.

Bobby: [00:21:23] Yeah, I’m doing that now. I’m giving myself a moment now and it feels great. Yeah. The good thing is we have a brand that people like and it resonates with people. And so we have an opportunity, so, we’re gonna take it. But I was just telling people, I’m like, I just need, give me till September. I want to take a summer off. It’s just for my own personal sanity. It’s a hard mix. You know, that one has to navigate between success and happiness. And it’s, you know, and it’s, and it’s been really nice to be able to spend that time with my kids this summer and just take a break.

[00:21:59] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:22:01] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:22:09] Don’t we have a squatty potty in the office?

Shaun: [00:22:11] We do.

Wailin: [00:22:12] Where is it?

Shaun: [00:22:13] It’s in the phone booth. Just, you know, in case you want to be ergonomic while chatting on the phone.

Wailin: [00:22:19] Making your business calls, although that’s not a very calm company approach.

Shaun: [00:22:22] Don’t say making your business. Um, what else do we want to say about this? That’s it. We’re leaving it here.