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. 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 US$33-million in sales.
Squatty Potty isn’t the only company taking advantage of this flush opportunity. Poo-Pourri, which produces an oil-based spray that tamps down foul odours, has 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 well-trod by Toto, the Japanese market-leader 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 from 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, and you feel 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 squeeze hot coffee from a plastic pod in seconds, while the internet of things helps your fridge keep stock of your steaks so you can make one in your home sous-vide precision cooker later tonight. In your living room, you stream some music or a show from one of the many services that give you instantaneous access to a huge chunk of the world’s media, and beam it from your phone to your television. The technology that has infused our homes has made our day-to-day life better.
Our bathrooms, on the other hand, have remained largely innovation-free. 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 contents of the washroom have changed superficially over time—shag carpeting, luxe towels, make-up vanities, jacuzzi tubs—the tools themselves have basically remained frozen in time. And for entrepreneurs, that unexplored frontier suggests that 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, these scat speculators say that the most significant blockage has been the stigma of discussing something everyone does, but no one wants to talk about.
Like most animals, humans are conditioned to avoid uncleanliness, but our culture has turned that healthy instinct into colon conservatism. The Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy warns that human excrement is unholy in the eyes of God. It wasn’t until the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho that an American movie depicted a toilet flushing. And just read the 1993 Publishers’ Weekly review of the English translation of the delightful Japanese kids’ book Everybody Poops, and you can see North America’s 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.”
“Traditional bookstores were reluctant to embrace our book,” says gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, the bestselling author of the What’s Your Poo Telling You? series, whose interest dates back to his childhood, when he would talk 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 Sheth’s 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,” he says.
And then came the moment in popular culture that every person interviewed for this story noted as 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 the audience giggles uncomfortably, the segment turns when Dr. Oz suggests that actually, everyone looks at their poop, but no one will admit it. “I thought I was the only one,” Oprah says, shocked. If arguably the most famous person in America at the time could talk frankly about her poop, why couldn’t we?
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 field of study and a health trend with wide applications. And This Is Us star Chrissy Metz is among the chorus of celebrities who are putting what comes from our rear onto 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 countries 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. Americans’ aversion to bidets has long historic roots, with some theorizing that it stems from their British forefathers’ distaste for French things, while others suggest that U.S. soldiers fighting in the Second World War built lasting associations between the bidets in foreign brothels and immorality.
So Tushy used clean branding and cheeky marketing to spark these socially stigmatized conversations, then took advantage of the new business lanes those conversations opened. At a New York launch event for Tushy, which is attractively designed with wooden knobs and other millennial lures, Agrawal billed 2018 as “the year of the asshole” and handed out anal beads as party favours. Tushy’s provocative ads (which involve either a cheery anus or a chastising child) have also worked to change the terms of the arguments against the bidet, tapping into society’s increased awareness about climate change and highlighting the product’s ability to reduce the environmental impact and financial cost of toilet paper. “It’s now, ‘can we shift culture, can we shift behaviour, can we use branding and aesthetics for the right product and have the right conversations,’ and I think we’re the right company to do that.”
As far as advertising strategies go, this style has become tried and true for number two. Poo-Pourri’s initial ad campaign featured a prim British woman freely discussing the “creamy behemoth” she births from her “cavernous bowels,” a spot that earned 40 million views and reportedly boosted 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) in which 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.”
Still, there’s risk involved whenever an industry quickly grows out of a still-burgeoning science. While the thinking behind the Squatty Potty has medical backers—and is first-level FDA-approved as an elimination aid—that doesn’t mean it will be beneficial for everyone, Sheth notes. The Cologuard test, created by the Wisconsin-based firm Exact Sciences, has been marketed as a less invasive way to check for colon cancer, but it remains below the gold standard of a colonoscopy. And despite the logic of Tushy’s pitch, there is no definitive scientific statement on the best post-poo cleaning method; “I am not aware of anything in the medical literature about what is the ‘best way’ to clean up,” Dr. Linda Lee, a gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins, told Atlas Obscura in 2015.
But given the relative dearth of available upgrades to our washroom experience—despite the amount of our life we spend in there—it’s novel just have to options for consumers to critically examine. And now that discussing poop has come out from the shadows, a cleaner, smoother, smarter excretion is being branded as a lifestyle matter to aspire to, 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 an idea whose time has come.”
Indeed, whether these companies can turn bowel movements into a movement with staying power remains an open question—but they’ll be trying new things until they find the answer. Squatty Potty has released the SquattyPottymus, a raised-up hippo-themed potty seat aimed at children, while Tushy has its own plans for kid bidets. Edwards is aiming even higher, too, saying that he’s working with the Mayo Clinic for a definitive study on constipation, and is collaborating 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.
CORRECTION, Nov. 20, 2018: An earlier version of this story said that the Poop Project led the effort to have the United Nations recognize World Toilet Day. The organization supported that campaign, but was not directly affiliated with it.