The Coronavirus Economy: The toilet paper startup in the right place at an unfortunate time

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As we all know, there has been a massive rush to get toilet paper in light of the outbreak of COVID-19. The shelves once lined back-to-back with traditional brands are consistently empty in some grocery stores, leaving consumers to turn to alternative options.

If there was ever a time for a startup looking to disrupt the toilet paper business, this would be it.

No.2, a bamboo toilet paper brand that looks tailor-made for Instagram, says it saw a 5,210% month-over-month surge in sales on Amazon for the month of March (compared with February 2020), and sales through the company’s own site—which provides direct-to-consumer and subscription services—rose 3,239% over the same stretch. “The situation is awful, but the interesting twist is that we are seeing consumers once afraid to take the plunge into this eco-friendly world becoming converts,” says a spokesperson for the Los Angeles–based brand.

Fortune spoke with founder Samira Far for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the outbreak has affected her business and her thoughts on the future, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.

Samira Far founded No.2, a bamboo toilet paper brand. “Our hope is that there is a silver lining [to the pandemic]: a shift to more sustainable toilet paper brands,” she tells Fortune.
Courtesy of No.2

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: Tell me a bit about your background. Toilet paper isn’t the most obvious choice for a starting a new business, but it certainly has long-term potential. What inspired the launch of No.2, especially its particular stylized aesthetic?

Far: I guess you could say I am an entrepreneur to my core with an insatiable need to look for experiential improvements. Prior to my toilet paper venture, I founded Bellacures, a high-end nail salon franchise with several locations. I sold the company in 2017.  

I took a little break following the exit of Bellacures. In 2018, I was looking for my next project and product to improve on. I had a list of thoughts and theories floating around in my head and started to do some research. In my research I decided the toilet paper industry is not only dated and dusty, literally, but also major brands were only competing on softness factors—not other important points like reliability, additive-free options, plastic-free packaging, etc.  I got really excited to bring a typically mundane product to life in a new way using my love for creative prints, obsession for good branding and quality products as inspiration.

After immersing myself in the world of toilet paper, I quickly learned, to put it simply, that toilet paper consumes a lot of trees. Global toilet paper production is devastating forests. The more I researched, the more the numbers and statistics shocked me, and I became fascinated by the fact that one small decision like what we wipe with can have such a huge environmental impact. It was at that moment I knew No.2 also had to also be a sustainable solution.

Now, I am on a mission to change the way people think about toilet paper—how you buy it, and what you can expect in terms of both quality and sustainability. 

What did it take to launch the business? 

I like to always start with a road map/business plan that I use to help guide a giant to-do list for myself, and then I gathered talented people around me to bring the vision for No.2 to life.

No.2, a bamboo toilet paper brand that looks tailor-made for Instagram.
Courtesy of No.2

When did you realize the pandemic might affect your company? What did you make of all the panic buying and rush on grocery stores—especially for toilet paper?

In the very early days of this pandemic I remember hearing about people hoarding toilet paper and grocery stores being wiped and thinking it was bizarre. I didn’t think much of it until we started getting an influx of orders around March 8.  By March 12, I saw a huge spike and knew we had to start getting a plan together. The next day I realized it was likely we could sell out that week. We sold out on Amazon on March 14 and on our site on the 19th.

(For more, read The case of the missing toilet paper: How the coronavirus exposed U.S. supply chain flaws.”)

We still don’t know why the panic buying included hoarding toilet paper. Yet, with shelves in stores being empty, people went looking for alternative options, and this situation became a great educator. Many have become aware of other options for toilet paper: tree-made versus recycled paper versus bamboo. Our hope is that there is a silver lining: a shift to more sustainable toilet paper brands.

What has demand been like in the weeks since the pandemic took hold in the United States? 

Our website sales skyrocketed 3,239% and Amazon sales soared to 5,210% compared with previous months. 

When we started seeing a flood of new orders come in, the first thing we did was make sure we put aside enough inventory to service our existing subscription customers. We had enough inventory to stay in stock longer than most, but eventually sold out and started taking preorders. We were back in stock on May 4 and restocked on Amazon on May 18. We went into production at 15 times the volume we normally produce.

Given that we’re going to be living a socially distanced life for some time, and that how we shop at grocery stores will remain altered for months (or possibly years) to come, do you expect consumer purchasing habits and preferences to shift? 

I think people enjoy the ease of a delivery service, especially for bulk items that you have to carry from the store to the car and from the car to the house. Will 100% of the people getting deliveries stick to deliveries? Probably not. Yet, I think we’re still very much in this pandemic, and we don’t know what the new normal will be until we’re on the other side.

On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?

This is a huge historical event we’re living through. It’s dark, chaotic, and life-changing. I do not know a single person unaffected by this situation, everyone in their own unique ways. I made a decision in the beginning to stay focused on being strong and prepared while remaining curious, creative, and hopeful. It has helped me get through the hurdles.

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