Work In Progress Podcast
Episode #

Reel Podcast ūü߼ Derin Oyekan on adapting to the surge in demand for DTC toilet paper

In this podcast episode, Derin Oyekan, co-founder of Reel chats with us about his DTC strategy and how he's adapted to the unexpected increased demand for toilet paper.

 min listen

A conversation with...

Derin Oyekan

Hosted by...

Harvey Hodd
CEO & Co-Founder


This podcast episode features Reel Founder, Derin Oyekan sharing what drove him to choose the toilet paper industry as an area ripe for disruption, and how Reel's social mission is at the centre of the business. [1:33]. Toilet paper was a sought-after resource as the global COVID-19 pandemic started, with Reel having to adapt to the increase of demand and create processes to handle current customers [04:00].We then look into how consumers' behaviour has shifted when purchasing products in retail, and how this is affecting eCom adoption [08:00].

Derin then digs into his current strategy to acquire and keep customers [10:00], and explains his obsession with putting the customer at the centre of the experience and ensuring every touchpoint is accounted for [17:00]. Derin offers advice on how Reel think about the customer experience and making customers happy even if they're not fans of your product to continually drive a positive word of mouth exposure [28:00].

Full transcript

Harvey [00:00:04] This is Work in Progress. A podcast by Blueprint covering e-commerce, growth, strategy and retention. 

Harvey [00:00:14] Today's guest is Derin Oyekan, the co-founder of Reel. Reel are a bamboo toilet paper brand, reimagining a product that was traditionally distributed in retail with a DTC model and championing a social mission to provide clean toilets to those in need around the world. How are you doing Derin? 

Derin [00:00:30] Very well, man. Nice to be on. Thanks for the invite. Glad we could finally make it happen. It's been a few misses here and there, but I'm glad to be talking to you. 

Harvey [00:00:41] Nice to have you on. So for context for our listeners. Derin is over in California at the moment. 

Harvey [00:00:47] So is a bit time difference, but also for everyone listening for context around Reel. How would you sum up in your own words? 

Derin [00:00:56] I mean, Reel is a sustainability focused, mission driven brand for lack of a better term. We are aiming to bring eco friendly products to the market where we essentially position ourselves as being a brand with a heart. I want to introduce products that are good for the environment, but beyond that, also give back to those in need around the world. That will be Reel in a nutshell. 

Harvey [00:01:23] So it goes far beyond toilet paper. 

Derin [00:01:26] It does. It does. Toilet paper is our hero product. That's kind of what we started with. But we have aspirations to bring a lot of other products to the marketplace. 

Harvey [00:01:36] Okay, sounds great. So what's your background then? What kind of drove you to reinvent I guess what is a fairly old, stagnant industry? 

Derin [00:01:46] I mean, my background I'm 18 plus years vet of digital marketing, specifically in the consumer marketing space. Worked at agencies, worked at marketing companies. I started a couple of direct to consumer brands myself. I've been a consultant. So in the last five plus years, my focus really has been on working on brands that actually have a positive impact on people's lives. So being an experienced growth marketer, we kind of looked at, you know, multiple consumer market and consumer product spaces and we settled on toilet paper to kind of start our journey. 

Derin [00:02:26] It's one of the largest consuming categories and it's definitely ripe for disruption, unsustainable in terms of how most of the products that are in the marketplace right now. So we saw an opportunity to not necessarily introduce because there are certainly other bamboo paper brands that precede us, but just, you know, really kind of take our marketing knowhow and bring to market, especially in the U.S. alternatives to tree based toilet paper while also having a more charitable component to it. So that's how we approached it launched March of last year. So we're about a little over a year old and we've seen amazing growth. Especially in this time of Covid-19 and people have been at home in retail stores, been out of toilet paper. We've still been able to continue to supply our subscribers with toilet paper. So it's a very much appreciated service right now. 

Harvey [00:03:22] Yeah, I was going to say. So like whilst you touch on that, it's I guess traditionally, like we mentioned before, a product that was distributed almost entirely offline and in retail. So although the chaos this I guess, provides an incredible opportunity for you. Like, I know I saw you guys sold out. How have you been dealing with this demand? How has this been working operationally? 

Derin [00:03:46] I mean, it's definitely been a challenge. That's the beauty of startups, is, you know, you rise to the challenge. Startups are nothing but ongoing challenges. We're flexible enough to be able to, you know, try to make changes to accommodate that. We have increased our inventory production or paper production with our manufacturing partners. What we did very early on when we kind of started to see the spike, which has been appreciated by most of our customers, is we we made sure we prioritize that subscribers over customers. We want to minimize disruption to them, we send them the toilet paper as much as we can. So with any kind of inventory delivery we receive, we always make sure we reserve enough inventory to be able to fulfil the following month or as far as we can, renewal orders, basically. So we stepped up production with more than five X, our usual production. You know, we're confident that once we get back, we stop, that we should be able to meet demand with very, very little in our option. But who knows right. Those are unprecedented time, so before we sold out, we saw what would typically take us a month to sell. We're selling in a day. So the the demand was pretty crazy. And we don't know what it's going to be once we go back alive. We do have, you know, in excess of almost 15000 people on a waitlist right now to raise a ton of paper from us. So the demand is still out there. I think a lot of the retail stores are still struggling to meet that demand. The fact that people also home people really appreciate the option to get this delivered to them at home. So, yeah, I think we're well-positioned to be able to help people out during this trying times. 

Harvey [00:05:46] Wow. Ok. So firstly, 15000 people on on a wait list for a DTC toilet paper, kind of like. That's an incredible stat. So through this, how are you keeping or your strategies, techniques for keeping those customers engaged? 

Harvey [00:06:03] I guess it's a weird kind of section where they're trying to get a product wherever they can in some ways. How are you keeping that fire warm whilst you're out of stock?

Derin [00:06:12] We send out a once a week engagement email to our entire email base. It's not a sales email. It's usually something around sustainability or some other brand that's doing amazing things. So we keep them engaged that way. And we also try to send updates just to make sure they know where we are in terms of getting restocked. Basically, we just sent out an email yesterday where we gave them the latest update and we also using it as an opportunity to get them to invite their friends who might be looking for toilet paper as well, to join that waitlist. So there is going to be another update that goes out next week and hopefully somewhere around then we should be restock then, giving people an opportunity to buy from us again. 

Harvey [00:06:58] So through this, do you think I don't know exactly your target demographic is in that waitlist, but do you think because of necessity of now purchasing online with almost all products that were traditionally retail driven, especially something like toilet paper. Do you think that it's accelerating the adoption of ecom across different demographics that previously maybe you wouldn't have done and different product offerings that previously wouldn't have been there? 

Derin [00:07:24] Absolutely. I think more than anything else. Well, we've definitely seen happen for this time is just like it's the education and just people becoming aware of Reel. Right, like as an option to purchase and from the retail stores, which we would have had to spend millions of marketing dollars to get that kind of awareness. But people know about us now, because their friends or subscribers constantly, you know, posting about "oh, this is a lifesaver, I got my box". I don't know if it's FOMO. I mean, obviously, I think there's going to be a fundamental shift in consumer behavior after this period, especially in terms of, you know, receiving things that are necessities like toilet paper. It's like, well, I'd rather be on a subscription and not have to worry about it, especially since stores can run out with brands like ours and other brands like us prioritize our subscribers over everyone else. That, to me, kind of changes the game, right? It's like, well, I know if I sign up for a subscription here, I don't necessarily have to worry about a date. They're going to fight to make sure they're getting my products, especially if it's something I need. So it's fundamentally going to change how people view subscription products moving forward because now they're like, well, if anything were to happen, I know I'm good for a little while at least, right. So I think that's one big thing that's come out of it, at least from my from my perspective. I'm sure, you know, we still it's unchartered territory. We are still learning and trying to figure out what's what's going to happen next. 

Harvey [00:09:04] So you mentioned  has been that catalyst for you in some ways from a kind of purely strategy point of view. How have your customers been finding you? Have you seen kind of dramatic changes within acquisition costs? Are they coming more just such an SEO, an organic because of necessity? Daniel, how has that been rolling for you? 

Derin [00:09:25]  I mean, we haven't spent a dollar on marketing since early March. It's mostly been organic. We've gotten a ton of organic traffic. We did get a mention in a couple of big publications like BuzzFeed, that also drove a ton of traffic to the site. We think we'll be able to continue to grow without spending a ton on marketing, at least for the next three months. That's kind of the plan. We'll kind of see what happens. I feel confident now once we have inventory again, that our customers we have a very, very high NPS Score. Our customers really love our products, we are in the high 70s, which obviously is amazing. 

Harvey [00:10:14] Wow, very, very high score. 

Derin [00:10:17] Our customers definitely have a very strong affinity for our brand. They're they're really strong advocates. They love promoting us. So in times of shortages, we feel once we have products available to sell again, we can leverage that advocacy to really kind of drive growth without having to spend a ton of marketing. 

Harvey [00:10:40] I was going to say and I think you touched on it like, what do you think that changes? Like when retailers starts opening up and those old behaviors, I guess, start trickling in or being available, I guess once again. Are you very much so kind of focusing on the brand and the product to carry you through and even though when those customers who would have previously gone to retailer have now come to you and keeping them to continue that lifestyle with you, I guess. 

Derin [00:11:08] No, I think the long term, right before this our growth strategy for this year and beyond was to explore more of an omni channel approach. So it's been, you know, kind of where we started. We know because people buy toilet paper along with other products, that it makes sense for us to be in places like Amazon and those type of marketplaces and eventually big box retailers. That was a strategy we were pursuing before Covid happen. Obviously, we're we're fortunate to have our DTC business running, but we are still looking at getting into Amazon and and getting on all of those different marketplaces and also, you know, sell it in some places where people naturally use toilet paper outside of the home. So making sure we have a sales channel that can sell into hotels and event centres and big office complexes and things of that nature that usually involves going through, you know, a broker, because most of those companies there typically purchase a ton of paper through some janitorial service that they have an arrangement with. We look at making sure we're well positioned to be able to sell into those places as well. And then next thing we get into the specialty grocers, the Whole Foods of the world like some of the more regional grocers. And then by Q2 of next year, maybe a little bit later than that launching into big box retailers like Target. And I don't have the Wal-Mart customers, I don't know if that's a Reel customer but maybe we can introduce a product for that customer as well. 

Harvey [00:12:53] Okay so, like you said, there's a clear focus on the omnichannel, are you really then looking at how you go so far as like that first step to really understand that consumer, understand how that product fits into their life? And do you see the online presence by social media to your website, that initial purchase that subscriptions, do you see that as like the first step of then that customer seeing you in the Whole Foods and then seeing you in the big box retailers? 

Derin [00:13:20] Absolutely. We see DTC as being able to build a relationship with the customer. I get a ton of feedback to help us improve the product, not just the product experience, improve the design, improve even like leverage them to kind of figure out what what the next products we should launch are. We just find a survey recently and overwhelmingly, most  of our customers would like to see us introduce a paper towel product. So we're actually pursuing that and we hope to have that in market by Q3 of this year as well. So that's the beauty of DTC, it's that one to one relationships that you can beyond just it's not the highest margin business. There's a lot of intangibles. Right, like being able to really get feedback from your customers, even the ones who have canceled or are not happy with the product to understand why they were unhappy and try to address this concern. So I think by the time we get to retail, we'll have a very, very elevated product that should be able to compete with any of the other toilet paper brands out there. 

Harvey [00:14:26] Sure. All right. Cool. So there was a couple of points I wanted to touch on. One, I think you mentioned just this feedback that one to one relationship toilet paper are kind of just across the board does have this non-existent feedback loop, I guess, forever. You might have like a focus group that's the best option and you mentioned that, that you've used that one to one connection, that extremely tight feedback loop to qualify other products like you said with the towels and what else would you use that for, to kind of accelerate you versus others in the crowd that just don't have access to that kind of feedback. 

Derin [00:15:04] When we started, we wanted to be subscription only, right, because obviously from a DTC. perspective, it's a lot more predictable business to be subscription focused. But using that customer feedback loop, we quickly learned that 40 percent of the people were canceling, were canceling because they couldn't find a subscription window within the options we provided that work for them. So we made the decision to allow them to be able to purchase a la carte or on demand as they needed. That was extremely well received and that definitely helped reduce that churn reason. And what we've also gone to find out is that that cohort of customers who actually will purchase one at a time and not on a subscription actually exhibit similar behaviors to our subscribers. So even though they're not subscribers, they still come back and repeat buy similar to some of our subscribers. So we weren't really losing anything by offering that option, it was just more flexible for that customer. I mean, I also learned because I mean, toilet paper usage is something no one ever really thinks about. Right. Like if I was to ask you, you probably know now because you're spending a lot more time at home but pre-corona like how many rolls of toilet paper do you use a month, I don't know. I buy toilet paper when I run out. So, you know, it's kind of challenging to figure out if you want to take as people, you know, use toilet paper outside of the home as well. Having that option definitely helped in terms of flexibility for people to be able to to kind of buy as needed. 

Harvey [00:16:47] I was going to touch on that coming from blueprint, coming from this idea of On-Demand, flexible commerce and I think you touched upon the points like that variable usage nature of the product doesn't necessarily fit that linearity. That description replenishment. So did you think that was a couple of different angles in that as to why that customer might change? Was it both flexibility and also that commitment levels? With subscription, I guess the challenge was, oh, I've never tried this product before. I'm not going to like it. However, I guess that element is diminished with something like Reel because they've tried like an element of it before. Maybe not the exact product...

Derin [00:17:27] You're definitely right. I think we don't have to explain what toilet paper is. Everyone knows how to use it and how it works, but they tend to compare it to what they were previously using. Is it as soft as is it as durable as. Those are things people consider. How long does a roll actually last? Like am I getting value for my box. So I think, what we kind of learned would those people have churned? Yeah, probably but I think those people where frustrated more than anything else, because they chose the longest delivery window and they were still getting products a lot quicker than they were able to use. So it's a point of frustration for them, like I love the product, I have way too much and I don't want to have to keep going in and deferring my delivery date. So it's become more of a burden than a convenience. So having that single purchase option definitely kind of alleviated that for them. We'll probably see that there's a lot more single purchase customers who becomes subscribers because of that set and forget nature of it. The less worrisome nature of life.

Harvey [00:18:53] Okay, so it sounds like that kind of on demand focus became almost like a retention strategy to retain that customer for longer than they would have previously been with Reel. Is that fair to say? 

Derin [00:19:07] I think it's part of it. It's just more a very, very, almost obsessive focus on customer experience and just being extremely customer centric like we want. We want it to work for everyone. Now, sometimes that includes having options that you might not initially think that might not fit into your initial model, but just you experiment and test things out and so far, like having that single purchase option has actually been great for the business as opposed to distracting people from becoming subscribers. 

Harvey [00:19:45] So just on that retention point as a whole, I know Reel has a very deep social mission and very much so rides across all flows through everything that you do. Do you think that is, again, a really key pillar for this consumer when choosing Reel over another kind of legacy based product or brand, because they see that angle of social change and social mission. 

Derin [00:20:09] I think it is. I think the top three reasons in order of importance of priority based on our recent survey of our customers, on why they choose Reel. Number one is sustainability. They like the fact that it's truly free. So the fact that it's made from bamboo packaging is completely plastic free. Even the tape is paper and the box is compostable. They really love that. I think our customers have a strong disdain for plastic packaging, as do most people now. So that's the top reason. And the second reason, I mean, I wish I could say it was a social mission when in reality it's the it's the convenience aspect that we like getting it delivered at home. And the third reason would be the the social mission.

Harvey [00:20:55] So they all very much are tied together, like you said before, just a relentless focus being customer centric and having that experience. I think, regardless of what's top or slightly lower, I think it sounds like they all kind of work together in harmony. 

Derin [00:21:09] Absolutely. I think. I think at the end of the day, the Reel customer is a conscious customer. They're very mindful about the brands they purchase and they're not a discount customer. They really like the brands they purchase, have to align with their personal values and I think we check a lot of boxes for our customers. 

Harvey [00:21:28] So we mentioned it slightly earlier with things like the paper towels and the various other product ranges. Do you see you using this model, this framework that you've built and this customer that you've built and proliferating across different areas of their life. I know you mentioned that Reel isn't a toilet paper brand is such, toilet paper is almost a vehicle. 

Derin [00:21:48] It's the hero product. Yeah. 

Harvey [00:21:51] Yeah. Just on that, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how you see that proliferate. Is it different areas of that same consumer's life is it different kind of view spaces like is it bathroom as a whole is it home? Just interesting because I guess you kind of like you said, you've broken down that door with the hero product. And now actually there's there's a huge amount of other products that can you can take your blueprint that you've created as such and build. 

Derin [00:22:14] I think it's home as a whole. We're paper products. That's kind of the lane we started on. So introducing alternatives to other paper products that they might have in their homes already. Paper towels, wipes, baby wipes, potentially pocket tissues, napkins. Those are kind of the type of product to be launched next. And then we'll start looking at other things that might fall outside of the paper category. 

Harvey [00:22:41] OK. I can see you can see kind of huge areas of growth, not just of the categories, but other distribution points, other plays. Do you think your acquisition strategy around that will differ? Will you kind of pull different levers for those different product categories or different distribution points. 

Derin [00:22:59] I think I mean, I'm a growth marketer, so I'm always very keen on experimenting and seeing what works. Obviously, we know we can pull in customers through the paper, through our toilet paper products. So when we introduce new products, the natural next step will be to up-sell our existing customers into the new products we introduce. I mean, even though we might have all these different product offerings, they might not all make for a good acquisition vehicles. So the toilet paper obviously, it's a great story. And like I said, we'll test and experiment and try to figure out the right path. But we know we can pull any acquisitions with the toilet paper so we might offer a bundled deals or things of that nature where they can kind of buy all of this product at once. At the at the point of purchase.

Harvey [00:23:46] Ok,  so if you're looking back over the last year or so, I know you've been building since March of last year. What would you say kind of key takeaways. I guess you've come from the growth marketing background. What would you say the key takeaways are over the last 12 months of building this brand that you're going to take forward or learn from that you're going to utilize over the next two, three, four years as you as you grow and proliferate? 

Derin [00:24:11] I mean, I think in this world we live in right now, brand absolutely matters. Like it's not more than any other time. The ethos of the brand, what the brand is about, people care about that stuff. Now you have to leave every day like what you say you are about. Otherwise, you're going to get immediately called out on any kind of bullshit greenwashing or anything of that nature. So, you know, I've learned that whatever you say out there, you better be able to do it. Otherwise, people are definitely going to call you out on it. Fortunately, I'm a growth marketer, and it's always easier to forget that as people at the behind those conversions and you can always go 200 conversions but those are 200 people, right. So just trying to remember that and just try to really care about those people and make sure you're doing everything you can. I mean, it's impossible to make everyone happy, but you can at least try. The goal is that if someone lives Reel, they can still say something positive about us. That's always the goal. Even if they're no longer a customer, if someone asks them about Reel, they might say, well, I didn't really like the products, but I liked the company. That's always the goal. So I want to keep building on that. Definitely been being very intentional, being very honest, being very transparent with our customers in terms of what we're doing. Continuing to drive sustainability, not just in terms of the products we bring to the marketplace, but in terms of how we make those products as well. So improving. Trying to get to a place where we are about as carbon neutral as we can get in terms of production and all of that. You know, just keep leveraging customer feedback to bring cool new product out of the marketplace. So I think we will say we we've learned a lot, a lot in the last year and really excited. Obviously, we have this crazy world we live in and this crazy time with Covid-19, it's disturbing because, you know, there's clearly a recession that's happening right now and it's trying to think about how that might impact the business and all that, all of those considerations as well. Well, obviously, we're one of the very few fortunate businesses in terms of the type of product category we're in right now. It's a necessity and I think as long as we continue to be very customer centric and not forget that there are real people behind those purchases we'll continue to do well. 

Harvey [00:26:47] Everything leads back to just being extremely customer centric, like everything through what elements you're selling as a brand through, again, just the real people that you're speaking to. It's not just numbers on a spreadsheet and then I think it's interesting, me, as you said, really well positioned for this current chaos but then you're not trying to profiteer off a bit. 

Derin [00:27:09] No no no, we actually put out a bold statement, you know, saying no matter what happens, we're not going to raise the price. Shipping is still going to be free. Obviously, we could have completely taken advantage of the situation and tried to raise our price and maximize profit. Again, being very customer centric people, essentially, that just didn't sit right with us to take that approach. So we kept do everything the same and I think people appreciate that. I mean, I know if I was a customer of a brand that had that approach. I would appreciate it as well. So we always try to look at brands that we love. What are they doing well. How can we incorporate the things we love about what they're doing and how we kind of communicate, transact with our customers as well. We want our relationship to be more than just a transaction. I mean, we really are trying to build a community of people who care about the environment in terms of the brands they are affiliated with and also care about social good and and give them back those that are less fortunate. 

Harvey [00:28:17] Yeah. I mean, you can see that through, I guess everything you do from website copy and and branding and product to distribution and the like you said with being or as close as possible is carbon neutral as possible. So OK, that's super interesting. So I guess we touched on the general learnings, but like what have you used or read or seen or kind of learned from in terms of resources or books that others tryin to build their own businesses and brands and projects could do the same.

Derin [00:28:50] Two of my favourite books, I mean, a I'm a big Tim Ferriss fan. I'm actually going through the monster Tools of Titans right now, which is great. I'm a big fan of, like creating stories from others who have done it. Also all the audio book I listen to religiously. Like whenever, you know, building something is extremely hard. Like, there's always going to be challenges. There's always going to be just, you know, setbacks or whatever. Ben Horowitz, has an audio book called "The Hard Thing About Hard Things", which is also one of my favorite. I believe adversity is the best teacher. So, you know, like, there's a lot of success stories out there and people tell the stories about how someone made it, but they usually don't talk about the challenges that kind of go into building something. The frustrations, the physical toll and all that. So, you know, I just like reading stories where people actually share the struggles because it's just a reminder that, like, whatever is worth building, it's gonna be challenging but there's, you know, at the end of the day it'll be worthwhile. So, yeah. 

Harvey [00:30:01] Yeah, I'm same with you there, and I think everyone knows a lot more from those true representation, true reflections of what happened and I think that's happening more and more. I think as it becomes kind of as most people have the ability to build something now, in many ways like the internet democratising the ability to start up. I think, yeah, you're seeing more and more of this. That's real real world experience rather than a really shiny representation of what happened. 

Harvey [00:30:29] Yeah, for sure. It's definitely the barrier to entry. I mean, it's a lot easier to start things now, but not everyone has the tenacity I mean, for you to really be able to push through all that, you have to believe in what you're doing. I think it comes out to that, making sure, you know, whatever you walking on really aligns with your beliefs, your values. That's what it's gonna give me, the strength in the difficult times for sure. 

Harvey [00:30:55] So wrapping up for our listeners, where's the best place for them to find yourself and Reel? 

Derin [00:31:02] I'm most active on LinkedIn, even though I grew up online. I'm actually not active on social media at all like I never posted on Instagram. Definitely follow the Reel Instagram, which is @Reelpaper and check me out on LinkedIn. I mean, I'm one of those few people who actually responds to almost all messages on LinkedIn, I know most people hate them. I've actually met a lot of really, really cool professional on LinkedIn. 

Harvey [00:31:37] Awesome. Well, I really appreciate the time. And it was great to through and the story and the origin of Reel and I think, yeah, there's a ton there. So I really appreciate it. Thank you very much. I'll catch you soon.

Derin [00:31:51] I just wanted to add one last thing, and that is the Reel it's not just about me. It's certainly about about the team as well. You know, I definitely wouldn't have made it this far without the amazing team. My co-founder, my supply manager, my brand manager. That's really awesome. We have a very small team, but we've been able to do amazing things in a short period of time. So really, really appreciate those guys. 

Harvey [00:32:20] I guess customer centric. Team centric. 

Derin [00:32:22] Absolutely. It's about people. At the end of the day, people first and then the product, then the process. Right.

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