Disappointed and disgusted with the state of bathrooms in China and Asia, the team at WeCare WC decided to start a "Toilet Revolution" in China. From installing Hollywood-style make-up mirrors to free wifi, WeCare wants to make bathrooms in China an "experience", as opposed to a place you want to avoid.
WeCare WC is a Shanghai-based startup that focuses on designing, constructing, and (most importantly) maintaining clean family-friendly restrooms in shopping centres and other public spaces. It's end goal is ultimately to transform the way China uses and views its toilets to make them cleaner and more user-friendly. We spoke to Ryan from WeCare WC about how the "Toilet Revolution" began, and how the startup plans to take over China and Asia.
Q: Do you have any experience with restrooms? Why did you decide to start in this industry?
I’ve always been interested in the social/environmental components of business. What happened was I came across WeCare WC back in November and saw that they were working with public restrooms. Having worked in Kenya and India on public sanitation projects, this (company) naturally fit into my perspectives.
So I came to it from the perspective that their (WeCare WC) value is redefining public restrooms and I wanted to work on an issue that’s really prevalent in China and Asia. From my experience, China and Asia generally have some pretty unsanitary restroom, and WeCare WC is trying to make them a little bit better and help change the habits of the consumers that are using restrooms. I've never actually had any experience (working) in public restrooms but I think the best way to do it is just to jump straight in.
Q: Do you think there is a future for this industry in China? Do you think things are going to change soon, or is it long term change?
I think it’s (the industry) going to take baby steps and we have definitely noticed this. We’ve been around for over a year now but I think it’s hard to get people really engaged about the topic of public restrooms because it tends to carry a bit of a taboo.
People are used to using their restroom a certain way and we’re trying to change that so hopefully within the next few months and years we’ll start getting more locations and start educating the public a little more about our restrooms. But there’s no timeline for how long it could take to change that.
Q: What is your business model right now? How are profits coming in?
We have two kinds of revenue streams. We sell advertisement space so our restrooms will feature innovative out-of-home ads. For example in restroom stalls, the whole stall might feature a floor to ceiling advertisement that’s engaging and exciting and it might be digitized as well to add further interactivity with our users.
The second one is a retail component, so we’re selling our partners’ products out of our restrooms, and online as well, including cross-branded products.
Q: Do you have traction for your company here? Is it familiar in the minds of Chinese people?
We’re still trying to understand the types of people that use our restrooms and since we have two locations now, we’re studying to see what people’s habits are and how they are using the restrooms. People are willing to use our product. But like I said, I think it’s going to take some time before the concept kicks in.
Q: You have two different kinds of restrooms: Western and squatting toilet. Do you think the sitting toilet will work amongst the Chinese population?
I think in Shanghai the habits have shifted a lot from using the squat toilet to a sitting toilet. However, a lot of people we noticed, from talking to people, are actually still squatting or hovering over the toilet. So there’s still a fear of sitting on the toilet or making contact with the toilet rim. I think in Shanghai, people are starting to use the Western style of toilet, it’s just a challenge when we go out to second or third tier cities, which is our objective in the future.
Whether or not we’re going to introduce that (the sitting toilet) or continue to use the squatting toilet, either way we’re trying to be culturally sensitive to each particular city. We’ll make sure to incorporate those elements in our design.
Q: What is the size of the team now and are you planning to grow in the future?
Now the team is 7 members, a mix of full-time and part-time restroom aficionados. We do plan on expanding. The main challenge for the moment is when we start launching more locations we’re going to need project managers with construction experience such as working with contractors.
Q: Are you more focused on local employees or are you looking for an international team?
Right now we are a pretty even mix of local and international talent. Because of our unique backgrounds, we are always coming up with crazy and innovative ideas. Therefore, we are really just focused on (employing people) with the superstar WeCare WC quality/talent: The most important thing is having the passion for this product & project.
I think what’s cool about all of us is we’re not afraid to talk about this topic. We think it’s a big issue here in China and in Asia, so for that reason we work well together. I think if we brought on someone who doesn’t have the passion it might not work. So we’re open to whomever, as long as they have the passion and the willingness to work in this industry.
Q: How did this start? Was the founder always very concerned about this issue in China and then she decided to start this company?
Our founder is from Holland and has two children. She has been in China for the last 15 years, so she has certainly had her fair share of bad experiences going into restrooms.
She was in a restroom once with her two children and it was a very uncomfortable experience trying to change the kids' diapers. Most people would move on with his or her day, but our CEO decided to go the next step and change the status quo.
Q: So the product that is being offered is actually being designed for families? What other features does it have?
We really customize it to every location: we work within shopping malls, we work within public transportation hubs, and a few other places as well. Stadiums are one of our target customers too. So it’s a really customisable based on the area. One of our common features is a family room and a nursing room for the families of China.
Another special feature is full-length make-up mirrors and stations that have bubble lighting around them, so you feel like a Hollywood star when you’re looking at them. They also have little motivational quotes underneath like “You are fabulous”.
The stalls are very spacious and private, you have floor to ceiling doors, and we have Wi-Fi in our restrooms. It’s not just a bathroom, it's an experience and you can stay in there longer if you want to. For the bigger spaces we intend to have some lounges as well. You might be able to get your shoes shined there, get a massage, and you can use the internet there.
We’re also trying to make it more of a retail experience than just a restroom experience, so you can also purchase things too. That’s our vision for bigger places like airports. Right now we have a functional showroom in K11. It’s a bit smaller but we have all those features and it’s just a very sleek design with white, black, and red accents.
Q: So right now you have a restroom in K11, are you planning to open another one?
Yes, our second one is our first government-related one. It's in Hongqiao Airport, in the newly renovated Terminal 1. It used to be a pretty dingy terminal and now they’ve opened a new part to that terminal where we have a nursing room. The feedback has been great so far!
We’re looking to expand too. We want to stay in the high-end market for now to prove our concept, so we’re looking to expand into more shopping malls.
Q: What about malls like iAPM?
Malls like iAPM are relatively new, so we’re not entirely open to those types of projects where the restrooms are already at a high standard. But those malls that are typically a bit older and need a bit of a revamp are the ones we’re approaching, as well as new construction projects. One other thing I think that’s sets us apart is we really focus on the maintenance. We hire within to do the maintenance so we have people going into the restrooms after each use to clean and make sure that all the amenities are there, e.g. toilet paper, so everything is cleaned after one person uses the restroom.
Q: And that person who cleans is always waiting outside?
The store manager is there and we might have additional “ah-yis”. If you go to a lot of average shopping mall restrooms they only clean it once every 4 hours but that’s not enough for high traffic areas, and that is unacceptable to us.
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