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The $175m US Startup That Is Teaching The West How To Use The Indian Toilet

As Americans take a leaf from the Indian style of squatting on toilets, there are some like Utah-based Squatty Potty that have figured out a formula to turn this inherent knowledge into a million-dollar venture.

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It was homemaker Judy Edwards’ constipation which led to the start of a $175 million venture — Squatty Potty. But Judy, who has come to be known as ‘Mama Squatty’ among her fans in the US, did not imagine the potency of her ‘new’ product. “This product was a lifesaver for me, and I just wanted to share that with as many people as I could,” she said in a press release dated 13 May 2020.

So what is this life-saving invention? Judy along with her husband, Bill, and their son, Bobby, designed their first ‘Squatty Potty’ — a footstool either placed over the western commode or tucked under it, in their garage in Utah, USA, in 2010.

Judy’s Eureka moment, which came when she elevated her legs with the help of a pile of books during a bowel movement, has led to the ‘invention’ of sleek stools—which cost anywhere between $24.99 to $89.99—for squatting over a toilet.

The US-based firm soon shipped 2,000 stools to China, and the company clocked $1 million in sales in the first year. Founded in 2011, the company sold 4 million units in the US alone in May 2017 and 5 million stools globally by May 2020.

Squatty Potty
The Edwards family that founded Squatty Potty. Image source: SquattyPotty.com

The Edwards went on to make an appearance in the popular American TV show — Shark Tank, in 2014, where they received an investment of $350,000, after which they sold products worth $1 million within 24 hours of their TV appearance.

The following year, the brand invested $250,000 to make an ad featuring a Prince Charming character and a unicorn pooping ice cream ‘the right way’. The video shows a rather graphic yet creative representation of how the sphincter muscle is relaxed when one squats instead of sits. It has garnered over 38 million views on YouTube, pushing the brand’s popularity immensely.

One wonders if such evangelists of the squat-on-the-pot movement know how old and Indian their ‘million-dollar’ venture really is.

Copping a squat, Indian style

Going back to the origins of the Indian-style toilets will take you down a rabbit hole that leads to a civilization which existed over 8,000 years ago — the Indus Valley Civilisation or Harappan Civilisation.

The Harappans can well be lauded for their unique and hygienic drainage system that was well-planned, underground, and was one of the first discoveries of the ‘wet’ seated toilets in India.

Harappa
A photo of the Harappan wet toilet at the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.

“They had a very well developed technology when it came to sitting toilets. They were present in every house and were connected to an underground drainage system that took the waste outside the residential area,” says Manoj Kumar, museum curator at the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.

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But the mysterious end of this civilization, Manoj says, is what paved the way for a new age in India that lasted from approximately 500 CE to 1500 CE. In this age, open defecation ushered in the first ‘squat toilet’ or ‘Indian-style toilet’ invention.

“The Indus Valley Civilization was a permanent settlement, but the Aryans were nomads for a very long time. So, for their daily call of nature, they’d squat in a field, river or a stream. This open defecation continued for at least 1,000 years,” Manoj says, adding, “When the Aryans learnt the need for toilets, the natural position in which one sits down to evacuate their bowels became a design for the Indian toilets.”

Making a case to squat

Fast forward a few hundred years later, and ‘the right way’ to go to the toilet continues to be something of a battle between the ‘Western-style’ commode and the ‘Indian’ or Asian toilets. Interestingly, despite the influx of Western influences, our desi squat toilets seem to be winning the debate the world over.

Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co Ltd made an announcement at the company’s 95th annual general meeting on 14 June 2020, that its directors, corporate auditors, and employees shall squat on western-style toilet seat. The Japanese-style toilet, which is similar to the Indian toilets, uses the same principles of squatting for better bowel movements.

“If you squat on Japanese-style toilet, you have a large quantity of evacuation. In short, good bowel movement is good for health and is the source of motivation to work,” the company’s statement read, adding, “Squatting every day and recognizing the importance of cost reduction will also lead to good results in terms of health management.”

Squatty Potty
Image Source: SquattyPotty.com

In a hilariously titled article — If you sit, you don’t know squat: Western-commodes vs Indian style loos, by DNA in 2015 mentioned how Indian homes were switching back to the squat toilets. This shift was observed not just because of hygienic factors that most women are aware of but also other health benefits of preventing rectal prolapse, haemorrhoids and other complications. The article quotes how the 1978 US president, Jimmy Carter, came down with a severe case of haemorrhoids and Time magazine asked proctologist Michael Freilich to explain the president’s ailment, who put it so eloquently — “We were not meant to sit on toilets…We were meant to squat in the field.”

Life seems to come full circle with society moving back to the age of the Aryans who once squatted in fields.

But the Edwards still seem clueless about the origins of the squat movement. “We both thought, ‘Wow, we’re in our 60s, why are we just now hearing about this?’” Bill Edwards was quoted in a CNBC article dated 30 September 2018. It only goes to show that like everything else including the ‘turmeric tea’, happy entrepreneurs in the West are quickly learning how to sell our own knowledge right back to us.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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