Sean Riley: From $0 - $100M Selling Wet Wipes

How childhood friends took on the toilet paper Goliaths (and won)

Sean Riley: From $0 - $100M Selling Wet Wipes

How childhood friends took on the toilet paper Goliaths (and won)

For today's David to Goliath interview, I spoke to none other than the Chief DUDE himself: Sean Riley, co-founder of Dude Wipes

A trailblazer in the wet wipes industry. 

Dude Wipes have transformed bathroom essentials into a triumph of innovation and audacity. 

This is one hell of an underdog story. A few friends who took a bet on themselves and their crazy idea. Going from 0 to 100 million in revenue, convincing Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, and pulling off some of the wildest guerrilla marketing tactics you’ve ever seen. 

Wiping a jaw dropping 10 billion butts, they’ve taken over more than 10% of the flushable wipes market by storm. But Sean and the other dudes weren’t born in boardrooms. They’re just a few dudes who took their banter filled party days and turned it into a business venture.

Beneath the dollar signs lies a narrative that transcends the conventional. Sean, with his infectious spirit, isn't just a co-founder; he's a breath of fresh air in the industry, turning bad days into moments of perpetual laughter.

Because, let's face it, entrepreneurship isn't just about bottom lines – it's about having the time of your life whilst climbing huge mountains. And yes, everyone loves a shit joke to brighten up their day (thank you Sean and co. for all the wonderful images that are now firmly planted in my mind!).

The Dude Wipes story is testament to how originality seamlessly weaves into branding, producing not only innovative ideas but also loyal fans that will ride with you until the end.

Get ready, because Sean doesn’t hold anything back!

We build these Newsletters from conversations on the David to Goliath podcast. It’s raw, it’s real, and extremely unfiltered.

Click here to listen and have a front-row seat to understand how Sean and his childhood friends took on the toilet paper Goliaths (and won!).

Wipe away the doubts: DUDE Origin’s

I began the conversation by asking Sean how it all got started. It was even more authentic than I had imagined…

Living the post-college life with his friends in a Chicago apartment, Sean was grinding away in a construction management job. 

That fast-paced city lifestyle – Bars, burritos, and endless chats about breaking free and starting something epic. 

Baby wipes, a hot commodity for their legendary parties, became a recurring joke, exacerbated by the necessity of keeping yourself clean, especially when living such a lifestyle. However, this sparked an idea.

What if they could disrupt the $13 billion flushable wipes market, which was drowning in a sea of mind-numbing blandness?

Sean didn't hold back. He said,

"The entire 13 billion dollar category had loads of super boring brands, talking down at their audience instead of communicating with them. No real time connection. It didn’t replicate how people talked in real life."

“We can fill this gap”.

And that's when 'Dude Wipes' was born. Not just a product, but a mindset. A fun name that resonates like banter with your friends around the dinner table.

They took a leap, armed with a beginner's mindset, zero experience, and a relentless desire to shake things up.

"As guys with no experience, we just went for it with the beginners' mindset."

In their case, being the underdog wasn’t a setback; it was their secret weapon.

"We just wanted to be original; not to do what the big competitors were doing. We wanted to double down, be creative, and revel in the start-up process. That is the magic of a David – coming up with that idea that’s so different from Goliath. You can have all these tools and weapons that they could never create."

In a world obsessed with conformity, Dude Wipes went against the grain.

Sean’s advice is loud and clear – don't just disrupt; be the disruptor. Home in on your uniqueness, be relentless, and watch the world take notice.

Deep Meaningful Relationships

When I hit Sean with the question about the vibe with his friends, and how important this energy was in getting them through the tough moments, he responded:

“In our business, it isn’t just about transactions. Relationships are the fuel that propels us forward.”

“Building a company from scratch is a wild ride, and having sidekicks is your secret sauce.”

But it’s not just about him and his co-founders. It’s about the whole ecosystem. 

He dispels the reactive approach most brands have of blaming partners for failures, asserting that a breakdown in relationships often stems from inadequate communication and understanding.

The ideal relationship, according to Sean, involves partners who align with your values and become an integral part of your team.

“Screw the transactional crap in the supply chain. The relationship must be deeper – it’s part of your company's DNA.”

Those who have been part of the journey since day one hold a special place in the Dude Wipes narrative.

Sean's whole philosophy revolves around doubling down on what works well, but primarily urging entrepreneurs to invest in relationships.

This is the main contributor to the growth and success of businesses.

Start building alliances early, and keep em close

Although at the start, no one is going to care, and this is where The Dude Wipes mentality of obsession shined brightest.

Putting Their Asses on the Line

No room for half measures, no half commitments. Sean's approach boils down to a simple yet powerful mantra: "You're either all in or all out."

As you know at David to Goliath we don’t believe in the backup mindset. It’s 1 egg, 1 basket.

Sean is a testament to power of the impact this thinking has long-term.

Around eight months post-launch, the Dude Wipes team went on an application spree, chasing accolades and a spot in a saturated Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) scene.

Sean, in his unfiltered manner, described the excitement of diving into the unknown:

"It was exciting because I didn’t know anything about CPG – it was good to get into and have that experience. It forced my hand on quitting my job.”

At this point, they were navigating the entrepreneurial labyrinth armed with mentors and an incubator in Austin, Texas.

I asked Sean “How do you filter out the good mentors from the bad?” 

"Short answer is you can’t – you look for people with experience willing to spend time with you, but you don’t know until you start dealing with a mentor – the true value is in the journey. 

They had been side hustling for 8 months. At this point, they realised they really had to put their entire selves in the game, and having a mentor helped stir them in this direction. 

Throwing shade on the notion of quitting when the business overtakes the salary, Sean bluntly declares it "a stupid idea." His unfiltered stance is crystal clear:

"Don’t wait until you can make a comfortable transition – that’ll never happen. Going in full time is more enlightening than you can appreciate when you’ve never done it."

"I’m the guy who encourages people to quit way before it becomes uncomfortable. I believe that when your brain has the full-time energy, you have the capacity to figure it out.

At some time you need to either shit or get off the pot."

To him, work-life balance is just a catchphrase.

He acknowledges the importance of gym sessions and meditation but makes it clear that "nothing great ever came without obsession”.

Obsession should be celebrated. For Sean, it is a trait of those who change industries.

"The reality is that if you’re half in – you won’t compete with someone who’s all in. These things are competitive – no matter how unique you think you are, being half in is just delusional. You have to go all in.

It’s a debate about when to go all in, but you’ll never compete with anyone without."

It's the unfiltered truth from the chief dude himself, urging everyone to embrace the relentless pursuit of their dreams.

Sean throws down the harsh reality for those hesitating on the edge:

"If you’re not going to make it happen, nobody gives a damn about your idea."

Ideas are nothing until they’re a business – until they’re pulling in cash – that’s when the magic kicks in. It’s about execution. 

And for the dreamers stuck on the big idea in the shower fantasy, here's Sean's raw take: 

"But it’s a damn slow process. The journey only kicks off when your widget is in your hands – even if you're hustling it out the trunk of your car. Nothing happens when you’re sitting on the side-lines."

Morale of the story? Get your hands dirty, make it real, and watch the magic unfold.

If Sean can make toilet paper sexy, what’s your excuse?

Your dream is just one decision away.

A decision to go all-in - jump without the rope, and figure it out along the way with relentless execution. 

But as Sean reminds us, be patient– when you’re a David going against a Goliath, it’s going to be a slow journey.

Just keep believing and eventually you’ll crack the code.

And for Sean and the dudes, that’s exactly what happened.

Shaking Hands with The Shark

Dude Wipes managed to secure investment from none other than Mark Cuban on Shark Tank.

But the journey wasn't a swift one; it took three attempts to make it onto the show.

The first attempt was met with rejection – and at this point they’d had no sales. They just went for a local try-out and were met with a polite 'thanks but no thanks (yep, we’ve all been there).

Not willing to back down, they persisted a second time, met with more encouragement and passing a few interview rounds - still fell short.

But as they say: Third times a charm and yes, they hit it big.

At this point they were scaling on Amazon, they’d secured a big retailer, and gained exposure on the Rob Dyrdek show through a guerrilla marketing tactic of sending him handwritten letters and Dude Wipes in a free marketing coup on MTV.

Although they still hadn’t even hit the million-dollar mark.

They had to rely on their inner conviction. 

Standing before the sharks, they declared their ambition to surpass a million in sales, backed by the belief in an upcoming retailer partnership, though still intangible at the time.

Although the numbers weren’t there, Mark Cuban recognized something beyond the product – he bet on the jockeys, the hustlers, the entrepreneurs, the dudes who would navigate the challenges, endure the hardships, and emerge triumphant.

Reflecting back Sean told me:

"You see, they’re betting on the entrepreneurs - People who are gonna go through shit and piss and figure it out at the other end and come out clean."

The essence of a successful business lies not just in the product but in the calibre of the individuals steering the ship.

You never know who might be willing to take a big bet on you. One minute you’re sat around in your apartment making shit jokes with friends, the next you’re on Shark Tank shaking hands with Mark Cuban (ideally after washing).

So embrace the chaos, ride the waves, and remember, it's not about the industry trends; it's about believing in your own revolution.

No one is going to believe in it for you.

For Sean, they took that mindset to a whole new level resulting in some of the most revolutionary marketing campaigns of the last decade

True Underdog Marketing Tactics

Sean repeatedly underlined creativity as their ultimate moat, especially when resources are scarce.

The bootstrapped mindset. The day one approach.

Sean treats creativity it as a discipline.

He acknowledges that the challenge of consistently being unconventional and pushing to the extreme might seem daunting, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

For Sean, platforms like LinkedIn act as a training ground - a place to flex his mental muscles, find juicy topics, and dive into creative exercises.

“It's not about waiting for the elusive spark; it's about showing up, going through the motions, and training your brain to be in a perpetual creative mode.”

The magical part is even as Dude Wipes grew into an industry giant, they didn’t follow suit of the other companies who flood the market with ads once they surge past the million-dollar milestone.

This was a recurring theme within our conversation – avoiding the trap of mimicking the big boys as your business grows.

“Don't water down your authenticity – It’s better to swing and miss being yourself than peddling some weak crap. But the biggest regret will be if you do nothing.”

At the core of Dude Wipes' ethos lies their number one value – the Dudeness, the magical ingredient that sets them apart.

Sean and the boys have mastered the art of striking a chord with their audience through bathroom humor, sharing relatable 'shituations' and creating a community that embraces the fun side of life.

‘Sometimes you don’t realise the networking effect of what you’re putting out. With Dude Wipes, that’s been one of our pillars – put things on the internet that are fun – that will bring a smile to peoples face in a world where a lot of the content is negative and controversial. Goofy, fun, real – that’s who we are’.

Great marketing isn’t about what you say - it’s in how you make people feel. 

A pivotal element in the the Dude marketing strategy was tapping into the world of sports, turning potentially embarrassing situations into positive narratives.

From reaching out to an MMA fighter who had an unfortunate incident in the ring, to sponsoring an Instagram post with NFL player Isaiah Crowell (who pretended to wipe his ass with a football), their free marketing endeavours have turned into stuff of legend and regularly get featured on national news

Arguably though their greatest underdog campaign of all actually came a few blocks from their apartment.

"It was the baseball World Series in Chicago, A rod and Frank Thomas were setting up the stage on the corner. We thought let’s go, print out some Dude Wipes signs and put them behind everyone”.

20 million people were watching the coverage and saw the Dude Wipes sign.

This genius move, picketing their way into public consciousness, resulted in millions of website impressions, social media engagement, and broke their Shopify page!

“You gotta be hacky, real-time, part of culture.”

Making people laugh becomes a powerful way to connect with hearts, providing a positive experience to those who might not lead great lives.

Their strategy involves taking numerous swings, attempting 100 ideas where only one might make the news.

Because as Jeff Bezos rightly points out: In baseball when you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. 

It’s deeply embedded in their David versus Goliath narrative, with the self-belief that with enough relentless action, one big idea will break through.

The dudes team were willing to put their asses on the line, time and time again.  

Despite having more financial resources now, they remain grounded in their roots, adhering to the secret sauce that the Goliaths can't replicate due to bureaucratic hurdles.

The ability to swiftly respond and engage, a quality ingrained in their culture, is their competitive edge.

Not everyone will appreciate the way you put yourself out there though.

In Sean's eyes, having a few haters is a testament to doing something right.

It signifies a commitment to authenticity and standing up for what you believe in, a choice Sean would make any day over catering to try and fit into the crowd.

As long as you’re seeing growth going in the right trajectory – that’s all that matters.

So stick to your values, bend here and there, but remain true to what you've set your sights on.

Remember: It’s better to have haters than not stand up for what you believe in.

And trust me, there will be thousands, if not millions of people, who will share your world view.

Hail the underdog. Constraint is the best driver of true innovation.

Shiny Object Syndrome: The Devil for Focus

Dude Wipes currently sits at around 1% of the entire US toilet paper industry.

8% would put them at a billion in sales.

When I asked him about their plan to achieve this, he reiterates the same point – focus.

The plan involves convincing people to make the switch from traditional toilet paper to Dude Wipes, supported by building the best team and continuing with their innovative marketing.

Many brands fall prey to the seduction of expanding into new products, losing the essence of their identity along the way.

Sean spoke of the dangers of shiny object syndrome, cautioning against the pursuit of short-term revenue bumps at the expense of the hero product that has proven to work.

It echoes David Ogilvie's age old wisdom – "Give me the freedom of a tight brief."

"If you spoke to me four years ago, we did not give ourselves the freedom of a tight creative brief. There were other things out there occupying our time.”

A few years back, the allure of diversifying products tempted Dude Wipes into new territories.

The idea of battling one Goliath was fun, and the temptation to take on three proved irresistible.

Sean contemplated the expansion into men's grooming – deodorants, body wash – a direction fuelled by the brand's popularity and the constant requests from their community. 

However, the reality of stretching a brand across diverse categories became evident, leading to a realization that, as a brand, you might mean everything to one person but struggle to extend that meaning across varied products.

They were diluting what made them great. 

The capital, time, and energy invested in stepping aboard new categories often hinders the optimization of the hero product. Distractions emerge, threatening to sway focus away from the core.

For them, then came the unexpected reality check – Covid.

Toilet paper scarcity elevated Dude Wipes into unprecedented demand, pushing everything else into the background. 

The team redirected their efforts, streamlining operations, and reinforcing their dominance in the flushable wipes realm.

The result? Growth and innovation surged, demonstrating the power of unwavering focus.

The lesson was clear: focus on the hero product that never lets you down.

Sean and the Dudes team still have a long way to go in battling the Goliaths of the toilet paper industry, and they’re going to need every last ounce of energy dedicated to the cause to conquer their mission.

My Top 5 Takeaways:

1) Build Strong Relationships

Authenticity breeds trust, and trust is the currency of success. Open your heart, listen actively, and create a network built on mutual respect. The bonds you forge will be the bedrock of your journey.

2) Go ALL IN

Wholehearted dedication is the secret ingredient that turns aspirations into reality. Throw yourself into your venture with unbridled passion and determination. Make a pact with your dreams and honor it every day. The road may be challenging, but your commitment will be the fuel that propels you forward. 1 egg, 1 basket.

3) Be The Arena

Failure is not the end; it's a stepping stone to greatness. Embrace it with a passionate heart. Each stumble is an opportunity to learn, grow, and refine your approach. Never ever rest with those and cold timid souls who neither know the taste of victory nor defeat.

4) Be Authentic

In a world inundated with noise, authenticity cuts through the clutter. It resonates with others and builds a strong foundation for trust. Be true to yourself, whether that’s telling sh*t jokes online or standing in baseball stadiums with cardboard signs - stay true to your vision.

5) Focus on Your Strengths

Clarity is your compass. Stay focused on what sets your soul on fire and what makes you and your brand unique. Resist the devil of shiny object syndrome in your ear that will take you off the climb to greatness.

Lastly, as you’ve seen from Sean and the DUDE Wipes story, with enough will, drive and commitment ridiculous things are possible.

If he can make toilet paper sexy, what’s your excuse?

Stop thinking small. Life is too short for medicority. It’s time to dare and endure.

Jump into the unknown and conquer your self doubt knowing big things are waiting on the other side.

Keep dreaming like a giant.

But fight and believe in those dreams like a god damn underdog baby.

Yours truly,

-Nigel Thomas

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