3 Students, 2 Helicopters and 1 YouTube Video: The Story of Thankyou Group

March 14, 2019

By Suzy Strutner(opens in new tab), managing editor at Grow Wire
6-minute read

 In short:

  • Thankyou(opens in new tab) is one of Australia’s leading personal care brands. University students started the social enterprise with no investor funding.

  • Thankyou has expanded beyond its initial offering of bottled water to personal care and baby products, taking over some niches and drawing back from others as they continue calculating risk.

  • The social enterprise’s major asset is its loyal customer base, which they’ve interacted with in creative ways to hit major business milestones.


If you’re from Australia, then there’s a solid chance you know what Thankyou brand hand wash(opens in new tab) looks like. Propped on sinks in trendy restaurants across the nation(opens in new tab), its trademark sleek and minimal packaging carries refined scents like “lime & coriander,” “patchouli & vanilla” and “red ginger & blood orange.” 

But pretentious brand this is not. A trio of university students started Thankyou in 2008 as a social enterprise, to fundraise for the global water crisis(opens in new tab). They had no investors and no experience starting companies. Back then, their only product was bottled water(opens in new tab), a fitting way to alleviate what they considered a problem too big to ignore. 

Daniel Flynn (L), Jarryd Burns and Justine Flynn (R) co-founded Thankyou as university students in 2008.  (opens in new tab)

Today, Thankyou sells its hand wash, body wash and bottled water alongside baby care products(opens in new tab) and nappies(opens in new tab), or diapers. All profits go to project partners around the globe(opens in new tab) who provide clean water, toilets and child and maternal health programs to hundreds of thousands of people in need. All told, Thankyou has given more than $6.2 million worldwide and become a nationally-recognized brand in Australia. 

Profits from Thankyou's shower products fund clean water projects around the world.  (opens in new tab)

The journey hasn’t been without hiccups: Thankyou struggled to get into major grocers at first and later chose to stop developing its food line to focus on other areas of the business(opens in new tab). But it’s come out the other side, recently celebrating a move into the New Zealand market. For this, Thankyou has its customer base—and some brilliant marketing plays(opens in new tab)—to thank.  


Getting in the door

When university students start a social enterprise, the marketing campaigns are bound to get creative. Perhaps the most memorable Thankyou success story is “the helicopter stunt.”

The idea was conceived in mid-2013 when, after five years of pitching, Thankyou was still having trouble getting stocked in two major Australian grocery chains: Coles and Woolworths. The brand had already produced half a million dollars in donations and angled its way into 7-Elevens, but the big players wouldn’t bite. They kept asking where the million-dollar marketing spend was--the one that other brands typically use to launch a new product.

So the founders booked a meeting with the team at each supermarket, then produced a simple 6-minute YouTube video(opens in new tab) explaining their mission. In the video, Thankyou asked the public to help provide proof of concept(opens in new tab) by posting on the grocers’ Facebook pages that if Thankyou products were stocked, they would buy them. The video racked up 80,000 views in two weeks.

Then, on the day of their pitches with Coles and Woolworths, Thankyou’s founders secured helicopter pilots to fly for free(opens in new tab) above each grocery chain’s headquarters, towing signs that said, “Hey Coles, together we can change the world (if you say ‘Yes’)” and, “Hey Woolworths, thanks for changing the world (if you say ‘Yes’)”. 

Mere hours later, both chains said yes. The story is now a core company legend(opens in new tab).


Funding for fundraising

As a social enterprise, Thankyou’s profits go into a charitable trust run by the founders, CFO Jane Trenery told Grow Wire. The company’s financial setup is profoundly different from others she’s worked with throughout her 20-year career in the for-profit sector.

None of the founders can benefit from the profits of the company,” Trenery said. “Like all team members, they get paid a wage. [However] one hundred percent of the profits to go the Thankyou Charitable Trust.”

Profits from all Thankyou products go to a charitable trust, which distributes the money to charity projects.  (opens in new tab)

Employees’ salaries are based on benchmarks from comparable organizations around Australia, she added. But that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t care about making money. 

“There’s the same appetite for profit [as in for-profit companies],” Trenery said. But, “People are hired for both their skills and passions, and everyone is there for the same purpose--to make as much money as possible to help end global poverty, which is amazing … It gives a drive for me that every improvement I make, every efficiency I gain and every dollar improvement I make heads to a project partner and not to an investor’s pocket. And that’s an amazing point of difference for my role.”

Without shareholders or investors, Thankyou needs a way to fund new projects like its launch into baby care and nappies(opens in new tab) in 2016 and expansion into New Zealand(opens in new tab) last year. To this end, co-founder Daniel Flynn published a book(opens in new tab) called “Chapter One” about the company’s origin story. The bestseller--which is sold at a pay-what-you-want price and launched via viral YouTube video(opens in new tab), of course--has raised over $2.5 million in the three years since its first publication.

To fund new projects, Thankyou sells books about its origin story. (opens in new tab) 

Transparent to the core

Transparency is a buzzword at most nonprofits(opens in new tab), and its expression at Thankyou is noteworthy.

The company’s website has a unique “Track Your Impact” feature(opens in new tab) that allows customers to see exactly where their money goes after buying a Thankyou product. They can input the code printed on their water bottle, for example, to learn that their contribution went toward a clean-water well in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, nappy purchasers may learn they’ve helped fund healthcare programs for mothers in rural Nepal.

After buying a Thankyou product, customers can enter a code to learn where their donation is going.  (opens in new tab)

Project partners must submit detailed reports to Thankyou’s CIO (chief impact officer), who holds them to strict standards, Trenery said. 

Thankyou is transparent not only about how its funds are used but also about its business strategy. When it decided to stop producing food products (after trying to develop the line for three years and not succeeding), Flynn published an open letter explaining the situation.

We wanted to be transparent(opens in new tab) with people, we think this is reality,” he told SmartCompany at the time. “We wanted it that people don’t just look at the Thankyou model and think, ‘These people have it made.’”

Trenery, who arrived at the company just as the food project was shutting down, sees wisdom in the decision. 

“We were spread really thin,” she said. “Whilst we had a personal care product that was absolutely kicking goals in the market, we were spending a lot of time and resources on to maintain a food product which was more of a ‘me too’ product … It was, ‘We don’t have the resources, so we’re going to have to pull it and focus on what we’re actually kicking goals in.’”


Clearing hurdles

Thankyou continued on, approaching each new hurdle with a customized solution. When its nappies line needed to get through to parents, the brand launched a marketing campaign that de-risked trialing their nappies by offering to send customers a box of the current leading brand, Huggies(opens in new tab), if the Thankyou nappies didn’t “get them through the night.” 

Thankyou offered to send customers a box of Huggies if the company's new nappies didn't satisfy.  (opens in new tab)

The brand is now watching sales of its nappy line carefully, Trenery said, and new business analytics are helping.

A Kiwi conscience

Thankyou is also measuring results of its expansion into New Zealand(opens in new tab) this past summer. About five months into the new endeavor, in November, Thankyou ranked as the country’s number-one selling body scrub(opens in new tab) and number-three selling body wash. 

The wins likely derived from the founders’ commitment to tailoring their natively Aussie product for a new market, according to Trenery.

New Zealand doesn’t like companies helicoptering products in

The founders moved to New Zealand for the duration of the project and devised a campaign in which they asked the community to(opens in new tab) post about Thankyou on social media and tell two friends about its products, to exponentially grow the message about ending poverty. 

Upon launching in New Zealand, Thankyou gave out branded batons for locals to pass along to friends.  (opens in new tab)

As that plays out, Trenery is looking to continue maximizing Thankyou’s processes as she enters her second year in the role.

“We’re looking at how we can make information more accessible and up to date,” she said. “We’re going to make more of these proactive decisions based on sound data that can support the team’s visions with information, to have commercial thinking behind it.”


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