founder

Throne Founder Fletcher Wilson on Transforming Public Bathrooms

Introduction

While out and about, most people in the U.S. have trouble finding a public bathroom. If they can manage to find a public bathroom — which are few and far between — they’re likely to dread using it, as public bathrooms tend to be dirty, smelly, and generally unpleasant. Even worse, sometimes porta potties are the only option.

Throne aims to solve this problem by building clean, well-designed bathrooms that are connected to the internet. Its bathrooms do not require connections to local power, sewer, or water lines, which makes them easy and cheap to install. They also allow for on-demand cleaning services and real-time user feedback. KingsCrowd spoke with Throne founder Fletcher Wilson to learn more about how Throne is trying to transform the public bathroom experience.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

In your own words, how would you describe your company?

Fletcher Wilson

Throne is addressing the public bathroom crisis with a software-enabled infrastructure solution as flexible and dynamic as the cities that need it. Throne is doing for public bathrooms what Uber did for transportation by addressing a problem that affects nearly everyone living in and around modern cities and creating a future where clean and convenient bathrooms are always nearby and available with the touch of a button.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Fletcher Wilson

As my friends would tell you, my GI system is my worst system. Without going into too much detail, you can’t take me anywhere, as I’m always having to run off and find a bathroom. Living in Philadelphia, the Washington, D.C. area, and San Francisco, I grew frustrated with how archaic public bathroom infrastructure was. And I had a deep feeling that by leveraging modern Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, modular manufacturing, and advances in solar and battery technologies, there is no longer an excuse for our society to be unable to provide nice bathrooms far and wide. 

Around this time, I started interviewing every Uber and Lyft driver I had, delivery workers, fellow parents at the playground, police officers, those with housing disadvantages, coffee shop owners, everyone. The last straw came when I asked my Uber driver, as had become my routine, “Hey, sorry if this question is too personal, but… where do you use the bathroom when you’re driving?” He turned around with a smile and said, “Do you really want to know?” I nodded and he pulled over and reached for the glovebox. Admittedly I was nervous about what we would find in there, but there was no turning back at this point. To my surprise, he opened it to reveal a perfectly rolled-up necktie. With a smile he said, “When I drop a rider off at a hotel, I just throw this on and poof, I have free access to the nice lobby bathroom!” The fact that this hardworking man felt the need to put on a costume just to have access to a nice bathroom on the job sent a shudder down my spine. This problem runs deep. I started Throne the next month.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Fletcher Wilson

Our founding team is quite large. Myself and a partner from my first company (Ben Clark, co-founder and vice president of R&D) started tinkering with possible hardware solutions in his backyard while we searched for the right founding team. I got connected to Jessica Heinzelman (co-founder and chief operating officer) next, who had a complimentary skill set to mine, coming from a world of marketing, growth, and political activism. The last piece of the founder puzzle came when we partnered with two PE guys (Tee Valentine and John Epley) who had purchased and were running a 50-year-old traditional porta potty company in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

When we founded Throne, I moved my family to Charlottesville, where we were able to pilot some of our earliest ideas under the radar and on the cheap by leveraging their company’s infrastructure (pump trucks, drivers, etc.) to answer some of our earliest questions about how portable sanitation infrastructure could be leveraged alongside modern technology to change how people access public bathrooms. We have since moved our headquarters to D.C. and have built a 17-person team, which includes ex-Uber operations guru Shyanne Telfer (our vice president of operations), a fantastic Ukrainian software tech lead Alex Novikov (Jess actually sponsored him under United for Ukraine to immigrate to the D.C. area), and most recently we brought on Russell Borgmann (ex-Amazon, ex-Coinstar) as our head of integration. Finally, we have partnered with Satellite Industries, the current market leader in traditional portable sanitation manufacturing, which has opened many doors in the industry and brings decades of experience manufacturing high-quality modular bathrooms.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned since you became an entrepreneur?

Fletcher Wilson

Set operational objectives that most efficiently answer the questions behind the most consistent pushback on your business, rather than taking the linear path to building the business. Early in my career I was too afraid to pitch bigger investors too early, but now I like to set up meetings with investors for whom we are way too early to identify risks most important for the fundraising round 12 to 24 months down the road. From there, I work with the management team to set short-term goals that answer those questions cheaply. An example with Throne was to NOT worry about scale early, and just run multiple controlled experiments with minimal hardware to de-risk the core questions of the business: what drives usage, what are municipal customers’ pain points, and what is the quickest way to profitability at the unit level. 

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What is your leadership style?

Fletcher Wilson

I’m continually trying to evolve as a leader and still have much more growth ahead. In the past, I’ve been very involved in ALL the details. With this second company, I’ve worked hard to hire a team that knows how to execute better than I do in most areas, and let them do exactly that. With the help of my co-founders and management team, we are constantly focused on creating a culture that empowers everyone on the team to have a voice and to have the freedom to solve problems the way they want to solve them, while communicating the clear high-level objectives the company is working to achieve. The hard part is keeping everyone fully in the loop and marching in the same direction, especially in a startup where objectives must shift often on a dime. My ideal future self is empathetic, trusting, and definitive as a leader. Always working.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Fletcher Wilson

We got into this game because existing solutions just aren’t cutting it. They are either poorly tolerated by users or too expensive to implement, limiting the total supply of bathrooms by at least an order of magnitude. Cities and large enterprise organizations that need to provide bathrooms for the public or their distributed staff have two types of not so good options: 

  1. Plumbed bathroom infrastructure – brick-and-mortar, custom-built bathrooms or factory-built modular installations. These bathrooms cost between $500,000 and $1.1 million per bathroom upfront, including installation, and take one to two years to install due to permitting and construction requirements associated with accessing water and sewage. 
  2. Portable sanitation – When customers need solutions faster or cheaper, they tend to default to portable toilets, which tend to be the bathroom of last resort for users. 

Throne has invented a new product category that allows for a hotel-lobby-caliber bathroom experience to be up and running anywhere (a park, a parking lot, a city center) in a matter of hours. But we didn’t stop at nice plus portable — our third differentiator is smarts. By connecting Thrones to the internet, we are able to use the power of IoT sensor data (e.g. onboard water level sensors) and real-time user feedback (e.g. cleanliness ratings) to level up the operational efficiency of the traditional portable sanitation world — enabling on-demand servicing rather than scheduled service only. We are also able to impose a sense of accountability on our userbase, which is a really powerful psychological hack and allows us to build a community of conscientious users with a shared wish for a clean and safe experience. 

Our core thesis is that cities are willing to provide way more abundant public bathroom access if there is a pricing model that enables such a provision. So we have built a product and service that is significantly nicer, cheaper, and faster when compared to plumbed infrastructure options, with the goal of drastically increasing the supply of public bathrooms in and around the modern city. 

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

If we talk again in 12 months, which milestones will you have achieved?

Fletcher Wilson

Two things: 

  1. A clear demonstration of the profitability of Throne at the city level (we already showed a positive gross margin out of the gate — next stop is in-city contribution margin profitability). It is plain for us to see that this will be an amazing business, even at small to medium scale, but this next six to 12 months is about continuing to validate the core engine that makes the business model work.
  2. Demonstration of scalable demand. We are in the process of moving from a single market company to a multimarket company, and over the next 12 months we will be demonstrating how geographically ubiquitous the demand is through new market launches and booking large long-term scalable contracts. In 12 months, we plan to be in multiple cities, with solid unit economics and a clear path to $10 million in annual recurring revenue.

We look forward to seeing where Fletcher and his team take the business. Throne is currently raising on Wefunder.

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About: Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Léa is passionate about impact investing and sustainability. Prior to KingsCrowd, she worked for Stanford’s accelerator, StartX, helping to select the most promising entrepreneurs. She also led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. In her free-time, she volunteers to help entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Brazil and Colombia. Léa holds a degree in Anthropology from France and is currently enrolled in the UC Davis MBA program.

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