Today Jack Sim led a session at the Skoll World Forum titled “How to Get Almost Anything for Free.”  Jack is the social entrepreneur that started the World Toilet Organization (WTO).  This WTO is leading a movement to remove the taboo associated with toilets.  The goal is to improve sanitation in the neediest places around the world.

He started off his session by reflecting on the certainty of death.  “You are going to die for sure,” he says.  Jack says that by age 40 he had started 16 different businesses.  Each business was generating income and he had enough money to retire.  But money is not what motivates Jack.  The important currency is time.  He suggests you reflect on how many days you probably have left to live.  As I sat there I calculated my number in my head.  If I’m lucky, it’s something like 18,000 days.  Every day, the rest of your life is getting shorter.

This thought is what motivates Jack to do something meaningful with his life.  He wants to have a social impact.  After some years of searching, he found his cause with sanitation.  The theme of this talk that he wants to highlight though, is specifically how to start a social-impact organization from nothing.  Jack says this shouldn’t be a frightening idea.  “It is like sitting on the floor… you can’t fall down.”

During the session, Jack describes how he built a globally recognized organization from scratch.  It is an impressive story.  If you want to read more of the details, check out the WTO website,  The consistent theme throughout this talk is the value of media.  Jack first started a restroom association in Singapore.  One of the first media encounters resulted in a picture of him on a toilet.  This got front-page coverage.  Jack continues to discuss how you can trade interest in a good story for other resources.  The annual World Toilet Summit has been going for some years now.  Jack estimates that the media value for this event is worth 10 million dollars.  It costs roughly 1/2 a million dollars to host the conference.  So every year, Jack has organizations approaching him, asking if they can host the conference at no cost to the WTO.  The WTO actually now asks the host to pay them for the opportunity.

This is all fine and good, but how does one get started down the path of making their topic media-worthy?  Jack notes that he has one of the least appealing topics, “it’s just shit right?” How can toilet sanitation compete with a comparatively glamorous topic like clean water?  He says it’s like sitting your grandma on a couch next to a Miss Universe contestant.  Well, his answer is “taboo is news.”  Bizarre is memorable and interesting.   Be open about the dirtiness of the topic.  You can make jokes and puns to generate attention.  For example, the organization’s name, World Toilet Organization (WTO) is a targeted poke at the World Trade Organization.  He says that there was no potential downside to a choice like this.  Either you get some attention from the media and the WTO is too busy to sue you, or they do sue you and you get even more media attention.

Following these principles, WTO has greatly increased its visibility and scope.  Impressively, the organization continues to follow the mantra of ‘get everything for free.’  Jack notes that consulting firms, legal firms, architects, and software designers are all doing pro-bono work for WTO.  Jack sums up by saying, “if you remember nothing else, remember these two letters ‘OP.'”  ‘OP’ stands for ‘Other People.’ The key to launching a social-impact organization is using other people’s power, resources, distribution channels, etc.  If you only use your own resources, you will not be able to fulfil your life mission before your numbered days run out.  Get legitimacy quickly by leveraging relationships with other organizations that have more established reputations.  Create symbiotic relationships.  Make it easy for them to participate.  Think about how you can align your work with their work.

In closing, Jack returns to the certainty of death.  Life has no rehearsal.  Count the number of days you have left.  There should be an urgency.