At AP café in Bushwick, Chad O’Connell has completely tuned out: He wears humongous, sound-killing headphones to silence the hiss of the milk frothers and clinking of silverware. In his business, O’Connell’s gut gives the soundest advice, and he listens to it — especially the gurgling after a strong cup of Joe.
This handsome South Carolinian stands over six feet tall, used to have a great job in advertising, and is a disarming conversationalist. You’d never guess he is an entrepreneur with a product he hopes will bust a bathroom taboo and change the way America craps forever.
O’Connell’s business is bidets, (pronounced bih-day) — plumbing fixtures found in many European and Japanese toilets that do the wiping with a gentle squirt of water.
If you think that sounds gross and weird, you’re like most of the country. O’Connell says his product is “the most difficult thing to sell in America,” despite the fact that it reduces toilet paper use by 75 percent, needs no electricity, and it looks like a giant Macbook when it arrives from Amazon in a sleek, white box.
“Half of America doesn’t know what it is; the other half has misconceptions,” O’Connell said over the Saturday afternoon din of AP. “Some ignorant people are afraid of it. They think it makes you gay.”
After our short article about O’Connell appeared in October, a producer from Vice TV invited him on a show ostensibly about strange gadgets — but more often, about the stranger people who make them. Instead of the open-mindedness he expected, O’Connell found that the host himself “embodied the American fear of bidets.” Too many buttons and too complicated, like some electric whirring monster out to probe your ass.
O’Connell understands the hesitation in the American market. Until two years ago, he had never tried — or even seen — a bidet. Then he heard about them on the show of his favorite podcaster.
“I impulsively went out and bought one, and holy crap — it was magnificent,” O’Connell said.
The Carolinian went bidet-crazy, buying and trying the products of 10 competitors on Amazon. He took notes of what he liked and didn’t, with a vision for his own in mind.
“There were little things,” O’Connell said, sitting back in his chair with a pensive, upward gaze. “Nothing on the market looked aesthetically pleasing.”
To learn more, O’Connell trudged through online forums such as Reddit. He wanted to learn more about America’s lavatory culture. He polled strangers on SurveyMonkey.com, paying a buck to each person who answered his bathroom-habit questionnaire. He wanted to know if people wiped sitting or standing; if they folded their TP twice or thrice; or if they often shared a toilet with more than four people.
O’Connell wanted his bidet to “disarm hesitation.” It took him two whole months of research to find a brand name that was an outlier on the market. Whisper won out in the end; honorable mentions include Swoosh and Kleeni.
With the money he had saved penny-pinching and investing in stocks, O’Connell set off for China, journeying to far-flung parts of the country he calls “bizarro America.” He had emailed 18 potential suppliers for Whisper; he met with six. A week later, O’Connell had his man: a Chinese version of himself who was young, go-getting, and knew enough English to understand the fine details of the bidet.
O’Connell figured he could charge about $70 for a unit. Getting a Whisper delivered from China to an American customer would cost him $30. Add that to what he paid himself for travel expenses and 18-hour work days, O’Connell wasn’t making much.
That was 10 months ago. Of the thousand bidets that have sat in a warehouse, O’Connell has sold roughly a quarter. Of 28 product reviews on his website, 27 give five stars. A photo of a cardigan-clad hipster girl sitting on the john is Whisper’s most-liked photo on Facebook, with exactly 31 thumbs up. The one of the old bespectacled black guy has the most shares.
These days, O’Connell works “almost entirely” from the cafes in Bushwick, slugging lots of black coffee and churning out press releases in hope of that big break.
Google Trends tells O’Connell it’s coming soon. The tool for tracking keyword popularity shows that “bidet” searches have increased over the last six years. On top of that, a New York homeowners’ association recently made headlines with a wet wipes class action lawsuit against seven major companies, including Walmart and CVS. The companies were allegedly marketing and selling flushable wipes that were wrecking sewage treatment facilities.
O’Connell believes all this will help fuel the bidet boom.
“I hope Americans will make those baby steps,” he said. In an ideal world, that transition would start in true grassroots fashion — right in his own backyard.
“I would love to get a Whisper on every toilet in every bar, cafe, and restaurant in Bushwick — especially cafes.”
Bushwick residents get a $10 discount with the promo code TreatYoButtBushwick