A Slice on Rob Poleki, Founder and CEO of Washie Toilet Seat
Rob Poleki was an elected official, comfortable in his career until his kid spurred a product idea that led him to become a full-time entrepreneur. Poleki was waiting in line to take his son to the restroom at the Salt Lake City Airport, and when a stall finally opened up, the toilet seat was not clean (we’ve all been there). He tried a quick wipe-down and placed one of the paper covers on the seat, but his son refused to sit on it so he had to do a full clean. At that moment, Poleki came up with the idea for Washie Toilet Seat, a toilet seat with built-in surface cleaner for public restrooms. So far he’s raised $600k to get the company off the ground.
Prior to fundraising the traditional way, Poleki decided to take his product to Shark Tank. The only catch? He had to quit his job as an elected official and take the dive into entrepreneurship. Thinking he’d have success on the show (millionaire dreams), Poleki quit his good-paying job with health and retirement benefits. A mere two weeks later, however, he was cut from the show. After a few weeks of depression questioning his decision, something happened that would prove to him he was on the right path.
As a former elected official making toilet seats, Poleki’s name was all over the news. This caught the attention of Squatty Potty’s CEO, and he called Poleki to talk about the product. Their attention and positive feedback gave Poleki the nudge he needed to continue with the idea. “I found out that I did have something to show, it just wasn’t my time yet… it was a blessing that I didn’t go on the show because I probably would have given away half of the company just to make a deal.”
The next step for Poleki was to find a manufacturer to make his toilet seat. Knowing that China was the expert in plastics manufacturing, Poleki decided he’d fly out there and would need a translator. He walked into his local Chinese restaurant and asked the server if he’d go to China with him all expenses paid. The server said yes (who would say no to a free trip?) and Poleki was able to cross manufacturing off his to-do list.
Not everyone can get away with pulling a server from your local restaurant to translate for you in a foreign country, but since Poleki was an elected official in Pocatello, Idaho, he was well-known in the small town. The nearest larger cities were Salt Lake City (two hours away) and Boise (three hours away). While he’s had to do many things alone in Pocatello, Poleki reached out to entrepreneurs in those cities to build his network further.
He was able to apply campaign experience when starting his own company, from fundraising to building awareness, to finding a manufacturer. The main difference between the occupations was the newfound freedom of being an entrepreneur. Poleki was accustomed to heavy regulations in the government sphere but found that he could now do whatever he needed to do to make things happen. This didn’t come without risks, Poleki was still entering a whole new landscape and had to learn as he went. “There have been plenty of times where I’ve been punched in the stomach and things didn’t go right but I’ve had to keep moving forward.”
In order to be successful as a first-time founder, Poleki had to be resourceful. He had no experience going into it, but he didn’t let that stop him. Poleki likes to say he has a “master’s degree from Google and YouTube” because those have been his lifelines when he doesn’t know how to do something. He even went into his local Home Depot and Lowe’s to ask questions about toilets to gain more knowledge.
Poleki is motivated by his family, being able to provide for his parents and making sure his children are better off than he was. “I came here [to the U.S.] when I was 12 years old with a suitcase full of clothes. My parents worked their butts off to make sure that we had everything. I want to do the same for my kids and make sure that they get to see the world, which is something I didn’t get to do.” Poleki’s next goal for Washie Toilet Seat is to flush out (no pun intended) the remaining kinks and get it on the market so we can all have a more sanitary experience with public restrooms.
He’d like to leave fellow entrepreneurs with this piece of advice, “The first one to quit is the first one to lose… When you experience failure, it’s not a loss, it’s a learning lesson.”
Rob Poleki received his B.A. in Social Work from Idaho State University before becoming an elected official in Pocatello, Idaho. Poleki shifted from government to business in 2019 when he founded Washie Toilet Seat, and is now CEO of the company. Connect with Poleki on LinkedIn.