Changemaker Bryan Papé, Founder of MiiR
This month's Changemaker interview with CEO and Founder of MiiR, Bryan Papé, was done through video so hit play and give it a watch. If you'd rather read the transcript, we have it for you below. Bryan is a rad social entrepreneur and we had a ton of fun recording this interview.
Russ Stoddard: Hi, I'm Russ Stoddard. For today's changemaker interview, we're here with Bryan Papé. He's CEO and founder of MiiR. How you doing, man?
Bryan Papé: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me on.
Russ: Oh, absolutely. Say, dude, before we start here, I hear we both have femur stories, although yours ends up with creating a social enterprise. Why don't you tell me about how your near‑death experience actually made you create a social enterprise?
Bryan: Yeah, I had a pretty interesting change of life events in 2006. It was actually Tax Day, April 15, 2006. I was skiing for a local mountain, Stevens Pass, making a film for them, I did a bunch of marketing there. We were skiing on the front side, and when I skied, I didn't have poles.
I had my camera under my jacket and took a bad turn into some trees, then ended up wrapping my right leg around a big pine tree and broke my femur right in half. I think ignorance is bliss. It would have been great if I would not have known what happens when you break your femur, but unfortunately, my roommate had done something similar a couple of years earlier.
While snowboarding, he broke his femur and went to the hospital. Everything was OK, but he came home from that and said, "Hey, Bryan. Never break your femur. You can bleed to death internally in about 10 minutes." That was always a little tidbit of information I'd never wanted to realize, but unfortunately, I was against this tree.
My leg was broken in half, and I sat there against this tree, thinking, "Oh, my gosh, I could, uh, I could literally die in the next 10 or 15 minutes." I had a very clarifying moment in 2006.
Russ: Right on, and so you created MiiR. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your business model for MiiR?
Bryan: I started the brand in 2010. That accident happened in 2006. There were two things that happened from that. The first, I was dating my wife and I knew I had to marry her. Looking back now what an idiot I was, it took me breaking my leg to realize I should marry this woman. She must have saw something in me that made her hang on. A year later, we got married. We've been married 10 years this summer, or it would be 11 years, I guess, this summer.
I have a beautiful two‑year‑old little daughter and one on the way. That was a good decision, a good choice that came out of the accident. Then, the second thing I thought about was what would people say about me at my funeral? That cut to the core of who I was.
I realized that nobody would have gotten up at my funeral and said anything positive about me or me influencing my community in a positive way or the people I'd impacted.
There would be none of that. There would be talk about how I was funny, how I put a Volkswagen Beetle on top of Capitol High School as their senior prank. That was me. [laughs] I wanted to change that. I'd always in my head had this idea of merging business and philanthropy.
I grew up with my grandfather, admired my grandfather who had started this family‑run company. He built it up fairly big. It's still a family‑owned company today. Unfortunately, he passed away in '96. In '97, my grandma started a foundation in his honor. At a fairly early age, I was involved in the family foundation granting money to various communities that we all lived in.
While my grandfather was generous during his lifetime, he missed out on that later‑in‑life generosity of being able to grant away some of the wealth that he had been able to make. I always thought, "What if you don't make it to the end of your life, um, you know? Are you able to give day in and day out?"
That concept of merging business and philanthropy is what MiiR is today. MiiR is, we call ourselves a product to project company. What that means is every MiiR product that we sell funds a trackable giving project around the world. We effectively give three percent of our revenue towards our non‑profit charity partners.
What's cool is every single one of our products has a give code on the bottom of it. If you register that code on our website, you get to see the location of our giving projects, GPS coordinates, photos, stories from the field. Sometimes there's cool VR experiences. Sometimes there's longer films, depending on the active projects.
We're all about being transparent. That's what we do today. We sell our products online and in our store in Seattle. We have a flagship store. We sells at REI, Patagonia, Amazon, Blue Bottle Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, a lot of retailers around the world.
Russ: That's fantastic, man. You got a little bit of your giving spirit from your grandfather. What life lessons did you get from your mother and father?
Bryan: I think from my mom, specifically, I don't know if I was born this way or if she instilled it or reinforced it, but I remember from probably a very early age, she would always say, "That's very observant of you, Bryan."
I don't know if she was reinforcing my habit of being observant, but I always remember connecting the dots or observing things and reporting back to her, "Oh, that's, you know, this goes with that."
Things like, "Oh, that car's the same as our car." That's a very early‑stage concept. Most kids are like that. I remember my mom reinforcing that with me. I think today, that's one of my superpowers, is being able to observe the market and see what's popular, what's not popular, what's missing that could potentially be a product for our company.
I learned how to be observant, to scan whether it's a room, a market, an area, a customer, of what needs to happen next. Learned that from my mom, reinforced by my mom. Then, my parents both instilled a work ethic in me. Now that I have kids, I'm trying to understand how do you do that without [laughs] forcing them to do things.
Oftentimes, you have to inspire or lead your kids to do things. You can't just tell them to do something and do it, there's reverse psychology there. I had to work for everything. While I had an allowance, I certainly had to mow the lawn and do those sort of chores. I specifically remember before I went off to college in Seattle, I had the most disastrous summer ever.
We built this pirate ship or raft to go float the Boise River with my friends and I. We built this really cool plywood boat with 55‑gallon barrel drums strapped to it. We had a pirate flag. We had water balloons and Super Soakers. It was just guys being dumb kids on the river. We had all my dad's tools strapped into the cooler, probably a couple hundred dollars' worth, probably $500 worth of tools.
Got to the end of the river. We pull out at Ann Morrison Park. Unfortunately, the raft flipped over, and all the tools spilled out. My dad said, "Well, you gotta, you gotta buy me new tools." I had to buy my dad all new tools. Later that summer, I broke the lawnmower, and he said, "You know, you gotta get it fixed."
I was like, "Dad, there's a cheaper lawnmower at Home Depot that's brand‑new." He goes, "I don't care. You've gotta fix the one that you broke." I had to take it to a lawnmower repair shop. On the way to the lawnmower repair shop, in the back of the Suburban, I hadn't secured the lawnmower.
The lawnmower went flying out the back window of the Suburban. Then, I had to get the Suburban window fixed. [laughs] All these things kind of added up. I had to spend money that I was earning filming weddings. I was filming weddings at the time to make money. I had to funnel that money right back into fixing all the things that I caused.
I think it made me appreciate not only working but taking care of things, being responsible. That story, while it was painful in the moment, [laughs] I think it'll stick with me the rest of my life.
Russ: What a couple of spectacular gifts your parents gave you, the superpowers of observation and hard work. You can't get by as an entrepreneur without those.
Bryan: They've come in handy for sure.
Russ: For sure. Three percent of top‑line revenue, that's pretty rad, man, and not necessarily easy to do. How did you come up with three percent?
Bryan: Our giving has evolved over the last eight‑plus years as a company. We started off by giving a dollar for every bottle that we sold to Clean Water. [laughs] Honestly, that was about 5 to 10 percent of our revenue depending on whether we sold it on our website or we sold it at wholesale.
A good example is a $20 bottle retail. If we're selling to a wholesale partner, it's keystoned or half. You would sell it for $10. If we were giving $1 for every $10 bottle, you're effectively giving 10 percent of your revenue. We committed to this dollar, and then, we were like, "Well, you know, if we're gonna sell a bunch to the wholesale, is that sustainable?"
Then, we started selling bikes from this crazy idea I had to sell bikes and help give bikes away. We averaged out. We were giving about five percent of revenue across all of our product categories. We tried that. We're like, "Yeah, let's just give it the five percent of everything that we sell. We're gonna do that."
We did that for several years, became profitable. We felt pinched on being able to pay our employees more and offer benefits. It was theoretically possible. We proved the model that you could do that early on in our company, but we had a serious conversation about, "What is the responsible amount for a company to give?" Is it one percent of revenue? A lot of companies...
I wouldn't say a lot, I'd say some people who give one percent of revenue is a lot. We wanted to, I guess, challenge ourselves [laughs] a little bit more. We felt like going from five to three. We tried that out first. One of our great advisors, Dennis Madsen, who's the former CEO of REI, started as a stock boy, became the CEO, and helped grow dozens and dozens of their stores over the last 20 years.
I'll never forget. He said to me, "Bryan, if you don't take care of your employees, uh, you won't have a company to be able to give anything away." That struck me.
While it was great that we could give five percent of revenue, I also learned that we needed to be able to pay our employees more, we needed to be able to offer benefits. Today, we now cover 100 percent of medical, dental, vision for our employees.
We're working towards 401(k)s, things of that nature so it's this laddered approach to offering more for our employees and really making sure that we're empowering our own workforce and not just granting money to non‑profits around the world.
That's how we got to three percent. Kind of a long convoluted way, but the thing that's always been consistent is us being transparent, invested in really durable, sustainable, giving projects to around the world.
I'd love to say that it'll stay at three percent for years to come. It might go up, it might go down, but the one thing I know is we'll always be transparent with our customers and have meaningful, impactful work.
Russ: Right on, right on. It's time for a little shameless plug.
Bryan: Nice, nice.
Russ: Yeah. One of our people went to the Conscious Company's Women's Leadership Forum and came back with that. Everybody's a huge, huge fan. You got started into sustainable water bottles. What do you think is the future of sustainable water bottles? Where do you see it going?
Bryan: It's a great question. We're always experimenting around with what is the recyclability of stainless steel? Can we pull in more recycled content?
Same thing with plastic. I'd love to be able to pull in more recycled plastic. You get into things with the FDA and food anytime, food or beverage touches plastic.
There's this great company called Bureo, where they're taking recycled fishnets and then turning it out into pallets that can be put into injection molded things. They make skateboards and components for different products like zipper poles and whatnot.
We'd love to work with them on something. We just have to get over that FDA certification for recycled plastic. I think a lot of recyclability in the future.
I think really the big opportunity is it's not necessarily us taking business from our competitors or them taking business from us. It's really how do we get the world and people around us to stop using single‑serving water bottles? That's the biggest challenge that we're up against.
While there is innovation an opportunity within the stainless and reusability market, how do we break that habit of using single‑serving bottle of water that the amount of resources gets wasted shipping water to the source, to the store, to the customer?
A lot of those plastic bottles aren't recycled. They end up in the landfill or they end up in our oceans. Same thing with straws. How do we change the consumers' mindset into reusability?
Russ: You've been at this for a while now. Have you seen even just a little bit of a teeny teeny change in consumer behavior there?
Bryan: I'm usually an optimist. This part for me is just the signs of hope...I'm more of a personal responsibility guy, but seeing cities step up and actually ban plastic shopping bags, I'd love to say the consumers would do it on their own, but clearly, we've proven that we haven't [laughs] been able to get away from that habit.
To see cities say, "We're not going to allow this," all the way to Hawaii, where you go into a grocery store and retailers like Walmart aren't even serving plastic bags because the city of the state has mandated that they can't be there because it's harming the environment. Those are the signs of hope.
Anecdotally, just you look around and there's so much waste in plastic. I want to say that there's improvements being made, but so far, it's not looking good.
Russ: I'll just have to hold out hope for it. Hey, I know you're a certified B Corporation as is our company. What made you choose to become a B Corp?
Bryan: Andy at B Corp Labs, he had approached us at a trade show, said, "Hey, I think you guys would be a perfect fit for applying to be a B Corp." [laughs]
I actually put him off quite a bit. I was like, "Hey, Andy, we're transparent about our giving. There's a school code. You register it, we show you how many...We show you everything. We're already transparent."
He's like, "Yeah, but we're third‑party. It goes through supply chain and customers and resources and it's just a little bit more in depth."
I was like, "OK, maybe we'll get to it." Eventually, he wore me down and I'm so thankful he did. He wore us down. This is 2012‑2013 when we first became a B Corp.
There's still a lot to be learned about in the marketplace, but this is four or five years ago when it was very unknown. I'm thankful we signed up for it. We love competing in the marketplace.
The B Corp model is fantastic because as other companies become a B Corp, there's this bar that gets raised every year where we're competing on our score, we're trying to improve our own business practices, we call out other companies that are B Corps with some of our partners.
It's a way to compete in the marketplace and also just to improve your own business practices, so I'm a big fan.
Russ: Yeah, absolutely. I think you've talked about being very competitive and that's the gamification of the B Corp, where it gives you a number every two years. I know that we're always like to say, "Hey, let's get better than we were last time," and become a better business as a result.
Russ: Yeah. What's the biggest challenge you think social enterprise model faces?
Bryan: One of the biggest challenges for social enterprises is the fact that...I don't know if it's awareness, but there's so many competitive advantages as a social enterprise that it's mind‑boggling that more people don't embrace it.
Bryan: There's always tools. It's not easy. Something has to give, whether it's shareholders having more money at the end of the day, but if it's so myopic, just, "Oh, we're not going to get as much money at the end of the day."
If your company shrinks or your company's stagnant and you get that slice of a pie. But, if your company is able to grow and you have a smaller piece, the same piece of pie, it's better for shareholders to embrace some of these concepts in social enterprise, whether that's caring for the environment, your employees, people outside your circle of influence.
The biggest challenge is how do we get more people to embrace it and understand that while it sounds like it costs more, it actually helps increase the business. It makes you more competitive in the marketplace. Awareness as part of it. What do you think?
Russ: Oh, what do I think? The biggest challenge is like anything that's really worthwhile, it's hard as hell. There's more things that you have to think about it.
You have to think about your employees in a different way. Not as fungible resource to be used up, but one to be nurtured for the long term. You have to think about your governments, your community, your supply chain. You're right, all this extra thought and work makes you far more competitive and sustainable for the long term.
I think that's why a guy like Larry Fink of BlackRock is writing a letter to his CEO saying, "Hey, you guys need to get with the program. You're going to not be competitive in the long term. Society is going to revoke your implied license to operate if you don't get on board."
Bryan: Yeah, that was a big statement this year, wasn't it?
Russ: Dude, it's coming together this year. I don't think I've seen forces quite converged like they are right now. It's everything from people who are looking to get a job, wanting to have an employer whose values matches up with theirs.
It's consumers starting to be a little bit more discerning about where they're going to invest their dollar and their loyalty.
Then that big hammer where all of a sudden the investors are starting to come in and looking at it and saying like, "You need to actually minimize your risk and this is one model for doing that."
Russ: Absolutely. Here's a question for you, a little bit off the path. You started earlier by saying you were sitting under that tree at Stevens Pass and you were thinking about your funeral a little bit.
Russ: No. Here's a question for you. At your funeral, what song would you like to have played that people would remember you by?
Bryan: [laughs] That's a good question. Oh man, what song? I mean, you don't want to botch this one because there's so many good songs out there, but...
Russ: You've got a long life ahead of you.
Bryan: I know, but I want to be held accountable. This one's going to be dug up whenever it happens that I'm not on this Earth anymore. [laughs] They're going to be like, "Bryan said on this one podcast that he wanted to, you know." [laughs] You know [indecipherable 19:13] quickly witty. Something about Journey. "We Own the Sky."
Russ: Journey. Now that might definitely be held against you.
Bryan: Yeah, exactly. There's a bunch of songs out there. I think I'd probably have to go kind of in the Coldplay realm. Something in that area. "Viva La Vida" or something epic, like you listen to it and you just want to dance. I don't want people to be sad when I pass away. I want people to be having a party and dance.
Bryan: Man, I feel like I'm evading the question. Actually, the other one that I have right now is Justin Timberlake, "Can't Stop the Feeling." Only because it's my daughter's favorite song to dance to in the kitchen. I would just hope that she's dancing to that song at my funeral. [laughs]
Russ: Cool, man. What does MiiR stand for? How did you come up with the name for the company?
Bryan: Great question. MiiR is really kind of derived from a couple things. First, John Muir, the environmentalist who helped to develop the national park system with FDR back in the day. He is spelled M‑U‑I‑R. I dropped the U, added an I, to make it unique in the trademark world. MiiR was unique. It was different.
There was whole open space from a trademark perspective, so we've been able to get the trademark internationally pretty easily. miir.com was available for the purchase at the time in 2009. That was a bonus.
Then Mir, M‑I‑R, in Eastern European languages means world and peace. We thought those were two, they're not explicit values in our company, but just those feelings being evoked from the name are things that we support and stand for. We're a very global brand. If there was peace on earth we'd certainly have an easier time getting people clean water.
Russ: Awesome. That's a good segue to the next question which is, when I started in business kindness really wasn't spoken about in corporate board rooms, what role does kindness have in a business today?
Bryan: I think it's just a matter of human decency. I think in the past there's kind of been this notion that business is this dog‑eat‑dog super aggressive like basically take everything for yourself.
I think kindness is almost mandatory. Because I think with kindness also you can be stern, you can be fair, you can be kind. It's not like you can run a successful company or a business and not be kind and just a decent human.
I think it plays a huge role for companies and individuals. It kind of goes along with respect. Respect is one of our core values at MiiR. If you're respectful towards somebody, if you're kind toward one another, they're not in opposition of business.
Russ: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree on that one, Bryan. At MiiR you guys are very, very transparent. You do a great job of tracking your impacts. What's the number one trackable impact that you want to make in 2018?
Bryan: I'm really excited for one of our upcoming giving projects this summer. We're kind of breaking out into the food states. We have food canisters. We have some additional products in kind of the food lane. We've poled our customers and we've done some digging. Clean water is immensely important internationally. Domestically, it's a little bit less of a challenge.
We know that there's a connection between our products and our customers and local giving as well. We've granted to the Boise Bicycle Project. We'll continue to grant to them because they're just one of our favorite nonprofits that we've funded almost since day one at MiiR.
We're moving into the food sector. We're tracking a new giving project coming out in I believe it's June at a farm up in the Skagit Valley. It's basically like a farming university. They have water rights, but they don't have a well. We're actually drilling a well in the US, but for irrigation to help grow foods.
We're pretty excited about that one, that our transitioning into food as a giving lane for MiiR is actually starting with a well. Kind of a fun, fun little segue into that market.
Russ: That's awesome, man. Well, one of the things I actually love about your company is the question that pervades all the work there, which is "How can I help?" It's rare to see a company that revolves around a question like that. I'll ask you, how can I or others out there in the world be of help to you and MiiR in your mission?
Bryan: Well, I appreciate that. It's hard. As a for profit consumer product company, I have to just say, if you need a bottle or a mug, we'd love for you to purchase one from miir.com or any of our partners. Go into a Patagonia store and check them out because there's an impact there.
I also want people who do buy product to follow along with the story and hopefully be inspired to do good around the world. Just helping others will help us.
What I mean by that is I don't want people to assume that the only way they can help out in the world is to buy more shit. You probably don't need a bottle. We'd love for you to buy a bottle. If you don't, just go out and do something good, whether it's your neighbor, your community.
Just hopefully our business model in and of itself can inspire you and people around you to go out, whether it's lending a hand, a dollar, whatever it is. That's how the world changes is by individual actions. We're certainly doing that on every transaction, so if you do buy from us, we will put the money to good work. More doing around the community.
Russ: Right on. That's awesome. I'll probably end up with a wrap on that. A little more shameless promotion there.
Bryan: Love it.
Russ: You heard it here. Ways that you can help add meaning to your life and create social impact on the world is to buy MiiR products. Even more than that just make certain that you use single serve bottles for you water, ride your bikes around, and do what you can.
That's it for today. Thanks very much to you, Bryan, for spending some time with us.
Bryan: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
Russ: Last, I guess, how can people get ahold of you?
Bryan: Miir.com. M‑II‑R.com or on Instagram is our preferred method of social communication. We're just @miir on Instagram.
We have our flagship store in Seattle, Washington, where we have 20 beers on tap, a full expresso bar, and a cool working space. Kind of a new spin off of retail. If you're in the Seattle area, we would love for you to come check it out, say hi, grab a coffee or a beer, and hang out.
Russ: Holy smokes, I need to come visit, man. That sounds great.
Bryan: You do. [laughs]
Russ: Thanks, Bryan.
Bryan: Yeah, thank you.