Bryan Papé is the founder of MiiR, a product based company specializing in sustainable alternatives to one-time use water bottles and cups. A certified B Corp, MiiR has built purpose into their business model. Currently they donate 3% of their revenue to organizations with sustainable methods of empowerment. If you'd rather watch this month's Changemaker interview, you can view Bryan's interview here. Or, read on below.
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?
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.
Right on, and so you created MiiR. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your business model for MiiR?
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.
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, you know? Are you able to give day in and day out?"
That concept of merging business and philanthropy is what MiiR is today. We call ourselves a product to project company. What that means is every MiiR product that we sell funds a traceable 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 flagship store in Seattle. We sell at REI, Patagonia, Amazon, Blue Bottle Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, a lot of retailers around the world.
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?
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 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. 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, 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 forcing them to do things.
I specifically remember before I went off to college in Seattle, I had the most disastrous summer ever. My friends and I built this pirate ship or raft to go float the Boise River. 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 $500 worth.
We got to the end of the river to pull the boat out and unfortunately, the raft flipped over, and all the tools spilled out. My dad said, "Well, you've 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've gotta get it fixed."
I was like, "Dad, there's a cheaper lawnmower at Home Depot that's brand‑new." He said, "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, the lawnmower went flying out the back window of the Suburban, (I didn't secure it well). Then, I had to get the Suburban window fixed. All these things kind of added up. I had to funnel all of the money that I was earning right back into fixing all the things that I caused.
I think it made me appreciate not only working but taking care of things and being responsible. That story while it was painful in the moment, I think it'll stick with me the rest of my life.
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.
They've come in handy for sure.
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?
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. 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 a company, but we had a serious conversation about, "What is the responsible amount for a company to give?"
We wanted to challenge ourselves a little bit more. We felt like going from five to three. We tried that out first. One of our great advisers, 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, 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, and 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 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.
You got started into sustainable water bottles. What do you think is the future of sustainable water bottles? Where do you see it going?
It's a great question. We're always experimenting around with what is the recyclable 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 and that the amount of resources that 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?
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?
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 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 using plastic bags because the city or 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.
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?
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." I actually put him off quite a bit. I felt like we were already transparent with what we were doing in our business. Eventually, he wore me down and I'm so thankful he did. It was 2012/2013 when we first got certified.
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. It's a way to compete in the marketplace and also just to improve our own business practices, so I'm a big fan.
Yeah, absolutely. What's the biggest challenge you think social enterprise model faces?
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.
The biggest challenge is to figure out how we get more people to embrace it and understand that while it sounds like it costs more, it actually helps increase business. It makes you more competitive in the marketplace. Awareness is part of it. What do you think?
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."
Yeah, that was a big statement this year, wasn't it?
Dude, it's coming together this year. I don't think I've seen forces quite converged like they are right now. Here's a question for you, what does MiiR stand for? How did you come up with the name for the company?
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. 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 a 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.
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?
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.
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?
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'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.
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.
Last, how can people get ahold of you?
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.
Holy smokes, I need to come visit, man. That sounds great.
Yes, thank you!