Business ideas sprout in Bryan Papé's brain like hair on a Chia Pet. So when he started to talk about creating a better water bottle in June 2009, his wife, Rebecca Papé '07, dismissed it as "another idea for the drawing board."
At the time, Bryan '07 was the director of operations and marketing at Little Hotties Warmers and had recently tested hand warmers at REI's headquarters in Kent, Washington. While there, he learned about the results of a water-bottle audit that found three major problems in the industry: The openings were too small or too big. It took too many turns to open and close a bottle, and they didn't fit in cup holders. The results resonated with Bryan, who had been splashed in the face, annoyed by excessive cap twisting, and often drove while his water bottle rolled around on the car floor.
"I can build a better bottle," Bryan thought, and he began spending his off-work hours on a business plan for a water bottle company he named MiiR. About six months later, after developing molds that addressed the three major issues, Bryan saw something on Hulu that left him stunned.
It was an ad for Charity Water that said it took only $20 to give someone clean water for 20 years. "That's all? That's insane!" Bryan thought.
He started to research the clean-water crisis and was shocked to find that nearly one billion people lack access to clean water, and that lack is the world's leading cause of death. He felt compelled to do something. "How could I not?" he asks.
Bryan learned how to
source overseas from working at Little Hotties Warmers. He visits the factory that manufactures MiiR's bottles in China and has them audited several times a year from a private company. He sees the workers in China as important stakeholders in MiiR.
When Bryan was a business student at Seattle Pacific University, his professors taught that the primary goal of a business is not profit, but serving the common good through creating valuable products or services, employing others, and meeting needs in the world.
"We talked about benefitting the stakeholders, not just the shareholders," Bryan says. SPU's School of Business and Economics calls this "another way of doing business." Bryan wanted MiiR to benefit the local enconomy and to bring light to the clean water crisis. He sees MiiR as a storytelling vehicle through its website, videos, and documentaries. Plus, he created MiiR's "one4one initiative," where $1 from every bottle sold gives someone clean water for a year.
Bryan asked photographer John Keatley '03, whom he had met while doing video work at SPU, to do some photography and video directing for MiiR, and the two came up with a print/web ad campaign. The ad would have awkward looking portraits of people with liquid facial hair and the tagline, "Lose the waterbeard."
One of the models, Courtney Finley '03, told Bryan that her brother-in-law had started an organization that builds wells in Liberia. Bryan was intrigued, and made an appointment to meet Daryl Finley from Well Done Organization. The two hit it off and made plans to travel to Liberia in January 2011 to build and document two wells. The travelers included the Papés, John, Daryl, Bryan's dad, and MiiR's director of digital engagement, Travis Wals '06.
Beyond the Bottle
Watch the trailer for MiiR's film, Beyond the Bottle.
Find your story
In the age of too much information, story is key. Think Apple, Nike, Skull Candy, and TOMS. For MiiR, it’s about spreading awareness that one in eight people don’t have access to clean water.
Get a mentor
In my opinion, Seattle Pacific University has one of the best mentor programs in the nation, so if you go there, definitely sign up. My first job came about from my mentor, and we still meet monthly. But even if you go to a school without
a mentor program, seek people out and see if they will meet with you. You’d be surprised how far you get just by asking nicely.
Embrace your inner bookworm
I have learned a lot by reading about what other entrepreneurs are doing and have done. Text books teach theory and first-hand accounts teach reality. A personal favorite is Zag by Marty Neumier. My top 10 are at bryanpape.com.
Research, research, research
Part of the reason that MiiR is all about giving people clean water is because nobody else was. I found this out through six months of Googling and researching the water bottle industry.
Become a wordsmith
In today’s digital age, words are plentiful but the well assembled ones are magical. Learn to communicate in short, impactful bits. At MiiR, we tweet and blog with purpose.
Sleep on it
Ideas come and go, but the good ones keep me up at night and stick with me for weeks and months. Chase those dreams, not the fleeting ones.
Know the code
Learn the basics of computer code and you’ll get places. You can take a class or read a book, but I learn by doing. I probably write code once a week for MiiR. It also keeps my developers in check, because they know that I know the process.
After about 20 hours of travel, the group landed in Buchanan, Liberia, where the air felt heavy with heat, humidity, and smoke. A smell like burning tires wafted from the rubber factories, and trash left its scent in the streets. But there were also stunning ocean beaches, dark green banana trees, and children who added their giggles to the West African soundtrack.
The Papés watched the children drink water from the same copper-colored river where people bathed and washed dishes. But they didn't see anyone drinking from man-made wells, which were there, but dry, rusted-over, sprouting ferns, or growing colorful microorganisms. "The failed wells were solemn reminders that we needed to get this right," Rebecca says, adding that they educated the people on how to use and maintain the new wells.
While filming their documentary, Beyond the Bottle, Bryan met a woman who guessed that she was 90 years old. She explained how drinking from the river gave the villagers diarrhea and upset stomach. "I don't think she'd ever had clean water," Bryan says. "And we say, ‘I don't have that much.' That mentality is such a lie."
Another unforgettable moment was seeing a woman carrying a child with a gaping, green wound on his chin. "The wound looked like it was alive," Rebecca says. They asked if they could help and attempted to clean the wound with the contents in their first-aid kit. Then they watched as the child went into a seizure, which Rebecca timed for 1 minute and 40 seconds.
"It really hit me," Bryan says. "There was nothing we could do. The nearest hospital was three hours away." It felt like it would be a matter of days until this child became another statistic in the clean- water crisis.
2011 Trip to Liberia
Click on the images to enlarge.
While in Liberia, Bryan and John began to kick around ideas for a new business that would help with sustainable projects, such as building and staffing clinics and schools. Their main inspiration was a Liberian man they met named Pastor Kondoh, who helps to build schools, takes care of the blind, and has opened up his own home to several orphans. During the recent Liberian civil war, he didn't leave his house for 14 years to keep from being killed.
Pastor Kondoh lives his life with the sense that he needs to make up those years. "He has dreams and goals that are 10 times more than any of us would dream, and God provides for him," John says. "And we feel that God could use us to provide too."
When the team got back to Seattle, the talks about a company called Kondoh did not stop. Bryan got a meeting together right away with John and Daryl from Well Done. Kondoh will be a website that will sell high-end goods, such as leather messenger bags and iPad cases. Fifty percent of the revenue — not profit — will go to sustainable projects in Liberia. The goal, for starters, is to help rebuild the Liberian economy. "The model can expand to places like Haiti or even Joplin, Missouri," Bryan says.
It's a business model that hasn't been done before, but Bryan's not worried about that. It's just another idea that has taken root, and Bryan's convinced it's going to change the way people do business.
Meet the MiiR employees
From left to right, CEO Bryan Papé '07, Director of Digital Engagement Travis Wals '06, and intern Courtney Wallis '13. Can you tell that Bryan loves SPU?