Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Bryan Papé was in agony on the side of Stevens Pass in Washington State. He’d been thrown from the mountain on his skis, and his femur had snapped--possibly severing his femoral artery like a movie villain cutting a fuel line. Was he bleeding to death internally, waiting for help in the snow? It was 2006. He was 21 years old. There was still so much he hadn’t done.
“Everything before that had been about what I could do for myself,” remembers Papé, who was a minority owner of outdoor gear company Little Hotties Warmers. “If I’d had my funeral then, people would not get up and praise me for the good I’d done giving back.”
As a child, Papé had watched his grandfather build a heavy equipment distributor in the Pacific Northwest. It was a family business, and it flourished. When Papé’s grandfather died, his grandmother created a philanthropic trust and named all the grandchildren as trustees. Family reunions doubled as foundation meetings, and Grandma set up matching grants for any personal donations her family made. It was against this formative example that Papé measured his own life on the mountain and came up short. Worse yet, the girlfriend he loved, Rebecca, was still not his wife.
Papé survived the accident, and while rehabilitating decided that he would create a new business that built scalable giving into its model. One day, while testing hand warmers at REI's Kent, Washington, headquarters, he became privy to customer feedback on reusable water bottles: Consumers found the available sizes awkward and the caps clumsy. The reusable beverage container market was one of the fast-growing segments of the consumer durables industry, with about $1.5 billion in annual sales but no real market leader, according to Newell Rubbermaid. He had found his wicket: He would build a better water bottle.
Within three years of the accident, Papé had designed a water canteen made of the same steel as in his healed leg and with a mouth wide enough to swallow ice cubes, but not so wide that it spilled water on your face when you drank. The base was also narrow enough to fit in a car’s cupholder while driving out to trailheads. He sold Little Hotties Warmers and named the new water bottle company Miir, after conservationist John Muir.
While developing the molds for his first canteens, Papé began looking for a way to give back within the clean water space, which he found none of his competitors were doing. An old proverb says, “The work will teach you how to do it.” Late one night, a pop-up ad for charitywater.org got Papé’s attention. He contacted the company and offered to set up a one-for-one model--for every canteen sold through Miir's website or third-party vendors, it would donate $1, which would provide clean drinking water for one person for one year. It was a perfectly native pursuit for a company from Seattle, consistently ranked the most generous city for online giving in America by Blackbaud.
Holding the offsite in sunny Liberia
Months later, during a photo shoot for Miir's first major brand marketing campaign, a model volunteered that her brother-in-law, Seattle firefighter Daryl Finley, had been building clean water wells in Liberia for 10 years with the Well Done Organization. In fact, they were heading over in a few months--would the Miir team like to go with them?
“You can give back a percentage of sales through partners, but to have it be a cornerstone of our business, I wanted to see and meet the people I wanted to help,” Papé says. “That trip transformed the trajectory of Miir.”
Buchanan, Liberia, named after Thomas Buchanan, the first governor of Liberia and cousin of President James Buchanan, is a hot expanse of red-dirt roads and abandoned rubber farms. While helping to build clean water wells there, the Miir team noticed the singular difference bicycles made for adults and children: Those who had them were able to go to work or school. Those who did not, were not.
“We came back and said, ‘Let’s start a bike line. Every time someone buys one, we give one back,’” says Papé, whose friends in Seattle were skeptical. You don’t just dabble in bicycles in Washington, hailed as the country's most bike-friendly state by the League of American Bicyclists. “People asked how we were going to sell bikes without bike experience.”
Papé reached out to his local network and received an introduction to Kevin Menard of Transition Bikes, who was unexpectedly supportive. "It turned out that Kevin and his wife had adopted a child in Ethiopia," Papé says. "When they were there, they saw how bicycles changed people’s lives. Everyone thought we were crazy, but Kevin said, ‘Yeah, I’ll help you.’”
Menard took the Miir team to Taiwan, where he introduced them to suppliers and showed them the ropes. He also gave Miir credibility when the company--preferring to focus on one buyer with 140 stores rather than 140 buyers with one bike store--pitched REI.
Today, Miir's candy-colored Bambini balance bike is sold in every REI store nationwide. For each Bambini or adult Miir bicycle sold, Miir donates a refurbished bike in East Africa through World Bicycle Relief or in the States through Seattle's Bike Works, Boise Bicycle Project, or Minnesota's FB4K.
The school that the Liberian children were biking to attend ended at grade 6. When Papé learned that his native Liberian well partners had drafted beautiful, hand-drawn blueprints for a high school, he turned to family and friends back in the U.S. to raise money for its construction. Painted an optimistic ocean blue, Buchanan High School was completed in January, and Miir is manufacturing a line of bags whose proceeds will support it.
Turning a corner on two wheels
After earning B Corporation status in 2014, this year has been a big one for Miir. In addition to seeing the completion of the high school, the company earned Patagonia as a client and had its first profitable month in February. Since then, it’s been nothing but hockey stick growth, according to Papé--200 to 400 percent month over month. (The company declined to disclose unit sales or revenue figures.)
Miir celebrated its fifth anniversary in July with a party at a brand-new flagship in Seattle. The company says that its sales have facilitated 36 clean water projects, benefiting more than 50,000 people with giving partner One Day's Wages, and more than 3,000 bicycle donations to people in 21 countries. But most important, it's given people better tools for self-reliance.
Pastor Prince Kondoh is the president of Well Done Liberia and a longtime resident of the city of Buchanan. “If you are going to help someone, you should also tell them what to do to help themselves,” Kondoh says in a documentary about Miir’s well projects, which he oversees. You can watch the 30-minute video on Miir's website. It was written by Papé’s wife, Rebecca.