How a life threatening ski accident inspired a design brand based on giving back from day one
In 2006 Bryan Papé was your typical Seattle snow bro. He spent more days than not on the mountain, hanging out of helicopters filming with the Northwest’s best skiers, and generally living the dream as the top dog of his own media production company. And then the “holy shit moment,” as he calls it.
While skiing one day Papé hit a tree, breaking his femur clean in half. Laying in the snow, wondering whether or not his femoral artery had been severed during the collision—if so, he’d bleed to death internally in the next 10 minutes—Papé thought on the selfishness of his lifestyle. Then and there he vowed that, should he survive, he’d make a life change and work towards creating a more positive legacy that he would be proud to leave behind—something bigger than a set of silly ski films.
Three years later, with his leg healed and a chunk of change from the recent sale of Little Hotties hand warmers—a company Papé had helped grow as the first employee—he founded MiiR, named for famed naturalist John Muir.
From MiiR’s beginning Papé aimed to make a difference. “I thought we could make a better product, but also I really wanted to act on my belief that you could start a company and be generous at the same time, as opposed to creating a successful company and then getting generous later on in life.” The product direction was obvious for Papé, but how he would give back wasn’t. Then one day, while beta testing Hulu.com for family friend and Hulu founder Jason Kilar (Pepe’s wife had nannied for the Kilar family years prior while in college) he encountered a banner ad for Charity Water, a non-profit that provides clean drinking water to communities in developing countries. And bingo. A global lack of access to clean water was a solvable crisis, and with MiiR Papé could help.
Fast forward a couple years to 2011 and Papé is in West Africa working with a different organization funding one of MiiR’s first clean water projects. “It was there, on the ground in Liberia where a lot of things that are happening now at MiiR came about,” he explains. Papé saw a local guy using a bicycle to get to and from work, and just like that, as with the Hulu banner ad, he saw another solution within reach—MiiR would sell bicycles, and in doing so donate to help children get to school and adults to work. But perhaps more importantly, it was what came after the trip where MiiR really found its calling card.
“When I came back I was showing photos from the trip to friends who first bought the MiiR product when we launched, and one said, ‘wait, so this is the water project that my bottle purchase helped fund?’ And a lightbulb went off—one of the big ah-ha moments,” says Papé, realizing the power of showing customers the exact projects their purchases help fund.”That’s what lead to our Give Code, and our transparency on the brand.”
Now every MiiR product sold comes with a special code that allows customers to register their product and receive updates on their unique giving project indefinitely. “As long as our giving partners are providing updates, we’ll keep providing updates for our customers, about the community, how lives has been impacted, what the development process is… it’s been really fun and really cool to see customers attach to that.”
In recent years MiiR has continued to innovate and evolve, expanding into backpacks and more recently made in USA journals, still with more projects on the horizon. To learn more about the man, and the design ethos, behind the brand, as well as what’s next, we recently caught up with Bryan Papé over the phone. The following is are the highlights.
"If you’re gonna create a legacy, it takes time."
Clean, refined design is obviously central to MiiR. The brand identity is well developed. Have you always been interested in design?
I’m always thankful when people notice that there’s intentionality to our design, and function in the aesthetics. So thanks. And for me, I’m a hack designer, meaning I never went to school for product design or brand identity, but I’ve always been tinkering and testing. From the beginning I followed Scandinavian architecture, Japanese product, Japanese design, and I’ve always kind of been a marketer, one that really loves Brand and the power of Brand…
And I think on the product design standpoint, I’ve always been a fan of less is more—it’s only ready once there’s nothing left to take away, as opposed to what else can we add to make this even cooler, you know. You know, add this this this this and pretty soon you have this bottle that charges your phone and auto mixes drinks. Haha. But yeah, that’s not us. We’ve always been intentional.
What is the most difficult aspect of making a handful of products across multiple categories?
The hard part has always been finding how the brand identity fits into a new product or new product category. Like, how do we maintain the aesthetics and functionality from a design perspective, and then really lean into the brand of what MiiR represents—the transparent giving aspect, the authenticity of giving from the very beginning of our company.
I think we have just put our heads down and been like bags fit within our brand, and journals, and bikes, and we’re very kind of eclectic from the outside, but I think people who identify Brand and identify the kind of lifestyle that we live and are shooting for, they get it. Like, oh yeah, I carry all these things; a bag, a bottle, a journal.
So I think it comes back to brand, you know, so we can sell journals, we can sell bottles, we can sell pens. Really, when you build your audience and it’s based around something bigger than just like a product line, it’s a little bit easier. But you still have to have those boundaries to the brand.
How do you identify a new category to enter?
Every time we look at a new product category, like, for example with journals, the idea is to find an opportunity there. I think the frustration for me was that I felt like all the journals I had—whether Field Notes or Moleskine—was over time they fell apart pretty easily. So I thought there’s gotta be a better technology, there’s gotta be something better here that we could sell.
Then from there we identified how we wanted to make them, and the cool part about the journals is we found suppliers overseas that could easily do it, but we actually found a factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was priced competitively. So we went with them.
That was kind of a cool experience—from my 10-15 years in product development experience, it’s always cheaper internationally. So it was kind of cool to see some wins domestically.
What’s next for MiiR?
We have a notebook [and a hardbound journal] launched, and a spiral and semi-concealed spiral coming out this summer too, which are exciting.
Then we have our store in Seattle where we kind of product test. We’ve been testing how apparel does, testing basic essential T-shirts—those have been doing well. So we’re looking at launching those sometime later this summer on the website.
We’re always thinking, tinkering, testing. I’m big on being nimble, and testing, and if it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul, not a big deal.
What other brands in the outdoor lifestyle space do you think are doing well with design?
I think Nike and Patagonia, from a design aesthetic, have really done a good job. On the smaller scale, I really like Snow Peak. And I think Topo has done a really good job with their brand identity. Mountain Standard has come out of nowhere—it’s all a bunch of product designers that started their own company, so I think they’re doing some rad stuff. They’re testing the waters of what a brand can be.
Similarly, Surf Saturdays, they’re willing to see how elastic a brand can be—they’re into coffee, and surfboards, and shoes, which I find interesting.
And Western Rise, they’ve really done a good job with questioning why can’t you just have good quality clothes that you can put some hiking shoes on with and go for a hike in. You know, just because you want to go hiking or fishing doesn’t mean you have to go get kitted out in the most crazy thing.
The idea of the legacy seems super important to you, and to the brand. What departing advice can you offer to readers on keeping the big picture in mind?
Yeah, totally. One thing that sticks out for me… one of our advisors is Dennis Madsen. He was former CEO of REI. He went from stock boy at store one to eventually becoming CEO and helping to grow the brand to over 100 doors before he retired and Sally Jewell came in. He’s a renowned guy in the outdoor industry.
His advice was, that building a lasting brand is a marathon, not a sprint. And in the tech startup world and with how fast social media is changing, there’s this tendency to freak out and be like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to be successful now, to triple revenue and sell my company.
As I’ve gotten older, and now that I have a daughter and seeing her grow up quickly… for me, legacy is being patient. Take advantage of each day. We only have one life, you’ve got to use it on what you’re passionate about. It’s kind of this duality of squeezing the juice out of life as best you can, but doing so in a way that you know long term that you’re going to create something that’s long lasting.
It’s a hard balance because as a driven person, I want to grow and be successful, but that just takes time. So that’s the advice I’d pass on—if you’re gonna create a legacy brand or a legacy, it takes time, which I think for younger people is hard. It was hard for me. I mean, it’s still hard for me.