UB Insider #10: Mission Belt Holds up Pants and Small Businesses
About this episode:
In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business‘ Lisa Christensen sits down with Mission Belt Co-Founder Zac Holzapfel to talk about the belt—”like a zip tie for your pants”—and the microloan mission that makes up the Shark Tank-featured company. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor for Utah Business magazine. And today I’m talking to Zac Holzapfel, co-founder of Mission Belt.
Zac Holzapfel: Thanks for having us on, Lisa.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks for coming. Mission Belt is a company that sells, as the name suggests, belts. They’re hole-less, durable belts that aim to combine practicality with style. And you guys also have a mission, again, as the name suggests, to help entrepreneurs in impoverished areas with microlending, right?
Zac Holzapfel: That’s right. As a matter of fact, first and foremost, that’s what we are, a belt company. Belt specific. We make the best pants-holder-upper on the market. And almost just as important as our belt, the product, is our mission that’s behind it which is to help people fight poverty and hunger around the world.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me the Mission Belt story. How did you guys come about? How did you guys start? Where did the idea come from, and how did it develop?
Zac Holzapfel: Well, me and my partners, we are entrepreneurs. That’s our trade. So we’re constantly seeing, looking at businesses, looking at deals. We decided that on our next venture, we wanted to do something that was giving back. So we really came up with the mission first. We decided, let’s make a product and let’s try to tie that product on a unique, you know, one-to-one basis to some kind of social mission. And so we came up with the mission and then we decided, you know, what’s something out there that everybody uses, everybody needs, and that’s a forgotten accessory? And so we came up with the belts. Because everybody’s got a pair of pants and everybody needs to keep them up. So we thought, this will be perfect.
The market is very large and we’ll be able to breathe new life into a tired, forgotten product. Because usually the belts in a store are very much an afterthought. You can’t even find them. They’re in a closet. They’re in a cave with cobwebs. You can’t even find them. So we really wanted to breathe that life into them again. Make them fun. Make them more useful.
Lisa Christensen: What did you do to breathe new life into that product?
Zac Holzapfel: So, you know, because we wear belts, we knew exactly what was wrong with them. They were dull. They were boring. Also, they didn’t work always. They were either too tight or too loose. So when we came across ratchet belt technology, because we’re not inventors. We saw it overseas. As a matter of fact, I was in China on a business trip and my translator was wearing one of these belts and we thought, these are fantastic! So obviously we took that. We improved it. We made it ours. We made some changes to make it even better. But our belts, like you said, have no holes. And holes are the problem with belts. They stretch. They crack. They show lots of wear and tear and they’re only adjustable every 1” increment. And with our belts, they’re adjustable every ¼”. There’s no holes so there’s nothing to stretch or tear or wear out over time. So they last a lot longer. Not forever, but a lot longer than a traditional belt. And you get that perfect fit every time.
Lisa Christensen: You and your belts were featured on Shark Tank and Beyond the Shark Tank. Tell me about that experience. What was that like?
Zac Holzapfel: Yeah. Shark Tank was really great. We were in business three months only. And we’d only done about $40,000 in business when we filmed Shark Tank. And then the week after Shark Tank we did over $1 million in sales. We actually had 19,000 units in our warehouse and we thought, if we sell half of these this will be a home run. This will be a great opportunity for us, but we sold out of them within a week.
The night of Shark Tank we were up all night putting in new POs, talking to our factories and manufacturers. So Shark Tank was a huge thing. Especially for a product like Mission Belt, TV is a perfect venue to demonstrate the product. Because talking about it doesn’t do it justice. Seeing a picture doesn’t do it justice. But when you can actually can see someone demonstrating how it works with the click, click, click and the no holes, it’s obvious to everybody that this is like a zip tie for your pants. So you get that perfect fit. So TV was a phenomenal opportunity for us to demonstrate the product and educate customers about this new technology, this new belt. So Shark Tank was wonderful. Intimidating, because it’s all live and it’s reality, but it was a great success for us. And ABC is awesome and Shark Tank is awesome.
Lisa Christensen: So talk to me a little bit more about your mission. How did you come across the idea of microlending and how did you make that work?
Zac Holzapfel: Yeah, it’s actually kind of an interesting story. I have a friend who lived in Panama, Panama City and he worked on the docks in the canal. And he had broken his arm. He got fired immediately. And so there wasn’t any of the social net to catch him or anything like that. So I was talking with him and we thought, this just isn’t right. So we brainstormed with him about what he could do to manage his own destiny as an entrepreneur. So we brainstormed for a while and came up with some different ideas.
Farming, pig farming, and this friend of ours, his name is Luis, he knew a little bit about mechanics and motors and things like that. And so he came to us and he said, there’s a shocking lack of transportation from my sleeping community into Panama City. What we need are more buses. So we got on eBay Motors, bought a bus in Florida and shipped it down to Panama. And he took it from there. One bus grew into three. He has employees but he’s managing himself, his destiny, and the entrepreneurial experience has been successful for him. So we thought, in this next business, how can we do this on a large scale? Because we really think that this is the best way out of poverty – people working for themselves, driving their dreams. So we came across Kiva, which is a peer-to-peer microlending institution in San Franciso. And what they do is micro loans. And micro loans are small loans that make big differences. So that’s who we decided to partner up with. And we like them in particular because every dollar we donate goes directly to the borrower. None of it goes to the overhead of Kiva. We’re not paying for anybody’s mortgages or yachts. They’re 100% transparent.
For every dollar we give, there’s a story and a photo of that person who received the loan. And our loans range from $25 and $500 each. They’re microloans. They’re usually based on agriculture, because we think, you know, feeding your family is the first priority. And with any excess, you can sell it and hopefully break that poverty cycle. And so we focus mostly on lending to women and agricultural businesses. And to date we have done over 37,000 unique loans that range from $25 and $500. So I think on the Kiva platform we are the number five largest business contributor of all time. And we’ve only been in business for three years. So it’s actually a mission that means something. It’s not just something to sell belts. It’s something that we’re really passionate about and we think that it’s making a big difference.
Lisa Christensen: Are there any stories that just really hit you in the chest like, yeah, that’s why we’re doing it?
Zac Holzapfel: You know, when you see the Kiva webpage, and there’s a link on it for MissionBelt.com, and you see 37,000 photos and their stories, all of them are very incredible. These are hardworking, passionate people who really just need some capital to get going. There’s an old phrase that says, give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. We like to add, a lot of people know how to fish already, they just can’t afford the nets. And that’s where we come in. Because these really are just hardworking people. The repayment of these loans is 98.7%, which is phenomenal. So they really are hardworking, driven people who, all they need is some capital. And then they get to decide how to spend that best for themselves. We hope we’re adding to the economy and breaking that poverty cycle, like we talked about. We’re doing it in 72 countries, and it’s mostly in places where they can’t go and get a traditional loan. I don’t know if there’s one in particular, but when you just see the 37,000 photos and all those different stories it’s very impactful.
Lisa Christensen: How do you balance your mission with the marketing of the product? How do you keep those two halves balanced?
Zac Holzapfel: Well, like I said before, we are a for-profit belt company. And so, the product stands alone and it’s a wonderful product. It’s the best pants-holder-upper you’ll ever get. And because we are so passionate about giving back, not just selling a widget, the mission really is up there just closely behind the importance of our product. So, we even named the company Mission Belt for that reason. The mission behind it. That’s why we tell our customers, thanks for being part of the mission. Because we really do see them as partners in the mission. Our retailers, our wholesalers and our customers that come across us online.
Lisa Christensen: Why do you think that microlending is so important? Not only on a local scale, but on a global scale?
Zac Holzapfel: Well I think microloans is a really good model because there’s a lot of good one-for-one models like, let’s say, Toms, which I think is a phenomenal business. And for every one pair of shoes they sell, they give away a pair. And we like that. But at the same time, we think to be in a real economy, people have to really be spending things, they need to buy things they need, not just have extra shoes laying around, not just having belts laying around. So we really think capital. Because we are entrepreneurs, and we understand business, that’s what we know every entrepreneur needs. So microloans, we really think is probably the best way to help people help themselves. We like to say it’s a hand up, not a handout.
Lisa Christensen: Where do you see Mission Belt going in the future? What do you hope for the future of your company?
Zac Holzapfel: You know, Mission Belt wants to be the Kleenex of belts. So when someone sees an automatic belt like ours, we want them to say that’s a Mission Belt, even if it’s not made by us. And so that really is our goal. We want to be the gorilla in the belt market. Because, like I said, no one can name a belt company. And hopefully we do become that belt company. Kind of like Skullcandy. They had a great story similar to ours. They took a product that was tired, a product that no one cared about and made an entire company around it by focusing on it. So that’s what we want to be. We want to focus.
We want to be the belt company that comes to people’s minds when they think about belts. But also, as we grow, our mission’s growing. And that’s something that we want to impart to new companies today, no matter what you’re doing, there’s an easy way, a simple way to give back. We’re not just stripping down the world and trying to make a profit. We’re trying to leave it better for the next generation. That would be the best impact I think Mission Belt could have, as a model for future businesses.
Lisa Christensen: Is there anything else you want to add?
Zac Holzapfel: If you haven’t seen Mission Belt, you can go to MissionBelt.com. There’s a video of how it works, so if I didn’t explain it real well you can go on and see how it looks, and see how it works. And of course you can buy it at MissionBelt.com or there are lots of retailers around the country now. We’re in over 1,000 stores so there’s a good chance we have something in your backyard.
Lisa Christensen: Well, great. Thanks so much Zac for coming and speaking with us today.
Zac Holzapfel: Hey, it was a pleasure. Thanks so much for having us.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Pat Parkinson for production help. Let us know what you thought of today’s episode at firstname.lastname@example.org or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. You can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.