Mission Belt Is Lifting Entrepreneurs out of Poverty with $1 Million in Microloans
by Felix Thea Podcasts Aug 4, 2016 29 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
Zac Holzapfel is the co-founder of Mission Belt, a social enterprise that sells belts where a dollar from every sale goes toward fighting poverty.
Find out how Mission Belt donated $1 million to helping other aspiring entrepreneurs around the world.
In this episode, we discuss:
Why you should find a business you can afford to fund yourself.Where you should look towards first to improve your supply chain.How to approach and pitch a retailer.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
Rate and Review Shopify Masters on iTunes!
Store: Mission BeltSocial Profiles: Facebook | Instagram | TwitterRecommended Apps: ShipStation, MailChimp, Privy, Yotpo
Felix: Today I’m joined by Zac Holzapfel, from MissionBelt.com. It’s M-I-S-S-I-O-N B-E-L-T.COM. Mission Belts sells belts where a dollar from every belt goes to fight poverty, was started in 2012, and based out of Orem, Utah. Welcome Zac.
Zac: Hey, thanks for having us on, Felix.
Felix: Thanks. I’m excited to have you on. So tell us a bit more about your story, and what are these belts that you sell? Tell us more about these belts.
Zac: Well, you know, first and foremost, we make the the best pants holder-upper on the market. We make belts for men, and they’re unique in that instead of a traditional belt that is only adjustable every inch a Mission Belt uses a special device that makes it micro-adjustable, so you get the perfect fit every time, so whether you just won a taco eating competition, or you’ve been sucking weight for the Christmas pictures, or something, your Mission Belt is going to fit you every time. We have great style and comfort and usability all put into one fantastic product, and then almost as important as our product is our mission.
We’re called Mission Belt because like you said a dollar from every belt we sell goes to fight poverty around the world through micro-lending. We partner with Kiva which is a peer-to-peer micro-lender that we’re lending in over 70 countries worldwide mostly focused on agricultural businesses, so entrepreneurs can take control of their destiny, and we give them what they need which is capital which is money to start up their own businesses, and to end the poverty cycle, so that’s what the mission is by Mission Belt, and that’s what we’re about.
Felix: Awesome. You definitely want to talk a little bit more about the micro-lending in a second, but I just want to catch up, and say that’s awesome that the money that you go to actually helps other entrepreneurs, or inspiring entrepreneurs. I think that’s a really cool cause that you have. Let’s talk a little bit about how you got started. What’s your background? How did you get into the idea of creating these belts?
Zac: Well, like most entrepreneurs you don’t start, you have a dream, and then this is what you’re going to do, but life takes you down a path, and doors open, and opportunities present themselves, and you take those chances that’s the entrepreneurial spirit, right? We roll the dice a lot. I’ve lived all over the United States, and I’ve lived outside the country as well a few times growing up. My dad is a professor, so we lived in the Middle East, and then lived in Central America for a few years, and studied at Brigham University political science because I’m just fascinated with the world, and everything that’s going on in it. My first job out of college was with an international trust firm, and that also kept me on the road, kept me traveling like nine months out of the year.
That’s when we started diving into different kinds of businesses, and those different kind of opportunities that randomly can present themselves, and ended up in manufacturing in Mexico and Panama making bed components for bed manufacturers, mattress manufacturers, and so we’d make foams, and springs, and gels, and everything that you need to make a bed. Just from there different projects, and we started doing some small lending to friends and people we knew. We started with one in Panama where me and my partner, Jeff Jensen, we bought a bus in Florida, and sent it down to Panama, so a good friend of ours could start his own business with a bus line, and one bus grew to two, two to three, and we got this idea about micro-lending. Then we said whatever our next business is let’s tie our success in that business on a one-to-one basis to this micro-lending idea to help other entrepreneurs control their destiny, and do what they need to do to, like we were saying, break the poverty cycle.
We thought of the mission first, and then we thought of the product that we were going to tie to it, and that’s when we came across belts we said this is the kind of product we like because like mattresses it’s something everybody uses, and so we don’t need the entire market, we just need a portion of the market to be successful, and we love the belts. It’s a sleepy, tired product, and so we wanted to breathe new life into it, and so that’s the product we went with, but like most entrepreneurs it’s an interesting story. Being an entrepreneur is more about more than just making money because there’s lots of ways to skin a cat, and lots of ways to make money, but entrepreneurs we like the stories, we like the experiences, we like the variety. We like to choose who we work with, when we work, things like that. Like most entrepreneurs it’s an interesting tale, and it wasn’t planned out, but that’s where I came from anyway.
Felix: Awesome. It sounds like you had some criteria when you were thinking about starting your next business you said that it needed to be a product that everyone needs. Belts, everyone needs a belt, and it’s down to like you wanted also to find opportunity where you could breathe new life into a product, or into a category. Were there any other kind of things you wanted to make sure you could check off before you decided to go ahead with your next business idea?
Zac: Yeah, the usual things. We wanted to find something that was easily accessible. Manufacturing was a big part of it, supply chain, the normal things that you’d look at in a business, funding, things like that, but those are kind of just the same kind of check list that you’d go through with any kind of business, but we do like the idea that it’s a very common kind of product, something that people will buy multiple times in a year that they want, and accessorize, and that they need even, so as long as people are still wearing belts that’s the thing. We got suspenders and drawstrings that’s our biggest concern, right?
Felix: That’s funny. Tell us a little more about the criteria mission which is about funding. What are you looking for, or what did you look for when you were evaluating the products, and what about funding?
Zac: That’s a great question. We wanted to be self-funded. Jeff has an E-Commerce background, and we have been partnered up on lots of different deals over the last eight years or so, and so we decided we wanted to find a product that we could afford to fund ourselves as well, so that just comes into the math of a business. Some businesses like if wanted to start a car company, or something like that, we’d obviously have to invest very heavily and look outside our own finances to fund it, but belts is a perfect category for people like ourselves that we have some investment capital, but no staggering. Belts are perfect for that because it’s not a high-end kind of investment criteria that we were looking at.
Felix: Cool. Do you think that that is a preference, or do you think that that should be something that everyone should lean towards meaning they should always lean towards finding a business that they can bootstrap rather than something that is more capital intensive that’s going to require outside investment?
Zac: No, I’m not afraid of debt, or bringing on investors or partners, or funding. It just so happened that at the time when we were doing this we had other projects going. I was still involved very heavily in mattresses, and Jeff was very involved with his projects, and so we didn’t want to bring on investors or capital unless we were going to dedicate 100% of our time to it because as we’ve grown it’s totally taken over all of other projects, so now we are fully invested. By the time we didn’t want it to be 70 hours a week, kind of a thing, but it grew faster and bigger than we ever imagined, so it has taken up all our time, but no, I wouldn’t say that that’s just key to every business. I think if you have a great idea, and you need funding go get the funding, make it happen, so I wouldn’t steer away from borrowing, or taking on debt, or investors or anything like that.
Felix: Makes sense. Another thing you mentioned was regarding manufacturing, so what were you looking for, what do you consider when you think about picking a business, or picking a product to build in regards to manufacturing?
Zac: With my mattress background, and manufacturing in Mexico and Panama supply chain is a real important thing. You don’t want to sell a product, or make a product that is going to have problems in that supply chain. You want to be able to act quickly, and reactive to the demand that your product has. When you’re looking at something if you’ve got one supplier, or you need a special material that is short, or hard to get then those are things to consider. Luckily with belts leather is a very common product around the world, and we use all sorts of different kinds of metals, but it’s all pretty standard. We can pretty much make our belts anywhere, and so that is something you always want to look at is supply chain.
Felix: That definitely makes a lot of sense because these are, obviously, the raw ingredients that are needed to actually have a product, so when you sit down and think, or when the entrepreneur out there is sitting down, and thinking about doing their first product, or getting their first product made you mentioned a couple of things there. One is that there isn’t just one supplier, then also, about the ease of access to the material. How do you begin this kind of research? How do you find out if the material that you’re getting is going to be rare or not? How do you work with multiple suppliers?
Zac: It all depends. If you’re going to be the manufacturer yourself then, obviously, all you have to do is find those raw materials, and you find those raw materials by just shopping them out, feeling out your market. For us in the mattress business we were making all of our parts. Also, all we needed was raw materials, for instance, and so we had to look for oils and foams, and things like that. Some of them were actually really hard to get. There are only two suppliers in the world that made a polymer that we needed, and then that was always something you had to think about, and keep on hand.
Then when it comes to belts much easier to source, but again, if you’re not manufacturing yourself using suppliers it’s always a great idea to have multiple suppliers [inaudible 00:12:09] but put all your eggs in one or two, or even three baskets only. Spread it out, and that will help you also control your price, so that you get to play suppliers off one another, and keep them honest, but it’s just a matter of reaching out and getting those quotes, and visiting the factories. It’s just a matter of time and energy and feeling out the market. It’s not hard. It just takes time, and if you’re manufacturing overseas you just need to find people that you can work with that can do your legwork for you if you can’t be there, but it’s pretty simple. It should never be a hindrance the manufacturing aspect of the business. It’s not as complicated as it might seem.
Felix: Given your experience with manufacturing these belts, and obviously, with your bed manufacturing experience where would you recommend an entrepreneur, a business owner starts to look at first if they want to evaluate their supply chain? Let’s say that they started a business, and they have all the manufacturing and everything set up, but they haven’t revisited since. If they were to go back, and look and say, let me see how I can improve this. What do you recommend they take a look at first?
Zac: You mean if they’re trying to add a new supplier?
Felix: I’m assuming that you’ve probably optimized your supply chains based on the amount of experience that you have in there. Where do you see the most issues with other businesses that have a supply chain that might not be as optimized as yours?
Zac: That’s a great question. The thing with manufacturing is that you can never get complacent. You can’t just be like, oh yeah, we have this great guy, and he just makes our product, and it’s just like clockwork. You have to continually be visiting your quality control, your manufacturing processes, your standards, your shipping, your cost, your raw cost, your delivery cost, your shipping, all that kind of stuff kind of adds up to your product cost and quality, and just something you never let up on. You always have to be doing your quality control. You always have to innovating, and you can’t sleep on the job. You just have to go over it with every PO, with every purchase, or with every run, so you just can’t be complacent, I would say. Then by doing that you are going to always get a better deal, a better product, better time, whatever it is you’re looking to optimize by continually revisiting it, and going around to your different manufacturers you’ll keep them on their toes, and keep your product fresh.
Felix: Was this like you were saying keeping your suppliers, keeping your supply chain honest. These activities that you are doing were they easy for you to do when you were a smaller player at the time, or was it something that you had? Was it more like a luxury that came along after you become larger, or a bigger buyer from these suppliers?
Zac: There’s always people who want your business even if you’re small, and ordering a couple pallets even. There’s people who want that business and manufacturers that size that do want it, but as you grow, and you’re bringing in containers, and making large purchase orders, then you’ve obviously become a more important part of their business then it becomes, yes, like you were saying it becomes that much easier, but there’s always going to be players and manufacturers that are catering to the smaller businesses, and they want your business as bad as you want your own business to grow, so you can do that. It gets easier as you grow, and you have a lot more sway when you got a couple 40 foot containers of product being made for you by a factory, so it gets easier.
Felix: Awesome. When you are with these manufacturers, these suppliers, and you’re trying to get a better deal, or find more ways for them to help your business out do you make it known that you’re shopping around? Like you were saying earlier that there’s some kind of playing them off of each other. Tell us a little bit more about that. How do you approach the suppliers to get the best deal out of the relationship?
Zac: The best thing that’s worked for me always has been transparency. I never pretend that we’re giving an exclusive deal to somebody. I’m more than happy to share costs. Can you beat this price? Can you match this price? Sometimes, we ask for more than that. It seems to be in my opinion the best way that your manufacturers, and your suppliers realize how you operate, and we’ll fight for that business knowing what the possible outcome will be, what kind of orders we’re looking at, and things like that. I don’t like to hype it and tell them, hey, we can send five million orders your way, or five million units your way if I’m really not planning on doing that. Just being open and transparent with them is wise.
Felix: That makes sense. There’s definitely less time wasted on everyone’s hands when everything’s put up front, so that makes sense. You picked this product that you knew that you wanted to build. What was the first step? You knew that it had to be made. Did you have to get a design? What were the very first steps towards actually getting the product created?
Zac: We have an interesting product in that it’s been around for 20 years. A belt similar to ours has been around in Asia and Europe for a long time, and a few other larger companies like Dockers have actually tried to sell a belt very similar to ours this micro-adjusting belt, this no holes belt, and they fell right on their face. They thought this is an improved belt, people will buy it, but it doesn’t just sell itself. There has to be some education involved, and there has to be some kind of branding behind it and make it interesting, fun, and people want to buy something more than just a product.
It’s been around and when we saw it we thought we need to make some changes to it to make it ours. There’s some things that we changed, and upgraded, and it became our belt, but there’s similar belts out there. Our process was we found a couple manufacturers that could make the changes that we wanted, and we made those changes simply. We didn’t even go through a design from, or anything like that. We just basically told them we want a mold made, and we want these features to be included into it, and we did several samples back and forth until we got it exactly how we wanted, and then we just started designing which was more from a fashion perspective. We pretty much made a product that we would wear that we would like, and that we think our friends, and others would like, so that was pretty easy for us as well.
Felix: What was the timeline between picking the product, and actually having the very first shipment that was ready to be sold?
Zac: I would say because we were involved in other projects at the time more heavily this was a side kind of thought, and so we weren’t spending much time on it. I’d say we probably took six months from deciding that we want to do this to actually getting our first small shipment to sell.
Felix: Makes sense. You mentioned just a few seconds ago about how were building a product that you would wear yourself, that your friends would also wear. Did you have to do any testing, or validating of that because obviously if it’s you or your co-founder, or your other employees it’s easy to do that validation, but did you have to get out into the market, and find out if A, people liked the belt, and B, did they care about the mission?
Zac: The mission was always going to be a bonus. We always wanted the product to sell for itself, and that people find out there’s a mission there’s some kind of added value to that. We were going to do it no matter what. We don’t push the mission that much because like I said first and foremost we make a pants holder-upper that is second to none, and that’s what we want people to think of when they think of Mission Belt, initially. We never had to do any kind of test market. We believed in the product right away, so we never did the test, or go out into the market. We just brought in a small shipment, and started selling them. When you find a product that you believe in that you think is the better mousetrap it’s that easy.
Felix: Do you remember how big that first shipment was? You said it was a small shipment.
Zac: Very small shipment, and we were pretty naïve when we came into the business originally. We were like, oh yeah, we’ll do belts, and we’ll do it in black, and brown, and white. Our first order was something like just several thousand units maybe 8,000 units split up between black, brown, and white. Our first sales were to retailers, and that was their first thing, “Oh, these are great. Where’s the other colors?” We’ll like, “Okay, you guys need a lot,” and then sure enough they want a big variety. If they’re going to bring on a brand they don’t want to bring on a brand for just three SKU’s. They wants dozens, so we quickly found out we need to expand our line ASAP, and we did right after that.
Felix: Usually when I have a guest on a podcast I ask them how they got their first X number of sales. A lot of people say they sold to friends and family, they sold out of the trunk of their car, but you went straight to talking to the retailers. Tell us a little bit more about that. How did you approach them? How did you even get the chance to talk to them?
Zac: Like I said, Jeff and I we had been entrepreneurs. We knew we didn’t want to start a business just selling to friends and family. We were only interested in doing a business that we felt was independent on its own, so we started our first sale. Actually, my brother who is another partner he went to the local golf course country club, and talked to the club pro, and he loved the belts right off the bat, right? So that was actually our very first sale to the country club, and then the country club a lot of business people in the Valley are members of that country club, and some of them own suit stores, or lifestyle stores, or skate shops.
They bought the belts inside the country club, and then they would reach out to us, and be like, “Hey, I just got your belt at the Riverside Country Club. We love it. Can we carry it in our stores?” That was our very first sell was there, and from that very first sale came dozens of other retailers, and they’re all kind of like local chains which are fabulous. That’s how we got started. That’s how we said, okay, we’ve got a product that can run, and that’s how we decided to bring in more and new varieties, new SKU’s, so that was our path. Obviously, at the same time in conjunction we started with Amazon, and of course, we had our own webpage Shopify, but nobody was surfing to our sites, and so we started selling into retail.
Felix: When you went to this country club to first pitch and sell the belts was this your first beginning attempt at selling them, or was this your first yes? Were there a string of no’s, and then kind of rejections along the way, or did you have success right off the bat?
Zac: That was the very first attempt, and the very first yes, and we’re not batting a thousand, but if we get the chance to get in front of a buyer the conversation develops pretty well, so we haven’t had a lot of no’s, but I mean everyone’s going to have no’s. It’s either the wrong season, or they don’t want to invest in accessories, or what have you, or they already chose a different belt company to go with for the year, and so those will happen, but it just so happened that our first attempt was a success. We tried other avenues as well after that, and some hits, some misses, but yeah, our very first one was fortunate.
It took a couple of weeks or months for those retailers to come in and find the product. It helped that the club pro loved the product. He just was in love with it. We would say if the sales person is wearing our belt he will, or she will sell it to a customer because they actually love it. You know when you find a product you like you talk about it. You’re like, you’re going to love this, and you’re going to love that. That was key in our initial success.
Felix: This all happened within a year, right? You had the idea, six months later you had your first shipment, and then you said a few months you started pitching to the country clubs, and all of a sudden within a few months other retailers that the frequency of that club heard about the product and wanted to stock it themselves.
Zac: We actually started selling to them. We started in the fall of 2012, actually, officially formally, and we made our first sale into the country club that fall, and retailers started getting onboard, and then just three months after being in business, so in the winter we applied to ABC’s Shark Tank TV show, and we got accepted. Three months into the business, and we had a few retail shops, local shops. We filmed on Shark Tank, and then from there six months later it aired, and so that changed things, and sped things up dramatically as well.
Felix: Awesome. I feel like there’s a couple of nuggets here, so you were able to first identify a product that you yourself liked, and that you knew other people liked as well. There was a mission attached to it, and you went straight for a retailer. You went straight for I’m going to say a watering hole for a bunch of retailers which extremely magnified your reach, and your ability to reach out to these retailers, and then all of a sudden get picked up by Shark Tank, or invite on to pitch on Shark Tank. Is this path do you think that others could replicate this, or maybe could you replicate this path as well. What would you say there was some luck involved? What is the secret sauce to being able to execute on this so quickly?
Zac: I would say that luck is definitely involved in all this, so when we went to Riverside to sell we didn’t think of it as the watering hole necessarily, but it ended up being that watering hole, and that was pretty much luck, but it took the effort to go and make the initial pitches, and sales. I always like to say entrepreneurs they all work hard. Everybody does, but when lighting strikes you get that bit of luck that all businesses need you got to capitalize on it and move fast, and that hard work comes into play in that because there are entrepreneurs that work much harder than we do that maybe have been doing it longer, that grind harder, and still haven’t gotten that initial bump that they’re looking for, and the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet, but I think if you start a business you always are going to get some opportunity.
It’s always just a question of capitalizing on those opportunities at each stage. I think we were very fortunate to have had those initial successes early on in our company. We’ve been running to catch up ever since it feels like which is a great problem to have. Can we replicate it? I think we’ve learned a lot. We could do things like that, but definitely fate and luck come to play. I honestly believe that it was a lot of luck.
Felix: Definitely, I think that sometimes, and I’ve talked about there’s these opportunities that come up, and I think one of the keys to be a successful entrepreneur is what you’re getting at which is the ability to identify, and then capitalize on these opportunities. One other skill that needs to be developed is the ability to identify what’s an opportunity versus what is a distraction, so how do you approach it when something comes up it looks like an opportunity maybe is disguised as an opportunity, but could actually distract you from the business? How do you know if it’s actually something that’s worth pursuing or not?
Zac: There are definitely a lot of distractions that pop up, especially, once you start getting on people’s radar. You get people coming by, or emailing, or pitching you, or calling you all the time trying to get what they want out of some kind of relationship. You definitely have to stay focused. A lot of people are begging us to come out with other products. You guys should make wallets. You guys should make socks. You guys should make this and that. We feel like right now at least that those will be distractions. We really want to become the gorilla in the belt category, and until we do that we’re going to stay real focused, and true to our core competency. That’s where you just always got to be thinking about.
Just last week some sports team came to us, and they want us to advertise, and make a belt for their stadium, and we have to evaluate that. Is this going to district us from what we’re doing, or is it something that is going to add value to our brand and our business? You have to go through that evaluation process and there’s always choices to be made at every junction. It’s going to be different for every company and the way they get there is always going to be different as well, but it’s evaluation.
We work as a team. Everybody has a different idea, or different insight, or different experience, and that’s what’s important about partnerships as well. You have partners that compliment each other. If we’re all just E-Commerce guys, or if we’re all just sales people then we would be missing all sorts of parts, but because we have different backgrounds, and different strengths you add it all up there’s complimentary input from everybody, and I think that helps you stay focused, and stay true to your course, and your focus.
Felix: One thing I’ve been telling entrepreneurs, especially, lately is that you have to say no more than you say yes to anything. If anybody asks you anything, or these opportunities that come up. You don’t need to get specific if you don’t want to, but have there been any regrets that you’ve had from turning down opportunity from saying no to something that was an opportunity?
Zac: Not yet. We’re selective about where our product can be sold, and partnerships we want to be careful with those as well. So far we haven’t had any big regrets about passing up an opportunity, or an offer, but then again maybe they would have been great if had we said yes, but no, right now there’s nothing glaring that we should have done.
Felix: Makes sense. One thing I want to talk about before we move off this subject about these retailers is approaching them. When someone today when you are thinking about approaching a retailer maybe if you had some advice for an entrepreneur that’s thinking about approaching a retailer for a first time what are some ways that they can prepare to make sure that the meeting with the pitch, or the opportunity goes well?
Zac: Once you find the contact which is probably like 90% of your effort is actually getting in front of the person who can make the decision to bring your product into their stores, or their chain, or whatever, but once you do you just got to give them the vision how this can increase their margin, increase their revenue because that’s why they’re in business as well. They’re not here to support you. We’re here to support them, help them pay their mortgages, helps them pay their employees, and so you’ve got to give them a reason to buy your products.
Felix: Something I’ve heard recently that I thought was interesting is that as an entrepreneur your job is a lot of times to be a servant for your customers, a servant for the retailers that you want to sell into. It’s your job to find out what they need, and help them fill that, and hopefully, that obviously aligns with your goals as well. You hit it on the head because I think a lot of times people will approach retailers, or people that they need help from, and just think about how can you help me rather than how can I help you, and have both of us benefit from it, so great point.
Zac: That is absolutely true. As a matter of fact sometime entrepreneurs say it’s better than working for someone, but the truth is I’m working for hundreds of thousands of people I feel like. When it just even comes to the retail level we ourselves earn over $1,200, and I will take calls. If there’s somebody who’s upset, occasionally, I’m the one who it’s going to get escalated all the way up to me, and I’m going to go over there, and I’m going to try to find the pain, and solve it for them. That’s also when you’re approaching them that’s important. Find their pain, and address it because the pain at least in our business is accessories move slowly. Belts are in the corner of a store. There’s cobwebs inside a cage, nobody cares about them. It’s an afterthought.
Ralph Lauren makes a belt, but it’s an afterthought. All these big players make belts, but they don’t focus on belts, and that’s where we come in. We’re a belt company. We’re not just going to replace your belt sales. We’re going to add to your belt sales. We’re going to grow your belt business, and that’s important. If you can approach a store like that, and tell them you’re actually going to grow the business not just replace the current product they sell that does wonders.
Felix: Makes a lot of sense. I want to talk quickly about Shark Tank. I’m sure that you don’t have any instructions on how to get on the show, but maybe you can tell us a little bit about how the appearance helped your business. What was it like weeks, days after the show was airing? What was the experience like?
Zac: It’s fantastic. It’s real intense. My brother is the one that actually went on, and did the TV. I’m a little camera shy myself. They say the camera adds 10 pounds, and that’s the last thing I needed, right? I didn’t actually appear, but it’s very intense, it’s very real, but what it did for our business that was so great is when we’re talking about Mission Belts and a new way, like a belt without holes it’s hard to imagine how that works, but TV is a perfect medium for us because we can show people because it’s basically a giant zip-tie for your waist, right? People automatically understood right away. This is a unique product. This is a product I like. I like the mission. I like the style. TV was awesome for us for that, and Shopify, I have to tell you was just incredible because we specifically moved over to Shopify from a WordPress site, or something like that before running up to Shark Tank because we knew Shopify could handle their kind of traffic that we were going to get from our Shark Tank experience.
As a matter of fact, we called up and talked to a rep and notified him, hey guys, we’re going to be on Shark Tank. We’re expecting a couple of hundred thousand hits, or at least 50,000 hits on the first night, or something like that, and gave them the heads up. A lot of people who appear on Shark Tank they’re not prepared for it. We’d like a great platform like Shopify. Their website crashes. They can’t take orders. They missed the opportunity completely, so like I was saying, these opportunities come up, and it’s about how you handle those opportunities, so a big part of our success was directly tied to Shopify. Shopify handled it. We didn’t crash. It kept things rolling. We were able to keep selling, and capture all these great sales plus get the exposure that we were looking for. There was a long tail after Shark Tank, and I have to say Shopify was just magnificent for us, and for that big explosion of traffic that we got for being on national television.
Felix: That’s great to hear. Tell us about the deal. What did you guys come in, or what did your co-founder come in asking for, and then what did you end up getting?
Zac: With Shark Tank you send in a pitch in your video, or an email, but we sent in a video. My brother is entertaining, he’s a card, and so he was already interesting just to watch, but our initial pitch was we wanted we were going to offer a part of the company something like 5% for $1 because the idea was we didn’t need the capital, we felt like we had enough money to get our business going. We wanted the Rolodex. We wanted the experience that came with one of the Shark investors, and so that was our initial pitch to the producers.
They loved it at first. They were just like this is great guys, wonderful, and then as we got closer and closer to the filming the producers said, “Oh, you know what? If we do this it’s going to turn our show into a circus, and then people are going to be offering to pay them to come in, and help them,” so they said, “we need a real valuation, and we need you to ask for a real amount of money.” We ended up asking for something, and we made a deal on TV, and the deal afterwards because our particular shark, Daymond John who is just phenomenal I should say. With our particular deal every deal is different. He didn’t want to close the deal until we aired on TV and see how it went.
When he called us after our airing he said, “Guys, I’m not going to hold to that deal. It’s not a good deal for you. Let’s do something different,” so he’s not a shark at all. He’s a great guy, entrepreneur like us who wants to just not take advantage of every situation, so we were able to get a deal that leaned towards us better, and made it work, and it was fantastic. Every deal is different. Every entrepreneur is different, so I can’t say this is how it works, right? But in our case, that’s how it worked.
Felix: Awesome. It’s been about two to three years since you’ve been working with Daymond and his company. Has there been any lessons that you can share with the audience that he’s taught you about running a business, about being an entrepreneur?
Zac: He’s a smart operator. He definitely gets it. When you talk to Daymond one-on-one you just realize very quickly this guy understands retail. This guy understands business. He’s a mentor to us more than anything else. Everything he’s told us has been little nuggets that have helped us make good decisions.
Felix: Awesome. Let’s talk about the charitable arm of your business. That’s not the reason that you started this business, but do you think that having a cause-based business, like yours is a cause-based business, in general, gives you an edge over the competition? Does it affect the bottom line in a positive way?
Zac: It’s a good question. I don’t think anybody buys our product because there’s a cause attached to it, and we’re a for-profit company. We just choose to donate a dollar from every sale to micro-lending and fighting poverty. I don’t know if people buy it because of it, but it definitely is an added value. We don’t want you to just look good. We want you to feel good, too. We’re young guys, and we’ve lived around the world all of us. Jeff, and Nate, and me we’ve all lived around the world. We see how everybody lives, and America is a great place. We live in a blessed nation. We don’t know what it’s like out there for everybody else. Like we can go to a bank and get a loan, and we decided we have to be a part of something bigger, so we were going to do this no matter what.
I don’t know if it actually does increase our sales, but it really is who we are. The biggest impact we can hope for from Mission Belt is that other companies see that, hey, you can be successful, and give back at the same time, and be a for-profit company, and still give back, and make a difference because we think that’s the future. Governments don’t seem very good at it, but individuals seem like they can make a difference, and companies like us we feel like we can make a difference, and I think we are in the lives of the tens of thousands of people that we’ve gotten capital to.
Felix: That’s awesome. You’ve grown the company. You guys have a pretty sizable team now since the beginning of the business. How successful is the business today? Share as much as you’re comfortable with sharing about the success of it.
Zac: We donate a dollar from every belt to our micro-lending, and just this last week we crossed a million dollars in micro-loans, so we’ve now lent to over 40,000 unique individuals, and over a million dollars in loans just this last week, so you got me at a good time. We’re really excited about that. We’re going to send out the messages, and do something about it, but we haven’t had the time to do it yet, but we’re going to because it’s a significant threshold that we just passed, and we’re very excited about it. From the very beginning we wanted to tie our success not just one day we’re going to do something and give back. We’ve decided to tie it directly to an individual belt, so John Doe goes and buys a belt, and a dollar right from there that dollar goes directly to help somebody start their business. Loans range between $25 and $500 each, and like I’ve said we’ve done over 40,000 of these loans now today, so we’re real happy about that.
Felix: That’s amazing. I’m looking at some data that I found about you guys. I’m not sure how updated this is, but it says here that you’re employing now 20 people. Has the team grown since then, or what’s the size of the team that works there?
Zac: It fluctuates during the year. Sometimes we have more during the holidays. We’ve had as many as 40 people, but now we do use a 3PL to do our fulfillment, so we have a lot less warehouse work, but we’re probably have 25 right now. It’s a lean team, but entrepreneurs like us, at least our team we’re bootstrappers. Everyone in the company wears multiple hats. We’ve never upgraded the offices. We’re pretty much still look like we’re a start-up. That’s who we are, though. We’re not flashy. We don’t blow our trumpet too loud, but we’re doing great, and we’re going to have a great year. Every year is better than the last which can’t ask for more than that.
Felix: In terms of running the business itself are there any particular apps whether it be on Shopify, or outside Shopify that you and your team rely on to keep the business running?
Zac: Shopify is awesome. I love all the apps that work with Shopify. ShipStation is a huge thing for us. It integrates with Shopify perfectly. MailChimp we can stay in contact with our customers, offer promotions, and sales, or just update them by new products, and what’s going on in the company. We have a popup and we use Privy for that. That’s a great Shopify app. There’s Yupool which helps us collect reviews and feedback from customers. There’s just a bunch of great apps that work with Shopify, just even like Shopify Fraud Alert. It saves us lots of money, so there’s all sorts of stuff, but those are some of them that are really great, and then we live and breathe in Google Docs, and Google Sheets the usual ones.
Felix: Definitely. So a million dollars in donations that you guys have been able to raise, obviously, tons of success, a large team that you’ve grown. What are the plans of the future? What are you looking at a year out? Where do you guys want to be?
Zac: We keep focusing on what we’re doing. We brought on some licensing, so we do NBA, NHL, NCAA belts, college sports, and things like that. We’ve gone into licensing a bit. We’re growing in a couple of ways, and bringing on new vendors. Some really good national ones are coming on. Some new retail locations. We’re at that stage where we’re growing, and we’re growing the retail, the wholesale side significantly because we first started with wholesale, but our Shopify, and our webpage soon took over as our number one source, and for probably over a year we were probably 90% online, and 10% wholesale, and now we’re starting to see that balance out more.
I think that will be our continual growth trajectory will be based on wholesale and online, but wholesale is growing because when you bring on a store that has 900 locations that’s significant, but they’re both complimentary. People see you in the store they oftentimes look you up online as well, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, work on some strategic partnerships, but like I said until we are that gorilla that everybody knows us and recognizes us as the belt company we’re probably not going to dabble into anything that distracts us.
Felix: Awesome. Thanks so much Zac. So MissionBelt.com is the website. That’s M-I-S-S-I-O-N B-E-L-T.COM. Anywhere else you recommend the listeners check out if they want to follow along with what you guys are up to?
Zac: Mission Belt is going to be the best. Follow us on social media, on Facebook, Instagram. There’s always things you can follow there about sales or promotions or new product launches, but just get on MissionBelt.com, or check out your local retailers. You’ll find us in Zumiez and Journeys, and some other big retailers out there, Nordstroms. Go try a Mission Belt. You’ll love it.
Felix: Very cool. Thanks again so much, Zac.
Zac: Hey, thanks, Felix.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the E-Commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today visit Shopify.com/Masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial.
Ready to build a business of your own?
Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify today!
About the author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.