Miir Bicycles: Changing the World One Ride at a Time
Bryan Papé believes that a bike is more than just a frame, two wheels, and a bunch of components. He sees the bicycle as an instrument of social change. “After clean water and sanitation, one of the biggest impediments to economic development in Africa is transportation,” Papé says. “Kids can’t get to school. People can’t get to market to sell their goods. And the simplest, most affordable solution is bicycles.”
For every bike sold through Papé's two-year-old company Miir, another bike is donated to someone in need. The program, called One4One, began with Miir’s first product, water bottles. One dollar from each bottle sold—which Papé says is enough to provide clean water for one person for a year—supports well projects in developing countries. “The starting point for the company was to make a great product and build a sustainable business,” Papé says. “Once we realized we could do that and we put in place a model that can support itself, then we turned our attention to taking some of what we were making and giving it back. Looking at the problems out there like clean water and lack of transportation, and seeing how easily they can be solved, I just feel it’s important to try and do a part.”
We chatted with Papé from Miir’s Seattle, Washington, headquarters about how the program works, the cost of clean water, and why he believes that everyone who wants a bike should get one.
How did you get into
Before Miir, I was minority in Little Hotties, which makes hand warmers. We took Little Hotties from being a company of five people to a company of hundreds, and after we sold the company in 2009 I was looking for a new challenge. Around that time, I was at REI testing facilities here in Seattle testing hand warmers, and they had all these water bottles lying around that they were testing, too. I struck up a conversation with some of the guys there, and they were telling me, "Nobody has a great design for water bottles." I didn’t realize it then, but that’s how I got started with Miir and making bottles.
So what sets Miir bottles
When we began this project in 2009, there weren’t a lot of bottle companies out there. That has changed in the last few years, but when we started, the options were limited and the features on many of the bottles were basic. So with Miir, we concentrated on very simple, clean design. We wanted a bottle that fits into cup holders. The bottles have fewer threads than most, so one twist and it’s open. The opening is just the right size for drinking: big enough for ice, but not so big that it gives you a water beard when you drink. Even the shape is optimized. The shoulders aren’t abrupt but are more like a wine bottle for smoother pouring.
Where does the give back component come in?
A lot of water bottle companies are based on good ideas—don’t buy single-use bottles; plastic is bad—but the messaging is negative. I wanted Miir to have a positive outlook. Around that time I came across Charity Water, a not-for-profit out of New York, and I learned that almost a billion people in the world don’t have access to clean water. Charity Water didn’t just present this problem, though; they had solutions. When I realized how little it takes to give access to clean water—that $20 can buy a person clean water for 20 years—I decided that was going to be our message and our cause. It’s not about “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that.” It’s about doing something about a problem by simply purchasing a great product. And we made it really simple. One dollar from every bottle goes to clean water projects.
With the scandals
surrounding Lance and LiveStrong and Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute,
there’s definitely more skepticism now about charities. How can people know
that their money is being used effectively and how you say it’s being used?
Every bottle comes with an individual tracking bracelet, and you go online and register that bracelet after you buy the bottle. Then, in six to 12 months, Miir will send you an email with a locator that shows the well project that the money from your bottle has gone to fund. There’s a map and pictures of the well. We’re all about transparency and showing people what we’re doing.
So how did you go
from bottles to bikes?
I went to Liberia to see some of the well projects we were working on firsthand. Being over there in Africa, I learned about people’s needs beyond just clean water and sanitation. We were asking everyone what else we could do, what they needed. And one theme that kept coming up over and over again was the lack of transportation. People told us they couldn’t sell their goods because it took them too long to walk to the market. They said their children didn’t go to school because they had no way of getting there. Seeing that firsthand was pretty much what lead to the bike project. I was asking, “What else can make a difference?” And the answer was bikes. The bike is the most affordable form of transportation.
How does the bike
I got connected with Kevin Menard from Transition Bikes, and he has been so helpful in getting this off the ground. He did a lot of the design work, and he helped us with sourcing from Taiwan. We’re selling three models of bikes right now—a single speed, a five speed, and a mixte. They cost between $700 and $900. And for every bike we sell, we pay to purchase one bike, either through World Bicycle Relief in Africa or in the U.S. through the Boise Bicycle Project. Giving a bike in Africa costs $134. It’s less in the U.S.—between $70 and $90 per bike—because it’s a co-op model that fixes up old bikes. We split the donations 50/50 between international and domestic because while it’s sexy to say that you’re giving bikes in Africa, there's a bit of a stigma about giving domestically. And we feel it is just as important to help provide bikes to the homeless and immigrants and others who can’t afford bikes in this country.
So you just give the bikes away?
No, it’s really important to us that we don’t just provide handouts. We have study-to-own and work-to-own contracts with both partners so the recipients earn the bike over time through work or performance. We've learned that ownership gets people vested in what they are doing and leads to sustainability.
Miir bikes aren’t expensive, but they aren’t exactly cheap either. I assume that’s because the price includes the second bike to be donated?
We could make cheaper bikes and sell them to consumers for less, but we’re committed to making great bikes. Our bikes are well made and are going to last. We source high-quality bearings and parts. The tubing is really good, and the welds are solid. And there are extra perks like baskets and bottles. We’re definitely not competing with the total budget companies, but we’re competitive with other comparable bikes from brands like Trek, Linus, and Felt. We have to make sure that we’re not just tacking the cost of our give onto the cost of our product. If you were to buy a comparable bike to what we sell and donate a bike through World Bike Relief, it would cost you more than buying a Miir.
I see on the site that bikes are going for $1,000 right now?
That's a special going on right now to become part of the Founder's Circle. For the extra money, you get a hand-numbered frame with a special edition head badge that signifies that you got in on the ground floor. You also get a co-branded Chrome bag and some other bits and pieces. Pricing will revert to normal retail prices after the first of the year.
What does the name
One of our inspirations was John Muir, the naturalist and environmentalist who did so much work in our National Park system. We wanted that nod to the outdoor industry and the environment. Also, in Russian, the world “mir” means world or peace. We melded these two things to make it intrinsically ours.
Why are you convicted about giving back?
My family has been in business for themselves forever, and they’ve always been committed to giving back. I guess I just learned that message of taking what you earn and giving a portion. I was reminded of that in Liberia, where I met a man named Prince Kondoh. Prince is an entrepreneur who works with a friend of mine's not-for-profit over there, but on the side he takes care of 30 blind people. They sell furniture and baskets to subsist. Incidentally, we’re working with him on a project to build bike baskets we can sell. Anyway, I asked him one day, “How can you take care of 30 blind people?” It’s such a huge undertaking, such a commitment. And his response was, “How can you not?”
How is Miir doing?
The response has been really good. We believe in the bikes, and people seem to really like them. But it’s more than just products. Our bikes and bottles can really impact other people’s lives, so when we can convey that story to our consumers, they get really stoked. We’re not just making another product to fill the shelves. We’re selling a message of hope and change. In the end, that’s a really easy sell.