Cotopaxi isn’t the first outdoor company built around philanthropy, but the two-week-old water bottle and backpack manufacturer is the most exciting to watch right now.
Cotopaxi's founder, Davis Smith, has a vision to change the world through business. And thanks to a brilliant marketing launch, a direct-to-consumer sales model, and gin-clear transparency, it seem like his company just might do it.
It’s the first startup to ever launch as a Benefit Corporation—a business that’s actually required to have a measurable positive impact on society and the environment. The Utah-based company was founded to serve people in need: selling gear is a means to that end.
Smith first noted the connection between business and philanthropy in college when he met his idol, millionaire philanthropist Steven Gibson. According to Gibson, the best thing Smith could do if he wanted to be a successful philanthropist was to become an entrepreneur and develop organizational and management skills. Only then should he return to philanthropy. Ten years and two successful startups later, Smith started Cotopaxi.
There’s a clear narrative showing how your purchase helps when you buy from Cotopaxi. "If you buy the India water bottle, you are actually helping someone in India," Smith said. A key part of this narrative is transparency. "We'll give you geographic coordinates to the well that’s being drilled. You'll be able to see images of the villages being helped—you'll know that you are giving around six months of clean water to someone in need," Smith said.
Cotopaxi donates at least ten percent of the proceeds from a product to a specific philanthropic cause. More money is donated when you buy items with a higher profit margin.
To help establish those higher profit margins, Cotopaxi sells all of its products directly to consumers. When the company launched earlier this month, all its products were available for purchase online. "It's a great model," says Smith. "It sounds too good to be true, and it kind of is. The only difficult part of that is to build the brand."
Brand-wise, Cotopaxi is off to a good start. For its launch, it put on Questival, an adventure race-festival hybrid in Salt Lake City that attracted more than 1,400 participants. The hashtag #Questival was attached to more than 12,500 posts during the three-day event.
Will Cotopaxi change the world? It’s still way too early to tell. But I’m confident that Smith and his brand are clearly and traceably aiming to do good. No matter the scope of the ultimate impact, those intentions make a difference. "Sometimes you hear people say, ‘If you’re born in poverty, you're just going to die in poverty,'" Smith said. "That's just absolutely not true. We've seen that people can make an impact, but we all need to do our part."