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03 Jun, Wednesday
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Mission Belt Holds up Pants and Small Businesses

Orem—At its heart, Mission Belt is a company built around principles that pretty much everyone shares—the desire to find opportunities to provide for oneself, and the need to hold up one’s pants.

Mission Belt sells, as its name suggests, belts: leather, ratchet-style belts designed to be durable, stylish and fit perfectly—”the best pants-holder-upper on the market,” said company co-founder Zac Holzapfel.

“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,” he said. “With our belts, they’re adjustable every quarter inch. There are 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.”

But as with the name itself, the idea of the belt came secondary to the mission the company supports with a portion of its proceeds.

A few years ago, a friend of Holzapfel’s in Panama City broke his arm and couldn’t keep working at his job on the docks. Facing the literal addition of insult to injury, the friend tried to think of other jobs he could get, other means of supporting himself.

“He said there was a shocking lack of transportation between his sleeping community and Panama City, where everyone works,” Holzapfel said, “so we got on eBay motors and bought a bus.”

That one bus turned into three as local workers clamored for rides, and today is a thriving business that supports not only that friend, but all of his employees, too. Holzapfel said that situation sparked an idea of helping fund microloans to aid entrepreneurs, particularly in third-world countries, to get the capital they need to bring their dreams within reach.

“These are hard-working, passionate people who just need some capital to get going,” he said. “There’s that saying: give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. We take it one step further and say a lot of people know how to fish—they just can’t afford the nets.”

Mission Belt donates a dollar per belt sold, and partner with microloan institution Kiva to help get the loans to people who could use them best, Holzapfel said. Loans typically range from $25 to $500, and have been given to more than 37,000 entrepreneurs in 72 countries—with a repayment rate above 98 percent. The stories of each of those people helped are posted on Mission Belt’s page on Kiva’s website.

“These people really are hard-working, driven people who, all they need is some capital, and then they get to decide how to best spend that for themselves. We hope we’re helping the economy, breaking the poverty cycle,” he said. “Microloans really are, we think, the best way to help people help themselves. We like to say it’s a hand up, not a hand-out.”

The company’s focus on a forgotten accessory and its passion for giving back landed it a spot—and a deal—on SharkTank. The company had been in business for a little more than three months when it recorded the episode in early 2013, Holzapfel said, and had done about $40,000 in business. The week after Shark Tank aired, the company had more than $1 million in sales.

“We had 19,000 units in our warehouse, and we thought, ‘Oh, if we can sell half of these, this will be a home run,'” Holzapfel said. “We sold out of them within a week. The night [it aired], we were talking to our factories, our manufacturers. Shark Tank was a huge thing, especially for a product like Mission Belt, TV is a perfect venue to talk about the product, because talking about it doesn’t do it justice, seeing a picture doesn’t do it justice. But when you see someone demonstrating how it works with a click-click-click and no holes, it’s obvious to everybody that this is like a zip tie for your pants, so you get that perfect fit.”

Going forward, Holzapfel hopes the company’s belts grow into an almost ubiquitous brand, like Kleenex did with tissues and Skullcandy did with headphones and earbuds, and that the mission develops both with the company and in response to need—and inspires other businesses to follow suit.

“That’s something we want to impart to other companies—that, no matter what you’re doing, there’s an easy way, a simple way to give back and make the world better. We’re not just stripping down the world for profit; we’re trying to leave it better for the next generation,” he said. “That would be the best impact I think Mission Belt could have, as a model for future businesses.”