Nowadays, there are so many Utah companies swimming with investors on ABC’s "Shark Tank" that there was even an entire session devoted to swimming with the sharks at the Governor’s Utah Economic Summit last month.
Mission Belt, an Orem-based hole-less belt company, was one of the earlier local companies to make it to the tank, and has built a very successful business since jumping in feet first with "Shark Tank" investor Daymond John in early 2013.
Zac Holzapfel, Jeff Jensen and Nate Holzapfel founded Mission Belt in the early fall of 2012, and then filmed their episode for the ABC TV series that October. John offered them a deal, but after their episode aired in April 2013, he came back to them with a better offer.
“He saw what we’d done since the filming, and didn’t hold us to the original deal. All 'Shark Tank' deals are different, but that’s how ours was. And Daymond has been great to work with,” said Zac last week, sitting with Jensen in Mission Belt’s comfortable, but unassuming, Orem headquarters.
The day their episode aired, Holzapfel said, the Mission Belt team had 19,000 belts in stock, and hoped to sell half of them by the end of the week. They ended up sold out entirely within that first week instead.
“So the night of 'Shark Tank,' we were up all night ordering more product, so we could fulfill our orders, and then playing catch-up for several months after,” Zac said.
The day their episode aired on "Shark Tank" in 2013, they were in 12 stores. Today, they are in 1,200 stores, and are selling their belts online through their website, Amazon and other curated sites. They’ve also recently acquired sports licensing with the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“Early on we had a lot of wholesale opportunities we couldn’t capitalize on because we were just trying to fill our business-to-consumer orders. We’re now working on those. We’ve been able to get in some great places,” Zac said.
They just enjoyed another stint in the spotlight Tuesday evening, being featured on an episode of ABC’s "Beyond the Tank" — a spin-off series from "Shark Tank." This time, they didn’t have to audition or apply to be on the show — producers of "Beyond the Tank" approached them last year to do a follow up on their story.
Their segment of the episode, filmed over a three-day period in February 2015, distilled their story to just about 15 minutes. Billed by ABC as John delivering “some tough love” to the founders about expanding Mission Belt, Zac said since that filming was more than a year ago, the company that was featured Tuesday night is a different one today.
“All the issues they addressed there, we’ve already addressed. We’ve grown a lot since then,” he said.
Unique to Mission Belt — and an important point that was downplayed on their television appearances — is that the company wasn’t founded with the buyout exit strategy in mind or to make its founders rich. From the moment it was conceived, Zac said, it had a mission to sell a quality product that would allow them to invest in micro-loan lending through Kiva. Zac got the bug by helping an old friend from Panama, by investing in the start-up costs for the friend’s bus route business.
“The mission was the idea before it was a business,” he said.
Kiva is a nonprofit organization that arranges micro-loans — loans as little as $25 — to those in developing countries that have little or no access to traditional loan options.
“Everyone knows the fish analogy — ‘Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ We figure lots of these hardworking people know how to ‘fish’ but they don’t have the net. So we help them get the net,” Jensen said.
Since the very beginning, $1 from every belt they sell goes to their microfinancing account at Kiva. They focus on agricultural loans for those in developing countries, and they loan to women twice as much as they loan to men.
“To date, we’ve made more than 36,000 microloans in 72 countries. That first belt we’ve sold, we’re still loaning that dollar out again and again,” Zac said.
At just under $1 million in loans to date, Mission Belt skillfully straddles the line between quality, successful business growth and philanthropic pursuits. Jensen said "Shark Tank" was the perfect platform for their product when they were starting out, because it allowed them to educate people about a newer design for a very standard clothing accessory. Mission Belt didn’t invent the hole-less belt design, but with their previous start-up experience, and the opportunity for consumers to help others with their purchase, the company made belt buying cool again.
“Our product stands on its own. And the belt appeals to a lot of people, and its mission — everyone can relate to helping the ‘little guys.’ It speaks to those who want to be a part of something bigger,” Zac said.