Brand Update With Mizu Founder Jussi Oksanen and CEO Tim Pogue
End of Single-Use Plastics Remains Core Mission, New G7 Glass Bottle Available April 2015
Last September, Jussi Oksanen officially called an end to his storied, 17-year professional snowboarding career in order to focus full-time on Mizu, the business he founded back in 2008. Despite not riding for cameras this Winter, Jussi’s headlining effort in the Burton Presents series was enough to earn him the Standout Performance of the Year award at Transworld Snowboarding’s Riders Poll Awards last month. With his legacy as a rider secured and his company due to deliver its first line of glass bottles early next month, it seemed like a perfect time to catch up with Jussi, and Mizu CEO Tim Pogue, to see what was happening behind the scenes with the brand and its ongoing battle against single-use plastics.
NEW PRODUCT INNOVATION:
What are some key new products that you're shipping now, what else is in the immediate future?
Tim Pogue: We are very excited to announce that our new glass bottle, the Mizu G7, will be in stores and our website by early April 2015. The G7 is available in 3 colors, holds 700ml (24 oz) and comes with a silicone protective sleeve and the two-part cap system that allows for using it as a bottle or as a drinking glass, and for easier cleaning. All of the caps from the classic Mizu stainless steel bottles also fit and work with this glass bottle so our customers don't have to hunt for the right cap.
Unlike most glass bottles on the market today, Mizu uses borosilicate glass (think Pyrex) for all of its glass products which is much more resistant to temperature and more durable than regular glass. For example, you can boil water in a Mizu bottle, where a normal glass bottle would shatter in the microwave or in a campfire. We're pretty confident that the new Mizu G7 will start a glass revolution in our industry!
Another new product we have coming out in April is the new 18/8 food-grade stainless steel Mizu Wine Cup set. These stem-less goblets come in sets of 2 in several different colors, and are nearly indestructible. When paired with the Mizu V8, our 800ml (27 oz) vacuum insulated bottle, they make for the perfect wine-lovers picnic. With this set up, you can pour an entire bottle of wine into your vacuum insulated V8, and with your two steel wine cups, you can go hit the great outdoors and enjoy some wine without bringing any garbage out there with you – and we love that move!
Burton and Mizu also just launched the new Safari Collection of Mizu products that includes a vacuum insulated cocktail tumbler, a vacuum insulated V6 600 ml (20 oz) bottle and a collapsible shot glass with the classic Burton Safari graphics that feature a black and yellow zebra strip. These products are paired with other Burton Safari inspired products and will be available at Burton retailers, Burton flagship stores, at mizulife.com, and at burton.com in April.
The biggest news in the Mizu steel line is our continued expansion into various insulated stainless steel bottles, cups and mugs. These products include two sizes of insulated water bottles that keep liquids hot for up to 12 hours and cold for 18 hours. There is also a new Mizu Travel Mug: a stylish insulated coffee mug with a sip-through lid for people on the move; the new insulated Mizu Camp Cup: where we upgraded the traditional old-school tin camp cup and supercharged it by making out of our high-quality stainless steel and by making it double walled to keep your coffee hot. There is also the new vacuum insulated Mizu Cocktail Tumbler (mentioned above in the Burton Safari Collection) that is great for cold cocktails or beverages or hot drinks of any kind. All of these insulated products are made with 18/8 food grade stainless steel and all are designed to give consumers products they can use for their entire lives instead of the normal single-use plastic alternatives.
Who is your market? Describe your typical customer profile.
18-28 years old, very active, outdoor adventurous people that are individualistic and tend to be on the more creative left-brain side of things. Our customer is environmental & health conscious and tends to be looking for higher quality products that work better, last longer, look better and are just smarter than the other choices they have and they are willing to pay a little extra for that. And, our customers are very loyal. They love our products, love to follow us on Instagram and share their stories with us, and they tend to own several Mizu products, not just one.
What’s the main message that you try to convey through your marketing approach?
Our main message is "Protecting Where We Play." Our mission is to provide people with products that they can use over and over again so they don't have to buy single-use products.
How does an advocate network benefit a brand like Mizu?
Our advocates, just like our employees and investors, all truly care about our mission. We do not seek out and find certain people and then teach them our vision so they can become Mizu advocates. Instead, they all saw what we were doing and already agreed with our purpose and vision because it's how they already lived their lives.
Jussi and I both came up through the snowboarding industry, both of us in marketing and product development albeit in two very different roles. We of course utilize the advocate group in marketing, to get those "I wish I was there" photos, but we also use many of them in product development. Jussi and I are both product driven people. We've learned by developing snowboarding products for so many years that if you can make products that will satisfy the people on the most extreme end of use (like professional athletes) that they will of course then satisfy the needs of the more general use consumer. So we apply this to our product development at Mizu.
How many brands are you currently working with?
We currently have global licenses with Burton, Volcom, Electric, Nixon, Poler, Girl & Chocolate, Capita and Roark. So when you include Mizu, we are actively selling 10 brands through our global wholesale program.
Through this program, we have a very strong base in action sports retailers. This group includes retailers such as Sun Diego, Surf Ride, Hansen's, Huntington Surf & Sport, Swell and Skate Warehouse in California. We're in places like Tactics, US Outdoor, and Mt. Baker in the Northwest; places like Milosport, Woodward Camps, Christy Sports, Jackson Treehouse, BC Surf & Sport, Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Steamboat in the mountains; and places like Brave New World, WRV, Curl, and L2 Boards out East. In Canada, we are at places like Easy Rider, Royal Sports Shop, Baldface Lodge, Whistler/Blackcomb, S3, Montreal Centre Sport and Alternative Sports. But our retail base also includes retailers like Urban Outfitters and a variety of sports, shoe, fashion and even some high-end furniture retailers globally.
“It's almost like Christmas morning to us each week when the bottles, cups and mugs we made that week for all the different brands show up. When the box shows up at the office, the whole Mizu staff gathers around as we open the box and pull them out one at a time and admire them. It's just fun to see what graphics and color combos that other designers come up with.”—Mizu Founder Jussi Oksanen
Your custom bottle program operates on a "no order too small" philosophy (set-up fee remains the same, it's just an issue of margins, which start to make sense around 75-100). Can you share a couple examples of cool custom orders, maybe from an event that wouldn't be expected?
Because we take pride in our brand, and in the brands we work with, we look at ourselves as partners with our custom clients. We don't just slap their logos on the bottles and ship them out, we work closely helping them with the designs, educating them with what works best and what doesn't work very well in terms of colors and graphics. We also get involved with the promotion of the products through our social media channels; and, with the event-based products we'll even show up and give away free water to promote our mission to help reduce single-use plastic. So when you buy custom products from Mizu, you have a new marketing partner to help promote your brand and a new environmental partner to help you rid your office, store or event from single-use plastic.
With our wine cups sets, we're already speaking with several wineries, most recently with the cool folks at Bon Affair. They made their first big move by landing a deal with Mark Cuban on Shark Tank by introducing a new kind of wine spritzer that is better for your health (and hangover) than regular wine. So we're talking to them about integrating the new Mizu Wine Cups into their line once we get them in stock this April. As an aside, people may not know that the founder of Bon Affair, Jayla Siciliano, used to work at Burton in the product department, so the connection to Mizu was meant to be.
Recently, we've done some exciting custom deals with Audi Germany in which they're giving away a free Mizu X Audi Quattro bottle when people test drive the new Audi Quattro in Germany. They've already reordered twice and told us if the plan is successful in Germany, it may go global – so that's an exciting proposition.
Pura Vida is another new custom client with a fun story. They're really amazing at marketing and selling their products and brand. They approached us at Agenda about doing a custom Pura Vida Mizu M8 bottle because they loved our exclusive Soft Touch finish, the great variety colors we offer in both bottles and caps and because they felt our branding aligned perfectly with their branding. So they designed a great graphic on our mint bottle with an orange cap and we made 250 bottles for them to test out on their website. Its safe to say the test worked! They sold them all, not only in the first day, but they were all sold in the first 3 hours. On their second run of 600, they sold them all in one day – so that's one of our best stories in terms of the fastest sales of custom bottles.
But we love the smaller, 75 – 150 unit deals just as much because some of the most fun to work on and creative stuff comes out of these smaller runs. For example, we've done a few incredible graphics on products with Easy Rider in Canada using art from the iconic Jimbo Philips (think Lib Tech Emma Peel). We've done custom bottles for most of the retailers we mentioned above such as Milosport and Surf Ride, and these smaller, privately owned, 1-3 location specialty type of shops, for whatever reason, seem to come up with some of the best graphics we produce.
We really enjoy doing custom products. Each company has a different story, its own style and taste, and we've met some amazing, interesting people through this channel of our business. It's almost like Christmas morning to us each week when the bottles, cups and mugs we made that week for all the different brands show up. When the box shows up at the office, the whole Mizu staff gathers around as we open the box and pull them out one at a time and admire them. It's just fun to see what graphics and color combos that other designers come up with.
Then as far as some other brands we've made custom products for, to name a few we work with Supra, Arbor, Audi, Billabong, Icebreaker, Spiritual Gangster, Vans, Stance, Liquid Force, Zeal, St. Archer, Windells, Anon, Brixton and RVCA.
How important is the direct-to-consumer customization model to your overall business?
Direct to consumer, wholesale, custom and our international channels are all very important to Mizu. We do not give one more importance over the other. We treat them all with the same verve and energy we use to approach product design.
Can you give a general idea of current distribution between direct e-commerce and brick & mortar shops?
We've just scratched the surface on both of these channels in the US and Canadian markets. Both are small and growing, both are a major and equal focus.
I thought it was interesting that you still have a distinct sales season and launch two lines per year. What is the exact window of those launches (Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter) both in terms of selling into retail and delivering product?
Our 15-1 Spring/Summer line, which includes the new glass bottles and wine cups, comes out in early April this year, although our normal spring shipping is in early March (our products were delayed because of the Longshoreman's strike in Long Beach, but that's another story). Then, our 15-2 Fall/Winter line gets shipped to retailers in early August. We showed the 15-2 line at Agenda in January, wholesale orders are due on April 1st and then we move into production. We're a very product driven, innovation driven company and these cycles give us the opportunity to come out with new products twice per year, which we really like.
Global distribution. You're currently in 25 countries, correct?
Yes, and more to come soon. We had an amazing show at ISPO in Munich this year where we not only gave away water as we do at every event we attend, we also gave away beer in our Mizu Party Cups and coffee in our new coffee cups and mugs. The show provided us with several interested parties in 10 new countries. We set out to be a global brand from day one and we're still very focused on our international business.
What have been some advantages and unique challenges of international markets (anything from consumer attitudes toward consuming tap water to distribution logistics)?
The quality of the water in each country has been interesting to understand because it does affect the market conditions. For example, some European countries such as Germany have excellent tap water. So they in general consume less single-use plastic bottled water then say in France where the tap water is not as good. But the biggest thing that we've noticed with our international business is that most Asian and European countries are a little ahead of the curve (compared to America) when it comes to the environmental issues that single-use plastic causes. So there is pent up demand in these places that we don't have here in the states.
What are some of your main targets for Installation Growth: More shops? Skate parks? Gyms?
Our focus is action sports and outdoor retailers, skate parks, beaches, ski areas, yoga & fitness studios for now. But who knows where things will lead us? We just finished new installations at Snow Park Technologies and at the Jackson Hole Treehouse in Jackson, Wyoming, and we're currently working on new installations at The Berrics in LA, and at Nixon for their office in Encinitas.
We have 4 basic graphic wraps for our "Mizu Water Bar" for our retailers that wish to have one installed, but we're starting to do a lot more custom wraps on these as well. This is not a profit center for Mizu; we simply help facilitate the projects. We do this because we know that our water bottles can't help solve the single-use plastic problem very well if there is no reliable source for good tasting water around. This is just one of several solutions we provide to help bring free water to people.
How much of Mizu’s overall growth can still come from within action sports vs. how much will come from outside our industry?
We have done really well to become the leader in action sports in our product category, but we still have a lot of white space both in and outside of action sports. Inside action sports, we see the reusable products trend just getting started, and plus, these are our roots – its where we came from, so we're going to continue to focus our efforts being the dominant brand here – we consider this industry our turf. But we've been pleasantly surprised by the activity and promise we see outside the industry. What's cool about it though is how being so strong in action sports is helping us with getting business outside of action sports. For example, Tesla found us because the person responsible for buying these sorts of things at Tesla saw our bottles at the Arbor store in Venice Beach. He loved the shape and Soft Touch finish so much that he called us up to see if we could work together on their event. So here again, he wasn't interested in a water bottle, he wanted a Mizu bottle.
How many people currently work in-house for the brand?
Five full time and one part time – we keep things tight and utilize a lot of outside vendors and contractors.
You're structured as a private, for-profit business, yet you feel like your investors are "100% into doing the right thing." What does tht mean?
Yes – during the fundraising portion of my work early on, I instantly could tell that certain people were motivated not only by the business opportunity but by the notion of being a part of this mission to help reduce single use plastic. One investor is a friend of mine from high school that has nothing to do with the action sports industry. He and his wife are avid big boat sailors. They travel the globe from the Caribbean to Europe sailing in various seas and oceans. When I happened to send them our business plan, they were sailing in Greece. They were disgusted with the amount of water bottles they and their kids could see in the water in every port they went to. So they invested because they believed in our plan and the business opportunity, but they also really support our mission. So from employees, to athletes, to advocates and owners, we're all on the same page with this mission.
Jussi, from your perspective, what does Tim bring to Mizu that was missing?
Jussi: When Tim Started with Mizu , he was busy for the first year, just cleaning up the paperwork after our mess. So basically, Tim built the new foundation from the ground up. We needed to get a very solid base that we could start building on and just figuring out the fundamentals of our business. We built the business and brand to a pretty good stage, but we totally hit the wall with our limited time and experience. So having Tim involved to run the business side of things is the key for our success.
What involvement does mizu have in any major upcoming events?
We just sponsored the Volcom Pipe Pro for the 3rd year in a row, that's probably our biggest event we do every year. It's been a huge push from Volcom to make this event a totally plastic free event, so with that and our licensing relationship, it has been a perfect match for Mizu to get involved. Since we're still pretty small, this is the only way we can really afford to be a part of events – with another large brand. So for example, at the Volcom events, we're not giving our Mizu branded products away, we're giving away Volcom X Mizu co-branded products, so we both gain the marketing value. We've done the same thing at trade shows like Agenda, SIA and Surf Expo – it's a total win/win for both sides and for the environment. Our tag line is Protecting Where We Play and its more than a tag line, its our mission. Whether it be a trade show or a beach at a surf event, we want to help reduce the use of single-use plastic through the use of our products and its been really inspiring to see how many companies and people want to join the revolution!
Jussi Oksanen Shares The Early History of Mizu
What was your motivation for starting this brand? What was the original mission?
Jussi: My motivation was to do something about the fashion of single used plastic bottles. When I moved to the States, I was blown away by the amount of plastic that was wasted left and right. We had neighbors that order cases of plastic water bottles on their door step every week. We were talking about these issues with Brad Kremer (co- founder) and we felt that there was an opportunity to do something about this and pretty much there and then we decided to start Mizu. Our mission is still the same "reduce the single used plastic".
You've said that "a traditional business plan probably wouldn't have worked" for MIZU. Can you elaborate a bit more about the brand's evolution early on? What advantages did your unique perspective as a professional snowboarder provide? How did it influence your vision for the brand?
When we started Mizu it was based on our mission to reduce the single used plastic bottles. And we dove straight into starting up the company, really not having any other plans other than build great products and fight against single-use plastic. If we would have done more research to figure our out exactly what it would take to build this brand in this industry, I don't think we would have started in the first place. So it truly came from that heart that we need to tackle this issue.
We got pretty good traction right away, since we could leverage my contacts in action sports. So in the first year of business, we were making bottles for Burton, Hurley, Oakley, etc. That's where we started to see a real potential with MIZU, we thought, "if two guys who have no business experience can do this much, think what we can do if we get some help in the business side of things.
For me, Mizu has always been my baby and it's been my personal mission to build this brand, a respected brand that does something good for the environment.
Where did the bottle's distinct shape come from? Was it more fashion or function? How do you think it's helped with the brand's identity?
The shape was designed first for function, to create a smoother ramp for the water to flow over. So it was designed from the inside out, it's about what's going on inside the bottle. The norm in all other bottles is a rounded shape at the top. This shape creates an abrupt ramp inside, like the shape of a quarterpipe that hucks the water straight up, where our bottle inside is shaped like a smooth ramp. This creates a smoother flow, but it also gives the Mizu bottle its unique look and shape.
What about support from your sponsors? You've mentioned that Jake [Burton] was an advocate early on. How important was that advocate network and support to your early growth?
It was huge, I remember going to Jake's house soon after we got our web store open and he told me to come and check out his fridge. He had like ten bottles lined up there filled with water ready to go. He bought these bottles from our store just to support us. Also, obviously getting all the bottles in every pro snowboarders' hands was helpful bringing awareness to the brand.
Mizu CEO Tim Pogue Shares Some Thoughts On His Management Philosophy And Strategy
You've been involved with a "corporate transition" at Ride. And the ability of action sports companies to function and succeed within a traditional public structure has been under increased scrutiny lately. How does the ownership and management structure allow you to work the way you like and set you up for success?
Public vs. Private is a matter of preference, but for me, I prefer private. I know that either model can work, but the problem with being public is two-fold. First, you have the constant pressure to grow based on the investors demand for short-term profits. Secondly you have the issue of seasonality that for some reason, the brilliant stock analysts and investors still can't seem to understand. At Ride, like any summer or winter-based brand, we would have huge fluctuations in revenues and profits from quarter to quarter. Since we shipped 70-80% of our yearly business in the third quarter, Wall Street would go crazy and over value our stock when those reports came out, and then when the 1st or 2nd quarter reports came out, the stock would drop like crazy because our profits we're seemingly "gone". This puts pressure on companies to expand into counter-seasonal businesses, buy other businesses to show growth, and a host of other things that a company might not otherwise do. With private companies, and assuming you have like-minded investors and partners like we do at Mizu, you can make decisions that are not solely based on consistent quarterly profits. But mostly for me, as a CEO, I don't have to spend 20-30% of my time explaining to some douche bag in a suit with a bowtie who knows nothing about our industry why I'm spending so much money on the Mizu Water Bar program (for example). The bottom line is that being public can homogenize a company into either a mish-mash of brands that overlap each other or to a single brand doing too many things, none very well. There are exceptions to this of course, such as Apple, Nike, and even Tesla now – so to each his own, but especially in the start-up phase, I love working in the less restrictive private sector. I do have to say that a company like VF has proven how to sort of be on both sides of this discussion by being a public company yet allowing each of their brands to work more-or-less on their own very successfully. So I would say that Mizu will never go public, but I would follow that up by warning you that "never" happens all the time. Don't say this, it can only come back & bite you in the butt.
You've said that you like to "have a good plan, then set it aside and get to work." How do you avoid getting too caught up on multiple short-term goals?
I like to first set a bigger, long-term goal – the vision or mission. Then, make a really detailed plan of how I "think" I'm going to get there. Then I do not restrict myself to the details of my own plan. No one is smart enough to make a detailed plan of each step of how a business will unfold, so I admit that right up front and this allows the company to stay very flexible and reactive to changes in the landscape. This mode of operating can drive some people (like some investors) crazy: "But wait, I thought we were only going to make products out of stainless steel? Why are we in glass now? That was not part of the original business plan!" I wouldn't even accept money from an investor that would ask me that question – and so far, none of mine have. At Mizu, our mission is to help reduce the overwhelming amount of single-use plastic being consumed in today's world. Exactly how we do that in year 3 of our business plan is of less significance to us. We did not have plans for a glass bottle in the original business plan, nor did we plan on introducing Mizu Water Bars and making products for an automotive brand like Tesla. All of these things came to us organically and this is what I meant by saying, "set it aside and get to work" when referring to our plan. There has to be a balance, but I work better when there is a little more spontaneity than structure.
As someone who grew Ride Snowboards in the hyper-competitive market of the early 90s, what similarities do you see between that experience and the current hydration market? What lessons did you learn from Ride that you're able to apply to Mizu?
Similarities: In the early 1990's when I started Ride the snowboard industry was exploding in growth. Right now, the hydration industry is exploding in growth. Back then there were hundreds of snowboard brands and the barriers of entry were almost non-existent. Anyone with a tattoo, an "extreme" idea for a company name, and few thousand bucks could and did start a snowboard company.
In hydration now, its more of the same, just like in snowboarding back then where the factories would make boards for anyone with money and a tattoo, the bottle factories in hydration will make bottles for anyone with money and a beard.
So these similarities are interesting, but that's where the similarities end. Marketing snowboards in the 1990's and marketing reusable water bottles in 2015 have literally nothing else in common. Marketing has gone from the battle to own the inside spread of industry magazines to how many Instagram followers you have. E-commerce is more prevalent than ever, small retailers continue to struggle and go out of business while the big guys have gotten bigger than most of the brands that they're buying.
You've avoided shows like Outdoor Retailer where there is a lot of competition in favor or having a dominant presence on the floor at shows like Agenda and Surf Expo. What do you see as the major advantages here? How and will you make a move into broader markets?
I believe in the concept of only picking fights you can win. At Ride, early on at an investor conference in Napa Valley, I was asked a question (by the same douche bag in the suit and bowtie I mentioned earlier) why I had publicly announced the goal of Ride becoming "the second largest snowboard company in the world"? The crowd, filled with even more douche bags, groaned when he asked the question. I tucked a long lock of my then purple hair behind my ear and said, "because I'd be an idiot to think I could win a fight against Burton right now." The crowd chuckled and the heat was now on him. So he followed up by asking, "But what about when you've become #2?" I said, "Then I'll be ready to pick a fight with Burton that I can maybe win." So for Mizu now, we have the same attitude. The reason we're not going to the OR show right now is the same reason I didn't choose to build my product line to go against Burton on day one at Ride: we would lose that battle. At Ride, we went where Burton was not going at the time; we went to the street influenced skate-style snowboarding trend and became the dominant player there first. So similarly at Mizu, we're going where our big competitors are either just dabbling or are not there at all. We're building our muscles before we even go to the playground, let a lone pick a fight with the big bullies out there.
What was it about Mizu that attracted you? You've mentioned authenticity, and said, "it seemed that there was something real there." Can you talk about that a bit?
It was late 2011 when I first met Jussi, introduced by Jason Ford. I started helping him as a contractor back then and worked in an outside role until June of 2012. By then, we had restructured the operations of the company by retooling the supply chain and installing accounting systems. At the same time we were working externally on finding investors to join us. Through my management company Poguezilla, Inc., we raised the money and we bought a majority interest of the company in June of 2012. The deal kept Jussi and his original partners involved as shareholders and that's when I officially took the role as CEO of Mizu.
So it was a long, slow process of what attracted me to Mizu. First it was Jussi himself, it always starts with the people. He would just brim with excitement about this mission to help reduce single-use plastic in our industry when he spoke to me about it, and that sort of passion is contagious. Then secondly, there was just something really cool about the product itself. The shape of the bottle – Mizu has its own look. And the Soft Touch matte finish is also unique to Mizu. And last, while working in this supportive/consulting role, the business opportunity that began to emerge became more and more evident. The hydration and reusable drinkware space was beginning to boom, fueled by a growing public concern over the environmental and health issues surrounding water being sold and consumed in single-use plastic containers, but also by the growth of the outdoor industry.
As far as the authenticity part, it all starts with Jussi and with the original reason the company was started: to help reduce single-use plastic. There were and still are many other water bottle choices out there, but Jussi's unique approach was that all of them were just simply focused on the utilitarian use of the product as a commodity. Jussi really wanted to effect change so his vision was to make the products "cool." This little seed of original passion to make a difference in the world is what made the company authentic and is what keeps us authentic today.