Charting the Waters with Brian Linton

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Brian Linton has always loved the ocean – and now he’s using his talent for business to save it. He’s the Founder & CEO of United By Blue, an omni-channel outdoor lifestyle brand focused on conservation. UBB products can be found globally in over 1000 retail stores, at three company-owned stores in Philadelphia and NYC, and online.

Brian is able to trace his love of nature back to his early day growing up in Asia.

“The majority of my early years were in Asia. I moved to Japan when I was one and then eventually moved to Singapore. We came back to the United States when I was 18 or 19, so all of my foundational years were in Asia. And so when I was growing up overseas, the things that inspired me the most had to do with the aquatic world. I had 30 fish tanks in my bedroom growing up where I had thousands of different fish. I would breed them, I would sell the babies back to pet stores and fund my hobby. I sold one fish when I graduated high school for $1,000 and that was the pinnacle of my fish success.”

When Brian returned to the United States, he knew he needed to find something that gave him purpose.

“I was struggling to find something here of meaning, something that made me happy.”

Naturally, his inclination leaned toward nature and conservation, though he didn’t quite know how to channel his passion.

“I started to think about business in a way of filling that void of time that I had. I started to think about what I could do. I wanted to import jewelry and then sell it and donate money to ocean conservation because I loved the idea of helping the fish… So I started a brand of jewelry on that premise. And this was back in 2006,  in my entrepreneurial infancy, and I learned a lot through that journey. I ran that company throughout undergrad and built it into a pretty reasonable solopreneur type of business that was making money, but it never really filled my desire to create something a little bit bigger.”

Graduating into a recession would be a blow to any young entrepreneur, but Brian decided to risk his venture, anyway – he started United by Blue, a company that adopted the “one-for-one” donation model of activism. Although he was excited and determined, his business still wasn’t immune to the effects of the economy.

“We were still in the throes of recession at the beginning of 2010, and so a lot of the smaller stores, the ones that I was trying to break into – especially starting very, very wholesale focused because our business is built on relationships with retailers that can also become cleanup partners and sell the product at the same time – but all of those stores were struggling to survive and I’m coming in and telling them to buy a new thing.”

But, soon, the tables turned. Brian was able to fund United by Blue with some of his other ventures. “For the first three years I was still running another brand, and that brand was funding United by Blue.” He was able to eventually phase the other brand out and, after a round of investment, make United by Blue his main focus.

How does a conservation-based company work in this economy? According to Brian, it’s a long game and a multi-pronged approach.

“Early on [I spent] time on sales, building the brand, building the mission, and going in and executing the cleanups with our retail partners. That business model of having wholesale relationships with these retail partners is the cornerstone of not just the financial model, but also the environmental model. It was something that really developed over the first few years. It was always the focus, but I would say that without those few years of slower times, lower sales, much smaller team, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity to bake that and make it the way that it is now. And surprisingly, since you know, 2013 and onward, our mission and the model of executing everything that we do has stayed pretty consistent because of those foundational years that we had.”

This approach allowed for United by Blue to continue their good work while staying in the black.

Now, the focus of United by Blue has expanded past sweet home Philadelphia and into other cities – and cleaning up the planet remains the driving force of Brian’s passion.

“Our first cleanup was the same week that we sold our first tee shirt. That was always the purpose of the brand. And that’s what United by Blue means. It means we’re all United by Blue. We come together and are unified around the blue parts of the planet because we need to protect them. And so the cleanups are incredibly important, both from a consumer standpoint where we get to meet people like yourself and we get to go out and work alongside people, cleaning up the environment. But also because they can be high visibility and result in better awareness for what issues are out there.”

Environmental sustainability doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over years and over decades. And for United by Blue, the future is wide open.  With Brian at the helm, United by Blue will continue to grow, and continue to change the world for the better.

To hear the whole interview on Mission Daily, check out the podcast here.

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