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books - business

Let My People Go Surfing

Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard, was a recommendation by @coryripley.


Here are my favourite excerpts…

Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over draughts and blue-prints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity? It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of the human breast or shoulder, there must be experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

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“So he gave me the companies, saying in effect, ‘Here’s Patagonia. Here’s Chouinard Equipment. Do with them what you will. I’m going climbing.’ “I had no business experience so I started asking people for free advice. I just called up presidents of banks and said, ‘I’ve been given these companies to run and I’ve no idea what I’m doing. I think someone should help me.’ “And they did. If you just ask people for help—if you just admit that you don’t know something—they will fall all over themselves trying to help. So, from there I began building the company. I was really the translator for Yvon’s vision and aims for the company.”

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One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious: Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time. We needed to be surrounded by friends who could dress whatever way they wanted, even be barefoot. We all needed to have flextime to surf the waves when they were good, or ski the powder after a big snowstorm, or stay home and take care of a sick child. We needed to blur that distinction between work and play and family.

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I did the same thing in my search for business knowledge. Over the next few years I read every book of business, searching for a philosophy that would work for us. I was especially interested in books on Japanese or Scandinavian styles of management because I knew the American way of doing business offered only one of many possible routes.

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We knew that uncontrolled growth put at risk the values that had made the company succeed so far. Those values couldn’t be expressed in a how-to operations manual that offers pat answers. We needed philosophical and inspirational guides to make sure we always asked the right questions and found the right answers. We spoke of these guides as philosophies, one for each of our major departments and functions. While my managers debated what steps to take to address the sales and cash-flow crisis, I began to lead weeklong employee seminars in these newly written philosophies. We’d take a busload at a time to places like Yosemite or the Marin Headlands above San Francisco, camp out, and gather under the trees to talk. The goal was to teach every employee in the company our business and environmental ethics and values. When money finally got so tight we couldn’t afford even to hire buses, we camped in the local Los Padres National Forest, but we kept training.

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I’ve been a student of Zen philosophy for many years. In Zen archery, for example, you forget about the goal—hitting the bull’s-eye—and instead focus on all the individual movements involved in shooting an arrow. You practice your stance, reaching back and smoothly pulling an arrow out of the quiver, notching it on the string, controlling your breathing, and letting the arrow release itself. If you’ve perfected all the elements, you can’t help but hit the center of the target. The same philosophy is true for climbing mountains. If you focus on the process of climbing, you’ll end up on the summit. As it turns out, the perfect place I’ve found to apply this Zen philosophy is the business world.

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Even as I taught our employees the Patagonia philosophy classes, I did not yet know what we would do to get our company out of the mess it was in. But I did know that we had become unsustainable and that we had to look to the Iroquois and their seven-generation planning, and not to corporate America, as models of stewardship and sustainability. As part of their decision process, the Iroquois had a person who represented the seventh generation in the future. If Patagonia could survive this crisis, we had to begin to make all our decisions as though we would be in business for a hundred years. We would grow only at a rate we could sustain for that long.

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The history of Patagonia from the crisis of 1991–92 to the present day doesn’t make for such interesting reading, fortunately. By “interesting” I’m referring to the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” For the most part the big problems have been solved, and there were no crises except those that were invented by management to keep the company in yarak, a falconry term meaning when your falcon is superalert, hungry, but not weak, and ready to hunt. The story is really about how we are trying to live up to our mission statement: “Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

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At Patagonia, these philosophies must be communicated to everyone working in every part of the company, so that each of us becomes empowered with the knowledge of the right course to take, without having to follow a rigid plan or wait for orders from a “boss.”

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It may be that someday fashion historians will credit Patagonia for inspiring men to go beyond gray sweatshirts and wear colorful clothes in the outdoors, but what I hope they remember is that we were one of the first to apply industrial design principles to clothing design. The first precept of industrial design is that the function of an object should determine its design and materials. Every design at Patagonia begins with a functional need. A piece of thermal underwear must wick and breathe and dry quickly.

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We ended up with a checklist of criteria for Patagonia’s designers to consider, and the list applies equally to other businesses. With clearly defined quality criteria for all aspects of a product, it becomes a straightforward matter to judge which are the best clothes—or automobiles, wines, or hamburgers. Here are the main questions a Patagonia designer must ask about each product to see if it fits our standards.

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RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE TOTAL What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics. We have unlimited responsibility for the Total. A responsibility which we try to take, but do not always succeed in.

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Is It as Simple as Possible? Simplify, simplify. —H. D. THOREAU One “simplify” would have sufficed. —RALPH WALDO EMERSON, IN RESPONSE

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If a proliferation of colors and patterns drains profit, think what a mushrooming of styles can do. We’ve worked out an interesting formula. Each product Patagonia adds to the line (without dropping an old one) requires the hiring of two and one-half new people.

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The best-performing firms make a narrow range of products very well. The best firms’ products also use up to 50 percent fewer parts than those made by their less successful rivals. Fewer parts mean a faster, simpler (and usually cheaper) manufacturing process. Fewer parts mean less to go wrong; quality comes built in. And although the best companies need fewer workers to look after quality control, they also have fewer defects and generate less waste.

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We adapted the design for Stand Up Shorts from a pair of double-seated English corduroy shorts, and the idea for our very successful Baggies came from a pair of nylon shorts I spotted in an Oxnard department store. The ultimate Patagonia versions are more functional, durable, and far superior to the knocked-off originals, especially for their intended active outdoor use. Like creative cooks, we view “originals” as recipes for inspiration, and then we close the book to do our own thing. The inspirations for some of our best designs are like the fusion recipes of the best chefs.

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Are We Designing for Our Core Customer? All our customers are not equal in our eyes. There are indeed some we favor more than others. These are our core customers, those for whom we actually design our clothes. To understand this more clearly, we can look at our customers as if they existed in a series of concentric circles. In the center, or core circle, are our intended customers.

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If everyone thinks you have a good idea, you’re too late. —PAUL HAWKEN

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My relationship with Leffler taught me how important it is for the designer to work with the producer up front. This applies to every product. Building a house proceeds more smoothly and less expensively when the architect and contractor work out the real-world problems of a blueprint before the cement truck shows up to pour the foundation. Likewise, a rain jacket is better made when the producer understands from the start what the product needs to achieve and, conversely, when the designer understands what processes have to be followed and, finally, when everyone stays on the job and works as a team until it’s done.

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Consequently, we do as much business as we can with as few suppliers and contractors as possible. The downside is the risk of becoming highly dependent on another company’s performance. But that’s exactly the position we want to be in because those companies are also dependent on us. Our potential success is linked. We become like friends, family, mutually selfish business partners; what’s good for them is good for us.

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Let’s take a close look at a loose button and the consequences depending on who happens to discover it. Say the button falls off in your customer’s hand as she pulls the pants out of the washing machine. Your entire company, and your partners, have failed in the grossest possible way. That hard-earned customer will never again fully trust your claim to quality. Better for a quality control inspector at your warehouse to make the discovery during a spot check when the goods arrive from the port. Then further checks can be made, and all the pants with loose buttons can be removed from their bags, and the bags from boxes, and all the pants sent over to the sewing room and all the buttons sewn on right, then moved to a staging area and rebagged and reboxed. Better, but expensive; no on-time delivery today.

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That’s exactly what we finally did in 1991, though we’ve suffered through all the other stages too. That suffering taught us that taking extraordinary steps to set up the manufacturing correctly the first time is much cheaper than taking extraordinary steps down the line. If you’re committed to being the best, you’re

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For example, the Strategic Planning Institute has been collecting data for years on the performance of thousands of companies. It publishes a yearly report, titled PIMS (Profit Impact of Market Strategy). That report has begun to show quite clearly that quality, not price, has the highest correlation with business success. In fact the institute has found that overall, companies with high product and service quality reputations have on average return-on-investment rates twelve times higher than their lower-quality and lower-priced competitors.

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But what is the cost of a dissatisfied customer? Recently a worldwide survey of customers found that only 14 percent of Americans were likely to contact a company about a problem. In Europe the number was less than 8 percent, and in Japan only 4 percent. Correspondingly, other studies show that one-half to one-third of customers who have had problems will never purchase from that company again.

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We don’t want to be a big company. We want to be the best company, and it’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company.

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We get approached by prospective buyers almost weekly, and their intent is always the same. They see an undervalued company that they can rapidly grow and take public. Being a publicly held corporation or even a partnership would put shackles on how we operate, restrict what we do with our profits, and put us on a growth/suicide track. Our intent is to remain a closely held private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line, doing

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A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both. —FRANÇOIS AUGUSTE RENÉ CHATEAUBRIAND

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So we seek out “dirtbags” who feel more at home in a base camp or on the river than they do in the office. All the better if they have excellent qualifications for whatever job we hire them for, but we’ll often take a risk on an itinerant rock climber that we wouldn’t on a run-of-the-mill MBA. Finding a dyed-in-the-wool businessperson to take up climbing or river running is a lot more difficult than teaching a person with a ready passion for the outdoors how to do a job.

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Of course we do hire some people strictly for their technical expertise. We have employees who never sleep outside or who have never peed in the woods. What they all do share, as our organizational development consultant noted, is a passion for something outside themselves, whether for surfing or opera, climbing or gardening, skiing or community activism.

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The key to building a consensus for action is good communication. A chief in an American Indian tribe was not elected because he was the richest or had a strong political machine; he was chosen chief because of his oratory skills, which were invaluable for building consensus within the tribe. In this information age it’s tempting for managers to manage from their desks, staring at their computer screens and sending out instructions, instead of managing by walking about and talking to people. The best managers are never at their desks yet can be easily found and approached by everyone reporting to them.

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Subscribing to the concept of natural growth of the company helps keep us small enough to be manageable. I believe that for the best communication and to avoid bureaucracy, you should ideally have no more than a hundred people working in one location. This is an extension of the fact that democracy seems to work best in small societies, where people have a sense of personal responsibility. In a small Sherpa or Inuit village there’s no need to hire trash collectors or firemen; everyone takes care of community problems. And there’s no need for police; evil has a hard time hiding from peer pressure.

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When a problem comes up, the effective CEO does not immediately hire a consultant. Outsiders don’t know your business the way you do, and anyway, I’ve found that most consultants come from a failed business. Only by confronting the problems and trying to solve them yourself will you prevent them from happening again in another form. The key to confronting and truly solving any problem is to continue to ask enough questions to get past all the symptoms and reach the actual cause, a form of the Socratic method or what Toyota management calls asking the five whys.

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Under certain circumstances, the company will also post bail for those who have taken a class in civil nonviolent disobedience and are subsequently arrested in support of environmental causes. When a government is breaking or refusing to enforce its own laws, then I believe civil disobedience is the rightful course of action.

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If the United States were to start taxing polluters, stop subsidizing such wasteful industries as oil, timber, and industrial agriculture, put levy taxes on all nonrenewable resources, and correspondingly reduce the taxes on income, it would be the biggest step we could make toward becoming a sustainable society.

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These are the people on the front lines, trying either to make the government obey its own laws or to recognize the need for a new law. That’s why our earth tax, 1 percent of our net sales, goes primarily to them. I’ve learned from a lifetime of being outdoors that nature loves diversity. It hates monoculture and centralization. A thousand activist groups, each working on a specific problem that it’s passionate about, can accomplish much more than a bloated organization or government.

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Our financial contributions to activist causes have been significant (between 1985 and 2005 we gave twenty-two million dollars in cash and in-kind donations), but I’ve always thought we should provide them with more than just dollars. Among our other programs and in-kind assistance Patagonia holds a Tools for Grassroots Activists conference every eighteen months, where we teach activists the organizational, business, and marketing skills small groups need to survive in a competitive media environment. This is one of the most important services Patagonia provides. These people are often isolated, scared, and bravely passionate, and most of them are woefully unprepared to confront big business or big government with their teams of attorneys and “hired experts.” By giving them the tools to present their position clearly and effectively, we do as much good as by giving them financial support.

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When we were threatened by the CAC with groups picketing our stores, we relied on a strategy called Pledge-a-Picket. We said that we would reward every picketer who showed up at one of our stores by donating ten dollars to Planned Parenthood in his or her name. They chose to stay away, and the boycott collapsed.

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At a conference sponsored by Ecotrust and chaired by the Haisla, Eurocan attempted one of the most astounding bribes in history. It offered the Haisla all the logging jobs in the Kitlope for fifty years. Not an insignificant offer since it was worth $125 million in wages to a community of 750 people with an unemployment rate around 50 percent. Eurocan was astounded when the Haisla didn’t bite. In a profound display of commitment to the earth, the Haisla turned it down flat. Haisla elders confronted provincial bureaucrats, politicians, and timber barons and vowed that blood would run in the Kitlope if a single tree was touched. Within a year the new owners of the timber license for the Kitlope, West Fraser, relinquished all claims to the Kitlope without compensation. A complete slam dunk, a million acres of wild, unspoiled river was secured forever.

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Without the help of Patagonia and other environmental grant givers, programs like these would be impossible. They do more than save wild places; they profoundly affect communities and people’s lives. In this case, environmentalism was social activism at its best.

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They willingly work with us because they believe that what we are attempting to do is going to create a more sustainable business model for them and for society. They realize, as David Brower put it, “there’s no business to be done on a dead

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The Zen master would say if you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you first have to change the consumers. Whoa, wait a minute! The consumer? That’s me. You mean I’m the one who has to change? The original definition of consumer is: “One who destroys, or expends by use; devours, spends wastefully.” It would take seven earths for the rest of the world to consume at the same rate we Americans do. Ninety percent of what we buy in a mall ends up in the dump within sixty to ninety days.

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It’s common thinking that nomadic people move when seasons change or resources run out, but they also pack up and move when the leaders see that everything is going too smoothly, when the people become lazy and complacent. The wise leaders know if they don’t move while they are strong, they won’t have the fortitude to move when the next crisis hits. Robinson Jeffers wrote, “In pleasant peace and security how suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.”

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