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#18 Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
January 8th, 2018 | E18

What I learned from reading Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard.


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I had always avoided thinking of myself as a businessman. I was a climber, a surfer, a kayaker, a skier, and a blacksmith. We simply enjoyed making good tools and functional clothes. [0:01] 

One day it dawned on me that I was a businessman and would probably be one for a long time. I knew that I would never be happy playing by the normal rules of business; I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from this pasty-faced corpses in suits I saw in airline magazine ads. If I had to be a businessman, I was going to do it on my own terms. [0:32] 

One of my favorite sayings about entrepreneurship is: If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent. The delinquent is saying with his actions, “This sucks. I’m going to do my own thing. [1:00]

Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. [1:18]

I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percent. I like to throw myself passionately into an activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different. [4:05]

Tom Brokaw on Yvon: It’s been helpful to me to be Yvon’s friend. He makes me think about things in new ways. [5:36] 

Can a company that wants to make the best-quality outdoor clothing in the world be the size of Nike? Can a ten-table, three-star French restaurant retain its third star when it adds fifty tables? The question haunted me throughout the 1980s as Patagonia evolved. [7:35]

I continued to practice my MBA theory of management, management by absence, while I wear-tested our clothing and equipment in the most extreme conditions of the Himalayas and South America. [10:13] 

Throughout the book he’s has a really beautiful idea of comparing business and organizing human labor, to nature. Part of this idea is he intentionally puts Patagonia through a lot of stress because he feels you need stress to grow. [11:42] 

Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: Never exceed your limits. You push the envelope, but you don’t go over. You have to be true to yourself; you have to know your strengths and limitations and live within your means. The same is true for business. The sooner a company tries to be what it is not, the sooner it tries to have it all, the sooner it will die. [18:05] 

I did not yet know what we would do to get our company out of the mess it was in. But I did know 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. [19:12] 

The first part of our mission statement, “Make the best product,” is the cornerstone of our business philosophy. “Make the best” is a difficult goal. It doesn’t mean “among the best” or the “best at a particular price point.” It means “make the best,” period. [24:05]

The functionality driven design is usually minimalist. Or as Dieter Rams maintains, “Good design is as little design as possible.” Complexity is often a sure sign that the functional needs have not been solved. Take the difference between the Ferrari and the Cadillac of the 1960s. The Ferrari’s clean lines suites its high-performance aims. The Cadillac really didn’t have any functional aims. It didn’t have steering, suspension, aerodynamics, or brakes appropriate to its immense horsepower. All it had to do was convey the idea of power, creature comfort, of a living room floating down the highway to the golf course. So, to a basically ugly shape were added all manner of useless chrome: fins at the back, breasts at the front. Once you lose the discipline of functionality as a design guidepost, the imagination runs amok. Once you design a monster, it tends to look like one too. [25:53]

When I die and go to hell, the devil is going to make me the marketing director for a cola company. I’ll be in charge of trying to sell a product that no one needs, is identical to its competition, and can’t be sold on its merits. I’d be competing head-on in the cola wars, on price, distribution, advertising, and promotion, which would indeed be hell for me. I’d much rather design and sell products so good and unique that they have no competition. [27:15]

There are different ways to address a new idea or project. If you take the conservative scientific route, you study the problem in your head or on paper until you are sure there is no chance of failure. However, you have taken so long that the competition has already beaten you to market. The entrepreneurial way is to immediately take a forward step and if that feels good, take another, if not, step back. Learn by doing, it is a faster process. [32:40]

Nonfiction marketing. Our branding efforts are simple: tell people who we are. We don’t have to create a fictional character. Writing fiction is so much more difficult than nonfiction. Fiction requires creativity and imagination. Nonfiction deals with simple truths. [34:00]

It’s okay to be eccentric, as long as you are rich; otherwise, you’re just crazy. [36:19]

Quality, not price, has the highest correlation with business success. Whenever we are faced with a serious business decision, the answer almost always is to increase quality. [37:37]

We never wanted 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. [40:20]

We don’t hire the kind of people you can order around. We don’t want drones who will simply follow directions. We want the kind of employees who will question the wisdom of something they regard as a bad decision. We do want people who, once they but into a decision and believe in what they are doing, will work like demons to produce something of the highest possible quality. [43:57] 

Systems in nature appear to us to be chaotic but in reality are very structured, just not in a top-down centralized way. A top-down centralized system like a dictatorship takes an enormous amount of force and work to keep the hierarchy in power. All top-down systems eventually collapse, leaving the system in chaos. A familial company like ours runs on trust rather than on authoritarian rule. [44:52] 

The lesson to be learned is that evolution (change) doesn’t happen without stress, and it can happen quickly. Just as doing risks sports will create stresses that lead to a bettering of one’s self, so should a company constantly stress itself in order to grow. [50:29] 

I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work towards simplicity. The more you know, the less you need. [56:01] 

I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested, so my poor wallet suffers.”— Gareth

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