Let My People Go Surfing

This book resonated deeply with me for a number of reasons. First, I love the outdoors and always have. During my college years I was constantly rock climbing, biking, and camping. I’ve grown a beard, slept in parks, and nearly blown myself up with a leaky stove.

Second, I’m a gearhead. Learning about new gear is thrilling for me. My friends take me with them to REI or EMS any time they need to purchase anything. If I were on commission, I’d be making a killing. Reading a gear designer explain the process they go through to create that gear fascinates me.

Third, something in me loves reading the stories of “accidental companies” that somehow got off the ground and became successful. Patagonia has an extremely unique culture. Here’s your excerpt:

I’VE BEEN A BUSINESSMAN for almost 50 years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.I’ve never respected the profession. It’s business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories. Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.

My company, Ventura, California–based Patagonia Inc., maker of technical outdoor apparel and gear, is an ongoing experiment. Founded in 1973, it exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible enterprise. We believe the accepted model of capitalism, which necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature, must be displaced. Patagonia and its thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the corporate world that doing the right thing makes for good, financially sound business.

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.” Since I had never wanted to be a businessman, I needed a few good reasons to be one. 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 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 the distinction between work and play and family.

Breaking the rules and making my own system work is the creative part of management that’s particularly satisfying for me. But I don’t jump into things without doing my homework. In the late seventies, when Patagonia was really starting to grow some legs, I read every business book I could find, searching for a philosophy that would work for us. I was especially interested in books on Japanese and Scandinavian styles of management, because I wanted to find a role model for the company; the American way of doing business offered only one of many possible routes.

In growing our young company, however, we still used many traditional practices—increasing the number of products, opening new dealers and new stores of our own, developing new foreign markets—and soon we were in serious danger of outgrowing our breeches. By the late eighties we were expanding at a rate that, if sustained, would have made us a billion-dollar company in another decade. To reach that theoretical mark, we would have to begin selling to mass merchants or department stores. This challenged the fundamental design principles we had established for ourselves as the makers of the best products, compromised our commitment to the environment, and began to raise serious questions about the future. Can a company that wants to make the best outdoor clothing in the world be the size of Nike? Can we meet the bottom line without giving up our goals of good stewardship and long-term sustainability? Can we have it all?

It would take 20 years, and the near collapse of our company, to find the answers.


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  • Chris July 25, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Hey Derek,

    I’ve been looking at your website over the past couple of day, it’s really cool! I saw a trailer on apple.com for a movie (documentary?) called 180 (degrees) South. It’s about the author of the book you’re writing about here and his journey to the Patagonia in the late 60’s.

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