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Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, book notes and commentary

Let My People Go Surfing book notesI read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, on a trip to Japan two years ago. This was the same trip where I read Deep Work for the first time, so clearly I chose my reading list well.

Indeed, I chose these two books because I was about to start working for myself full-time: I’d just graduated University, and after the Japan trip would be starting my entrepreneurial journey.

Both Deep Work and Let My People Go Surfing have been influential on my work since. Deep Work has largely informed how I work, and Let My People Go Surfing has informed why I work.

This was the first time I read something which so clearly laid out the possibilities for using business as a real force for good, both in the way one conducts one’s business, and the potential impact one can have by sharing ideas and talking about how businesses are run. This latter point – the potential impact – wasn’t something I’d really thought was possible before, and has since inspired how we do work at Ellipsis.

I’ll pick up on a couple of themes which I thought were important, adding analysis where it’s helpful.

1. Work should be fun

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.

2. Make really good products

Whilst the book and Patagonia’s story was inspiring, it was also practical. Yvon has a relentless focus on making a great product, something which comes up multiple times:

Sometimes good ideas spring from having a sense of where you want to go, of having a vision of the next level of products.

[…]

Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

This also comes up later. This section neatly describes the excellent business case for making really good products:

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…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.

3. You don’t always have the answers

This section isn’t especially revelatory, but it’s quite funny: when Patagonia was going through a crisis, the senior management goes to see a Zen master, hoping to find enlightenment. They do not find enlightenment.

“So maybe you’re kidding yourself,” he said, “about why you’re in business.” It was as if the Zen master had hit us over the head with a stick, but instead of finding enlightenment we walked away more confused than ever.

4. Bad things will happen, and you must learn from them

Patagonia let go 20% of its workforce in 1991. This must have been awful for the company, but it also laid the foundation for the company we see today. They learned from the mistakes and bad fortune.

In ramping up, we had added too many people to do what was now too little work. On July 31, 1991, Black Wednesday, we let go 120 employees—20 percent of the workforce. That was certainly the single darkest day of the company’s history.

Our own company had exceeded its resources and limitations; we had become dependent, like the world economy, on growth we could not sustain. But as a small company we couldn’t ignore the problem and wish it away. We were forced to rethink our priorities and institute new practices. We had to start breaking the rules

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.

I wanted to create in Patagonia a model other businesses could look to in their own searches for environmental stewardship and sustainability, just as our pitons and ice axes were models for other equipment manufacturers.

Turnaround, in 1991, was fairly swift. Overnight we became a much more focused and sober-minded company, which limited its growth to a sustainable rate, spent carefully, and managed thoughtfully. Within three years we eliminated several layers of management, consolidated inventories into a single system, and brought the sales channels under central control. Having the philosophies in writing—as well as the shared cultural experience of the classes—played a critical role in the turnaround.

5. Push hard, but not too hard

This one’s tough advice to read:

Never exceed your limits. You push the envelope, and you live for those moments when you’re right on the edge, 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 a 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.

Getting this balance right is really tough: you want to be in “those moments when you’re right on the edge”, but I certainly agree from my experience; push too hard, and it’s awful. I burned out four months into my self-employed career precisely because of this, and have found keeping the right balance tough but key since.

6. Have guidelines, not rules

Our philosophies aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. They’re the keystones of our approach to any project, and although they are “set in stone,” their application to a situation isn’t. In every long-lasting business, the methods of conducting business may constantly change, but the values, the culture, and the philosophies remain constant.

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.”

7. Keep it simple, stupid

Is It as Simple as Possible? Simplify, simplify. —Henry Thoreau. “One “simplify” would have sufficed.” Raplh Waldo Emerson, in response.

8. Do your homework: take smart risks

Some people think we’re a successful company because we’re willing to take risks, but I’d say that’s only partly true. What they don’t realize is that we do our homework. A few years back when we switched midstream from polypropylene to Capilene for our underwear fabric, we had done our fabric development, we had done our testing in the fabric lab. We made tops and bottoms with half the garment Capilene and half polypropylene and extensively tested them in the field. We knew the market, and we were absolutely confident that it was the right thing to do.

And on a similar note, once you’ve made the strategic decision, get on with the work.

Like the Zen approach to archery or anything else, you identify the goal and then forget about it and concentrate on the process.

9. Always work with quality people

If you decide to make each of your products the best of its kind, you cannot hand off your pattern or blueprint or model to the lowest-bid contractor and expect to get anything close to what you had in mind. When a product has your brand name on it—your “recognizable, family-specific pattern of stitches”—you must work closely and effectively with your suppliers and contractors to replicate that pattern perfectly…. Consequently, we do as much business as we can with as few suppliers and contractors as possible.

10. Understand human psychology

In the most basic terms, evil is a stronger influence than good. By evil I mean something morally bad and destructive. Over and over I’ve seen so many institutions, governments, religions, corporations, and even sports become more evil when they could easily be doing more good. But believing this keeps me on my toes, keeps me from getting bit from behind, keeps me from becoming a victim.

I don’t really believe that humans are evil; it’s just that we are not very intelligent animals. No animal is so stupid and greedy as to foul its own nest—except humans. We are certainly not smart enough to foretell the long-term results of our everyday actions.