Lessons From Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

I am always looking for sources of inspiration and knowledge. This is why I turn to podcasts, one of my favorites being How I Built This from NPR. The show is about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.

The other morning on my way to work, I listened to an episode featuring Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Here are a few key lessons I took away from the interview.

Try something new.

Chouinard actually stumbled into the role of a businessman. He calls himself an accidental businessman. He didn’t grow up with grand ideas of the company he wanted to build. He was never interested in becoming rich. In fact, Chouinard tried to slow down the growth of Patagonia to keep it small, but despite his efforts the company has grown into a huge business.

It all started when he was climbing and realized how cheap the materials where for the equipment, so he decided to make his own. Chouinard taught himself how to blacksmith so he could make climbing hardware that was better than what was available at the time.

He branched out from climbing gear to clothing when he was on a climbing trip to Scotland in the winter. He saw a rugby shirt in the window, he thought it would make a great shirt for climbing. “I started wearing this while climbing and people were asking here I got it. So then the lights came on and I thought about importing a few from England to see if they sold. They did.”

So, in 1973 Yvon Chouinard started Patagonia to make climbing gear he couldn’t find elsewhere.

Learn by doing.  

Chouinard has always been hands on in his business, literally doing the work himself — even if he had no idea what he was doing. “If I get an idea, I immediately take a step forward and see how it feels. If it feels good, I will take another step forward and if it feels bad I will take a step back.”

 

He knew nothing about clothing. Chouinard simply learnt by just doing. “One of the first things we made was a pair of shorts, and I made the pattern for it. I knew nothing about pattern making so I just took a pair of shorts apart and looked at them. I wanted to make a tough pair of shorts so I used canvas from outdoor furniture.”

When you fail, re-evaluate.

Patagonia was growing by 50 percent a year in the late 80s. They scaled their operation for that amount of growth. But then a recession hit and growth slowed. “We were just going for growth and not saying no. Growth can creep up on you, but nothing goes forever. The faster a business grows the faster it dies.”

In this downturn, Chouinard had to re-evaluate his strategy. “Once we got out of this we decided to put ourselves on a growth program as if we were going to be here 100 years from now. So we slowed down the growth, said no to a lot of opportunities and were more responsible.”

Chouinard explained there are two kinds of growth. “One where you grow stronger, and one where you grow fat. You have to look out for growing fat.”

Do things outside of the norm.

Most companies want consumers to buy their product often. However, Patagonia took a different approach. Chouinard focused on building a lasting company rather than on growing, which allowed him to come up with innovative ideas.

For example, if a piece of your Patagonia clothing rips or the zipper breaks, you can send it in to get repaired, no matter how old it is. They also have a repair truck that drives around the country repairing clothes, even if they are not the Patagonia brand.

“If you want to be successful in business you don’t go up against Coke-a-Cola or these big companies. They will kill you. You just do it differently. Figure out something that no one else is doing and you do it in a totally different way. When breaking the rules, you have to be creative.”

Value your employees.

Chouinard is out of the office from June until November. “I have a place in Jackson Hole and I go fishing every day. I call in maybe three times in the five months. People know if the warehouse burns down, don’t call me. What can I do?”

He gets his management inspiration from ants … yes ants. “Ant colonies don’t have bosses. Everyone knows what their job is and they get their job done. A lot of companies are top down management and if takes a tremendous amount of effort to run those. We just decided to hire motivated, young, independent people.”

Working at Patagonia is not your typical 9 to 5 day job. In fact, they have a policy that when the surf comes up, you drop your work and go surfing. They also offer extended maternity and paternity leave, daycare at work and flexible work schedules.

“I don’t care when you work as long as the job gets done. You can’t just adopt this; you have to start with the very first person you hire.”

Emily Harbourne is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at emily@peakemedia.com.

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