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How to Be Successfully UnCorporate

April 24, 2020 by

Patagonia is a rebel with a cause. Founded in 1973 in California, the company has about $1bn in revenues and 3,000 employees, specializing in outdoor apparel. It is a special company that hates to be corporate and that engages in environmental activism.

“We have always considered Patagonia an experiment in doing business in unconventional ways. Ironically, we have become the large company that we never dreamed of nor wanted to become”, writes founder Yvon Chouinard in this book. “We want to be the best company, and it’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company.” He adds that the book was originally intended as “a philosophical manual for the employees of Patagonia”.

Chouinard despises regular business. “I’ve never respected the profession of businessman. 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.” He perceives corporate life as “inauthentic, illegitimate, and toxic”.

The purpose of Patagonia is to do good. But the company needs to be profitable to do so. Chouinard considers profit as “a vote of confidence’. “If we wish to lead corporate America by example, we have to be profitable.” The company commits itself to donate 1 percent of its annual sales to NGOs, regardless of the fact if it is profitable that year. “Whether we made money or not, we had to give.” It also has an internship program that allows employees to work for an environmental group for up to two months and still receive Patagonia paychecks and benefits.

Chouinard claims that the company hasn’t compromised on its values while growing. These values are stricter than those of any other company I know, for example in the sourcing of their materials. They not only look for non-toxic dyes for the wool and cotton they purchase, but even take into account where and how the sheep that supply the wool are living, what they eat and if they aren’t treated with chemicals. Moreover, they don’t try to grow their revenues with new fashionable items but design and produce clothing that lasts and can be repaired. Growth is not considered a goal in itself but a result of doing the right thing.

Employees of Patagonia are often also customers, even fans: mountaineers, surfers, and other outdoor lovers. “We seek out dirtbags who feel more at home in a base camp or on the river than they do in the office.” In the words of Chouinard: they have a commitment to wildness, a deep appreciation for the environment, a healthy skepticism toward authority, a love for difficult, human-powered sports that require practice and mastery, a disdain for motorized sports, a bias for whacko, often self-depreciating humor, a taste for real adventure, a belief that less is more.” Working at Patagonia clearly is not for everyone. “It will offend and it will inspire.”

The title of the book refers to the company’s flextime policy. You don’t plan to go surfing on Tuesday at 2pm, you go when there are waves and the tide and wind are right. So everyone can go surfing when they feel the need and they can finish their work at any time that is more convenient to them.

This book explains the personal journey of a man and his company. You can love it or hate it, but anyhow you will have to admit that this is an extraordinary company that differs from nearly all the others out there.

Yvon Chouinard. Let my people go surfing. The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. Penguin, 2016