Let My People Go Surfing:
The Education of a
Reluctant Businessman

by | Mar 27, 2020

When the waves are good, surf. When there’s powder on the mountains, ski.

Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard didn’t set out to be a businessperson. As he mentions in this very book, Let My People Go Surfing, he grew up wanting to be a fur trapper. 

Despite, or perhaps because of this fact, he’s responsible for starting what would ultimately become one of the most successful and well-regarded outdoor clothing brands in existence. 

In this book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, he shares the history of his life, early days of Patagonia, and coming to terms with his “profession” as a person in business.

With a summary, key quotes, and lessons learned, let’s dive in to this #ReadEnsemble write-up.

Quick Book Summary:

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman is part biography, part compilation of Chouinard’s philosophies that underlie what has become one of the most successful and well-regarded outdoor apparel brands in existence: Patagonia.

Part 1: “History” takes us all the way from Yvon’s upbringing in a French Canadian family that moved cross-country from Maine to Burbank, California, to Yvon’s more formative teens and 20s, where he found his earliest passions for life outdoors—surfing, climbing, fishing, and everything in between. 

It was in those formative years, that Yvon took up the skill of blacksmithing to make climbing hardware for him and his friends. These friends, by the way, were some of the greatest climbers of the day—Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, and many more.

[First ascent team, El Capitan, Yosemite. 1964, Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard]

Yvon’s gear operation, running “from the trunk of his car,” legitimized and became Chouinard Equipment, eventually the U.S’s largest supplier of climbing hardware. 

Even with substantial sales volume, the climbing hardware business was never wildly successful. And ultimately, in the midst of a legal crisis in the late 1980s, where Chouinard Equipment was the target of lawsuits involving improper use of their climbing gear, they had to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

 Filing for Chapter 11 allowed employees to gather money to buy out the company. Employees did buy out the company, and they moved it to Salt Lake City. Today, this company is called Black Diamond, one of the world’s greatest suppliers of climbing and backcountry ski gear. 

As Chouinard Equipment was challenged with the legal peril that pushed it to bankruptcy, Patagonia was thriving. However, in 1990, this fast-paced growth slowed as the U.S. suffered a nationwide financial crisis.

Interestingly, Patagonia was hit hard as they had expected to achieve 40-50% growth in revenue but only hit 20%. They had hired the staff, purchased the inventory, and made strategic plans based on much larger growth. 

This mismatch in expectation and reality ultimately led to what Yvon calls “Black Wednesday…the single darkest day of the company’s history,” where they were forced to let go 120 employees to resolve the problems they had created through their inflated infrastructure. 

This moment was an inflection point for both Yvon and Patagonia as a company. Yvon committed to never again exceed their limits and resources as a business. He planned to prioritize sustainable and comfortable growth and to think long-term. 

He shifted focus towards actions that would ensure Patagonia would be in existence 100 years from now, not just tomorrow. 

Of course, this shift led to a decade of extraordinary success for Patagonia. They remained wildly profitable with a growth rate hovering around 5% per year. They received (and continue to receive) countless workplace rewards, and they continue to evolve their internal operations to reduce their environmental impact and expand their role as environmental activists in the fight against climate devastation. 

  Next Step

It’s no secret, we are big fans of Patagonia around here. You might be too! Check out some of our deep dives into some of our favorite gear with our Patagonia Topley and Nano Puff Jacket Reviews.

In the version of the book I read, the historic account ends in the mid 2000s, and transitions to a section titled, “Philosophies.”

This section covers Yvon’s philosophies which translate into the policies of Patagonia, encompassing:

  • Product Design
  • Production
  • Distribution
  • Image
  • Financials
  • Human Resource
  • Management
  • Environment

A must-read for an entrepreneur considerate of impact, environmental or otherwise, Let My People Go Surfing is a deep look into the mind of a business person who is responsible for offering a completely different model for “business success.” 

Focus on everything that’s required to ensure the company will be in existence 100 years from now. Only create things that are valuable, of the highest quality, and solve real problems in the world. Never grow at the cost of exceeding your own limitations. And of course, “when there are waves and the tide and wind are right,” you go surfing.

Author Bio: Yvon Chouinard, Founder & Owner of Patagonia

Yvon Chouinard is the Owner and Founder of Patagonia, Inc. He was born in Lisbon, Maine, where a large French Canadian community resided. 

He described his father as a “tough French Canadian” from Quebec. And his mother, as “adventurous.” She was the one who moved the whole family out to Burbank, California in 1946.

From highschool on, Chouinard found enjoyment outdoors. Yvon describes, “I found my games in the ocean, creeks, and hillsides surrounding Los Angeles.” Yvon’s formative experiences revolved around nature. His earliest days of entrepreneurship began from being 15 years old when he was a founding member of the Southern California Falconry Club, to his summers in Wyoming where he learned to climb and fish, to his time camping out in Yosemite with some of the best climbers of the day (including himself). 

Yvon first ventured into “outdoor apparel” fashioning climbing hardware, specifically pitons, for himself and other climbing friends. Eventually, what began as making hardware for friends, became Chouinard Equipment, the U.S.’s largest supplier of climbing hardware.

In the early 1970s, as an offshoot of Chouinard Equipment, came a clothing line. It’s this line that ultimately became what we now know to be Patagonia. Patagonia’s first official store opened in 1973, in Ventura, CA. 

Yvon Married in 1971, to Malinda Pennoyer, who has been intimately involved in Patagonia’s operations in partnership with Yvon. 

Patagonia has long-since been Yvon and Malinda’s experiment of building a business that creates and abides by its own set of rules. Patagonia has been at the forefront of a reformed and more sustainable business model with policies like its “Let My People Go Surfing” flexible time-off policy and it’s disciplined effort to measure and reduce all internal environmental impact. 

Patagonia has hit upwards of $1B in revenue, and in 2001, with friend Craig Matthews, Yvon Co-Founded the 1% for the Planet Alliance, where member businesses (like Grow Ensemble!) “pledge to donate at least 1% of sales toward active efforts to protect and restore our natural environment.” 

The current CEO of Patagonia (as of 2020), is Rose Marcario. Along with Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon has authored or co-authored three additional books: another on lessons from Patagonia, one on ice climbing (his first book), and one on fly fishing (his most recent).

[Chouinard with current CEO of Patagonia, Rose Marcario]

Key Quotes:

“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 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.

Breaking the rules and making my own system work are the creative part of management that is particularly satisfying for me. But I don’t jump into things without doing my homework.” (45)

There became a point when Yvon accepted both his reality and his fate—he was a “businessperson,” and he’d most likely be one for a long time. 

And so, in arriving at this realization, Yvon committed to developing a business philosophy of his own. He accepted what he was going to be professionally, but he wasn’t going to let that determine how he was going to live his life. That was still up to him. 

He recognized there wasn’t one way to do anything (well, most anything). If ultimately he learned that there was just one way to something, and that was a way he didn’t enjoy, then he wasn’t going to do it. 

Even the businessperson or entrepreneur with the most conviction reaches a crossroad where they feel they must compromise on their own “non-negotiables.” 

You will always be able to reason yourself into undermining the values that might go against the grain. 

Do you have to prioritize the bottom line above all else? If you work in an office, do you work 9-5 with an hour for lunch? Is it, in fact, critical to determine for you and your employees when and from where work is done?

If you find yourself feeling like you need to make those compromises on your non-negotiables, maybe that’s a call for a firmer allegiance to your values and greater creativity in problem-solving. 

Yvon’s book brings everything that feels like a “must” into question. 

Yvon’s book seems to demonstrate that many of these “necessary” compromises are in fact a lack of creativity (if they truly are “non-negotiables”). From his perspective, if something truly is a non-negotiable, like work being enjoyable on a daily basis, then there is no other option than to find a solution consistent with that objective.

    “We have to take responsibility for what we make, from birth to death and then beyond death, back to rebirth, what the architect, designer, and author Bill McDonough calls “cradle to cradle…”

    …If our future customers are going to send back their pants to us to be recycled when they are no longer usable, then the smart businessman would try to make his pants so they last as long as possible, because you really don’t want to see all those pants come back very soon.

    In the final analysis, the best effort we can make toward causing no unnecessary harm is to make the best-quality products, ones that are durable, functional, beautiful, and simple.” (114-116)

    Environmental stewardship was/is at the forefront of Patagonia’s philosophy on production and strategy. It’s this guiding priority—to respect and preserve our natural resources—that dictated many of Patagonia’s actions and policies.

    Patagonia’s environmental philosophy of cutting-edge sustainability weaves throughout its history. In 1986, Yvon implemented a self-imposed 1% environmental tax on his own company. 

    In 1996, they moved to exclusively use organic cotton versus conventional cotton in their clothing. Today, the company’s design philosophy centers on producing the “best product” possible. This means it must last as long as possible, be as simple as possible, and as useful as possible. 

    By doing something “right” the first time, we don’t have to worry about expending more effort and energy down the line, for ourselves or the planet. 

    Yvon’s story encourages us to act more like a craftsperson and take care to think with the long view in mind.

    “We knew that uncontrolled growth put at risk the values that had made the company succeed so far. Those values couldn’t be expressed in a how-to operations manual that offers pat answers. We needed philosophical and inspirational guides to make sure we always asked the right questions and found the right answers. We spoke of these guides as philosophies, one for each of our major departments and functions…

    I realize now that what I was trying to do was to instill in my company, at a critical time, lessons that I had already learned as an individual and as a climber, surfer kayaker, and fly fisherman. I had always tried to live my own life fairly simply, and by 1991, knowing what I knew about the state of the environment, I had begun to eat lower on the food chain and reduce my consumption of material goods. Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: 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.”

    Patagonia’s philosophy revolved heavily around doing what they were good at, and doing it extremely well

     craftsmanship at the core of Patagonia’s design and production, 

     With diligence and care given to the perfection of each product, it would seem counter-intuitive that Patagonia would also be a company obsessed with their rate of growth. Yvon even explicitly juxtaposes their 18-month product design timetables with the rapid turnover of “fast-fashion” brands that release new products weekly. 

    And Patagonia learned that you cannot have both precision and perfection in your products and maintain 40-50% growth. It was this desire to manifest the entire potential of the company all at once that led to them hitting that wall in 1990. 

    Awareness and attentiveness to who you are (in this case who your company is) are foundational to operating in a way that’s sustainable and successful. 

    What are your strengths? What do you know? How do you best take on new information? 

    With a clear understanding of your core values, principles, and strengths, progress comes with far less resistance.

    Takeaways:

    • Set & Play By Your Own Rules. 

    Yvon’s first priority is always to create and play by his own set of rules. And this has clearly worked out well for him. 

    In creating new products, Patagonia doesn’t chase fashion or trends. They pay attention to their core customers and focus purely on solving their problems and making them something useful that will not just look good today, but will look good 10 years from now.

    [Photo featuring Patagonia’s “Even Better Sweater” made to brave the elements from 100% recycled polyester,  low impact dye, and fair-trade certified sewing]

    In establishing a “management philosophy,” Patagonia’s employees are encouraged to go surfing when there are waves, go skiing when there’s powder, and choose if they’d like to wear shoes in the office or not. Patagonia has repeatedly won awards as one of the best places to work.
    If you can create the game that you are playing, you are more likely to win. And, to a great degree, this is why Patagonia thrives and other brands are constantly attempting to keep up with them. They are always re-writing the rules in their favor.

    Then, Master Those Rules. Be the Best.
    Yvon has a clear passion for “craft.” If something is going to be made at all, it better be useful, of the highest quality, and last as long as possible.

    If you set your own rules and standards but don’t strive to exceed the bar you set, then what’s the point?

    Yvon developed a clear definition for what “best” looked like for any new product they considered designing. Some of those characteristics included:

    • It’s durable
    • It causes no unnecessary harm
    • It’s simple
    • It’s artful
    • It’s functional

    With those objectives in mind, they did all the legwork they could to achieve them.

    Define your own criteria for what success is, then do it.

    • Scratch Your Own Itch & Create Things That Are Useful 

    Yvon has always been an outdoors person. He’s a surfer, climber, fly fisher and all his friends were too. He focused on “scratching his own (and his friend’s) itch.” 

    Being so deeply invested in the “target market” himself, first in rock climbing equipment, later in outdoor clothing for Patagonia, he couldn’t help but make something that was valuable, and of course, quality, because he wanted to use it, and he wanted it to be good. 

    If you have an interest in creating something as a business, hobby, etc., think about creating something that you yourself would use. 

    By creating something that scratches your own itch, it may very well do the same for others. It’s rare that we are ever completely unique. 😉

    Often, business people enter into business opportunities purely for the sake of business. They’ll enter into markets and industries they themselves aren’t a part of as customers, and then patch together the needs and interests of the people in that space. 

    Without understanding the nuances of your customers’ experience, it’s even more difficult to anticipate the gaps in the market and how best to fill them. While not impossible to overcome, that connectedness was clearly an advantage and a great source of fulfillment (and confidence) for Yvon. 

    • Think Long-Term over Short-Term. Every time

    Ever since Patagonia encountered it’s “Black Wednesday,” Yvon set the requirement that in everything they did or pursued, they had to think about whether this would be something that helped or hurt the company being around 100 years from now. 

    Was counting on 40-50% revenue growth every year possible and sustainable for 100 years? Patagonia realized it wasn’t. 

    When you are building a 100-year plan, how do you go about ensuring that sustainability? 

    Is working employees tirelessly, in a chaotic environment sustainable for 100 years? Of course not. Employee turnover would be constant and company cohesiveness would be routinely interrupted. 

    Is draining the planet of its natural resources at the cost of short-term profits sustainable for 100 years? Of course not! The very materials many companies need to produce their products would be gone. 

    Patagonia understood this early on. 

    Think about sustainability. It’s about the long-game, not the short game. It’s not only about what you are producing, but how you are producing it. 

    Can you imagine yourself doing what you are doing in the way you are doing it 5 years from now? 10? 

    We improve and get better at what we are doing by doing it constantly, for a long time. What do you feel like you would be happy doing most days for the next 5, 10, 15 years? 

    That should determine what you should be doing for the next 5, 10, or 15 days. 

    Thinking about the long-term can bring clarity to the decisions you make today. 

    • “Lead an Examined Life” (202) 

     Perhaps the most evident quality of Yvon’s that shines through in this book is his complete dedication to reflection, remaining self-aware, and thinking deeply about himself and the company he owns. 

    This book is an example of exactly that, it’s a complete reflection and distillation of his philosophies on life and business.

    Any book like Let My People Go Surfing that I read, often leaves me with similar advice—reflect deeply on, and write down what it is you think and believe about the world. 

    Through the exercise of thinking deeply and writing down your own thoughts and beliefs, you challenge yourself to clarify any gaps in logic, as well as see past any rosy hues you put on your thoughts while still in your head. It’s there on hard paper.  

    Like Yvon Chouinard, you might see where, in your life, or work, you can rewrite the rules to set yourself and others up to win. 

    If you haven’t yet, you can get your copy of Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, at Amazon or B Corp Certified Better World Books.

    Cory Ames

    Cory Ames

    Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble

    Cory is the Co-Founder & CEO of Grow Ensemble, as well as the Host of The Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast. From Washington State, Cory now resides in San Antonio, TX with his brilliant fiancée and their rescue pup. Cory is deeply passionate about using his creative and cognitive capacities for doing good. 

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