Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing (Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia)

At long last, I'm picking up the pen again - well, not literally, but picking up the keyboard just sounds weird, doesn't it? I've had a really hard time writing for this blog this year which I think has to do with the fact that I had really, really high expectations for myself to write awesome, long-form blog posts.

Today, I had a fantastic coaching call in which we talked about how often we don't do the work we want to do because we set our expectations too high and then we don't even start because we know we can't fulfil our own expectations, and that would mean we fail by definition - by our own definition - if we even only get something small done.

This stuck with me long after said call and it really reflects the state of my thinking about blogging accurately. My own expectations were so high that even a small post felt like defeat. Which is kind of dumb, because I really enjoy writing, and I miss hit, and why would I punish myself like that even? I don't know - I'm just human, I guess.


Long story short, let's talk about a book. A book that I loved and that I think every single business owner (creative, not creative, I don't care) should read. A book called "Let My People Go Surfing" by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia

Sidenote: If you don't know who or what Patagonia is, I'm not going to go into detail here, so I suggest you read this.

The book consists of two parts: The first part tells the story of Patagonia from its origin as a climbing gear workshop based in a back yard and out of a car boot to today. This alone is a fantastic story and I enjoyed it immensely. It's very well-written, super entertaining and the book includes amazing pictures from all stages of the company (something that I always and forever will love).

The second part details Patagonia's philosophies. These philosophies are rooted in their values statement which is not the "I don't care about anything, but I need a mission statement says my management consultant so I hired a really expensive agency to make one" mission statement of 95% of companies, but it really reads as genuine and its origin story is fascinating. 

Out of said values statement come eight philosophies that detail how said values are to be understood and reflected and lived in various parts of the business: Product Design, Production, Distribution, Marketing, Finances, Human Resources, Management and Environment.

Some of these philosophy parts are better than others and I was thoroughly confused why the Environmental Philosophy comes at the end when - spoiler alert! - everything Patagonia does is rooted in a deep understanding of its environmental impact and a desire to preserve our planet, but! They are GOOD. And they go one level deeper - it doesn't only stop at philosophy, these chapters give hands-on insights into what Patagonia's values actually mean in day-to-day business.

Here's an example how their focus on product quality relates to their day-to-day work of working with suppliers:


"Maximum attention is given to product quality, as defined by durability, minimum use of natural resources (including materials, raw energy, and transport), multifunctionalism, nonobsolescence, and the kind of beauty that emerges from absolute suitability to task. Concern over transitory fashion trends is specifically not a corporate value."

Production Philosophy

"Patagonia has never owned a fabric mill or a sewing shop. [...] To work effectively on a single endeavor with so many other companies, with no compromises in product quality, requires a level of mutual commitment much deeper than the traditional business relationship. Mutual commitment requires nurture and trust, and those demand personal time and energy.

Consequently, we do as much business as we can with as few suppliers and contractors as possible."

Sidenote: This is VERY contrary to a lot of the usual business advice you're getting these days that tells you to not put all your eggs in one basket. I've always found it baffling that businesses seem to thing that playing suppliers against each other is not only normal, but that it leads to better results for them and I was glad to read of a company that has found a different way to do this.

Day-to-day work

"We audit potential partners to determine how they manage workers, we interview workers to determine their perspective on the factory, and we engage civil society to verify that the factory has a positive employment record. [...] [We train] factory human resource managers to have some of the skills that our own HR team has." 

What I loved about this part of the book so much is that it is - in most parts - really detailed and goes a lot deeper than your usual "oh, you just need to talk to people" surface bullshit that you hear from a lot of "value-driven" companies. There are a few great case studies of how they changed parts of their business when they realized that they weren't in accordance with their values anymore, and of a few really exciting adventures and fights they fought as a company. 

The book also really resonated with me as it addresses one concern over and over again: Growth. I've been struggling with our society's obsession with growth for a long time (I'm an economist by training) and have been looking for companies and individuals who are successful with different paths. One of Patagonia's values explicitly states that "without giving its achievement primacy, we seek to profit on our activities. However, growth and expansion are values not basic to this corporation."

From what I understand, they do seek profit to underline their role of advocating for change and seeing change brought into the business world. If you have worked in "regular" businesses, you will know that most company leaders will only listen to advice if it comes from someone who is successful - by their standards. Most often, their standards list that someone has to lead a profitable and / or fast-growing company to be considered successful. So by showing that you CAN actually build a very conventionally-speaking "successful" (read: profitable) company on such strong values allows Patagonia leeway in spreading their change processes. I think that's smart, but I also think you need to be careful to not let this overtake the initial thought behind founding the business.

Anywho - "growth and expansion are values not basic to this corporation". WHOA. YES. Growth for growth's sake has become something of a mantra / god voice in the business world these days (after all, we're all guilty of looking at growth rates of our customer base, email list, Instagram followers, right?) so it's really refreshing to read that this does not have to be default case. There are other, more important things, and Patagonia shows that you can build a business that has the means and processes and people to last for a long time in a different way. Very, very encouraging.

And this is where I'll leave you to it - with a little glimpse into Patagonia's world of running a business based on what matters to them and an explicit recommendation to pick up a copy of "Let My People Go Surfing".

Be warned though: It might spark some seriously challenging thoughts and questions and conversations around your business. It sure did for me.