As the year draws to an end, I face a question that annually lurks in the back of my mind, (and I suspect in the minds of most entrepreneurs), "Do I have the energy and passion for another year?" Though someone from the outside might assume the answer is always, "Yes," people on the outside tend to glamorize the real work of leading a mission-driven company. I encounter so many job applicants drawn to Honest Tea because they want to change the way business is done -- organics, Fair Trade, healthier products, bikes for employees -- but then when they find out the way to make that all real is by walking in the rain lugging 50 pounds of heavy bottles or standing in the hot sun giving out samples, they find out they aren't quite as entrepreneurial as they thought they were. (Internally we say their "Kumbaya factor" isn't as big as their "Get it Done" factor.) And though I don't personally lug as much tea around as I used to, there are still the thrills, chills, and sleepless nights that come with trying to break through the many distribution-related, operational and financial walls we face.
One of the best ways for me to refuel my drive and passion is by learning from others in the mission-driven business movement. The single best place for me to do that is through Net Impact, a national network of MBA students and alums engaged in the mission-driven business effort. (I've been on and off the board ever since I helped launch the organization 15 years ago). In addition to meeting fellow MBAs excited about these ideas, I have met three of my primary role models and sources of inspiration through the annual Net Impact conference: Wayne Silby, co-founder of Calvert Group, Honest Tea board member, Jeff Swartz, the President & CEO of Timberland, and Honest Tea board member Gary Hirshberg, the co-founder and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm. (Look for Gary's book Stirring It Up, scheduled to be published January 8, 2008.)
At the 2007 Net Impact conference in Nashville, I had the chance to meet and introduce keynote speaker Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Here are some excerpts from my introduction:
When we look at how change happens in the business world, it usually comes from two different kinds of business: Those, usually smaller, companies that take big risks and, when they succeed, inspire others to follow. Or the larger companies that gain inspiration from the smaller pioneering changemakers and through their scale make even more change happen.
Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia is the rare founder of a company that plays both roles at the same time -- a business that inspires others and a $275 million company that is a powerful agent of change.
When I was a student at the Yale School of Management, we were taught to focus on the consumer, that the consumer was always right. Chouinard points out that the technical definition of consumer is "one who destroys or expends by use, devours, spends wastefully." In fact, he looked at the whole world of business and said, as quoted in his book, Let My People Go Surfing, "This sucks. I'm going to do my own thing."
And that's pretty much the story of Chouinard's business career since he started his rock climbing equipment business, Chouinard Equipment for Alpinists in 1957. When he realized that his core product, the pitons -- steel spikes used to secure rock climbing ropes -- were disfiguring the rocks he loved to climb, he started to evolve, and the company that eventually became Patagonia has been evolving ever since. When he realized that 25 percent of the world's insecticide is used to grow cotton, Patagonia became the first company to sell clothing made with organic cotton. Today, major corporations such as Nike and Levi's have followed his lead. And he has expanded beyond cotton to fabricate clothes from recycled Patagonia items as well as recycled soda bottles.
Chouinard starts his book, "No young kid growing up ever dreams of someday becoming a businessman." And while that may be true, there are lots of business students, and probably a respectable number of rock climbers, who dream of becoming Yvon Chouinard, an accomplished mountain climber, an accomplished businessman, and a source of inspiration for many of us still scaling the cliffs.
During his remarks, Chouinard talked about the deliberate choice he made to keep his company manageable -- sometimes intentionally pulling back on growth -- to make sure he kept the mission and quality of his business intact. But for me the highlight of his remarks was at the end when his Vanderbilt hosts presented him with a gift bag full of tokens of appreciation, and Yvon declined the offer, saying, "I have enough stuff."
Chouinard's model is an inspiring one but also an intimidating one. In an environment where investors and employees place a premium on growth, are we willing to give up growth for mission? So far, we have managed to build Honest Tea with our commitment to organics and healthier products intact. And in many ways our mission has been the key to our growth —- but what if that dynamic changed? What if a food scare causes people to seek out chemically protected foods? And what about the way I live? As much as my family lives a relatively simple life, are we willing to live without "stuff?" For better or worse, we haven't been in the situation where we have excess money to spend on ourselves, but if we did, would we be able to turn away from the temptations of "stuff?"
Best wishes for a holiday season and a new year where the stuff that brings you joy isn't stuff.