Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia answers a reader's question.
Q: How can we incorporate things such as charitable initiatives and flexible work hours when we are still a struggling young company?
A: Before you start making changes, you should ask yourself: "Why did we go into business? What are we here for?" I believe most people live unexamined lives -- and most entrepreneurs don't ask themselves why they're in business in the first place. Have a discussion with your employees and come up with a mission statement. Patagonia became what it is today because along the way we did a lot of thinking about what kind of company we wanted to create.
One of those times was back in 1991. Our company was at a crossroads. We had hit $100 million in sales, but because of the recession, we had had to lay off 120 people -- 20 percent of our employees at the time. I wasn't sure about where we were headed. I took a key group of employees to the mountains in Argentina so that we could regroup. Before that trip, we were running Patagonia just like any other business. I asked my employees, "OK, what are we trying to do here? What's important to us?" That was when we really started establishing our values as a company.
We came up with a mission statement that included the things we all really cared about most: making the best product and doing as little harm to the environment as possible. We reaffirmed our commitment to giving some of our profits to environmental causes -- we eventually settled on 1 percent of sales -- and inspiring other businesses to change the world. For us, that meant growing more slowly. And maybe that's what you'll need to do, too. If you have a private company, you can grow slower, and it's much easier to focus on your mission. Since that time, we've been growing from 3 percent to 10 percent per year. We take the long-term view. We behave as if we're going to be here 100 years from now.
Our approach to flexible work hours also came out of discussions with employees. Blurring the lines between work and play worked for us, because it was part of the core reasons we came to work every day. I honestly can't remember ever having a problem with an employee taking advantage of our flexible hours. When your employees care about the mission of the company, they work harder.