A different kind of success story

As an entrepreneur, I am always curious to hear and learn from others that have been on a similar journey. What really happened in Steve Job’s garage and how different is it from what happened on my balcony? What triggered Jack Ma to shift Alibaba’s business model from translation to online retail and how much harder was it than from me to shift from collaborative workshops to transformation journeys? All those stories are rich and insightful but they end up telling the same story: a romanticised tale of accelerated growth and heroic hard-core capitalistic journey culminating in the sacro-saint achievement of share value increase. Obviously, the shiny paint that professional story-tellers spray all over the reality of the journey turn those businesses and their leaders into models and heroes, into employers of choice and CEO of the year.

Let’s not deny there are things to learn from these, especially from the first 2 or 3 stories that we will randomly choose to explore. But what if pace and magnitude of growth were not the most relevant indicators anymore? What if stock price and shareholder returns were driving insane behaviours? In 2017, in the light of the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources and the level of income inequality, it would be fair to be looking for success stories other than the ones that created the problems many people are desperately trying to mitigate or, for the most ambitious, solve. Unfortunately, these stories are harder to find and when they exist, they don’t quite pile up on the “must read” tables of airport book stores.

I found one — accidentally — and it has inspired me, so I felt a responsibility to spread the word.

In Let my people go surfing, Yvon Chouinard, the CEO and founder of Patagonia, tells the story of how he grew into a socially and environmentally conscious — and yet very successful — business leader. What makes the book particularly interesting is precisely that personal growth journey that he has been on. Like any business owner, he became successful by making money from what he was good at: manufacturing climbing equipment. But unlike most business leaders, the day he became aware that his products were harmful to the landscape, he decided that he couldn’t compromise just in the name of keeping the sales of a highly profitable product up. So he developed a more sustainable alternative and removed his top selling product from the shelves. Expensive and risky, yet very successful, in particular with his core customers: mountain lovers.

Available in Patagonia stores and… everywhere else!

Then the whole book goes on, describing the series of tipping points when the company became aware of the harm they were causing, or the good they were not doing, at any point of the end to end life-cycle of their products and explaining how they genuinely did everything they could to do the right thing. Sometimes small things with limited resources, and progressively bigger things as they grew stronger and more influential. Environment, gender equality, community support, waste reduction, etc. Every time it became evident that they were not doing the right thing, they choose to not look away and to fix it and that extended to the entire value chain, all the way to the social and environmental standards of their manufacturing partners in developing countries. No more polluting a river in Vietnam or exploiting women in Chinese sewing factories so that American consumers can get a cheaper T-shirt from Patagonia.

Another key turning point from their story is that point when they have nearly gone bankrupt as a result of a sequence of poor decisions and unfortunate circumstances. Reflecting back, Yvon Chouinard can trace back all the mistakes he made to that irrational quest for growth and scale. That quest that makes you lose sight of long term viability — we’re talking generations here — and of the responsibility we should all share toward our fellow humans and the planet that feeds us. Without spoiling the plot of the story, it’s the re-focus on core values and a universal and humanist purpose that not only saved the company, but also turned it into a successful global social business.

At a time when I am still trying to assemble the right people around the right purpose, and to consolidate a platform for a thriving social business, this reading has been as timely as it has been valuable. Here are my main four take-aways.

1. No matter what your business does, what industry you are in, or what countries you operate from, it is no longer possible to ignore your social and environmental responsibility. Legally it might still be, but it no longer is morally. The clock is ticking and the perspectives for our children are getting gloomier by the day. Businesses need to take ownership of the end-to-end impact of their operations on the people and the planet and take action to mitigate, compensate and eventually reverse it.

2. As you grow national and global, business operations become so complex that the task of unpacking it all can seem daunting. It is better to get started and take a step at a time, rather than try and boil the ocean at once and end up doing nothing of significance. What matters the most is to keep learning.

3. Doing the right thing environmentally can create a lot of business value. It can often reduce medium to long term costs but it can also allow you to create new business models and unique value propositions for specific customer segments.

4. Finally, don’t try and do everything alone. There are plenty of research or activist groups out there that would happily partner with businesses to help them reduce their impact on the environment.

Having said that and although posturing on the question of morality is often hazardous, I would say a strong moral compass is the primary attribute today’s leaders should develop and demonstrate by genuinely attempting to do what is right for the planet, which includes us people living on it. What I find inspiring in the case of Patagonia is that they chose the right thing to do even In the few cases when it destroyed business value (as it is traditionally assessed) for them or when the return was uncertain, indirect or far down the line. On that note, I would like to take that opportunity to praise an initiative by my colleague Frederic Etiemble and occasional business partner Greg Bernarda that aims to document more of those stories to inform and inspire. Reach out to them if you know of any.

As far as I am concerned, I am proud to be putting those considerations at the forefront of our business as we are in the process of certifying wheretofromhere? as a B-Corp and I am proud to be working for some clients that has chosen — just like Patagonia — to not look away when what they see doesn’t feel right. But I am also impatient and eager to work with more executives that have a huge ambition and a strong moral compass, and to help them act on it, from vision to execution.

I would be keen to hear more about your own take-aways if you have read the book and to explore how we can work together if you have turned some of your learnings into challenges for yourself or your business.

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