Yvon Chouinard not only pioneered first ascents that impress climbers to this day, but he also built an enormously influential business; Patagonia.
He set out to simply earn enough for the next climbing trip, but he created an amazing company full of enthusiastic misfits that show up every day and take the stairs two at a time.
In the 1950s, Yvon wanted a better piton, which led him to learn blacksmithing. As it turned out, other climbers wanted his high-quality pitons so he should them from the back of his truck. This experience taught Yvon the power of simple design which he carries through his entire career.
Simplicity is complexity resolved
Yvon Chouinard took inspiration from cars in the ‘60s. The Ferraris aim for high performance while a Cadillac aspires to be a “living room on wheels.”
With clean lines, a Ferrari’s design emphasizes the speed and function of the car. The enormous engine on a Cadillac fails to come with the steering, suspension, or braking capability to back it up. The resulting car looks like a weird combination of fins and decorative features.
When they expanded too quickly and offered 12 different styles of climbing shirts in the ‘90s, it stretched their resources too thin. They aimed to grow too quickly!
One of Yvon Chouinard’s favorite lines comes from the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Chouinard’s innovation and products include:
- First Chockstones. Yvon’s next innovation — “chocks” — sold well in the first few months. He promptly discovered a new way to build them, and they redesigned the tooling to release an updated product by the next year. A competitor launched an imitation of the original hexentric chocks that same month, already rendered out-of-date.
- Durable Apparel. While climbing in Scotland, Yvon discovered thick rugby shirts with a collar. He bought a handful once he saw that they protected his neck while climbing with loaded slings. Back in the States he sold them all immediately to friends, and so emerged Patagonia, the clothing brand.
- Better Base Layers. Yvon noticed that regardless of your waterproof outer jacket, if you had cotton underwear in the cold it would get wet and then freeze. They brought polypropylene underwear to the market which wicked away moisture to keep you dry — game-changing!
Yvon and Patagonia never wanted to compete with other brands in the outdoor gear space. They specialized early and dove deep into the art of making terrific products.
Even these lessons can be boiled down and simplified— high quality people want specialization (agreed by Akio Marita, founder of Sony, and Johnny Ive at Apple)
Build a team of high performers
For five years, Patagonia’s leadership team tried several reorgs, none of which quite fixed the challenges as they expanded and grew. Yvon calls this a period of acid stomachs and long nights.
What ultimately worked for the team involved a larger effort to write the company’s business philosophy. One core tenant was setting an example of a business operating to last 100 years and have a positive impact on the environment.
And Yvon began teaching the Patagonia values to employees, which served as the basis for his terrific book “Let My People Go Surfing.”
** You might also enjoy my notes on James Dyson about his amazing inventions & success, but also the obstacles, challenges, and failures like the Ballbarrow. **
My favorite concept from the book is the business philosophy of MBA — management by absence — and Yvon would spend 6 months of the year in the mountains.
As the generator of new product ideas for the R&D team, Yvon Chouinard always served as the “first customer.” On his expeditions, he would explore and try out all the gear he could carry. He returned each time with new product ideas and feedback on the existing lines.
During the other half of the year at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, Yvon frequently ducked out of the office to catch waves on the nearby beach and encouraged his employees to do the same.
The secret to Patagonia’s success lay in the other amazing partners and team members. Kris Tompkins (CEO) and other exectives at the company kept improving processes and innovating in sustainable materials and manufacturing techniques.
I cannot imagine any company that wants to make the best product of its kind being staffed by people who do not care passionately about the product.
— Yvon Chouinard
From making pitons out of the back of a truck to climbing far off peaks to test new jackets and bags, Yvon Chouinard kept his ideal lifestyle. It’s proof that you can pursue business ownership, purposeful work, and keep going on adventures.