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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman Paperback – September 5, 2006
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Like the carefully engineered dies which created his company's first products--steel pitons and carabiners which climbing enthusiasts would recognize as primitive forerunners of today's sleeker gear--Yvon Chouinard is if nothing else an original. How many other shy French-Canadian boys become surf-and-climbing bums, then blacksmiths forging their own play tools, and eventually founders of world-renowned sports equipment and apparel companies like Patagonia? How many other heads of multi-million dollar enterprises open their memoirs by stating bluntly, "The Lee Iacoccas, Donald Trumps, and Jack Welches of the business world are heroes to no one except other businessmen with similar values. I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up." The proverbial mold from which Chouinard was cast got broken.
In Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, readers get a fascinating look inside the history and philosophy of both Patagonia and its irascible, opinionated founder. From its beginning, the book shares a sense of Chouinard's strong-willed personality and his love of the outdoors. He recounts a mostly happy childhood spent in a still-unspoiled southern California, climbing, diving, fishing, and surfing. The narrative soon moves into Chouinard's early entrepreneurial efforts, which were less focused on market-share domination than on earning a basic living to finance his own sporting habits. As his company's first catalog noted, delivery could be slow in the summer months, when Chouinard typically left the "office"--a dilapidated shack converted into an ironworks--for climbing adventures across the American West.
Eventually, though, the story settles into a pattern familiar to business audiences: Patagonia grows rapidly, takes on more employees and product lines to sustain hungry demand from customers, but overreaches with over-ambitious expansion plans and suffers a hiccup in its adolescence. This make-or-break juncture of a business's development often contains the most interesting material, and here Chouinard and his beloved company are no exception. He describes a series of wrenching decisions through which he and Patagonia management team navigated in 1991, as sales growth stalled while capital and operational expenses sprinted ahead. From this crisis emerged Patagonia's first-ever layoffs, affecting a hefty 20% of the workforce, and a serious re-examination of the business's core principles and methods.
The historical part of Chouinard's book largely ends at this point, and gives way to an exposition of philosophies which emerged at Patagonia during its dark moments in the early 1990s. The rest of the book serves as a kind of primer to business, the Patagonia way: one chapter each on product design philosophy, production philosophy, distribution philosophy, image philosophy, financial philosophy, human resource philosophy, and so on. Fans of Patagonia can revel in the company's working details, as can those who support or want to build businesses with self-consciously cultivated soulfulness. Readers who enjoyed Gary Erickson's story about Clif Bar, for example, should definitely find this a welcome addition to their bookshelves. --Peter Han --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia Inc., presents his philosophy for a "new style of responsible business" along with a chronicle of his personal and company history in this sincere if self-congratulatory creed. A Californian of French-Canadian descent, Chouinard started forging climbing hardware and selling it out of his car in 1957 and published his first catalogue, a one-page mimeographed sheet, in 1964. Today, his sporting goods company has annual revenues of $230 million, but he nonetheless identifies himself as more of "a climber, a surfer, a kayaker, a skier and a blacksmith" than a CEO. In this vein, he lays out his alternative vision of business, detailing eco- and people-conscious philosophies on aspects of the supply chain from product design and production to human resources and management. Chouinard has backed up his rhetoric with action: Patagonia pursues sustainability, gives 1% of annual net sales to environmental groups and has set benchmarks with its employee-friendly policies. Patagoniacs and socially conscious businesspeople may appreciate this account despite its wooden writing, especially as an antidote to headlines of corporate fraud. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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One note to Yvon/Patagonia suppliers: The commercial wool industry is BRUTAL. I like that you're selling recycled wool sweaters, and would love to see you totally abandon any partnerships with commercial wool farmers. In order to sheer sheep at a rate that's profitable (most get paid per sheep rather than by the hour) they have to hurry through the sheering process. That means lots of cuts for the sheep. Plus there are some types of sheep that are prone to parasites in the folds of their rear. In order to combat that, farmers simply slice off a chunk of that area so there are no longer folds. OUCH. Again, commercial wool farmers, BAD.
Sorry, I got off on a tangent. I loved this book. It held my attention all the way through. I had trouble putting it down, actually. Yvon's voice is very sweet and actually has inspired me to ask myself, am I doing all I can for the environment? AND am I working at a job/in an industry that I'm proud of? Could I be doing something more fulfilling (for my own quality of life, and the environment?).
I found this history particularly interesting, especially given that Yvon had absolutely no business background, and throughout the book is very upfront on this fact. Describing the (sometimes comical) struggles he encountered, restructures needed and addressed, and culture developed, was very enjoyable.
Insomuch as the philosophies section is concerned, if you're familiar at all with Patagonia and it's dealings this will be pretty straightforward to you. I did enjoy the HR/benefits section, and was intrigued about Chouinard's take on innovation (borrowing, stealing, repurposing ideas ='s fast and effective) vs. invention (can be great, but takes time, is unpredictable, and doesn't guarantee value added vs. just cool). I think it was telling though that by far the longest section of this book in this section is the Environmental Philosophies section. Everyone who knows Patagonia knows this is important to them, and I thought it was telling of them to give it so much space in his book. Some of the figures - if somewhat outdated - are interesting (and scary).
If you're looking for a 'how to do business [like Patagonia]' rule by rule book, this probably wouldn't be the best starting point. For that, maybe try Yvon's other book, The Responsible Company. However, if you accept that this is a memoir about a man and the development of a company that cares deeply about it's value and understands the struggles therein, this book is great!
Global warming is one of the biggest threats to mankind today. Despite the magnitude of the issue, governments and businesses are doing very little to combat the problem. Patagonia does everything it can to do its part. From scrutinizing parts in their clothing to subsidizing electric cards their employees purchase, they go above and beyond the norm held by most companies. Not only are these things good for the environment, but they're great for profits. Patagonia usually ends up making their money back in energy upgrades within a few years, sometimes sooner. If only more businesses could make the conscious effort to investigate energy savings, they would find an arena littered with profit.
Chounaird is fiercely independent. He openly criticizes the government, big business, and energy firms. He rightly points out that if everyone took take the long view, we would have a better society for workers, customers, and the environment. He lays out the various Patagonia philosophies in the second half of the book. The overlying theme, whether its' the financial or human resource philosophy seems to be: do the right thing, and profits will follow. Treat employees right. Give back to the environment. Use the best materials.
You really get an idea of how Yvon thinks, feels, and acts. He comes across as centered, humble, and responsible. As Patagonias sole owner, he can retain the company culture and vision he set without being grilled on profits, and cutting costs. Support Patagonia. It's good for the earth.