Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

By Yvan Chouinard

Penguin Books; updated 2nd edition (Sept. 6, 2016), 272 pages, softcover: $10

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: In an encore edition of a book first published in 2005, Yvan Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, authentically tells the story of his business and its mission.

Who’s it for: General audiences and business owners who believe that making a profit and being socially conscientious are not mutually exclusive.

Author’s quote: “If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent. The delinquent is saying with his actions, ‘This sucks. I’m going to do my own thing.'”

I spent a big part of my childhood around my grandfather who started a small land surveying business in his garage which grew into an engineering company that now employs more than 250 people. His belief regarding his company giving back was best summed up when he said: “You have to do well before you can do good.” For him, building a business that provided quality jobs and improved the region’s infrastructure was giving back.

Fast forward to today with many local and national businesses founded on a premise of social purpose. A big reason for this shift can be traced to Yvan Chouinard’s foray into self-employment that began in the 1960s. In a reprise of his book that was first published in 2005, “Let My People Go Surfing” begins directly with Chouinard recounting his own life story.

Chouinard is a rebel by nature – in school and in life. The outdoors are his escape and passion. He has no business background to speak of but he knows how to work, experiment and figure things out. When he wants better rock climbing equipment, Chouinard learns how to work as a blacksmith. This leads to his first company, Chouinard Equipment, that sells a very specific product line. He hires friends as employees who form a work environment that pioneers workplace innovations such as onsite daycare and the flextime concept that has a lot to do with a certain book’s title. Chouinard and his crew adjust their product mix when he realizes that the climbing equipment is harming the very mountains his customers climb. The change out is costly but reflects company values that shape a business philosophy.

Even though his climbing equipment is superior to his European competitors, Chouinard and his employee family realize growing the business will require an additional product line with broader appeal. The result is Patagonia, a company dedicated to selling outdoor clothing that optimizes design and function.

Patagonia experiences problems that many companies go through as they scale up. Growth brings challenges – both economic and philosophically. Can a company that wants to make the best quality outdoor gear in the world be the size of Nike? Omnipresent is the internal battle Chouinard goes through as he sees environmentally what is happening to his favorite places in the world. This is now the early 1980s, long before global warming and climate change are parts of the world’s lexicon. Instead of bringing home new product ideas from his favorite places, Chouinard is bringing home stories of “environmental devastation.”

Escalating awareness of environmental issues is likely why the 2016 reprise of “Let My People Go Surfing” was released. Patagonia continues to prove that a company can indeed do well financially while also doing good, setting the standard for creating superior products that minimize their impact on the environment.

“Let My People Go Surfing” departs from the script of most business biographies, which is a good thing. The book is separated into two parts: First, Chouinard narrates his story which reveals the mindset of an uber-driven entrepreneur. The second section consists of Patagonia’s company philosophies (design, production, distribution, marketing, financial, human resources, management, and environmental). Collectively, “Let My People Go Surfing” is a required handbook for every business owner.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.