PhilosophyThe philosophies are an expression of our values as they apply to different parts of the company. Our philosophies for design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management, social, and cultural economic environment are each written specifically to guide SICKBOAT through the process of designing, manufacturing, and selling items. But they can be applied to any other kind of business as well.
What good does having a fixed set of written philosophies accomplish when everything else in the business world is so dynamic?
The answer is that our philosophies aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. They’re the keystones of our approach to any project, and although they are “set in stone,” their application to a situation isn’t. In every long-lasting business, the methods of conducting business may constantly change, but the values, the culture, the philosophies, and the principles remain constant.
At SICKBOAT, these philosophies must be communicated internally and externally to everyone working in every part of the company, so that each of us becomes empowered with the knowledge of the right course to take, without having to follow a rigid plan or wait for orders from the boss.
Living the values and knowing the philosophy of each part of the company aligns us all in a common direction, promotes efficiency, and avoids the chaos that comes from poor communication.
We have made many mistakes during the past couple years, but at no point have we lost our way for very long. We have the philosophies for a road map, the only kind that’s useful in a business world whose contours, unlike those of the mountains, change constantly without much warning.
OUR 8 CORE PHILOSOPHIES
- PRODUCTION DESIGN
- PRODUCTION / MANUFACTURING
- HUMAN RESOURCES
- ENVIRONMENTAL / SOCIAL
PRODUCTION DESIGN PHILOSOPHY
Webster’s defines quality as “degree of excellence,” and of course the best quality would be the highest degree. Some people believe that quality is subjective, that excellence for one person may be mediocrity for another. But then they may be thinking of taste, which means “individual preference.” We believe that quality is absolutely objective and definable, otherwise, we would never even be able to establish our design criteria.
We ended up with a checklist of criteria for SICKBOAT’s designers to consider, and the list applies equally to other products and businesses. With clearly defined quality criteria for all aspects of a product, it becomes a straightforward matter to judge which are the best.
But when considering quality it’s important to not make the mistake of comparing oranges to apples. One is not necessarily better than the other. They are different. Our goal is to make the best in class.
Here are the main questions a SICKBOAT designer must ask about each product to see if it fits our standards.
- Is it Functional?
- Is it Multifunctional?
- Is it Durable?
- Does it fit our customer?
- Is it as simple as possible?
- Is the product line simple?
- Is it an Innovation or an invention?
- Is it a global design?
- Is it easy to care for and clean?
- Does it have any added value?
- Is it authentic?
- Is it beautiful?
- Are we just chasing fashion?
- Are we designing for our core customer?
- Does it cause any unnecessary harm?
IS IT FUNCTIONAL
The first precept of industrial design is that the function of an object should determine its design and materials. Function must dictate form. Designing from the foundation of filling a functional need focuses the design process and ultimately makes for a superior finished product. Without a serious functional demand we can end up with a product that, although it may look great, is difficult to rationalize as being in our line - ie, “who needs it?”
IS IT MULTIFUNCTIONAL
Why buy two pieces of gear when one will it do the work of both? Making products as versatile as possible derives from our origins as outdoorsmen and women.
The more you know, the less you need.
We try to keep anomalies like that in mind. The best products are multifunctional, however you market them. If the climbing jacket you bought to ski in can also be worn over your suit during a snowstorm in Paris or New York, we’ve saved you from having to buy two jackets, one of which would stay in the closet nine months of the year. Buy less, buy better. Make fewer styles; design better.
IS IT DURABLE
This question also derives from our origins - which has to stand up to hard, prolonged use - and has become a factor in our environmental philosophy as well. Because the overall durability of a product is only as good as its weakest element, the ultimate goal should be a product whose parts wear out at roughly the same time and only after a long life.
Someone once said that the poor can’t afford to buy cheap goods.
No matter how durable we make our products, there will always be a need to repair.
We also produce videos that show how you can do your own repairs. We want to make it easy for you to wear your product for as long as possible.
REPAIR AS A RADICAL ACT
As individual consumers, the single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer. This simple act of extending the life of our products through proper care and repair reduces the need to buy more over time - thereby avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions, waste output, and water usage required to build the new products.
Why is repair such a radical act? We live in a culture where replacement is king.
Let’s behave like owners, not consumers, and repair rather than inflict something new on the planet if we don’t truly need it.
DOES IT FIT OUR CUSTOMER
Functional clothing poses other questions of fit that have to be carefully thought through. Will the product be worn over other layers or against the skin?
IS IT AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE
The functionally driven design is usually minimalist. Good design is as little design as possible.
Complexity is often a sure sign that the functional needs have not been solved.
Once you lose the discipline of functionality as a design guidepost, the imagination runs amok. Once you design a monster, it tends to look like one too.
IS THE PRODUCT LINE SIMPLE
People have too many choices these days. They are tired of constantly having to make decisions, particularly when it takes a major effort to make intelligent decisions.
The Dalai Lama says too much choice brings unhappiness.
The best performing firms make a narrow range of products very well. The best firms’ products also use up to 50% fewer parts than those made by their less successful rivals. Fewer parts means a faster, simpler (and usually cheaper) manufacturing process. Fewer parts means less to go wrong; quality comes built in. And although the best companies need fewer workers to look after quality control, they also have fewer defects and generate less waste.
IS IT AN INNOVATION OR AN INVENTION
Successful inventing requires a tremendous amount of energy, time, and money. The big inventions are so rare that even the most brilliant geniuses think up only a few marketable inventions in the their lifetimes. It may take thirty years to come up with an invention, but within a few years or months there can be a thousand innovations spawned from that original idea. Innovation can be achieved much more quickly because you already start with an existing product idea or design.
Like creative cooks, we view “originals” as recipes for inspiration, and then we close the book to do our own thing. The resulting designs are like the fusion recipes of the best chefs.
IS IT A GLOBAL DESIGN
You’ll never know if you’re making the best products in the world until they’re sold and used all over the globe. But this creates challenges of its own.
When we become a global company, not just a business operating internationally we’ll adapt our designs toward local preferences, toward their functional need and sizing and color. We’ll produce more locally and less centrally. Most important, thinking and acting more globally will open our minds to an endless possibility of new ideas, some of which we can adapt to use in our domestic market.
IS IT EASY TO CARE FOR AND CLEAN
Laundry creates around 25% of the carbon footprint of clothing as a result of energy use.
The most responsible way for a consumer and a good citizen to buy clothes is to buy used clothing. Beyond that, avoid buying clothes you have to dry-clean or iron. Wash in cold water. Line dry when possible. Wear your shirt more than one day before you wash it. Consider faster-drying alternatives to 100% cotton for your travel clothes.
DOES IT HAVE ANY ADDED VALUE
Unlike those who make claims in the cola wars, we do add real value. We make durable, high-quality goods that function well. We design everything we make to be the best of its kind, and whatever doesn’t measure up goes back to the drawing board. Moreover, we carefully define, rather than just assert, what makes each product the best of its kind. Durability and low environmental impact make that list. Fleeting fashion and the illusion of luxury do not.
We treat customers with respect to. We take the extra step anyway.
Not every customer service transaction is so involved or costly, but we do know that the extra steps we take are worth the trouble.
The SICKBOAT label is evocative and valued in the marketplace. But we don’t use it as a crutch for mediocre design. A product independent of the label should stand on its own merits and not rely on the label to carry it. The product must be intrinsically valuable in its own right. A SICKBOAT product should be identifiable even from a distance by the quality of workmanship and attention to detail. The Zen master would say a true SICKBOAT product doesn’t need any label.
IS IT AUTHENTIC
The fashion industry and the world is so caught up with this idea of authentic that it has become another of those meaningless words. However, our customers expect us to make the real thing.
IS IT BEAUTIFUL
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” - Richard Buckminster Fuller
SICKBOAT clothes should be beautiful, and they can be art. Fashion is happening only now, and art is timeless. In fact, fashion is always passé because it is a response to an event in the past. It may recycle someday, but it will certainly be dead tomorrow.
It’s the difference between illustration and art in painting. An illustrator becomes an artist when he or she can convey the same emotion with fewer brushstrokes.
Are we designing for our core customer.
DOES IT CAUSE ANY UNNECESSARY HARM
The way to cause the least amount of harm in the making of clothing is to be aware of what you are doing in every step of the process from the farmer’s field or mill to the customer.
DEVELOP LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS WITH SUPPLIERS AND CONTRACTORS
Of course, you have to choose such relationships carefully. The first thing we look for in a supplier or contractor is the quality of its work.
I think of SICKBOAT as an ecosystem, with its vendors and customers as an integral part of that system. A problem anywhere in the system eventually affects the whole, and this gives everyone an overriding responsibility to the health of the whole organism. It also means that anyone, low on the totem pole or high, inside the company or out, can contribute significantly to the health of the company and to the integrity and value of our products.
WEIGH QUALITY FIRST, AGAINST ON-TIME DELIVERY AND LOW COST
Every production department of every company has a mandate to deliver a quality product on time and at a reasonable cost. Although management's job is to treat these three goals as complementary rather than contradictory, what does a company do when it must choose? SICKBOAT puts quality first, period.
Of course, if you do choose quality against on-time delivery or against paying a reasonable price, don’t pat yourself on the back. You’ve already blown it. You have to strive constantly to achieve all three, but quality is “more equal”.
GO FOR IT, BUT DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Although we encourage everyone at SICKBOAT to be “gonzo,” to stick his or her neck out, we don’t want to become martyrs. You can think of martyrs as being victims, or you can think of them as just being people too far ahead of their time. The problem with risk taking, of course, is that it’s risky. You can minimize risk by doing your research and, most of all, by testing. Testing is an integral part of the SICKBOAT industrial design process, and it needs to be included in every part of this process. It involves testing competitors’ products; “quick and dirty” testing of new ideas to see if they are worth pursuing; fabric testing; “living” with a new product to judge how hot the sales may be; testing production samples for function and durability, and so on; and test marketing a product to see if people will buy it.
Again, like the Zen approach to archery or anything else, you identify the goal and then forget about it and concentrate on the process.
In a recession, when our wholesales are down, our direct sales channels do well because there is no lessened demand for our goods from our loyal customers. In the past, recessions have hurt our competitors and driven customers to us because people became less frivolous in their purchases. They didn’t mind paying more for goods that won’t go out of style and are of such quality that they will last a long time.
Each means of distribution requires its own expertise and often has demands that conflict with the other channels.
Few businesses have the confidence to try to master all four business styles, but when you do master them, the four means of distribution work very powerfully in concert. We consider each to be essential to SICKBOAT’s relationship with the customer.
- The mail order business requires inventory depth for immediate fulfillment, an intimate knowledge of catalog merchandising, and close analysis of mailing list performance.
- Selling via e-commerce requires constant changing of the website.
- Retail requires well-organized merchandise displays and excellent management and training of floor staff.
- Traditional wholesale business operates mostly as a simple distribution business; you bring the merchandise into your warehouse and ship it out.
Our first principle of mail order argues that “selling” ourselves and our philosophy is equally important to selling product. Telling the SICKBOAT story and educating the customer on social and environmental issues, and on the business itself are as much the catalog’s mission as is selling the products.This has several practical implications, including how we measure the success of a catalog, how we format the information, and how we allocate space. Above its value as a sales tool, the catalog is first of all an image piece, presenting the company’s values and obligations.
Mail order as a means of selling enhances retail, in-line, and wholesale with all four acting synergistically to serve the customer. The catalog reaches people in their homes with an educational message just as the sales staff in SICKBOAT's own retail stores, or at dealers’ stores, reaches customers firsthand.
“On Time” means when the customer wants it.
Good customer service of course would have provided the woman her catalog when she asked for it. Even though mail order is the most scientific or “formulaic” of the SICKBOAT distribution channels, our first rule of mail order is to break the rules of mail order that does not apply to us. As a start-up or ongoing business, mail order is the most predictable. Some of the classic mail-order rules make as much sense for SICKBOAT as for any other mail-order business; others do not. Some rules that other mail-order businesses follow and SICKBOAT does not are:
Over the years we have come upon a balance between product content and message - essays, stories, and image photos. Whenever we have edged that content toward increased product presentation, we have actually experienced a decrease in sales.
- Conduct a square-inch sales analysis of the catalog page. This is irrelevant and even damaging to our image.
- Consult focus groups for direction. We ask ourselves.
- Give more expensive items more space. Shorts sometimes gets as much space as our guide jacket.
- Write copy that appeals to vanity, greed, or guilt. Our copy pretty much sticks to facts and philosophy.
Yet it is the one place our customers are going to more and more to look for information about the company's brand, product, history, service, image, and culture. Our e-commerce business runs by the same values and philosophy as mail order. The difference is that it can react more quickly to the needs of the company and the customers. For instance, at the end of a season we can post our closeout-sale items and be selling them on the same day. Or we can rally our customers to an environmental crisis.
The website can be a very big tool to talk to many, or something that can be personalized when appropriate.
The industry needed a change, and we didn’t see anyone trying to establish order out of the chaos. We need a direct link with our customer, a place to try merchandising ideas and new products. Insisting that any building we occupy must honor its surrounding history and culture and must be prepared to last another hundred years. In modern countries like Japan that no longer have old buildings left to restore, or where we are only able to obtain short leases, we have little choice but to compromise on our esthetic values.
In owning our own retail stores, we’ve learned that it is far more profitable to turn that inventory more quickly than to have high margins or raise prices. This was especially true when we had to pay high interest rates on our loans. You may make money in the restaurant by turning over your tables more often. In the airline business, you keep your planes full and in the air. In specialty retail, you want sharp buyers who know the market and its customers. They place small orders from suppliers but more often. You don’t waste expensive retail space to carry extra inventory. You display the products as if it were a showroom but keep the back stock in the basement or a nearby stockroom.
The main benefit of selling wholesale to dealers is that it requires as much smaller investment to reach customers than mail order or our own retail stores. Wholesale reaches potential customers where they live, travel, and shop for their hard goods, and it places the labor and expense of selling to the customer on the dealer’s shoulders. The dealer has control over the relationship with the customer, and the dealer then becomes the voice of SICKBOAT. So how do we ensure that the real SICKBOAT “story” isn’t lost in translation?
The way to get our message across is to develop a partnership with our dealers. The partnership we seek with dealers is similar to that which our product development and production staffs seek with vendors and contractors. The only difference is that in this case SICKBOAT wholesale is the supplier. Why should we want to put in the effort to develop these partnerships with dealers when that requires much more time, energy, and fortitude than does the traditional semiannual “buffalo hunt” for new dealers, where it seems far easier to open our two hundred new dealers every year and just get rid of the ones that don’t work out?
There are key benefits to having a working partnership with a few good dealers:
Our dealers also have advantages in this kind of relationship. They are:
- We don’t have to expend the effort, time, and money to seek out new dealers.
- We limit our credit risks.
- We minimize the legal problems associated with cutting off a dealer whose bad service is a reflection on us.
- We develop loyal buyers who make a commitment to the line and either carry a broad representation of the line or, in the case of a small specialty shop, in-depth inventory.
- We maintain better control over our product and image.
- We receive better information about the market and our products.
And we had a simple, shared strategy with our dealers: Sell as much as possible.
- A product line that sells year after year.
- Protection from market saturation.
- A stable pricing structure.
- Expertise from us in buying, merchandising, and displaying our products.
- Being part of SICKBOAT’s synergistic marketing and distribution program.
Our branding efforts are simple; tell people who we are. We don’t have to create a fictional character, writing fiction is so much more difficult than nonfiction. Fiction requires creativity and imagination. Nonfiction deals with simple truths. This is not to say that invented brand images through traditional advertising and marketing are not successful. Otherwise, why would an intelligent person be persuaded to take up a tobacco habit that is guaranteed to kill you? Why would a real man smoke Marlboros but never a Virginia Slim? Powerful messaging, yes, but phony.
SICKBOAT’s image arises directly from the values, outdoor pursuits, and passions of its founders and employees. While it has practical and nameable aspects, it can’t be made into a formula. In fact, because so much of the image relies on authenticity, a formula would destroy it. Ironically, part of SICKBOAT’s authenticity lies in not being concerned about having an image in the first place. Without a formula, the only way to sustain an image is to live up to it. Our image is a direct reflection of who we are and what we believe.
SICKBOAT’s image is a human voice. It expresses the joy of people who love the world, who are passionate about their beliefs, and who want to influence the future. It is not processed; it won’t compromise its humanity. This means that it will offend, and it will inspire.
It’s important to control our image - not only through the actions we take, the products we sell, and living up to our past but by how we are perceived through the normal business channels of marketing and selling our products. I’ve divided this aspect into four areas.
- Telling the entire story
TELLING THE ENTIRE STORY
Many companies communicate with their customers primarily through advertising. This grabs your attention but can’t hold it. A quick glance, and you’re back to the article you were reading or the show you were watching or onto someone else’s ad or the MUTE button. It is said that a TV viewer has to be hit on the head with the same ad seven or eight times before it begins to register.
Just as SICKBOAT makes products for a deeper, less distracted experience of the world and its wild places, our image has to convey refuge from, and offer an alternative to, a virtual world of fast-moving, mind-skimming (and numbing) pictures and sound. In order to tell our whole story, we need the customer's’ undivided attention. Our customers are readers, and the catalog was the primary means of communicating our stories. A catalog has the advantage of self-containment and mobility, of providing surprises as the customer turns the page.
The first goal of the catalog is to share and encourage a particular philosophy of life, of what undergirds the image. The basic tenets of that philosophy are a deep appreciation for the environment and a strong motivation to help solve the environmental crisis; a passionate love for the natural world; a healthy skepticism toward authority; a love for difficult, human-powered sports that require practise and mastery; a bias for whacko, often self-deprecating humor; a respect and taste for real adventure (defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive - and certainly not as the same person), and a belief that less is more (in design and in consumption).
The catalog is our bible for each selling season. Every other medium we use to tell our story - from the website, to hangtags, to retail displays, to press releases to videos - builds from the catalog’s base and from its pictorial and editorial standards.
What we started many years ago - to use photos of real people doing real things and putting captions below - is now copied by every catalog and magazine in the outdoor industry.
Since we’ve always been different, it’s been even more important that we tell our own story clearly and accurately. We have always used text to argue ideas as well as sell products. We have two basic kinds of copy; personal stories that illustrate one of our values or promote a cause, and descriptive copy that sells products.
As for style, we write as though we were the customers. In fact, since we are still some of our own best customers, this is not too difficult. We don’t speak to what is perceived as the lowest common denominator. We speak to each customer as we want to be treated, as an engaged, intelligent, trusted individual.
Branding is telling people who we are. Promotion is selling people on our product. Our promotional efforts begin with the product.
It’s easy to promote a game-changing product because there is no competition and there are great stories to tell. If we come out with a product that is difficult to promote, it’s probably because it’s no different than anyone else’s and we probably shouldn’t be making it.
We have three general guidelines for all promotional efforts by SICKBOAT, both within and beyond the pages of the catalog:
We also provide gear, and sometimes salaries and benefits, to top climbers, surfers, and endurance athlete to wear our gear, in order to give us feedback and help with design issues. They advise our retail staff on how to sell our technical sport-specific products, attend sales meetings, and generally serve as ambassadors for the company. This reflects well on SICKBOAT at trade shows or consumer events and helps create trickle-down word of mouth. We do draw lines with this policy. They aren’t paid, for instance, according to the number of cover shots they get wearing clothes with our logo.
The more independent the outside who praises your company or products, the greater the credibility.
Editorial coverage is also important. Public relations companies tell you that a favorable, independent press notice is worth much more than a paid advertisement. We believe the best way to get press, is to have something to say.
- Our charter is to inspire and educate rather than to promote.
- We would rather earn credibility than buy it. The best resources for us are the word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or favorable comments in the press.
- We advertise only as a last resort and usually in design and sport-specific magazines.
“Who are businesses really responsible to? Their customers? Shareholders? Employees? We would argue that it’s none of the above. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers, and no business.” - A series of Patagonia ads in 2004
We are a product- driven company. That means the product comes first and the company exists to create and support our products. This is different from a distribution company whose primary concern may be service rather than product.
At SICKBOAT, making a profit is not the goal, because the Zen master would say profits happen “when you do everything else right.” In our company, finance consists of much more than the management of money. It is primarily the art of leadership through the balancing of traditional financing approaches in a business that is anything but traditional.
Our philosophy does not hold that finance is the root of all business. Rather, it complements all other segments of the company. We recognize that our profits are directly tied to the quality of our work and our product. A company that doesn’t take quality seriously will attempt to maximize profits by cost cutting, increasing sales by creating an artificial demand for the goods, and hammering the rank and file to work harder.
We believe that quality is no longer a luxury. It is sought out by the consumer, and it is expected.
Whenever we are faced with a serious business decision, the answer almost always is to increase quality. When we make a decision because it’s the right thing to do for the planet, it ends up also being good for the business.
By growing only at a “natural rate.” When our customers tell us they are frustrated by not being able to buy our products because of constant out-of-stock situations, then we need to make more, and that leads to “natural growth”.
We never wanted to be a big company. We want to be the best company, and it’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company. We have to practise self-control. Growth in one part of the company may have to be sacrificed to allow growth in another. It’s also important that we have a clear idea of what the limits are to this “experiment” and live within those limits, knowing that the sooner we expand outside them, the sooner the type of company we want will die.
Slow growth or no growth means the profits have to come from our being more efficient every year. Unlike the government, we cannot rely on an expanding economy to “burn the fat away.” It’s easier for a company to make a profit when it’s growing at 10 - 15% a year. We have been profitable in years when we grew only a few percent by increasing the quality of our product, maximizing the efficiency of our operations, and living within our means.
Because our pessimism about the future of a world economy based on limited resources and on endlessly consuming and discarding goods we often don’t need, not only don’t we want to be financially leveraged, but our goal is to have no debt, which we have achieved.
HUMAN RESOURCES PHILOSOPHY
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” - L.P. Jacks
If you care about having a company where employees treat work as play and regard themselves as ultimate customers for the products they produce, then you have to be careful who you hire, treat them right, and train them to treat other people right. Otherwise, you may come to work one day and find it isn’t a place you want to be anymore.
We prefer to seek out people through an informal network of friends, colleagues, and business associates. We don’t want someone who can just do a job; we want the best person for the job. Yet we don’t look for “stars” seeking special treatment and perks. Our best efforts are collaborative, and the SICKBOAT culture rewards the ensemble player while it barely tolerates those who need the limelight.
Increasingly we do hire people for their technical expertise. We have employees who never sleep outside or who have never peed in the woods. What they all do share, as our organizational development consultant noted, is a passion for something outside themselves, whether for surfing or opera, climbing or gardening, skiing or community activism.
We’ve filled the choir with outdoor store clerks (lots of those), environmental activists, independent designers, white-water rodeo artists, journalists, car wash jockeys, fishing junkies, scriptwriters, painters, high school teachers, a municipal judge and several recovering lawyers, gospel singers, cabinetmakers, ski instructors, climbing guides, bagpipe players, airline pilots, forest rangers, computer nerds, a sprinkling of seasoned garmentos, and a few MBAs.
As the list shows, we value diversity of all kinds. In the USA women hold nearly 50% of upper management positions. We don’t do as well in Europe and Japan for a variety of reasons; primarily the culture resists it and we haven't made it a priority to train and mentor our best women employees to be managers. We hope to do a better job at this.
Hiring people with diverse backgrounds brings in a flexibility of thought and openness to new ways of doing things, as opposed to hiring clones from business schools who have been taught a codified way of doing business. A business that thrives on being different requires different types of people.
We hire slowly. We can afford to since we receive an overwhelming number of talented applicants for each job opening. We make prospective candidates interview with their potential colleagues as well with their bosses. It is not uncommon for a management candidate to be interviewed by several groups of four to six people at a time or to return two or three times over several weeks.
As much as possible, we hire from within, to keep the company culture strong. And then we train, and take the time to train, as though our future depended on it.
These practices often demand extra effort in the short term: leaving a position unfilled while you scour for the right person, taking the extra time to train a river rat to do her new PR job, working with someone who may not share your language. In the long run the extra effort pays off - if you want to have an interesting, colorful, unpredictable place to spend your working hours.
This all sounds great, but the reality is that like most companies, we have to go outside the company to fill many top-level positions, including CEO. For some reason, we are still not doing a good enough job of training and mentoring our own people to grow into the ever-more technical and sophisticated needs of a growing company. Maybe it’s because we are still learning how to run a business ourselves.
“It’s not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” - Charles Darwin
We don’t want drones who will simply follow directions. We want the kind of employees who will question the wisdom of something they regard as a bad decision. We do want people who, once they buy into a decision and believe in what they are doing, will work like demons to produce something of the highest possible quality - whether a shirt, a catalog, a store display, or a computer program. How you get these highly individualistic people to align and work for a common cause is the art of management at SICKBOAT.
In a company as complex as ours, no one person has the answer to our problems, but each as a part of the solution.
The best managers are never at their desks yet can be easily found and approached by everyone reporting to them. SICKBOAT’s offices support these ideas. No one has a private office in our company, and everyone works in open rooms with no doors or separation. What we lose in “quiet thinking space” is more than made up for with better communication and an egalitarian atmosphere. Animals and humans that live in groups or flocks constantly learn from one another. Our cafeteria, besides serving healthy organic food, is convenient for everyone and is open all day as an informal meeting place.
Systems in nature appear to us to be chaotic but in reality are very structured, just not in a top-down centralized way. Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University who studies ant colonies, says that there is no specific ant in charge in a colony, no central control. Yet each ant knows what its job is, and ants communicate with one another by way of very simple interactions; altogether they produce a very effective social network.
SEAL team soldiers have a leader but are really self-managed as they have all bought into the mission, know what their individual job is, and know the others’ jobs as well. If the leader is disable, any of the others can take over.
When you look to hire management, it’s important to know the difference between a manager and true leader.
Leaders take risks, have long-term vision, create the strategic plans and instigate change. The best leadership is by example.
A familial company like ours runs on trust an idea meritocracy rather than on authoritarian rule.
Subscribing to the concept of natural growth of the company helps keep us small enough to be manageable.
Finding that balance between the management problems that come with growth and maintaining our philosophy of hiring independent-minded people and trusting them with responsibility is key to SICKBOAT’s success. Every company also has its ideal size.
Alexander Paul Hare, author of the classic, Creativity in Small Groups, showed that groups sized between four and seven were most successful at problem solving, largely because small groups, as Hare observed, are more democratic, egalitarian, mutualistic, cooperative, inclusive. Hundreds of studies in factories and workplaces confirm that workers divided into small groups enjoy lower absenteeism, less sickness, higher productivity, greater social interaction, higher morale - most likely because the conditions allow them to engage what is best in being human, to share the meaning and fruits of their labor.
The key to confronting and truly solving any reach the actual cause, a form of the Socratic method or what Toyota management calls asking the “Five Whys.”
If for whatever reason we have another downturn in our business like we had in 1990-91, our policy is to first cut the fat, freeze hiring, reduce unnecessary travel, and generally trim expenses. If the crisis were more serious we would eliminate bonuses and reduce salaries of all top-level managers and owners. Then shorten the workweek and reduce pay, and finally, as a last resort, lay people off.
The owners and managers of a business that they want to be around for the next hundred years had better love change. The most important mandate for a manger is a dynamic company is to instigate change.
Just as doing risk sports will create stresses that lead to a bettering of one’s self, so should a company constantly stress itself in order to grow?
When there is no crisis, the wise leader or CEO will invent one. Not by crying wolf but by challenging the employees with change.
You might think that a nomadic society packs up and moves when things get bad. However, a wise leader knows that you also move when everything is going too well; everyone is laid-back, lazy, and happy. If you don’t move now, then you may not be able to move when the real crisis happens. Teddy roosevelt said, “In pleasant peace and security, how quickly the soul in a man begins to die.”
New employees coming into a company with a strong culture and values may think that they shouldn’t rock the boat and shouldn’t challenge the status quo. On the contrary, while values should never change, every organization, business, government, or religion must be adaptive and resilient and constantly embrace new ideas and methods of operation.
“Anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.” - Kenneth Boulding
We are a total pessimist about the fate of the natural world. In my lifetime, We’ve seen nothing but a constant deterioration of all the processes that are essential to maintaining healthy life on Planet Earth. Most of the scientists and deep thinkers in the environmental field that we know personally are also pessimistic, and they believe that we are experiencing an extremely accelerated extinction of species, including, possibly much of the human race.
We’re pessimistic because I see no will in society to do enough about the impending doom. Yet there’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “It’s all over, don’t bother trying to do anything, forget about voting, it won’t make a difference,” and an optimist who says, “Relax, everything is going to turn out fine.” Either way the results are the same. Nothing gets done.
We would summarize the elements of this philosophy as follows:
- Lead an examined life.
- Clean up our own act.
- Do our penance.
- Support civil democracy.
- Do good.
- Influence other companies.