Entrepreneurs

The founder of Patagonia fishes half the year and tells his employees to go surfing

Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia.
Courtesy of Jeff Johnson and Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia.

Yvon Chouinard, the owner and founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, has surfed his entire life. He doesn't want his business to get in between him and some really good waves. And the same goes for his employees.

"We have a policy that when the surf comes up, you drop work and you go surfing," says Chouinard, in an recent interview on the NPR podcast, "How I Built This." He adds, "I don't care when you work as long as the job gets done."

As Patagonia started to grow, almost by accident, Chouinard, now 78 years old, taught himself the fundamentals of business but refused to give up his passion for the outdoors.

"I still only wanted to work part of the year myself. I would take off June until November," says Chouinard. "I got a place in Jackson Hole and I go fishing every day. I call in maybe three times in the five months that I am gone."

"People know, if the warehouse burns down, don't call me. What can I do? You know what to do."

Patagonia employees are hired for their independence. "Ant colonies don't have bosses. Everybody knows what their job is and they get their job done," says Chouinard.

Indeed, psychologists who have studied the Patagonia culture tell Chouinard that his employees "are so independent they are unemployable anywhere else," he says.

In addition to giving employees freedom to set their work schedule around the surf, a philosophy he has written about in his book, "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman," Patagonia offers progressive policies for working parents, too, including a high-quality company day care.

Chouinard says the quality of the childcare matters, since children learn more between when they are born and they are five than any other time in their life. And though it's expensive, Chouinard sees the day care as a good investment.

"It's good business. I have probably 70 percent women working for me. I have women in all upper management and I don't want to lose them," he says.

None of Patagonia's perks would be possible if the store weren't profitable, but it is. The California-based company claims to have had its best year ever in 2016.


The company's success is a testament to the strength of Chouinard's intuition. He's not a trained businessman. Instead, he feels his way along.

"If I get an idea, I immediately take a step forward and see how that feels. If it feels good, I take another. If it feels bad, I take a step back," he says.

And he's not afraid to do go against the grain.

"One of my favorite quotes is, 'If you want to understand entrepreneurs, study the juvenile delinquent.' Because they are saying, 'You know this sucks, I am going to do it my own way.' That's what the entrepreneur does. They just say, this is wrong, I am going to do it this other way,'" Chouinard says. "That's a fun part of business, actually. I love breaking the rules."