Hippie success story
November 11, 2010
BY JEFFREY O. VALISNO
The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains
By Skip Yowell
There are those who believe that the easiest way to ruin a
relationship with friends and relatives is to go into business together.
But for Skip Yowell, co-founder of international bag brand JanSport,
doing business with family and close pals is ideal.
"Who else can you trust aside from your family and friends?" Mr.
Yowell told Manila-based reporters last week.
Mr. Yowell was in the country last week to promote his business book
and memoir The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other
Mountains in which he recounts his dramatic adventures and accomplishments.
From small-town Kansas boy to adventure-junkie extraordinaire, the
book traces Mr. Yowell's journey to the top of the outdoor industry.
The book follows JanSport's evolution from a three-person operation
housed in Seattle to one of the world's most popular backpack brands.
"We started with a vision and having a vision in the '60s wasn't all
that [unusual]. Everybody was having visions and mystical
experiences," Mr. Yowell said. "So, when Murray Pletz said that he
had a vision of building better frame packs and selling them to
climbers, I wasn't shocked."
Mr. Pletz won an award for best design for a small frame pack in
1967. With the help of his cousin Mr. Yowell, Mr. Pletz founded
JanSport in Seattle. Mr. Pletz named the company after his
girlfriend, Jan Lewis, when she agreed to marry him.
At its inception, the business' three founders -- Messrs. Yowell and
Pletz and Ms. Lewis -- were called, as Mr. Yowell said, "a bunch of
long-haired hippies that spent too much time above the tree line."
Still, Mr. Yowell believes that JanSport's success demonstrates how
conquering corporate America isn't a matter of wearing the right
business suit. "Sure, we had the suits, but we were not businessmen
in the traditional sense. To pretend otherwise was to be unfaithful
to who we really were -- slightly irreverent hippies on a mission to
make the best packs in the world."
Mr. Yowell explains that for JanSport, the bottom line is that it
pays to pay attention to cultural trends, not simply to be "trendy,"
but to meet the ever-changing needs of customers. "JanSport
represents a lifestyle of fun and freedom and we continuously
innovate to make sure our customers are able to enjoy that
lifestyle," he said. "It's that willingness to innovate, to take a
risk that makes people successful."
BusinessWorld had a chance to ask Mr. Yowell a few questions.
BusinessWorld (BW): Did you expect JanSport would become this huge,
world-renowned brand when you started out in 1967?
Skip Yowell (SY): If you told me in 1967 that JanSport would one day
celebrate more than 40 years of innovation, adventure and general
outdoor grooviness, I might have said you were either pulling my leg,
or high on something.
But we defied the odds, and the host of naysayers who thought we
couldn't succeed in business without wingtips and pressed pants. What
started out as my cousin's dream evolved into an international
company selling several million packs a year.
BW: What do you think is the secret to JanSport's success?
SY: It has always been difficult for me to answer that, primarily
because Murray, Jan and I never sat down to formalize a company
position about what sustained our success. We never had time.
Besides, if there had been a few extra unclaimed minutes in the day,
we'd rather cruise across the street to see who was playing at
Parker's Ballroom [in Seattle].
But now that I am asked about that often, I'd say that there have
been four principles that we have distinctly embraced. These are: We
will succeed because we will work the hardest; we value and
appreciate each person; we believe there's more to life than a day's
work; and we'll make fun a part of everything we do.
The essence of JanSport is about the spirit of freedom. It is the
feeling that comes when we get outdoors to smell the fresh air and
let the mountains speak to us. JanSport has always been about tapping
into the absolute fun that's in each of us -- no matter what our age.
That's what employees love about JanSport. If you were to talk to
anybody that has ever been involved with the company, they will tell
you we work hard, but we still maintain that big "happy family" feel
where each person is valued.
BW: JanSport has always been supportive of expeditions to Mount
Everest, cross-country hikes in the US and adventure trips in Bhutan, why so?
SY: I have been a fan of great adventures. Supporting other adventure
junkies is part of JanSport's game plan. On our climbs we get to meet
people who use our products. Their feedback helps us add more fun and
fashion to the function of our gear.
Looking back, most of our product lines came from two sources:
listening to others and real-life, hands-on experience in the
wilderness. Out on the trail, we meet other climbers, hikers and
wilderness enthusiasts who say "Gee Skip, wouldn't it be great to
have an extra pocket on this?" After the trip, we would return to the
shop and use those new ideas to make our gear even more functional.
Not only do we test our products ideas thoroughly, we invited as many
of our climbing friends to do the testing for us as well. As a
result, when a JanSport product came to the market for consumers, we
knew it was going to work for them.
Clearly, one of the keys to our ongoing success is that we are
unafraid of identifying, pursuing and testing new ideas. Not all
ideas will work, of course. Some ideas are innovative but lack mass
appeal and are not profitable. Other ideas appear great on the
surface, but flop after testing.
BW: Which of your ideas became successful? Which of them flopped?
SY: When we started JanSport, I was in charge of marketing. Back in
those days, we had next to zero dollars for advertising. So we got
creative. Our solution was twofold: clever catalogs and free publicity.
Our catalogs were radically different to attract attention. Those
initial catalogs were a real homespun project. Rather than pay for
professional models to pose with our products, we did the modeling.
We would track down props and costumes, take the pictures, layout the
pages and write the copy. That was long before the advent of computer
software programs like Photoshop.
When it came to free publicity, I managed to get our products
reviewed in several regional publications. In keeping with the
pursuit of free publicity, I was constantly on the lookout for ways
to enhance the word-of-mouth awareness of JanSport products. It
occurred to me that the quickest way to ramp up peer-to-peer
promotion of our goods was to make the best product money can buy and
then surpass the customer's expectation with a surprise, like hiding
a tote bag inside a piece of JanSport luggage.
Customers who buy the suitcase only later learn -- perhaps packing
for a trip -- that there is a neat tote bag folded into a secret
compartment to use for the return trip if needed. People love to be
surprised like that, and frequently tell a friend about their cool
experience with a JanSport product.
But there are also those ideas that nearly backfired on us. I learned
from a friend that Tang -- the orange powder drink mix -- was
interested to promote the product to the outdoor community. That's
when we had a vision. What if we put a package of Tang onto each
backpack? It appeared to be a great idea, and evidently, the folks at
Tang concurred. Several months later, I received a panicked phone
call from the manager of our warehouse. An 18-wheel truck pulled up
to the loading dock stuffed to the ceiling with Tang. I knew space in
our warehouse was tight at best, but now we are awash in cases of
Tang. I had no idea that we'd be receiving so many free samples.
What's worse is the fact that there was no way we could use all of
them before the expiration date on the individual foil packets.
BW: After being in the company for more than four decades, is there
anything that you regret?
SY: JanSport pioneered the dome tent. At a time when A-frame tents
were the norm, we learned that such tents could not withstand the
tough conditions on the mountains. We used hollow aluminum poles with
the "shock cord" technology to create the first dome tent. It did
attract a lot of attention since it looks like a freestanding alien
space ship. Soon, the dome tent was created and became a sensation
across the country -- opening the floodgates for other JanSport
products to enter retail channels.
However, we forgot to patent the design. That, I think, is the
biggest mistake of my life. Here we had with the hottest invention in
the industry, and we failed to patent the product. Had we gone that
extra step to secure a patent, I'd probably in the Caribbean on a
yacht today. There is no question that it was a multimillion-dollar idea.
BW: You have been with JanSport since the start. You are currently
the company's vice-president for global public relations. How come
you never became the company's president?
SY: It comes as a shock to many that here I am writing about climbing
the corporate ladder and yet I stopped one rung short of the top
slot. More baffling to some is the fact that Murray and Jan have left
JanSport to charter new pathways of their own. That makes me the last
of the three co-founders still having fun and kicking up trouble
around the office.
But planting a flag on the pinnacle of JanSport's corporate hill has
never been my aspiration. I happen to enjoy the view from my perch as
vice-president. This might be the most important lesson of all that I
could share: Quit climbing once you've found your "sweet spot."
Anything beyond that point is like lugging excess baggage. There is
nothing inherently wrong with striving to be the top dog, but if in
your pursuit, you discover that your true passion lies midway up the
corporate ladder, stop climbing and enjoy what you've found!