Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Chip Wilson (@chipYVR), serial entrepreneur and philanthropist. His career in the apparel industry began in 1979 as founder and CEO of Westbeach Snowboarding Ltd. In 1998, after selling Westbeach in 1997, he founded lululemon athletica inc., creating an entirely new category of technical apparel called “athleisure” — now a $400 billion global industry.
Through his holding company and family office, Chip focuses his interests on apparel, real estate, private equity, passive investments, and philanthropy. Chip and his wife Shannon’s passion for design led to the creation of the internationally recognized KPU Wilson School of Design in 2018.
In 2019, the Wilsons partnered with Anta Sports to buy Amer Sports, which includes brands such as Arc’teryx, Salomon, and Wilson Sporting Goods. Chip currently sits on Amer’s board of directors.
The 2021 edition of his business memoir, The Story of lululemon, is available for free at chipwilson.com/book. Last but not least, Chip is steadfast in his pursuit to cure facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). He is on the board of Facio Therapies and has begun his latest big 2021 project, Cure FSHD.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Chip, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining me.
Chip Wilson: Thanks, Tim. I hope my smile is coming through.
Tim Ferriss: It is. It is. And I’m excited to have this conversation for so many reasons. Number one, you mentioned before we started recording, you had a theory about being 43, which is my exact age. So we may start there, but also, because as you said, in your words, you said, “I’m an open book,” and I wanted to share a little backstory. When we are looking at different podcast guests, possible guests, we have a whole process for looking at different types of interviews, audio, video, doing a whole vetting process, asking all these questions. And I got two responses back from two different people on my team. And one was, “Oh, my God, I don’t know. He says exactly what’s on his mind. Look at all of these things. Might be a red flag.” And then the other person basically came back saying, “He says all of these things; absolute green light.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s perfect.”
As I also mentioned before we started, I can prepare until the cows come home, but I need somebody who’s willing to play ball. So I’ve been looking forward to this. Certainly know at least one of the brands that you’re very well acquainted with, lululemon. I wanted to start with a couple of questions. One will seem odd, but I recognize in your social media handles, ChipYVR, ChipYVR on Twitter, Facebook and so on. For people who don’t know YVR, I happen to, but what is YVR?
Chip Wilson: That’s the airport code for Vancouver, YVR.
Tim Ferriss: How long has Vancouver been your home stomping grounds?
Chip Wilson: I moved from California when I was five to Calgary and then moved out of there when I was 16 to go to university in Edmonton and then left there to work in Alaska for two years on the oil pipeline. Came back to Calgary, got a job, moved to Toronto for a year. And then I moved to Vancouver when the World Expo was here in 1986.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for adding a few signposts for me that we’re going to touch on, because I’m not going to leave Alaska alone, but before we get to Alaska, I certainly want to explore that chapter. Could you speak to a bit of your upbringing? I’d love to hear perhaps of your primary influences. I know you’ve mentioned your father before, at least in some interviews, which I’d be curious to hear about, but what did your upbringing look like?
Chip Wilson: I’d say it was near perfect. Yes, my parents got divorced, but they both remarried people that were perfect for them. I was raised in the suburbs of Calgary. My dad was a phys ed teacher and my mum was a home sewer. She loved the house and anything to do with decorating with that, but the sewing machine was her love.
I think I was eight years old and my dad was running the Kiwanis Kamp for underprivileged kids outside of, an area outside of Calgary. And this woman saw me swim and said, “You should get this kid into competitive swimming.” The Speedo cost $7 and there was no such thing as goggles at the time, so it fit into our budget perfectly, and I started swimming. And I think I had the perfect, I don’t even have near the perfect body as some of the people you’ve interviewed before on this program for swimming.
Tim Ferriss: Me neither.
Chip Wilson: But good enough. I believe it added incredible structure to my life around getting up in the morning early, swim practice, I’d train with my dad. I went to a school when I was in grade seven or something like that, and then train again at night, weights, the whole works, and I had Olympic coaches. I think, more than anything, I learned about hard work equals results. And I think I learned that goal-setting really works.
When I think about other influences of my life, I think just that middle-class, not having anything, being creative, learning how to go door to door and selling to raise money for the swim trips I had to go on. Just good prairie people. I can’t say enough of that, especially as I built a global business, just hiring people from the prairies right through the US up to Canada’s beautiful people. Anyway, I think I can leave it there.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s let’s hop to Alaska. How did you end up in Alaska? What chain of events or decisions led you to Alaska?
Chip Wilson: Isn’t it fascinating? I go back a bit and just say that, at dinner parties, I start it off and I say, “You make 10 great decisions in your life.” And then I ask people for their top three. And so there I was in the Edmonton Airport, small little thing, and a woman comes up to me and says, “Oh, you know my son,” and I went, “Oh, yes, I know your son, Mrs. McCarthy.” And we’d start talking. And she says, “Well, my husband is going up. He’s running one of the five sections of the Alaska Oil Pipeline,” which at the time was the largest free enterprise project in the world, and massive. From Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. And she said, “Too bad you’re not American. You could come up and work with us.” And I went, “Well, it just so happens I’m American.” So she says, “Great!”
One thing leads to another, and I know if I get up there, I can get a job. It was just a couple of years after the Vietnam War. I think I was 17 years old or something like that. I went up there and I got to customs and he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Oh, I’m just a tourist and I’m coming in as a Canadian.” And he looked through my bags, it was all construction clothing, et cetera. He says, “Well, you’re coming in here to take an American’s job. I can’t let you in.” And I said, “Oh, God.” I say, “Okay, I’m coming in as an American.” Then he says, “Okay, step across.” I stepped across. He says, “Report to your draft board first thing tomorrow morning.”
It was a great fear because you’d heard so much about the Vietnam War and I still didn’t really understand what were the repercussions and would war start again? Would I be in that? But that was my entry into Alaska.
Tim Ferriss: What were you doing as your job?
Chip Wilson: I was, I would say the highest-paid 18-year-old laborer in the whole world. it was a cost-plus job. I was getting paid 18 hours a day, probably working 10. Travel time, overtime, the whole works. And I think I made more in my first three days because it was a US holiday than I made in my whole summer working in Calgary, working in the parks. I did everything from help build the largest pipeline suspension bridge in the world, to putting holes in the ground in order to put in vertical structural members to build a bridge and then put the pipe across. And then I worked on, we sent this go-kart into the pipe with a couple of welders in it. My job was to put a fan on the end and make sure it didn’t run out of gas. And that would have been like four or five hours with nothing to do. And I think maybe that’s leading to the biggest change in my life and something that I know you love.
My mother had sent me an article from a guy, Art Buchwald, is that the right pronunciation? It was a long time ago, maybe too old for you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, good question. I don’t know who that is.
Chip Wilson: New York Times. Anyway, he was like, “You have to train your brain the same way you train your body.” I was an athlete. I understood how to train my body and the results of that, but it never occurred to me, training my brain that way. I decided to figure out what the top 100 books of all time was and I was going to read them. So there I was, probably 18 years old and I was just probably one of the best-read 18-year-olds in the world.
Tim Ferriss: All right, we’re going to absolutely come back to books, but before I get lost in my own train of thought or the train that careens off the tracks, the theory about 43. Selfishly, I must ask this before we move on. I am going to come back after that to the 10 great decisions and some of your other great decisions, but what is your theory about 43?
Chip Wilson: Well, what I noticed after watching thousands and thousands of people is that people get glasses at 43. Have you ever noticed that?
Tim Ferriss: Physical glasses?
Chip Wilson: Physical glasses. And I also noticed there was incredible correlation of people getting divorced at 43. And I started to look at what was going on and I thought, I think you get glasses, and I think for the first time in your life, it occurs to people that they’re going to die. And I think they start thinking about, what happens on my deathbed? A lot of things that I think matter, don’t matter. And a lot of things I’m doing, if I do this for the rest of my life, I’m going to die a miserable death. And I think people really start looking at the person they’re married to, the children they have, the city they live in, the job they have. Of course this is what occurs in men’s midlife crisis, but I think the same thing happens to women. Men probably go out and buy that red convertible or they did at one point, I think they’ve probably found something else now, but you get the idea. It’s a come-to-Jesus moment about what life really is.
And I think the kids, what happens at 43, I think the children are 13 years old, because I’d say most people get married at 30, and suddenly the children don’t really want to be around the parents anymore and don’t need the parents. And the parents don’t really know what to do with themselves, especially if the couple is living vicariously through their children. Now, you’re 43 and you might be having children right now. My assistant just had, he’s 42, just had a child, things are changing drastically about how long people are waiting to have children, so that age may change.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’m happy to say that I have a zero percent risk of getting divorced this year because I’m not married. So I’m thrilled that I’ve, at least for the time being, dodged the one. But I do think there, I mean, certainly for me this year, has been an eye-opener with respect to visiting or thinking about mortality because I’ve looked at the average life span through my lineage on my maternal and paternal lines, and the men tend to croak around 85. It doesn’t really matter what they do. They tend to croak around 85. And so that would make me just past the halfway mark, which is very different from being before the halfway mark in terms of orientation. So certainly mortality is on the mind this year.
Chip Wilson: What’s your goal to live? How long would you like to live?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t have a number in mind. I have techno-optimist, crypto-anarchist, life-extension friends who are planning on 150, 175. These types of dreams are not new. One could argue that there are technologies, ways to deconstruct the aging process, treat it as a disease, incorporate and infuse technology, brain-computer interfaces, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But if I can survive, ideally thrive with a high degree of cognitive and physical functioning to the point where I can still play sports with my kids when they have left the home, which is, at this age, already asking me to really keep up a good regimen, I feel like I’ll be quite happy with that.
So I don’t have an exact number, but having that vision in my mind — whether we live, not to make this a soliloquy from me on aging, what do I know? But I lost my hair early, which I guess was a blessing in disguise since I shaved my head with wrestling. So I’ve had to face some of these fears already. I spent a good amount of time thinking about organisms such as trees or shifts that take very long periods of time. So whether I live 85, 75, 95, 125, it’s all the blink of a firefly, relative to so many other things. So I don’t have an exact number. Do you?
Chip Wilson: First off, I wonder if by just setting a longer goal, first off I wanted to live till 80 and then I went, Oh, well, that’s, maybe self-defeating. Maybe if I think I’m going to live to 80 and all my goals are fulfilled, maybe I’ll live to 80 and then die, but if I set my goal at 120, will my physiology and my brain and the way I make decisions and move around the world have me live to that age? And I am at 150 also. And I think everything’s pointing to, Peter Diamandis said, the Singularity University and that type of thing, “If we can live 20 years longer, we can almost live forever.” So technology’s changing fast.
Tim Ferriss: It is. It is. I think mostly in terms of performance or health span, I was chatting with a friend of mine named Peter Attia, he’s an MD, he’s been on the podcast a number of times, and he describes something called the Centenarian Olympics. So it’s like, if you live to a hundred, what do you want to be able to do at a hundred? Is it a goblet squat? Picking up grandkids or great grandkids? If so, where do you need to be now to look at the incremental loss of muscle mass? What can you do to hedge that so that when you are at 100, you are able to do the heptathlon or decathlon of centenarians.
I do spend some time thinking about that. So 43, check. I’m also hopefully not getting glasses this year. We’ll see. If I need to, I will. Alaska sounds like, is that one of your top three of your top 10, or it’s one of your top 10 decisions?
Chip Wilson: Sure. It’s definitely in my top 10 to be able to drop everything, go somewhere where I didn’t know anything about, being 17 years old. That’s a big — decision is more like, connected to the word suicide — it’s one or the other — where I’d say it’s more like a choice. I had many choices, I could have just quit university and gone traveling. Go to university, gone and worked in the city, been secured. A lot of what other people did, I think, it looked weird to me. I felt like with what people had told me about the money there, but I didn’t really believe it, that I could trade my life in for money for a short period of time. And then I could leapfrog my life forward, which in fact, it ended up doing, and just changed my context for the world, because it’s very easy to get into a rut even at 17.
Tim Ferriss: What was your, and maybe this isn’t the best way to look at it, but chronologically. So let’s just say we timestamp Alaska as a great decision. What was your next great choice or decision, or one that comes to mind?
Chip Wilson: Well, because I’d done so much goal setting with swimming, I didn’t come to it out of reading. I think I just did it on my own. And I set these goals that by 19, I was going to buy a house, by 30 I was going to be in my own business. So maybe it was a choice to set goals at that time, which really then started affecting the rest of my life. And I think to be sitting in, I was working for an oil company in Calgary at the age of 30, and to actually quit all that security and all that money to start a surf brand in the middle of the prairies, in Alberta, was a little bit crazy. But as I said, one of my quotes is “An entrepreneur is someone who’s just too incompetent to work for anyone else.” And many people had told me I wasn’t that great a corporate worker and I got to believe them. And in fact, I just had to follow a dream.
But choices. Yeah. So those are the three, I think buying the house at 19 and going into my own business at 30 were the next couple.
Tim Ferriss: Starting a surf brand and leaving the security, I want to take a closer look at, because I think many people, at some point in their lives, have an argument or a rationale along the lines of, “I’m just going to make and save money for X number of years, and then I will do Y.” More often than not though, I would say that does not happen. That does not play out according to that, let’s say, haphazard commitment. But in your case, you wanted to have your own business by 30, you made that a goal. Could you walk us through how you made that decision? What, did you have a day in the calendar? You knew a year in advance when you were going to quit? I mean, how did that actually come to manifest?
Chip Wilson: Sure. When I graduated out of university when I was 25, so I was on what I’d call the eight-year bachelor program. But part and parcel of that, I have to go back and just say, my dad remarried a stewardess with Air Canada, and I got five free trips anywhere in the world. And I had in that time, because in today’s dollars, $700,000 from working the Alaska Oil Pipeline at the age of 19, my life was, it was on steroids and I was the luckiest guy in the world.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a huge sum of money. That’s a huge sum of money.
Chip Wilson: It’s unbelievable. And of course, I blew a lot of it; I used a lot of it to educate myself for the future.
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that?
Chip Wilson: Well, I forced mistakes. I forced mistakes. One, I traveled a lot with the money. I would take courses in university that I thought were bizarre. I’d take public speaking and agriculture, the novels of the American mid-’50s type of thing. I had time, so I had time to learn. But I think when I got into the business of making apparel, which was really when I was 25, as at the same time I had this corporate job, my travel to Brazil or Bermuda to find out about long shorts, because long shorts had never been seen before, but in Bermuda, all the men wore long shorts. To going to San Clemente, California, to the Hoffman’s Fabrics there and learning about how much fabric I had to buy in order to get my own pattern, where to import it from, and how to do financing for it. I mean, these are all things that I forced upon myself and it was all very expensive, but I had the money to do it with.
Tim Ferriss: How did you go from pipeline to apparel, or when did that interest slash direction develop?
Chip Wilson: It was probably always there. My dad is a phys ed teacher and my mom is a sewer, and myself as an athlete, especially being in a Speedo. When I started moving out of competitive swimming and I started to do triathlons, when they first started in maybe 1980 or something like that, the clothing was terribly made. So actually, my first venture into apparel was making triathlon clothing. And of course there was a global market of about 200 people for it. I learned that I needed a economy of scale production to make any money, and that was one of my learnings there.
But what happened is I brought that triathlon clothing and at the same time, as I said, I was originally from California and my parents would ship me back every summertime, probably from 1960 on. So I got to see how apparel in California changed year by year. I mean, in snapshots. I think if you’re living in the forest, you can’t see the trees growing. If you’re outside and you come there once a year, you can see it. And definitely there’s this thing called surfing, and surf clothing, which was really coming from Australia into California at the time.
I put that together with having traveled to Brazil, and, like I said, Bermuda to learn about long shorts and then putting the technology together about what I wanted to wear as an athlete, and then what I wanted to wear when I wasn’t being an athlete. So it was the advent in the, what was I’d say 1963 or ’64 of the hoodie on the beach, which I think Silicon Valley has adopted as their —
Tim Ferriss: Defacto uniform.
Chip Wilson: Exactly. What really happened is I came back when I was 25, I came back from California with a pair of these shorts for my girlfriend. They were wrapped shorts, made like diapers, but made out of flowered fabric. She loved them. All her friends loved them, because I had context from my mother about how to make a pattern and how to sew, I just put those two things together and said, “Well, if you like them so much and your friends like them, let’s make a whole bunch.” And then we went through the process of pattern making, getting sewers, creating an industry out of that. And so that’s how it got to be when I was 30 years old, I could afford to quit my corporate job and go into that full-time.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a few goals. You mentioned buying the house, you mentioned starting your own business. Did you have goals going out five, 10, 15, 20 years, beyond that? In other words, by the time you started that business, did you have a longer list of goals ahead of you that you’d already written out?
Chip Wilson: Only one more. And that was to be retired by 40. And when I mean retired, that means getting up in the morning and doing exactly what I wanted to do. And it took me until 42 to get there. So I failed, but it got me there.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the goal-setting with respect to athletics. I know that there are a number of authors and books that we may end up talking about during your period of voracious consumption in Alaska and then beyond, I know a couple of names, Jim Collins, Brian Tracy, and then Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and others. Did any particular books influence you when it came to how you set goals?
Chip Wilson: Definitely inside of The Psychology of Achievement by Brian Tracy has about maybe an hour, hour and a half on goal setting. So I learned the linguistic structure of goal setting. I think they were SMART goals, but fundamentally, I didn’t like them. I did like them; what I didn’t like was I learned that I was setting my goals from my past. So in other words, I had lived a life with experiences and maybe the easiest one for me to say is just weight. I was probably 242 pounds. So just thinking about being 242 pounds, I went, “Well, I want to be 220,” or something. So I would set a goal a year in the future that I will be 220 pounds by December 31st, 2015, something like that.
But what I really got from the Landmark course, which has been really fundamental to me, is that I could see how constraining my life was, creating my future from the past, as opposed to creating my present from the future. And it’s really easy. If I woke up in the hospital with amnesia, having been in a car accident and I got to set goals, well, I wouldn’t be able to set them from my experiences in the past. So basically what I’m saying, I’d be unconstrained. And so I started to think about that weight one, and going, “Well, if I was to wake up in the hospital with amnesia, I’d probably do a little bit of research and then find out that the optimum weight is 208.” So I could start to see how constraining goals were from this past-based part.
I think putting those two ideas together changed goal setting for me. In smart goals, the A is for achievable; I got to find out at a very young age how failure was — because I pushed for failure a lot — that failure was actually a great thing to learn and to accept it as an exciting thing, like a learning experience. So I like to set my goal so I’ll fail 50 percent of the time. I don’t go out of my way to fail, but if I fail, I go, “Now I get to reset my life, reset that goal, and go after it again,” if it’s exciting to me.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give us any examples of goals, maybe goals that you are proudest of achieving, goals that you’re proudest of not achieving. I don’t know if that’s the best way to word it, but there’s part of me, and this is just thinking out loud, I was going to say speaking out loud, which is usually the case is, if the achievable needs to be modified so that even if you’re failing half of the time, you’re not failing completely. In other words, if you set your goals really aggressively and you succeed partially, you’re probably still quite ahead on the scoreboards, when you look at how things settle. Could you walk us through any examples of goals you’ve set that you’ve achieved and not achieved?
Chip Wilson: I’d like to take it back to my dad, as you asked about earlier, because I don’t want to let this story go to waste. And it’s really a good one on goal setting. So I was 10 years old. I was a mediocre swimmer. I’m at the end of the pool about to do the 100-meter backstroke. My dad comes up to me and said, “Instead of going 80 percent and trying to save to the end and trying to look good at the end by sprinting or having anything left at the end, why don’t you just try once to go full-out, like full-out?” And on a 25-meter pool, “If you drown on the third length, I’ll come and get you” type of thing.
And so I can sense in my mind, okay, so there’s a goal. Now the goal is the Canadian record, I’m eight seconds off the Canadian record, there’s no way. But in fact, by going full-out and giving a hundred percent, that’s exactly what happened. I broke the Canadian record. So my context, then for goals and things that I do, if I don’t give a hundred percent, I’m afraid I’m going to fail, which is the very opposite than how most people are, how you phrase it about always saving a little bit.
And I think again, even at that young age came from, I never wanted to be on my deathbed going, “If I didn’t give it all when I was 10 years old in that race, would I be spending 90 years thinking about, ‘Oh, I wish?'” I never want to be in that position. So consequently, I’ve failed a lot because I do exactly that, but the wins that I get far exceed those failures so that it appears as though I’ve ended up living the life that I wanted to live.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any goals that you can share that you haven’t reached that nonetheless, you are glad that you set as goals?
Chip Wilson: When I was at lululemon, my goal would’ve been to train and develop 100,000 people through this transformational development program that I had set up, including the Landmark, Psychology of Achievement, Good to Great, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It was a program that had I set up that way, which I probably got to 20,000 and then I kind of lost control of the company. I felt like I could have really changed the way corporate America changed how to make profit, how to develop people. Just by coincidence, I just happened to end up in a business with women at exactly the right time when they were just so highly educated and nobody else was really training and developing them. So I think I got attached to developing women and board of directors and everything like that, but I think I was more just in the right place at the right time.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. I was going to jump next to this, this transformational curriculum which we will get to, but I want to add a little connective tissue. So, you have Westbeach, that’s 1979 if I’m getting it right. Why didn’t you continue with that indefinitely? I’m wondering if you could just share with me and with listeners, what transpired once that kind of found its groove and what led you to lululemon?
Chip Wilson: This probably isn’t a secret to anybody that’s watched businesses rise and fall, but the surf business started off with about three or four companies. And then very quickly went to 500 companies when everyone discovered I can make clothing and the whole world wants surf clothing. So let’s say that’s between 1978 and 1985. And so it gets to 500 companies and suddenly there’s too much supply for too few buyers. And then there’s the mergers and acquisitions phase, the bankruptcy phase. And then I’d say three or four of the strongest companies ended up buying all the rest of the brands or whatever brands are left. And then that’s how it ends up being — saving the US auto industry, and then it went global, and now it’s happening on a global stage. So I saw that happening in surfing, just so happened that skateboards [were] starting, and I decided to switch the company from surfing to skateboard.
And of course I had the perfect shorts for them because I had these long shorts, so it was the first time long shorts had come out; the kids loved them for their knees because they kept falling on their knees and there was no knee pads at the time. So I guess that context of saying, “Oh, I saw what happened with that surf industry, I bet you the same thing’s going to happen in skateboarding.” And sure enough, skateboarding went straight up, from 1983 to probably 1987, and then started to decline. And at the same time, this thing called snowboarding happened. And so I could see now I had this winning formula of okay, there’s a time to get in and there’s a time to get out of an industry.
So it just so happened I’d moved from Calgary to Vancouver and because of Whistler, it’s got a glacier that’s opened all summer long and all the best snowboarders from the world would congregate in the summertime in Whistler to practice on the glacier. I saw that occur, and then went, “okay, so now I got it in my mind, like every five years, the world — of which I’m, let’s call it I’m an expert in now — changes.” And so the idea is that I’ve got to get in on a sport at its beginning and then understand a sport that is not just going to be technical, but it’s also people want to wear on the street to show that they’re part of that sport. And so I failed in mountain biking and beach volleyball — that didn’t work. So there are some failures for you.
But I had an opportunity to sell Westbeach, the snowboard company, to Morrow Snowboards at Salem, Oregon in ’97, when the Japanese yen was at its very highest because Japan was buying 30 percent of all snowboard gear around the world and the trend was moving over. So it was the right time to sell and I sold and I had nothing to go to. And then it was just — I did something which I’d seen in a lot of my life, as I saw three things happen in one week and I went, “this is a trend I got to get on it,” and it was yoga. So I had a bad back from skateboarding and snowboarding. I had fallen so many times and so I picked it up and I — well, no. First off, I saw one of those rip-away tabs on a telephone post for yoga. And then I read an article in the paper that said something about yoga. And then I was in a coffee shop and I heard two women talk about yoga all in one week. And I went, “Man, this is — I’ve got to look at this.” And so that’s how that ended up happening. Where I did fail was actually moving into meditation for lululemon. I tried to move it there, but that’s another story or maybe we can talk about it later.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I’ll take a note of meditation. lululemon, there’s all sorts of lore around this name. What are some of the other options, if you remember that you considered for the company and how did you end up on lululemon?
Chip Wilson: I wish I could remember more the names now, but the only one I can remember is one of them was Athletically Hip, and it’s because I was a Tragically Hip music fan, but also because in the book Catch-22, there’s a part in there where they write letters home and then the censor would write on the bottom, “tragically yours.” And so it was kind of like a combination of things.
It’s a great story, as I think all good brands have. When I had the skateboarding business, I bought another company called Homeless Skateboards. I started selling it to the Japanese, and to the Europeans and it was all going well, but skateboarding, like I said, it was going down and snowboarding was going up, so I made that tough business decision to go, “I’m stopping on skateboarding. I’m going to put all my efforts into snowboarding.” So, you had to know the Japanese at the time. They really put a lot of money and effort into the brand of Homeless. They really liked the style. And I was cutting this brand off at the throat, so to speak. One of the things I tried to do, I tried to trademark it, but “Hom” is French for male. And there were too many names like that. So, that was impossible.
I’d stopped producing the brand. I didn’t own the name. And later that year, I’m showing the Japanese our snowboard brand. And afterwards they go, “Oh, Mr. Chip san, we want to — where is Homeless?” And I said, “I told you guys, I’m not doing it.” And I gave them the reasons. Meanwhile, the Japanese yen was at its very highest. They were buying Pebble Beach, the Empire State Building, they were buying up America, a lot like the Chinese are doing now. And so they called me up and they went, “Mr. Chip san, we want to buy name Homeless from you.”
And I went, so I went, okay, well, I’m selling pure air here, because I don’t own it. I’m not making it. I gave him a price I thought was absolutely ridiculous. And they went,” Hmm. Okay.” And I went, oh, that’s the easiest money I ever made in my life. And I went, why did they like that name so much? And I started to surmise that the young people who wanted to buy American brand names, they were being fed by the five big trading companies in Japan, the American brand names,that they were — that the Japanese trading companies were making, but real authentic American names had an L in it because a Japanese company wouldn’t come up with a name with an L in it. So I went, Oh, okay. So I know what I’m going to do. Next time I have a name, I’m going to come up with the name for a business. I’m going to put three Ls in it and see if I can get three times as much.
Tim Ferriss: How did you come up with the name lululemon?
Chip Wilson: It was purely, I think I was just working on alliterations and it was maybe for two or three years. It was just LA LA LA LA. And I just wrote it down one day, in amongst these other 20 names of which I got a hundred women to choose from the names and the logos. They ended up picking the name lululemon. And then they liked the logo from Athletically Hip, which is just an A with a circle around it.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. When you sold that brand, the Homeless brand, do you recall the year or the rough timing of that?
Chip Wilson: 1994, ’95.
Tim Ferriss: ‘94. That would have been a few years after I left Japan, I was there as an exchange student, where I was at one point the only “Where’s Waldo?” American student in a school uniform in Japan. And it was fascinating to see the cult devotion developed around certain brands. And there were both foreign brands or brands that were perceived to be foreign and actually created on home soil in Japan. There were these denim brands that had Brad Pitt as a spokesperson. There was Mr. Coffee, which had Tommy Lee Jones still, I think uses Tommy Lee Jones. And then separately, this incredible excitement around actual US brands or European brands.
So something I got to see firsthand and for people who are curious, I’ll just mention that the question of L and R in Japanese is an interesting one sort of linguistically because the Japanese is a syllabary. So they have syllables instead of independent consonants. So you have like ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, ma, mi, mu, me, mo, and then there’s da, di, du, de, do. And so it’s the sound that they use that is most approximate to an L is actually a combination of R, L, and D, and that’s part of the reason they have such a challenge with distinguishing those. So lululemon, what were your expectations or hopes for lululemon in the beginning?
Chip Wilson: Quite honestly, after working for 20 years at Westbeach and not paying myself 30,000 a year and then being able to sell it for a million dollars, pay $200,000 in tax and buy a house and buy a car, put my kids in a school which they’re appropriate for, I was sitting around and I didn’t have anything. So it was in the quest of nothing.
So I started lululemon with the goal of being able to ride my beach cruiser to work and back every day, have one store, and make it the best in the world. And I was really, really, really tired of being around people who I didn’t want to work with. And so to be with people I wanted to work with, then I knew that I had to set up a development program in order to develop people that had the opportunity to be people I wanted to be around. My goal was ride my beach cruiser and work with great people and have the best quality product in the world, and then determine whether this new idea I had of vertical retailing, so missing the wholesale business, and of course the analogy now is people that go direct to e-commerce. But at that time, you know, I was on the forefront of that. So I wanted to see these three things work.
Tim Ferriss: And just for my own clarity, when you say vertical, you mean rather than going through distributors and wholesale accounts and all of that, you’re creating your own retail outlets to sell directly to consumers?
Chip Wilson: Correct. It’s not like other people weren’t doing that. Maybe The Gap was doing it and maybe a few others, but I’d started it in 1980 with Westbeach, but I was trying to run two different businesses, a wholesale and my own retail stores where I could design, manufacture, and sell right to my own stores. I was missing the manufacturer’s markup and the wholesale markup. So it seemed like an easy business to me. And I didn’t realize I’d actually invented something, I guess.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to give a nod before we move any further to a listener of this podcast named Christian Butzek, I might be getting that pronunciation wrong, but who suggested a whole number of questions for you. And they think this is as opportune time as any to present a few of them. They’re actually very well thought through, but very difficult to fact check. So you’ll have to let me know if any of these are off. I’m just going to use almost like sentence fragments that we can launch off of. And I’m doing this right now for a reason. So one of the bullets that he put in this email is “Chip pitches a tent in his store and sleeps in it to save on theft insurance; for how many years did he sleep in his own store?” Can you elaborate? Is this a true story?
Chip Wilson: It is a true story. I really had run out of money almost three times starting lululemon. And we had a store. There was starting to be a lot of break-ins in the area. I couldn’t afford the insurance on break-in insurance. And I had determined that break-ins only happened on Friday and Saturday night. And so I took my two sons, and that’s where we spent Friday and Saturday night, in a tent in the store.
Tim Ferriss: Did anyone ever try to break in? Did you ever thwart any invaders?
Chip Wilson: No.
Tim Ferriss: How long did you do that? Over what period of time?
Chip Wilson: Six months.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All right. I wanted to introduce that because then it offers a contrast with where I want to go next, which is this number you mentioned like around 20,000, like 20 to 30,000 people who’ve gone through this transformational curriculum, which was set up at lululemon. And I think those numbers would, if not all of those people, a very high percentage would have gone through the Landmark training, which is involved and not inexpensive. So I found an interview where the following came up and I’d love to hear you elaborate on this because I’m sure a lot of thought went into it.
“Firstly, we had five books or courses, which everyone took in the first two to three weeks they were with the company. Out of this we created a linguistic abstraction of 30 terms and definitions, which became the culture of our company. That allowed us to expand exponentially because suddenly everyone was speaking the same language.”
So this is all super interesting to me. And I’d love to start with the five books or courses. I think you mentioned a number of them earlier, but if you wouldn’t mind to the best of your memory, what were the required books? What were some of the required books and required trainings, so to speak, that people would go through?
Chip Wilson: So the three-day Landmark course, which in summary really taught me about integrity, responsibility, and choice, The Brian Tracy Psychology of Achievement, which really did a study of successful people. And what successful people do, and don’t do, everything from raising children to religion, to communication, to philanthropy to goal setting — the whole gambit. The third would have been, and I, of course, we both love this book, Good to Great. And just the context that good is the enemy of great is just like, it’s an amazing context for me. The next one would have been The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey. All these things are so relevant today. Maybe they’re a little bit outdated. Anyway, so’s Carnegie, I guess.
And then the fourth one would have been The Goal by Goldratt. And it’s really a fiction book, very fun to read, about the constraint theory of production. So he has children and he’s having a hard time getting the factory, but he gets the factory. I can’t believe that someone’s taken something so boring and made it so interesting.
Tim Ferriss: What was the — I’m going to admit, I don’t know what that constraint refers to. I don’t know what that is. Why was this important for people to read?
Chip Wilson: And I think it’s coming from Japan. I think a lot of this came from Japan. Because things are in there that big public companies can’t do. And so let me put it in this way, that if you have a factory that’s at 80 percent capacity and is making a profit and is fulfilling on what you want it to do, then the rest — if you can fulfill on the rest of the 20 percent in the factory, your profit margin on that is almost exponential. So for instance, lululemon went to move into Australia. So in order to win Australia, we could basically take, we could actually move our production up from the 80 percent to the hundred percent and then take a lower margin in Australia to win the marketplace, because it really didn’t cost us anything more to put on a few zeros on the production line. That’s one of like, 20 ideas that would be in the book.
Tim Ferriss: Is it a book you would recommend to people who operate outside of manufacturing, or is it really a kind of specialist’s —
Chip Wilson: I’d say anybody that’s producing anything that’s not digital, because digital works on a whole different level.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. So The Goal, and are there any others you’d like to mention before I ask some follow ups on, on Landmark?
Chip Wilson: I love Mindset by Carol Dweck. I think you had her, you may have talked to her.
Tim Ferriss: We’ve had, I think we’ve had some communication, but that is certainly a book that comes up as recommended quite a lot on the podcast.
Chip Wilson: I really like Black Box Thinking and the amazing story there of the planes that were coming back and landing in WWII, and they’d have a bunch of holes in the bottom and they’d look at the patterns and go, “Yeah, we’ll cover up where all the bullet holes are,” where really, those are the ones that were making it back. It’s where the bullet holes weren’t is where you need to put the extra protection in. And it’s really a way of looking at businesses, which I don’t think, especially boards of directors and people who aren’t really in the business and don’t really understand the business, are looking for the holes in the planes that are landing where probably the entrepreneur/founder — someone who’s looking in the forecast can actually see what’s occurring that doesn’t look normal.
Tim Ferriss: Were these books, these recommendations, Landmark, were they required or just available and recommended?
Chip Wilson: No. The five books, Landmark and the four courses, were required. In other words, we set up our training and development program to talk about these almost, well quarterly, but because we had goal setting set into place, and the goal setting, like I said, creating your goals for the future and failing 50 percent of the time, we would have those done monthly. And really we would bring a lot of the learnings from the other books into the practice of goal setting.
Tim Ferriss: How did you have those conversations? Was it broken down by location? Was it to virtual? How were those conversations taking place?
Chip Wilson: What we learned from the Brian Tracy is to set your goals and then to post them. If you went into a lululemon store, every store had maybe 15 to 40 goals set up in the back room. And so everyone could look at everyone else’s goals. And the idea is to put it out there in the public. In other words, the Landmark course really got rid of people’s fears about what people think of them are, what they call in the linguistic abstraction, is “looking good.” So mostly people go around in the world looking good, trying to pretend they’re something that they’re not. By putting up the goals then, and recognizing that we’re all human beings and we all have different things that we want to do, and there’s no right or wrong in our goals.
And also, a real underlying part of it was that we actually encouraged people to quit lululemon. We wanted them to have goals that were superior or that moved on to there somewhere in their future, that we were training and developing these people and they were going to go on and do what they really wanted to do in life. And my theory was if we train people to be great and they left lululemon and went and did something else, they would talk so well about lululemon in the future that that was the best branding and marketing we could possibly do.
Tim Ferriss: Were those goals that were posted publicly revisited in some systematic way or reviewed in such a way that people felt somewhat accountable?
Chip Wilson: Yes. So they were reviewed quarterly, and we encouraged people to not get stuck in any goals. If something worked last quarter, but doesn’t work anymore, dump it and get something that you’re excited about. I think it’s important to say that inside of this, we had 18 goals. So first off we started from something that would be at that time was a vision, your 10-year vision, and then you had your values — maybe three values. I’ve changed a lot of my thinking around this. And then you’d have goals for one year, five years, and 10 years. So from your vision, then it’s easy to set 10-year goals. From your 10-year goals, once those are done, it becomes easier as five-year goals. And then it becomes quite easy to set one- or two-year goals.
And everything has to be with conditions of satisfaction with a by when date. So as you know from Brian Tracy, it’s fascinating how people will get around setting goals and being specific about it because they don’t want to be responsible for actually fulfilling on them. So I found 80 percent of the time people would not put a by when date when they were going to do it, or they would put the condition of satisfaction so vague that nobody knew whether it actually got done or not, because people don’t want to fail and people want to look good in front of other people. But once you get that, the whole world is walking around, trying to look good, I found it really released our people from looking good and getting rid of all the shoulds and wishes and tries in life, and actually become an authentic human being that has issues just like anybody else, then I think it just freed our people up to be open and undefended about their goals.
Tim Ferriss: What, do you think if, and I know you’ve already described a few, but what are the strongest aspects or the greatest strengths of Landmark and what are any of the weaknesses? If any come to mind?
Chip Wilson: The weakness is that people come out of it like they’ve seen Jesus. So this is where the “cult” part comes in at. But I first took it when I was 35 and I really didn’t get the life that I was living. And basically I was always living in the angst of something I’d done wrong in the past or living in the future that wasn’t here yet and I was trying to figure out what to do to survive. I had lived my first 35 years of my life never really being in the present. And as my dad would have said, when I was 17 years old as I rolled my eyes, is that “The meaning of life is living in the moment.” And of course he is a burnt-out hippie and why should I listen to him? Anyway, he ended up being right. This ability to freely choose as though I have amnesia to be in the present, and then it was very clear to me because after years of athletics, of swimming, and triathlons, and squash, recognizing that that three hours after an aerobic workout, my mind was so clear. And I surmised it was for the same reason is that endorphin rush kind of eliminated my past. And I didn’t care about anything in the past. If you don’t have a past and you don’t have a future.
Now what does that mean? Imagine that it’s impossible to think about anything in the future without relating it to some experience in the past. So if I don’t have a past, then I don’t have a future. And I think this is the same reason that people get drunk or stoned to a great extent, because it’s the act of eliminating the past.
So there’s no past, there’s no future. All there is is the present. I think it’s the 45 seconds after sex. You can see a three-year-old child crawling around the rug. They have no past, they have no future. They’re also, they’re so creative. And I also see it in older people when they’re told they’ve got three months to die until they die, they [couldn’t] care less about their past, they have no future, and they’re looking at every blade of grass. So anyway, that’s the come-to-Jesus moment that I really got, and the second part was integrity. And what I really got out of it is that everybody thinks they have integrity. But in fact, because everyone has a different definition of integrity, there is no integrity. So then the act of actually defining integrity was super important.
And I took the same line that Landmark does, and I’m going to bastardize it a little bit, but integrity is doing what I say I will do when I say I will do it in the expected way. And if I can’t get it done, then I have to clean up my mess, and be responsible for that mess, clean it up, and then set new conditions to satisfaction and new by when dates. So the whole company, lululemon, operated under that integrity principle. And it meant our meeting started on time, you did what you said you were going to do. And it’s not like if I say that I’m going to be at a meeting on time and I’m driving to work and I get a telephone call saying my boy has been run over by a car, I’m not going to make it to that meeting. It doesn’t make me wrong. That’s not what integrity is.
There’re many times when people can’t be in integrity. But to clean up the mess caused by lack of integrity is where more integrity occurs. So that’s the other thing. So the third thing that I think is most interesting to me is this thing about being responsible. I could sense that I was a complainer in life. You know, I complained, complained, complained, but you know, of course we all know that after two complaints, nobody would listen to me anymore. It took me a while to get that. But more interesting is that when I was responsible for whatever the situation was, then immediately I had the power to do something about it. When I left lululemon, I could complain about it or I could decide to do something about what I saw wasn’t working inside the company. So then to be responsible, they go, “Okay, I’ll write the book on how I think lululemon should operate and give context to the history and to the future so that the existing management board of directors can have some template to go on.” So that’s how he was being responsible.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any companies that come to mind that you think do a good job of talent development or employee development? And alternatively, why don’t you think more companies do what you did with the required curriculum?
Chip Wilson: I don’t think I would know about other companies because I’m not really in them, except for the ones I’m in now through the new purchase of Amer and these eight brands that are inside of it. I think fundamentally more companies don’t do it because of litigation out of the US. I think in order to take the Landmark course, because people had this come-to-Jesus moment and they’ve had to put into the writing of it before you go onto the course that you have no psychological issues and blah, blah, blah, all the legal literature that actually, if someone was to look at it would scare the hell out of you. There’s just no way you would do the course.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give some more examples of the linguistic abstractions, those terms and definitions, which again are sort of shorthand for fast communication if I’m understanding it correctly?
Chip Wilson: As I said, I used to think it was values, but I found that like the word “extreme” in the ’80s, everyone started making fun of the extreme and advertising started using that. And I think that people now hear “values” in a company, they start to roll their eyes and yeah, everyone’s got the same values type of thing, but I have been encouraging the companies I’m working with that, what are the five books that really define this company and really light people up? And then out of those, take 30 terms and definitions that are key to those five books and develop a linguistic abstraction, which you can grow a global company on and everybody knows and understands. So you’re right, it’s about speed of communication. So some of them we’ve already gone over and that would be conditions of satisfaction and a by when date, the definition of integrity. I have them listed in my bathroom on the wall. So they’re sitting there and I’ve read them 5,000 times.
Tim Ferriss: This is in your personal bathroom?
Chip Wilson: Yeah. Well, our office bathroom also.
Tim Ferriss: Really? Oh, office bathroom.
Chip Wilson: In our office bathroom, we have the linguistic abstraction and then something I call The Code, which was originally at lululemon. I think it was the best and most incredible marketing thing anyone’s ever done. And we put this code that really came from the Landmark and all these five books that we’ve talked about and things my dad told me and we put them on the side of the bag, the shopping bag, the lululemon shopping bag. And it probably existed like that for about maybe until a year after I left. But then I think they got the marketing department or the legal people came into it again and went, “You can’t say that anymore; social media is making us in trouble.” So it’d be something like, “Instead of suntan lotion, which probably has a lot of chemicals in it, why don’t you just get the right amount of sun?” So of course the fear around suntan companies like suing lululemon, it just overtakes the company. And so those are the kind of things that — so anyway, they did away with it.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I want to come back to those types of conversations, but let me ask a maybe fundamental question about another term that much like integrity is either not defined at all or defined in so many different ways that it might as well not be defined: brand. I think a lot of people, if they were asked, does lululemon have a strong brand? They would say yes, but if they were pressed to define what that means, I think a lot of people would struggle. So what is a brand in your mind and what is it not?
Chip Wilson: It’s a fascinating conversation, especially in today’s social media world about as things have moved further to the left and anything that is said can be construed one way or the other. I believe that people originally set up a brand in order to target a certain market. And the more specific you are about who your market is, then the better job you can do about giving them the product that they want. And I think if I see any failure in American public companies over infinitum, it’s eventually trying to be everything to everybody. And of course this flies in the face of these terms like diversity. And I think it’s impossible to be great being everything to everybody. So for instance, clothing lines have always been separated between children’s lines, teens’ lines, women’s lines, and then maybe retired people’s lines because bodies change, tastes change, colors change, and the company that tries to be everything to everybody, it’s just too messy.
And you end up with so much product and you have no, what are you getting out there as is who you are to those people. And my fear is, for a company like lululemon, that’s trying to be everything to everybody, is that will they end up going the way of The Gap and just becoming another common company? And then, because I think you can become everything to everybody, and you’re going to make a lot of profits for five years because all those people who weren’t your customer before now start flooding in. But what eventually happens is the key drivers or the key consumers or the mavens and the connectors who really move a brand forward, start to stop buying the brand. But the board of directors and a CEO who’s got three-year options is going to go for the short-term profitability. So there’s almost no stopping it unless you have an owner/operator-type CEO.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I suppose whether we like it or not, humans are driven by incentives, right? And it’s like, if you want someone who’s incentivized to outperform for three months over a few successions because of their option plan versus an owner/operator, who’s in it for a hundred years, you’re just going to get very different behaviors.
Chip Wilson: Well, I can say one more thing about this really, this just came to me a couple of weeks ago, but if you have an owner that’s out there making decisions for a hundred years and you have a private equity firm inside whose goal is to get in and out in seven years, that’s fundamentally a problem inside of the company because the PE firm wants short-term profits. They want to pump everything up and get out. And the owner is trying to put the money where it’ll be good for 20 years from now. It’s really fascinating.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. The study of humans, also the study of conflict, alas, I want to ask maybe not directly about conflict, but I want to come back to free speech, social media, things like that. But first I want to ask about some really micro details. This might be getting into the weeds, but I’m very, very interested because I believe that you consider store design a crucial endeavor area of focus. I could be mistaken, but what are some strategies or approaches that you used for increasing retail sales? So the number of products in the store, change rooms, mirrors, color of walls. What were some of the elements that you experimented with?
Chip Wilson: Fundamentally, I think the first big difference for lululemon that was so different than any other clothing brand was that we weren’t run by merchandisers. So people that were in Saks who were trying to put 10 different brands together, make all the purses and the shoes and everything look good together. So rather than do that, lululemon is first a functional company. And actually all my companies are, I work at the same level. So function is number one. So not only is the apparel functional, but then you make it beautiful. So the store had to be functional. So rather than have a wall where pants and jackets and tops, t-shirts, and accessories all work together in one color way and were pretty, I’m going to use this word pretty, so to speak so that when people went in, they would go, wow, type of thing.
But the problem is that within even seven days, one or two sizes would be sold out and probably the most popular sizes. So we did do that. We’d set things up for seven days like that. But then the store was set up to put — pants would be in one area, tanks in another, shorts in another, and you would actually go to look at a mannequin. That’s the short that I’d want you to be educated on why that short was being made. You’d go down to size six, there’s your colors. And then you could pick that and then you could go to a tank top or whatever, and you could look at all the sixes and all the different styles and go, “Okay, I like that design of tank. Here’s my size six, here’s the color I want.” And go with it.
Basically, I was setting it up because I understood clearly from listening to women, that they were time-constrained. And if they could get in and out of a store in under 10 minutes with exactly what they wanted, then I was actually saving them a hundred or $200 because I always came from that our customers were making a hundred dollars an hour coming in the store. So then we set up the right amount of change rooms so they never had to wait for a change room. We did the hang tags all on the same side. We had the price that was big, the size that was big. You didn’t have to search for anything. The store was set up functionally, so you’d get what you wanted into the change room. There was three-way mirrors, so a girl didn’t have to come out and have someone to ask. They could actually check their own sides out if they wanted to do that. Our cash register had the fastest checkout, by the time you scanned it and got the price out, you’re out the door. So I think women really appreciated that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it seems also to emerge a lot of these decisions from having a very clear picture of who your customer is, right? If you’re right, which you alluded to based on the assumption or archetype that as one factor has the income of a hundred dollars per hour, right? That allows you, if you set that as your base assumption/target, it allows you to make many, many other decisions very quickly.
Chip Wilson: Very well said. Very well said. Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s revisit the linguistic abstractions. Since we just took a very gratifying bathroom break and we’re back in action. I feel so much better. I’m in process of rehydrating and you’ve printed out as the overachiever you are, the linguistic abstractions. So please share.
Chip Wilson: All right. So being present, we’ve talked about. Clearing the past, we haven’t really talked about, but it’s the same thing. I notice that if I was to talk to you, but you had your mind on your business or your girlfriend, or you wanted to go skateboarding or whatever, you really wouldn’t be listening to me. And this idea that there’s no point in me talking until I’ve cleared what it is that’s going on with you. You may have another meeting to go to, that something’s more pressing. So I’ve got to make sure I clear you, the listener, before I can actually talk. I’ve wasted a lot of time forcing what I have to say down somebody who’s not listening.
We’ve talked about creating the present from the future. Committed listening is another one, so on the opposite end of that so when you’re talking, I’ve got to consistently clear myself so that I can actually hear what it is that you’re saying. Often I find somebody starts talking and my mind goes. And I’m really interested in mirror neurons, and how I really get now when I’m talking and somebody isn’t listening, I can tell that they’re not listening. Fascinating, really. So we know on a subconscious level that somebody isn’t listening. Looking good, we’ve talked about. Winning formula is an interesting one, so —
Tim Ferriss: Winning formulas.
Chip Wilson: Winning formula. When I was 12, my parents were divorced. I was a competitive swimmer. I came home for lunch and nobody was there and there was no food, so I forged my mom’s cheque, went down to Safeway, bought some food. And my 12-year-old self told me that I couldn’t trust even those who love me to take care of me. And so I then have to, if it’s to be, it’s up to me and I can’t depend on anyone else, I’ve got to make it work for myself. So consequently, I take that winning formula, anytime I’m in a stressful situation, and I go immediately to, “Everyone get out of my way, I’ll do it myself.” And that works really well, I think when I started a company or in certain situations, but in order to be an effective leader, I had to do the next linguistic abstraction, that is choose freely. Choose freely in any position to be the type of leader that’s required in that moment.
So I really became powerful at lululemon when I understood that I could delegate, I could ask for help, I could ask for opinions. It didn’t have to be all me. And the more I find that this word busy is more that tells me that I haven’t delegated or trained and developed people to take over jobs that I needed to do.
Time is precious. In other words, every second of everyone’s life is critical and it’s not up to me to waste anybody’s time. And I really I’m highly cognizant of — Tim, if you only want to go for 20 minutes, I’m here for 20 minutes and I don’t want to go 21, if you’ve got something else to do, that’s fine with me. So, but I find that’s just probably where the word complaining comes in. Complaining is again, a linguistic abstraction to actually define complaining and not waste people’s time. And again, choose to take action, which is another linguistic abstraction, as opposed to complaining.Playing on the court, not living in the stands. So actually not observing life, not complaining about life, but actually getting into life and doing something with it. I could go on, but I think you get the general gist.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good sampling. Are those in your bathroom as commandments or reminders of principles for yourself? Is it to refresh your memory of these terms for communicating with others? What is the primary purpose of having those in your bathroom?
Chip Wilson: Well, to be authentic about my inauthenticities. I’d say I’m so weak on integrity. I find myself complaining. I put them up because I’m so weak and I need to keep reminding myself about how much my life has changed, even garnering 70 percent of what I say, other people should do a hundred percent. I guess it’s a little bit like that smoker who’s quit and then goes around evangelizing how everyone should quit smoking or drinking or something. Do you know what I mean? I’m kind of like a born-again self-development person.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s tie two pieces together which we’ve covered in the last 20 minutes or so, the importance of authenticity, the value of being yourself, not what other people want you to be. And this is what we’ll add sort of reconciling that, or combining that with being a public-facing CEO or a leader of a company. So you have been more than willing to share your thoughts and opinions and speak very openly in public and the press. And it’s not always been extremely well received. Do you have any regrets? I’m not trying to imply that you should. I’m just wondering, do you wish you had done anything differently? Would you have done anything differently? Or was it really just who you are and acting in integrity or authentically was speaking really candidly and publicly in the ways that you have over the years?
Chip Wilson: I think it’s very tough to have an opinion, especially I think my area of expertise in life is looking five years in the future and putting together what the world is going to look like, especially in the realm of athletics and apparel and that type of thing. But in order to be great at that, you have to see how all things in society are changing. Now, I have a big failure in that, and the big failure is I didn’t understand in 2013, because it was just the advent of social media, just that start of it. And it was a time when I can probably say I was the first to get taken down in what I call the cancel culture. I didn’t even really know what had happened to me.
Tim Ferriss: Could you, for people who don’t have any of the backstory, explain what happened?
Chip Wilson: Yeah, sure. So I was going on Bloomberg to talk about this new concept that my wife and I had around a one-minute meditation. So again, the ability to choose in the moment how my brain wanted to be rather than having to do something longer. Anyway, it shifted into lululemon and it had a massive quality issue. I wasn’t the CEO at the time; I was the chairman living in Australia actually, but that doesn’t matter. If I’m responsible, then I get to do something about it. That’s the way I look at it.
Anyway, so she pivoted and asked me about the quality of the fabric and I went, well, I knew in my mind that something was wrong with the lululemon fabric or something was going on because we were getting returns. We were getting complaints like we’d never had before. And all I could really say at the time was that some of our pants don’t work for some women. And anyway, the interpretation of a vast majority of people that they heard it from the point of view, oh, I was judging women in some sort of way, which given that the business that I’d built all about women and all the women inside of it, was nothing could be further from the truth, but I can understand where their interpretation of that was. The reality of it is that women were buying two to three sizes too small in order to use it as compression, like Spanx. And like any fabric or any material, if you stretch it too far, it’s not going to work.
And that’s what was happening, but I didn’t have that context at the time. So I was just trying to be as truthful as I could, but it came across for, if you’re again, listening through the lens of, “Oh, you’re judging me.” And so I didn’t know women very well, did I? As much as I say, I was in a woman’s business and I was working with thousands of women, that I didn’t really get that this was occurring. And maybe lululemon had just exploded from being something that was very athletic to something that was now being bought by everybody in society. And so I made a mistake for sure.
Now what was interesting about it though, is just coming back to lululemon and the employees all supporting me, they understood where I was coming from, but the board of directors didn’t. But nobody knew how the ends of the bell curve that complain and complain very loudly on social media can sound so big. Nobody knew the size of it really. What I say is that our customer was that 32-year-old professional woman, single, owned her own condo, athletic, very media-savvy, understood how all this worked and they weren’t concerned with it, but it was really hard explaining that to, I think, a world which was now moving into a commodity media business, media went from five or six big newspapers to suddenly you’re digital, and now you have infinite the number of media outlets. And then the only way that you can attract people to your TV show, article, or whatever is headlines and then sensationalism. So I found that people that said they were news outlets were now becoming kind of National Enquirer, People Magazine sensationalism, but they were saying they were news outlets, which really does fool people who don’t have a context to what is news and what isn’t news.
And we’ve gone so far in that direction of this media being a commodity product, it’s like beer and cigarettes where it’s all done on marketing now, not really content. And then the real news is I believe is what you’re doing, Tim, is this podcast, or let’s be more specific, anything in the world that’s working and working really well now has eliminated the middleman. You’ve eliminated the middleman. So you can come right to the source rather than getting a headline or 144-word whatever.
Tim Ferriss: It’s helpful to hear. I mean, it’s been fascinating to see also just in my experience, the evolution or de-evolution, de-entropy of capturing reality and anger and rage and everything else in 144 characters or less. It’s a very polarizing experience, I think, and also seductive experience for people to consume media now, because as you indicated, if you want to compete effectively for attention, which is what these companies are doing, or their advertising or advertisers are doing vis-a-vis their platforms like Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, then shock sells, outrage sells as does sex and vanity and these other things of course, greed, but it’s kind of a fun house mirror of sorts that is adaptive to each individual. It’s kind of, I don’t want to go too far, but it’s sort of dystopian and its ability to individualize without the individual realizing what is happening.
And of course, this has been discussed kind of ad nauseam in documentaries like The Social Dilemma and so forth. I wonder, you mentioned earlier, this is going to be a bit of a sideways step, but I would love to hear you describe what makes you aside from extensive subject matter expertise in your world, right, in apparel and so on, how do you develop the ability to really see what things might look like in five years? Because you seem to have done that over and over and over again. And I’m curious if it’s intuitive, if it’s from a lot of analysis and reading, if it’s a combination, if it’s something else. What does it look like to develop that skill?
Chip Wilson: I probably didn’t know I had it until I’d gone through a few iterations, but I think it really started off when I was 12 or 13 years old. And again, I’m a reader. I was a reader from a very, very young age. And when I was reading and then I would observe, I would formulate an idea in my mind about what the future was going to be. And then I think I just started noticing that whatever I thought about actually was coming true. And it’s not like I’m a Robert Heinlein or something, some science fiction writer, but maybe that was my area of expertise because I was right so often I probably just started recognizing it’s something that I enjoy doing and then going, okay now let’s kind of put my money where my mouth is so to speak. I have these ideas. If I lay down a business to do that, will the world actually line up around what I’m thinking? And it just so happened that that kept occurring.
Now I’m 65 years old. I recognize I’m not in the world of knowing the minutiae of social media and e-com, and there’re parts of that I’m not living because I don’t have to live it. It’s not important to me because of other things that are more important. So now I feel I’m moving more to understanding how companies are working and how they become mediocre, how they become great. I’m really looking a lot about countries and how fascinated with how China obviously seems to me to be the next empire of the world and how America is becoming more like Europe. Over-regulated, over-taxed, moving further to the left. And it’s actually funny to me to look at China now as the bastion of free enterprise.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, having lived in China for a period of time and studied at two universities and to have seen from visits there, and I’m sure you’ve spent quite a bit of time there as well, the change from bicycles everywhere in Beijing and People’s Liberation Army green jackets, to the bikes disappearing to the Audi, Ferrari dealerships to now, I mean really what looks like science fiction in many of these mega cities. I mean, it is almost unfathomable how rapidly things are evolving and developing in China. That’s certainly going to be an interesting X-factor from this point forward.
I’d love to ask you a couple of complete non-sequitur questions about hiring. So I’m reading here, just a note that I have, which says that you’ve written about hiring people by asking if they want families. I would love to hear you elaborate on that. Yet, in contrast, there are times in Little Black Stretchy Pants when you share stories of rolling down your window, while sitting in your car and offering someone a job you’ve talked to for one minute. So what is it that you see in that person that allows you, prompts you to make such a fast offer? So “Do you want families?” and then the fast job offer, could you elaborate on both of those?
Chip Wilson: Sure. They probably overlap. What I noticed, notwithstanding, there’s always going to be people that wouldn’t want children, but through the Landmark course, I noticed that almost 90, let’s say almost 80, 90 percent of people had some sort of issues with their parents. And really it came down to children not forgiving their parents for the lousy job their parents did of raising them. These are parents that love their children to death, but it was just an interpretation in a story that the children would have.
I really got where people that really wanted children, well, one, I think it’s the number two instinct after survival. I think it’s a great indication if you want children, you want a family. I really wanted to hire women who wanted a family, and I was a little bit scared of those that didn’t.
And then the part about me rolling down the window, it wasn’t really like I’d met the person for a minute. These were all people in my neighborhood. I was starting lululemon. I’d watch them out running, I’d watch them with their families. Then we were all young at the time and we all had like three, four, five-year-olds type of thing. And I could tell they were good people and I could, because I’ve watched clothing all my life, I could tell if they had fashion sense or not, or I’m going to use the word style, I don’t really like the word fashion, but more like a style. And so when I kind of put the family and the style together, I went, this is going to be a person I’d like working for me. And because I didn’t want anybody who understood the wholesale clothing business, that really I was open to hiring anybody because there was nobody that knew the vertical business. So it was like I got to take good people, train them in a new way of doing business, and that’s what worked.
Tim Ferriss: So you didn’t want to hire anyone with a kind of legacy, calcified thinking around how this business should or could be built.
Chip Wilson: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: How did those hires turn out overall? Did they tend to work out well? I mean, were they for sales positions? Were they for other positions? How did that experiment go?
Chip Wilson: The first person I hired was Deanne Schweitzer. She was a single mother living in the alley behind me with two kids. So I hired her to run our first store and then she ended up being the head of product for lululemon, so probably ended up being the number three or four person inside the company. I hired Delaney to run the store after her sister left. And then Delaney ended up being the number two person at lululemon under the CEO who, and I personally have always pushed for Delaney to be CEO of lululemon, but I think the board of directors couldn’t see anyone but kind of an Ivy League type person kind of moving in there. And I, anyway, I don’t think they could have been more wrong and I think that’s been proved out.
And then probably the third person is Eric Petersen who was running marketing for Electronic Arts here in Vancouver. And I knew that I had the Olympics coming and I wanted to grill the marketing, I wanted to, because I didn’t have any money to sponsor, so we grilled the hell out of it. And he was a — he understood long-term word-of-mouth community marketing. And just again, giving — all three of these people really understood giving without expectation of return, looking to make a quality product, and in the long run just have people talk about us.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think that’s worked out rather well over time.
Chip Wilson: Yeah, it sure has.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask just a few more questions. And this one sometimes is extremely difficult and unfruitful, but I’ll try it anyway. Sometimes it works out. We can always fix it in post if it doesn’t. If you could put a message, could be a quote, a word, a question, an image, anything on metaphorically speaking, a huge billboard, just to get a message or anything out to billions of people, let’s just imagine they all understand English, what might you put on that billboard?
Chip Wilson: Coming from my most gifted book, which would be Catch-22, which is a Pulitzer Prize winner from the 1960s, about a bunch of pilots who, flying over Northern Italy and with an egotistical colonel that kept making them do more bombing missions till the time when they realized that either they were going to die next week or next month or two months from now, like every minute was critical, to the next story of my dad and always searching for the meaning of life and never finding it. And if he did find it, then he’d be disappointed, because he had no purpose in life other than looking for it. When I was 60 years old, I went to my dad and I went, “Dad, if you had to give your 60-year-old self any advice, what would it be?” And he went away for a day and he had the whole family around the table the next day. And he goes, “So I’ve thought about it, and here’s the advice I’d give my 60-year-old self. ‘Do it now. Do it right fucking now.'” So that’s what I’d put on a billboard.
Tim Ferriss: Do it now. Do it right fucking now. Oh. Now, what does that mean to you? Does it mean the — is it principally just valuing time and every second, and if you really mean what you say or value something truly that you’re going to just get after it right away, or does it have a different meaning for you?
Chip Wilson: Life is just so short. What is the term that Werner Erhard has? There’s no performance without action. So people think, think, think, think, and they have an idea. They have an idea they’d like to do something, and it all comes down to action. And there’s just not a moment to waste. There’s not a second to waste in life. Or you can choose to waste time, which is a highly creative process. So I don’t want to like say that that’s not important, but I’d say a lot of people have really great ideas and maybe even they can see the future and if they started their product or whatever they’re doing or their concept right now, the first time they thought about it, then by the time they got their act together, the world would probably line up and they’d be highly successful.
Can you wait that extra minute? Can you wait that extra month? Can you wait that extra two years until everything’s right? Well, my kids are a little bit better, my wife loves me a little bit more. I’ve got a little bit more money in the bank. I got more equity in my house I can borrow. I just don’t think there’s time.
Tim Ferriss: Catch-22. That is one of your most gifted books. Why is that?
Chip Wilson: Well, I mean, there I am, 18 years old reading it and I’ve read it 17 times now. So it’s really my Bible in life. It was really a wake up call. Again, most people don’t get it until they’re 43. Like I talked about, I got it when I was 18. Like here, it’s talking about all these 18-year-olds, and they’re going to die. And so they start to create, well, it may be even like winning formulas, because a winning formula is what you do in a survival situation. So they create different ways of surviving with the short amount of time they have left with them.
So it’s one of the great comedy books of all time, because you have one of the characters, Dunbar, that decides that time goes too quickly when life is fascinating. So he checks into a hospital and stares at the ceiling, or will go in the back of a movie theater and will stand in line, go to the front and then as soon as he gets to the front, he’ll go to the back again. And he refuses to talk to interesting people because time goes too quickly. So it’s a series of mechanisms to make life go slowly. I’ve often wanted to be in my physics 20 class for the rest of my life, just because I know I could live forever.
Tim Ferriss: What other books have you gifted often to other people? I know we’ve mentioned a number of books throughout this episode. Are there any that we haven’t mentioned yet?
Chip Wilson: For me, Atlas Shrugged was massive for me, to read that again when I was 18, I mean, I know nothing about US politics and I [couldn’t] care less about the Tea Party and all the way that people — because I had no context that it was a philosophy, I just thought it was a book. When I read through the book and I really got about how to make a quality product, how to treat people really well, how not to let the naysayers say you can’t do it, or that if you do make your money, “Give me part of that money because why should you have it all?” type of thing.
I didn’t really get it until I was about 52 or 53 and I read the book again and I recognized what an incredible impact that it had on my life. And I think it falls part and parcel with that good to great. What is good and what is great? And do you want to do — did I possibly want to live a life of being good at something? No, I want to be great, because on my deathbed, why would I want to know what good looks like? I want to know what great looks like.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I’ve two very important questions left. The first is, do you have any favorite restaurants in Vancouver or the surrounding areas that you can recommend since as soon as I am vaccinated, which I’m waiting patiently for, I am going to be traveling after my extremely strict quarantine. Do you have any favorite spots or recommendations for food?
Chip Wilson: Unfortunately, I live in probably the nicest house in the world with the greatest view, with a great wine cabinet and a wife that is second to none when it comes to cuisine. So we don’t go out a lot, but I’d say —
Tim Ferriss: So your house is the answer!
Chip Wilson: My house.
Tim Ferriss: That’s where I need to go.
Chip Wilson: Let me put it this way, when you’re here, you’re invited.
Tim Ferriss: “Where’s Tim?” “I don’t know. I think I saw him going down to the wine cellar.” “Uh-oh.”
Chip Wilson: My favorite breakfast place is a place called Nelson the Seagull, and they roast their own beans and they make their own bread, and when you put that combination of those two smells together, it’s phenomenal. I know I’m not supposed to eat any bread, but the smell of that bread’s great. It’s one of these places that, it’s in a hundred-year-old building with big, high ceilings, and they have put about $5 into tenant improvements. So they’ve gone — you know what I mean? They’ve just gone to every alley sale they could and bought chairs and tables, nothing mixes, but the quality of the product is second to none.
Tim Ferriss: It’s such a stunning part of the world and there’s such a cultural richness there. There’s such a bounty of natural beauty and excellent crabs, among many, many other things. I wanted to make sure that we mentioned something before closing. And that is that you’ve updated your book. This is the 2021 edition now, of The Story of lululemon. And my understanding is you’re making it available to download as EPUB or PDF for free on your website.
Chip Wilson: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: Is that accurate?
Chip Wilson: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The URL as I have it here for folks is chipwilson.com/book. So I want to make sure that we make note of that. Chip, is there anything else that you would like to say, any ask, request of the audience, closing comments, complaints to the editor that you’d like to file with me or otherwise, before we wrap up?
Chip Wilson: It maybe goes back to what we were saying, but I’d like to make the request that people reframe what the word news means. And I think as I was saying that people have news collapsed with sensationalism, negative news. And as Peter Diamandis says, our mindset is set by the people we hang out with and the media we consume. This is not just a plug for you, but I just can’t say enough about walking with audio and listening to podcasts and biographies, books, fiction, it doesn’t matter. I think that the combination of these two things is so powerful, keeping in great shape and learning at the same time. It’s fantastic. So anyway, reframe the term news.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. I am on as much of a low-information diet as possible these days. There’s a lot of garbage calories out there. You’ve got to be careful. Do you have any favorite audiobooks, or audiobooks you’ve really enjoyed that come to mind? Could be biographies, could be any category.
Chip Wilson: Oh yeah, yeah. Of course, you’ve had Dan Harris on, 10% Happier. I laughed all the way through that, learning about meditation. And I know you had Guy Raz on, I listened to every one of them. It doesn’t matter how many businesses I listened to. They’re all different. And they’re all fascinating. And thanks for — I liked that little exchange of podcasts you guys did; it was good. I think, for people starting out, The E-Myth, was really a Bible for me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Chip Wilson: Being able to put myself five years in the future, train and develop people to take care of the business so I could lead it. It’s great.
Tim Ferriss: Michael Gerber, highly recommended.
Chip Wilson: Another one, Guns, Germs, and Steel, I loved. Old Pulitzer Prize winning book about how the world developed. And another one that’s kind of an updated one on that is Disunited Nations, I really liked, if you get a chance.
Tim Ferriss: Disunited Nations.
Chip Wilson: Disunited Nations. I think my favorite author of all time is John Le Carré, did all the spy novels. And probably isn’t relevant to anyone young nowadays, but I love the British understatement, and his ability to tell a story and not tell me anything, but it’s all those small little innuendos and the way the British talk, it’s the very opposite from the American marketing machine, if I can put it that way. I like the way he makes me think and how he uses words. I have English as a third language, with no first two. So I’m really —
Tim Ferriss: That’s how I feel. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut said, I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” That’s how I feel most days.
Chip Wilson: I could go on for a lot longer if you want me to, but I think one of the most fun ones I listened to lately was The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not familiar with it.
Chip Wilson: He brings in musicians from all over the world to actually, they give him approval to talk about them and for him to write the story, but by audio was great. And The Potato Factory, Middlesex. I could go on and on.
Tim Ferriss: It goes on and on. There is really just such a cornucopia of brain food available. I’m finishing up The Overstory right now, which won a Pulitzer and is authored by Richard Powers, which is it’s about trees and each vignette kind of ties together a person or a family line with a particular tree or a particular old growth forest. It’s beautifully written, very dark at points, which has been challenging, but the prose and the storytelling is just so compelling that it’s pulling me through. So that’s another fantastic book.
Chip Wilson: Oh, thanks.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ll plug it again. The Story of lululemon, updated 2021, can be found for free at chipwilson.com/book. So that’s as good a starting place as any. And Chip, this has been so much fun. I really enjoyed our conversation and I appreciate you making the time. So thank you.
Chip Wilson: Well, thanks for what you bring to the world. And I know it probably, at some point comes from a selfish point of view because you get to do all these great things, but isn’t it nice when you can combine the two?
Tim Ferriss: It is. It is. Oh, yeah. I mean, I have the best, best job in the world. I get to have these types of conversations for a so-called job. So until they yank me out of here or figure out that I’m an imposter I’ll keep on doing it. So thank you again, Chip. And to everybody listening, we will have everything we discussed in the show notes, links to everything at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, do it. Do it fucking right now. Get after it, folks.
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