There’s lots of talk these days about a variety of companies that are “working outside of the box, busting paradigms and creating new agendas for business.â€? To be frank, I’m sick and tired of the sound bites and corporate speak. There’s more to changing the way business is done than inventing new terminology. If you want to hear the real stories, get some good ideas and be entertained, you should check out the new book, “Mavericks at Workâ€? by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre. It hits shelves October 2nd. The Thought Kitchen was given an advance copy and can testify that it’s worth a read.
Archive for September, 2006
Last week I witnessed a plume of nearly 30,000 Vaux’s Swifts spinning through the air and down the massive chimney at Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland. At first glance, the swirling birds looked like reverse pollution down the top of the brick tower. Looking closer, I focused on the tiny creatures that composed the cloud, dancing in an arabesque toward their nightly roost. They do this every year for three weeks in September, a pit stop on their migration south.
Almost as impressive as this natural phenomenon was the crowd of people who had gathered to watch. It was like a fireworks show, with families on blankets and the smell of beer and wine. The audience spoke in hushed tones, as if their voices might disturb the performance. And when the last black speck finally fluttered into the smoke stack, the group of birdwatchers stood up and spontaneously broke into applause.
Here’s another interesting Swift Movement.
Riverkeepers. I’m learning about the history of the channel, the upstream antics of the Mills and Smelting factories that turned the lower Willamette into a Superfund site and what can be done to restore it. I’m testing the water, and getting involved.
It took something close to home, in my own backyard so to speak, to bring me to act. And now that I have, I find myself looking at the other actions in my life, and how easy it is to make other, smaller changes, that collectively have a huge cumulative impact.
It’s a small step, but it feels pretty damn good, actually.
I love shoes. I may love shoes more than any other inanimate object and that includes iPods, titanium bicycles, and other sexy, unnecessary items. I am certain that I inherited this from my mom, an artist, whose love of shoes runs so deep she has let it dictate various projects of hers. While my appreciation of footwear is broad, when it comes to the shoes I actually buy, I’m pretty picky and I tend to want some narrative behind my kicks (What do you expect? I’m a writer).
Medium, based in Santa Barbara, looks at shoes a little differently than most. Essentially, they define their company as a design studio that just happens to have chosen footwear (primarily) as the thing that they focus their skills and points of view on. They identify themselves as making products by and for the creative class, a recently defined group, and their products blend old-world commitment to craftsmanship with subtle design touches and a modern aesthetic.
I really like the way Medium shoes look. And feel. More importantly, in an increasingly branded world where everything you buy has implications, and where I view my purchases as active support of companies I like, their identity is clearly stated, both in words and in their product, and it elevates the power of design as both a medium and a message.
PS: Remember Simple? Well Eric Meyer, the guy who started Simple, is one of the designers behind Medium.
I was at the beach the other day when I found this rock among the thousands of cobblestones bordering the high tide line. It was early. The rock was approximately two feet across, weighing roughly 30 pounds. Obviously, a beachgoer with an artistic bent used the smooth stone as a natural drawing surface and had done an impressive job capturing the previous night’s full moon over corduroy lines of swell. For drawing materials, the artist employed red and orange dirt from a nearby cliff, charcoal from a burnt piece of driftwood, and other rocks to scratch white highlights: a sparkling sea and cracking surf.
My first thought upon making the discovery was, “Wow, had the waves been that good?â€? But my second thought was that I wanted to take the rock home. I considered the feasibility of hauling it up the mile-long hike to my car, along with my surfboard and gear. I imagined placing the stone near a piece of driftwood in front of my fireplace. It would make a nice doorstop as well. Racking my brain, I wondered if I still had an old can of fixative from art school to preserve the work.
By this time, another surfer had come up beside me and was admiring the rock over my shoulder. I explained that the drawing was completely natural, created from the environment. “Pretty cool, huh?â€? I said. He seemed impressed and called some of his friends over.
It wasn’t long before small group had formed around the creation and as they congregated, I stepped aside and began pulling my wetsuit on. I thought about Andy Goldsworthy’s nature installations and his theories about the impermanence of art. Would the person who did this want me to take it away? It seemed obvious that this rock belonged just where I found it, and with the unusually high tide predicted, it would be gone in a few hours anyway.
What would you have done?
Last week’s announcement by Google that its philanthropic effort will be structured as a for-profit entity, enabling it to not only give away money but invest in start-up companies, form partnerships with venture capitalists and lobby with political ends in mind, prompted John Tierney to write an editorial about compassionate capitalism in Saturday’s New York Times. Tierney points out that for the emerging generation of entrepreneurs, capitalism and philanthropy are not seen as mutually exclusive. He points to companies like The Body Shop, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s who have demonstrated that it is possible to “do well by doing good.â€?
I add to that list Good Magazine, who I wrote about last week. There’s no doubt they’re committed to producing a quality product. Inaugural issue writers included James Surowiecki (who writes the Financial Page for the New Yorker), and Jeffrey Sachs (economist, author of The End of Poverty and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University). But they’re also into “doing well by doing good.â€? They’ve decided to give their money to support great causes rather then the post office. Huh? When you pay $20 to subscribe to Good Magazine 100 percent of the subscription fee goes to support one of twelve smart, cool, creative organizations. Not only that, you get to choose which organization you want to support. They’re doing this as an alternative to a traditional direct mail strategy that traditionalists argue is the only way to build a robust subscriber base. They’re also doing it because it’s smart. It’s a more effective way to reach their audience, generate credible buzz and further their mission. If you want to participate directly in compassionate capitalism, subscribe to Good Magazine.
You can look good, go fast and be eccentric (all at the same time). Given the experience I had this weekend at Portland Soap Box Derby, it’s clear there are a bunch of people in Portland who combine all three. An eclectic crowd, including some of our city’s finest creators, was out in flying colors and flying contraptions risking life and limb as they whizzed down and around the pavement bisecting Mt. Tabor Park, an extinct volcanic cinder cone. It was all about performance, artistic expression and sustainability. The latter ingredient was important, since you needed to survive your descent with your vehicle intact and, of course, the human powered approach to transit was required. Beyond that each team had to design within the democratic constraint of not being able to spend more than $300 on their contraption.
The results were sensational. Perhaps it has to do with what Richard Florida refers to as the “creative class.â€? In his book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida describes a society in which the creative ethos is increasingly dominant. His thinking is particularly relevant as it applies to contemporary urban settings that will likely be at the forefront of realizing a new, vibrant approach to the 21st century city.
Maybe I’m taking Florida’s thinking too literally but The Portland Soap Box Derby was, in my mind, a clear manifestation of the creative spirit he’s describing. Not only that, I think it’s a microcosm of the creative spirit that Portland itself is infused with. Equal parts enthusiasm, wild-ass creativity and genuine joy.
I had the best job on the planet. I worked for Patagonia, Inc., a privately owned experiment in social change, masquerading as a successful outdoor clothing manufacturer. A company that puts relationships before transactions, and, thanks to the vision and passion of it’s owners, Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, is able to maintain the courage of its convictions, working to blend business and philanthropy in forming a new model for corporate responsibility and behavior.This incredible company draws people of like minds, and the resultant culture is an amalgam of the values of the owners, and the generations of dedicated, passionate employees who share those values. It’s a culture that blends work and play, activism and athleticism to form an enterprise unique in the outdoor industry, and in the business environment as a whole. Patagonia is truly one of the most progressive and evolved companies doing business today.
So why leave? Well, the decision was hard but the rationale was simple. The model that Yvon and Malinda created requires replication in order to truly be a sustainable model. Patagonia needs offspring. It’s time to take everything I’ve learned from the best teachers one could ever have, and develop the next generation business, dedicated to blending philanthropy and commerce in new ways. To embody the same core values and communicate them through new avenues, to new audiences.
The point of Patagonia’s existence was never about simply selling more products to more people. That was a means to an end, the end being an expanded sphere of influence, in order to affect a more lasting change. By creating more companies based on that same ideal, we will exponentially increase that sphere of influence. I would hope that there are a dozen companies formed in the coming years from the foundations that Patagonia has laid, each new entry strengthening the industry through healthy competition, but more importantly, each one striving to change the role of business, and the ability of the business sector to affect positive lasting change.
This week Good Magazine hit the newsstand with their first issue. It’s definitely worth checking out. In a media saturated world that often feels like an overflowing toilet of bad news, they’re definitely operating from a different perspective. Their founder, Ben Goldhirsh, says “We see a growing number of people tied together not by age, career, background, or circumstance, but by a shared interest. This revolves around a passion for potential mixed with fierce pragmatism and creative engagement. We sum all this up as the sensibility of giving a damn. But to shorten it, let’s call it GOOD. We’re here to push this movement and cover its realization.â€? That sentiment coupled with Good’s mission, which is to “catalyze positive thought and action,â€? suggests that Ben and his colleagues at Good are kindred spirits with those of us who have pulled up chairs in The Thought Kitchen.
The creators of Dropping Knowledge think so. Dropping Knowledge describes itself as “an educational resource and online network that connects people around the globe seeking to exchange ideas and solutions to the most pressing issues of our day.â€?
What I find so refreshing is that in a world polarized by closed minds and positional thinking, they recognize that asking questions is the best way to incite true dialogue, challenge conventional thinking, discover fresh ways of seeing the world, and generate new ideas.
In the past year they’ve accumulated over 20,000 questions. On September 9th, having identified the most compelling and “openâ€? questions, they’re convening the Table of Free Voices. Seated around the world’s largest table in Berlin, 112 of the worlds most compelling thinkers, artists, writers, scientists, social entrepreneurs, philosophers and humanitarians from around the globe will respond to the selected questions. The entire gathering will be transcribed, translated into multiple languages and made freely available to all in a variety of digital formats. If that isn’t enough, they’ll also distill The Table Of Free Voices into a feature length film and re-create the event as a traveling exhibition. All of the content will continue to grow in the form of an ongoing global dialogue and living library. The entire undertaking has been described as “a mixture of Ted and Wikipedia, but not really.â€?
I think it’s a remarkable approach to social change.