Little Black Stretchy Pants Books The Unauthorized Biography of Lululemon
: Chip Wilson : RosettaBooks : October 16, 2018
We had our doubts. We normally associate Lululemon, the company founded by the author, Chip Wilson, with overpriced trendy clothing whose sole objective is to make women’s butts look good. That may be a worthy objective, but I’m not sure it’s big enough to fulfill Wilson’s rather gagacious slogan of “elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness”.
But our initial impression was very wrong. You should read this book for a number of reasons, none of them obvious.
- Wilson is a big fan of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged; at one point the Lululemon bags carried the “Who is John Galt” tagline. For the founder of a touchy feely company like Lululemon to espouse Rand is kinda like the founder of Whole Foods being a hardcore conservative (Also true, at least until he went to the Dark Side and sold his company to Bezos and Amazon).
- He’s incredibly politically incorrect, despite founding a company that focuses on feel good yoga apparel for young women.
- The book contains a huge number of references to potentially interesting business and philosophy books. It’s amazing Wilson had time to start and run a company, given the amount of reading the guy does.
- This is one of the best accounts we’ve ever read of the pitfalls of raising money and taking a company public, by a person who really did it, not some Harvard professor.
- It’s also a great account of what happens when an entrepreneur loses control of a company, has to deal with corporate operators and sharpies, and get all his decisions approved by a board of directors.
- It’s easy to trivialize a company like Lululemon and the kinds of products it makes. But in reality, an amazing amount of work goes into the process, and this book details the details.
Wilson on Atlas Shrugged, and some other political comments:
Atlas Shrugged is about a lot of things, but to put it most simply, it tells the story of a few visionary innovators on a quest to be great people and to produce a great product. There’s Dagny Taggart, the professional woman in her early thirties who keeps her family’s railroad empire running (despite her brother’s incompetence).
There’s Dagny’s love interest, industrialist Hank Rearden, who invents a new metal alloy stronger than steel, and who must overcome the schemes of politicians and relatives who, unable to create greatness of their own, suck the life out of Hank. Then there’s John Galt, the mysterious engineer, and philosopher who remains mostly unidentified through much of the story.
The question, “Who is John Galt?” is a major recurring theme in Atlas Shrugged and is a phrase that has since become a cultural touchstone of its own. Atlas Shrugged was my first major introduction to the idea of elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness through individual creativity, dedication, and vision. I did not understand then what kind of a theme this would be for me in the years to come.
Atlas Shrugged also brought into focus the many inefficiencies of the unionized labor system. I had a union job on the pipeline—which was exactly why I had so much time to read. But there were times in Alaska when I saw a simple task being performed by three people because the union required one guy to drive a machine, a different guy to flip a switch, and a third guy to make sure the machine didn’t run out of gas. There was no room for innovation or individuality.
I saw socialism at its worst. I saw union bosses ensuring work was mediocre, so the company could hire more people, so the union could collect more dues. I saw an underside of lazy people who would rather strike than work. People who wanted others to create, invent, and risk and still pay the union workers untold amounts for mediocre work.
“Often, people want to dream about their ideal life, and then vote for people they think will give it to them without their actually having to work for it.”
Wilson is a guy who could not have started a company in today’s politically correct environment. In addition to his views on Rand and unions, he spent a huge amount of his time, including time at the office, wearing as little as possible. As he says “If I could spend the rest of my life in a Speedo, I probably would”. Interesting that a guy who created sexy, expensive work out wear for women is one of the worst dressed men around, wearing shorts and flip-flops for business meetings, and often no shirt at all.
His money saving ideas included sharing hotel rooms on business trips with female employees; in fact, he first became intimate with his future wife on one such trip. Wilson is a true California free spirit, and he’s done far more than most to elevate women within his company and to encourage women in business and fitness. But his basic naivete would ruin him today. “As part of our hiring practice, we screened for people who wanted families. We wanted our people to meet the perfect mate, we wanted people to have children, and we wanted the family nucleus to be an energy generator.” It’s hard to imagine a CEO in today’s environment encouraging their employees to “meet the perfect mate” unless their idea of the perfect mate was a black lesbian.
The book is also insightful about the whole process of developing a clothing business:
“To this day, I think the media turned a blind eye to Lululemon because we did not fit into their co-dependent business model of paid advertising in exchange for editorial coverage.”
“Whenever I saw a sponsored athlete from Nike, my mind screamed “fraud” as I thought they were bought to promote the Nike brand without an authentic belief in the product.”
“The excitement over what a celebrity was wearing was something I just didn’t understand. I also felt it was fake because I thought most celebrities were being paid to wear stuff, just like the Nike endorsements. That’s not what we ever wanted to do. When a celebrity would walk into one of our stores in California, our staff would automatically want to give them clothing for free—a practice which I opposed.”
Some other interesting tidbits:
“To go from essentially owning nothing to having $100 million in my pocket gave me one thing above all else: an easier night’s sleep.”
“The incentive for a business broker was no different than that of a real estate broker. Their number one goal is to do the deal. It is very risky for a broker to drive for the best price for their client and lose a deal. When the deal is lost, a broker gets zero. In final negotiations, the broker stops working in the best interest of the client and instead works to get the deal done.” This is, in our experience, just so true.
Wilson details his own experience with losing control of Lululemon, and the general process by which, as a company grows and hires “professionals” all the life gets sucked out of it. The new managers, who don’t share the passion of any of the founding employees, simply maximize short-term financial results to maximize their own pay. This is really a tale that needs to be listened to as huge corporations increasingly dominate the American commercial landscape. And it says a lot about how we’ve ended up with so many commoditized products in different industries.
Clothes look alike, cars look alike, because as companies become huge they’re not willing to take any risks. It also helps explain the pathetic pandering of CEOs to left wingers inventing racial complaints and firing employees without due process at the first hint of sexual “harassment”. Wilson, was in fact, eventually fired from his own company by a manipulative female CEO who took advantage of an offhand comment he made in an interview.
This is a drama that continues, as Wilson is still involved with Lululemon and trying to get back on their board.