Does your startup practice Zen Archery?

A lifetime ago (actually in the mid-1990’s) I worked for an outdoor apparel company called Patagonia, running several of their product lines and leading their first foray into online retailing. The company was (and is) still owned and the original founder, Yvon Chouinard. Yvon is a brilliant entrepreneur who defies easy classification: a gifted capitalist who’s deeply ambivalent about capitalism, and an inspiring leader whose self-described best leadership technique is “management by absence”, spending long blocks of time away from the office on product testing junkets.

I learned a ton working for Yvon and his wife Melinda (a quiet but powerful force in the business), but the idea that has stayed with me most forcefully from that time was Yvon’s favorite business parable, “Zen Archery“. It came up again today in a meeting with one of the teams at Founders Co-op, so here’s my attempt to to write it down…

Yvon would grimace at this description of the business, but at bottom Patagonia is a long-time survivor in the fickle and cutthroat fashion apparel industry. The company designs beautiful and well-crafted clothing inspired by – and in some cases actually used by – the most passionate and dedicated outdoor athletes in the world. From humble beginnings as a blacksmith shop for hand-crafted climbing gear, the company has become a global brand selling hundreds of millions of dollars of apparel each year through a broad range of retail and wholesale channels.

Despite this remarkable trajectory, in all my time at the company I can’t recall Yvon ever talking about sales numbers, revenues or margins. When he was called up on stage to talk about the company at the annual employee meeting, instead of celebrating financial achievements, he would spend all his time talking about the incredible people he knew who were out there using the company’s products, about the products themselves, or about the work being done to lessen the company’s impact on the environment.

When asked about whether sales and revenue was something he was thinking about, Yvon would respond by telling the story of the Zen archer who spent years of his life perfecting each minute step in the ritual of shooting an arrow. In his story, the focus the archer brought to achieving perfect beauty and economy of motion at each step – selecting an arrow, fitting it to the string, drawing the bow and releasing the arrow – was so complete that striking the target came an afterthought. In his telling, the arrow always hit the center of the target, not because it was carefully aimed, but because all the preceding moments had been so honed that it was the only possible outcome.

The truth behind every business – Patagonia included – is always more complicated than this parable allows, but the heart of Yvon’s story has always felt true and important to me. The highest probability path to “hitting the bullseye” – whether it’s hitting a sales goal, building a profitable business or getting bought by Google – isn’t to focus on the goal, but to dedicate yourself to your craft with such intensity and focus that the outcome takes care of itself. Too often I meet entrepreneurs who are so caught up in the anticipated outcome of their efforts that they lose focus on what really matters: building a beautiful, functional product that customers love to use. Thanks for the lesson, Yvon.