This essay itself is actually very much about where things are going to go though I’ll warn you it’ll be pretty self-centered from my own perspective. I apologize in advance if you are interested in the organization and have to hear a lot of history about me, but I am unfortunately the only participant in its history up until now so I guess that’s how this will play out. That said, if you listened to our first podcast, you’d probably think every single episode will be me covering the election or general politics. That certainly won’t be the case – understanding politics in-depth is something I’m fairly new to – but I do think it’s important to include the message of social goings-on into our conversations in some way. Whether it should be or not, many of the scientific and environmental issues we want to study or tackle or address are largely dependent on what people who have a passing interest in both think. That isn’t necessarily a criticism but an acknowledgement of facts. If you want to borrow someone’s resources you have to explain to that person why the giving of those resources is a good or necessary thing. It behooves all of us to understand how to do that eloquently and effectively. I’ll perhaps visit the issue below, but it’s not about becoming a shrewd negotiator as this presumes some level of adversarial conversation. That’s not the intent. The intent is to become a persuasive speaker and commentator (what philosophers might call interlocutors) so we can have two sides come to the same conclusion. Never forget that. We are first part of a society that makes decisions and second part of a group of people that seeks to persuade that society’s decisions.
As I did in the first, I’ll give you a general outline of what I plan to talk about. This one may be a bit more fluid than the last given the open nature of the discussion (also, please don’t treat this podcast as a Constitution that you refer back to if we evolve into a wholly different organism – even the Constitution is a “living document” that requires and allows for updating). I actually want to begin by talking about two important people and concepts in my life, Simon Sinek and Dan Pink and their work (there will be a link to their respective websites at the bottom of the blog). Using this as a backdrop, I’ll give a brief outline of how my organization was formed and sort of evolved into where it is now. I will end by using these two tools to identify what direction I hope to go but, more importantly, identify why we even exist and if we should continue to exist in our current form. Sounds dangerous.
So let’s unwrap this thing.
Speaking to people effectively is something few businesses pull off. If you think about it, how many corporations in the world today have enjoyed success – continual, unbroken success – for more than 20 years? The list gets pretty short. The ones that have enjoyed commercial success – that is, literally, commercials that people love and remember – are even fewer and farther between. Think Nike, Southwest Airlines, Apple (though that’s questionable lately – sort of), Volkswagen, Pepsi, Starbucks. Simon Sinek would argue that each of these companies knows why they do what they do. Let’s explore that.
I’ll paraphrase him but to oversimplify things your brain is more-or-less layered into three parts. The inner-most part of your brain is what is commonly referred to as the “reptilian brain.” This is the part of the brain that houses your memories, your emotions, and your decision-making skills. Critically, it has no capacity for language. This is an important point that we will come back to. The second part of the brain is also part of this “limbic system” but it’s responsible for more advanced functions like motor skills, timing, and rhythm. It, too, has no capacity for language. The newest part of your brain has formed around these two parts, it’s known as the neo-cortex. This part is what makes us distinctly human. It is responsible for complex thought. Language, mathematics, art – but it critically has no capacity for decision-making. This is why two phenomenon happen.
One, when someone tells you all of critical points of why something is good for you and you decide to pass because it doesn’t “feel right.” That’s the limbic system rejecting the idea because it either hasn’t spoken to that part of the brain or it has spotted something it doesn’t like. Sometimes it’s as simple as a bad handshake or a sense that the person selling you has some sort of mismatched body language. For more on the science of body language, I implore you to watch the short-lived show “Lie to Me” on Fox and dive into the science of that. It is utterly fascinating. The second phenomenon is when you forget something on your way out of the house. Your limbic brain can see it as a vague symbol and it’s trying to tell you – but it cannot communicate with language. So you get this “dread” that you are forgetting something. There’s a really good chance you are and the limbic system is smacking you in the brain telling you to grab it. “Grab what?” your neocortex asks. “The thing! That thing! It has the… stuff!” Eventually the symbol gets through and your neocortex assigns a work to it. “Extra socks! Duh!” I’m curious to find out if this happens more often when you imagine while you’re planning to go somewhere what it would be like to not have that thing. It almost feels like you’re setting a reminder in the recesses of your brain.
Anyway! This aligns with an idea Simon postulated about the afore-mentioned companies that we may not even remotely consider. Previously I mentioned that he would say those companies know “why” they do what they do. This gets us to what he calls “the Golden Circle,” which conveniently helps us better understand what each of those brain sections is working on. Picture a target. There’s an inner ring (the bullseye), there’s a ring around it and a ring around it (the edge of the target). The innermost ring says “why,” the next layer out says “how” and the third layer out says “what.” This is a rather convenient shortcut for our brain division. The inner-most section concerns itself with “why,” ( remember – emotion and memory) while the second layer concerns itself with “how” (motor skills), and the outer-most layer is concerned with “what.” “What” in this case concerns things and the pieces of language associated with those things. So back to the question – these companies know “why” they do what they do. As Simon will tell you, “why” isn’t to make money. That’s a result. If it were the reason to being in business you could have a thousand different methods of making money more effectively than some of these. The businesses that are effective have come up with a completely different answer.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at a few companies’ mission statements. For context, imagine that each of these companies’ CEOs have been asked the question “Why do you exist?”
Dick’s Sporting Goods: “Becoming #1 by applying the sports philosophy of ‘relentless improvement’ to retailing.”
Sears: “To grow our business by providing quality products and services at great value when and where our customers want them, and by building positive, lasting relationships with our customers.”
Macy’s: “To be a retailer with the ability to see opportunity on the horizon and have a clear path for capitalizing on it.”
Walmart: “Saving people money so they can live better.”
Costco: “To continually provide our members with quality goods and services at the lowest possible prices.”
Samsung: “Inspire the world, create the future.”
Tesla: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.”
REI: “To inspire, educate, and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”
I personally noticed a shift as the list went on – though companies like Walmart and Costco do 100% live their motto. In many cases companies utterly struggle to name why it is they’re in business. Others seem to have an uncanny ability to survive or thrive when things get difficult. These are companies that know why they exist. This is something I haven’t quite given enough thought to (a mission statement) for Pioneer Outdoors. But carefully consider what each of those companies are saying – why they exist isn’t to make money. It’s to use the sustained ability to make money to put some dent in the universe. By the way, that was Steve Jobs’ personal mission statement – to put a dent in the universe.
From here we are starting to build an understanding of motivation. Motivation is a very tricky thing and as we can see, multi-national conglomerates struggle to name why it is they do what they do effectively. There is plenty of research going into motivation and I really wish I could go into all of it right here. I might have to devote a future podcast to it as it’s really a fascinating topic. But according to one Daniel Pink, motivation can be hammered down as caused by one (or all) of three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Dan gave one of the most viewed TED Talks on this concept and I encourage you to give it a watch as it’s extraordinarily brilliant.
Let’s explore each briefly and I’ll loosely base my definitions on Dan’s. Autonomy – the belief that you are in control of your own time and therefore destiny. Mastery – the belief that you are improving at a skill. Purpose – the belief that you are contributing to something bigger than yourself. If you are able to provide at least one of these three things (ideally you’re able to provide some sense of them all), then you find yourself in a very strong position as a leader. Dan’s TED Talk highlights a lot of the ways companies have tried to instill a sense of autonomy and many are quite ground-breaking and almost completely incompatible with the traditional view of business. If you are a leader in a chain retail setting then I do not envy you. They typically have extremely strict rules for breaks and scheduling – developing a sense of autonomy with your employees without compromising those rules and your job is difficult. I would know – it got me fired.
Both Simon and Dan’s approach to business contribute quite heavily to our Core Leadership Series. If you want to dig into both, I encourage you to either visit their websites (link provided) or visit ours and download the Core Leadership Series. It comes in Word format and is free of charge. No need to register or give me any personal information.
Now that you have an understanding of these two ideals, let’s get into the formation of the company and how it very much seeks to align itself with the discussed concepts.
On January 11, 2014 I was fired as a General Manager of Sport Chalet, a big-box sporting goods chain in southern California. I was officially let go due to spending too much time in the office but was told rather unequivocally that I was being terminated for not supporting the company’s “new direction.” I had written the CEO a letter detailing the financial collapse of 2008 and how it fundamentally changed our business. This letter included strategies and recommendations on how to deal with the crisis. What isn’t interesting is this probably how no direct bearing on why I was fired (that the guy directly beneath him didn’t like me is the real reason), but what is interesting is how many of the recommendations they took seriously after I left. That is, nearly all of them.
So in those last few months I had already been anticipating a bit of a career change. I had interviewed with a large internet dealer that also had storefronts in the Midwest and was considering a return to school. When I was terminated without cause and went on unemployment for a spell, I was given the free time to plot how I thought an organization in that industry should run. It had become clear to me that the thing that was most advantageous to these stores in a booming economy soon became their undoing – square footage. With people having more disposable income than they knew what to do with, having a giant building full of stuff was quite lucrative. The more you bought, the better price the supplier gave you. And there was no worry about overbuying most commodities as there was never a shortage of consumers unless you had an unusually bad snow year.
A lot changed in 2008 and suddenly having to maintain a presentation and fill every last shelf in a 40000 square-foot building went from being the thing that knocked all of the little stores out of business to the thing that crippled your ability to buy effectively. Suddenly you had to buy smaller quantities and turn them faster – a much trickier proposition with a huge building. For those of you struggling to understand – imagine you were running a lemonade stand on Route 66 before freeways were built (and air conditioning was standard on cars). There were 20 of them lined up in this one spot in the middle of nowhere. If you had a huge stand that could hold way more lemons, sugar, and water then you could buy each of your supplies in bulk and save some money. You’d pay more rent on the larger stand, but due to being able to chop your price because you’re saving on supplies, you can undercut every single person on the street – 19 other people are paying way more for lemons and sugar than you are. Eventually they all start packing up and leaving because it’s not worth barely making five bucks on the few people who are loyal to them and only buy their lemonade because it tastes better – everyone just wants fast, cheap, lemonade. What’s the difference?
You’re one of 3 stands when the 15 Freeway gets built. Now the other two are smaller than you but decided to stick it out. You? You have a huge building you’re paying more rent for, a ton of space for lemons and sugar, and almost no customers. Who is going to fall first? You, the giant with all the profit from years ago? Or the little guy? Who isn’t borrowing past his means? Make sense?
Pioneer Outdoors was born out of this dilemma.
I began to look at the Great Recession as the market dictating what it could bear. Our markets are built on endless growth which, to my mind, is just unsustainable. Building a business that can survive when times are bad while also being flexible enough to thrive while times are great is critical to modern economic success. I’m not trying to go full Dave Ramsay on you by saying how to invest your money, where the tax breaks are, etc. I am trying to say that if you want to make enough money to do good in this world, you need to know how and where to set yourself up. If you build a business that makes a ton of money for poor people but only when the economy is doing well – and you go out of business while the economy struggles, are you doing more good for the world than the person who contributes less than you when times are good but continues to contribute the same or slightly less when times are bad? I’d argue that sustainability isn’t just an environmental issue in this instance.
I was designing this organization to be small and nimble with a decidedly more scientifically-based human focus – on both employee and customer. The original idea was actually a fairly small outdoors-only shop with summer and winter product (with the only departments in the store being “hot and “cold”). I eventually ditched this idea after spending some time in Tahoe. To my mind, the biggest failing of modern consumer culture is product. Having a lot of shoes, a lot of clothes, a lot of gear should not be normal and requiring your customers buy a lot to be successful should not be normal. The only way to buck that trend (and create a new “normal”) was to look at a new way of doing business. That meant very little product, a strong rental and rent-to-buy business, and an even stronger human sharing experience.
This was where the idea of the Mammoth Electric Wagon Train came from. I’d buy a couple of small locations in and around Los Angeles and San Diego, places where customers could drop off their snow gear or, even better, I could co-opt Uber or Lyft’s network and have drivers pick up peoples’ gear and bring it to these places. Using an electric van, I would have my own drivers take a van full of gear up to Mammoth twice a week and drop it off at a small storage location. This location could also house permanent two-way lockers. The idea being that you could pay to have your gear stored at the mountain on a locker facing you – while the other door faced the tech shop. They’d be able to tune and manage your gear when you weren’t using it. The entire purpose of this was to ensure the gear traveled by the most fuel efficient means possible. You’d then be able to drive a smaller car up the mountain or if you had to use a box (which produces a lot of drag and reduces fuel efficiency), you could leave it at home and drive your SUV. This is a level of convenience and sustainability that simply isn’t available yet.
The original floor plan for Pioneer Outdoors was put together in Minecraft, a game on multiple console and PC platforms. If you haven’t played Minecraft, it really is just a giant game of Lego and if you put it in the sandbox mode, you can build anything you want rather quickly. I designed my store right down to the proper square footage to see if it could work. From there, it was a matter of looking up construction costs, permits, POS system licensing, locations, and rent based on those locations. I eventually settled on the idea of being somewhere in San Diego to start before looking at Los Angeles after Sport Chalet went out of business. The store would give customers the ability to buy without ever approaching the register (straight from their phone) with a “try before you buy” approach to winter clothing and gear. I would also have a verylarge commons area that would serve dual purpose as a pseudo-bar and venue. To the right of this was the shoe department with a very slim selection of the essentials and to the left would be the automated repair shop. Rentals could be booked via an app on your phone allowing the techs to ready everything before you arrived – critical in keeping rental wait times down.
It was after I had completed a few months’ worth of research that I started to build a greater understanding of the capital required. It wasn’t as much as you’d think if we slimmed the vision down to just the store and the rental and repair services. That being said if you do not have any connections, getting the initial capital for an SBA loan was tricky. The Small Business Administration requires you to provide 20% (it’s been awhile, don’t quote me on that number – it is around there, though) up front. My original projections would have required at least 800,000 dollars to survive two years with annual sales matching roughly that or approaching 1.5 million. I’ll stop boring you with numbers. Bottom line, you have a number of funding options and none of them are hopeful unless you have connections or a platform. Angel donors were the most attractive but finding an angel donor for a sporting goods store offers astronomically terrible odds.
At this point my focus was beginning to shift from running my own store to consulting leadership in the industry. As I might have mentioned on previous blogs, I have a tendency to think rather big (bigger than I’ve been capable, unfortunately). So Pioneer Outdoors was shifting to a consultancy around the time I was offered my first major consulting position. CV Sports in Carson City, Nevada was a store of roughly the same size I had proposed my own shop to become. Better still, it was just outside of Lake Tahoe with an excellent customer base. The idea was beginning to take shape.
The website followed almost immediately after I took the job in Tahoe. It was frankly built to help legitimize the business. As I designed it and began to think longer term, it became more and more complex. I added a forum, a story submission system, and eventually leadership resources that are still available today. I had grand plans about building a community and adding musicians, artists, and various industry celebrities (climbers, mountaineers, and the like) but never really did find time to execute those ideas. As time went on and I failed to secure anything else in the industry that lasted, I began to seriously question my commitment to what I was doing. I had spent well over 10 years in the industry and found myself without the motivation to get up and rock it every morning. I had a genuine existential crisis.
Before I was given the opportunity to return to school I ran the “Get Real” exercise I had been writing for the Core Leadership Series. If you haven’t done it, I strongly recommend it. I’ll be very short with it here, but suffice it to say it can work you over emotionally and should, frankly, by design. Take five pieces of paper, preferably different colors and cut them into quarters. On the one color you write down four things – material possessions – that are important to you. On another color four people and another four places and another four goals and another four memories. You’re encouraged to be fairly specific with each (so try to avoid writing something generic like “family” on your people list). After you have all of these things written down, place them on a table in front of you. Take away six of these things. If you take them away they are cut out of your life somehow. You give up that thing, you cut ties with that person or you lessen the importance of that memory. You keep going until you only have three things and, ideally, these are the three things that matter most to you. Here I was, living a half an hour from Lake Tahoe in one of the most beautiful places in the world running a store the size of one I had dreamed of running and you want to know what my three cards were? My dogs (Brooklyn and Zoe), watching “Cosmos” over the summer with my dad and sister, and going back to school to become an astrophysicist. When I called home looking for help securing funds as my housing situation was due up and I’d need some help securing a rental deposit, I got a much more encouraging message. Come home and go back to school.
I’ll skip over the next chapter quite a bit as I went back to school to study astrophysics I quickly became disillusioned once starting the actual physics classes. I struggled only slightly with the class itself but I saw the immense time investment it took and how I was being pulled from the things I was more genuinely interested in as a sacrifice I simply wasn’t able to make. I actually ran the “Get Real” exercise again before class started and only recently went back to look at the results – nearly every one (and the same can be said of my original exercise) came back to how important human interaction, cooperation, and conflict mattered to me. I wanted to join a field that I felt needed help with leadership and social consciousness – failing to realize that I could still enact that change from without if I wanted to.
So here we are – I gave up on astrophysics to study something I was far more innately curious about and much more closely followed the original vision for Pioneer Outdoors – human cooperation and conflict. More specifically, I am studying anthropology and feel this is a massively useful approach when it comes to advancing the cause of the environment. Let me explain.
Ultimately, issues involving the environment in the modern age (what many anthropologists are officially calling the “Anthropocene Era”) are almost fully dependent on human impact. The environmental movement, like many scientific movements, has been predicated on the vast reaping and publishing of objective data – as if this were enough to change hearts and minds. The movement has struggled mightily and only by understanding what motivates people to change (without violence) are we going to advance its cause. It’s an unusual path to take for an environmentalist, but I feel it’s a path a lot of people should consider. The more we understand about humans the better chance we have of persuading them to change more effectively.
As for the study itself – anthropology successfully merges my why with my motivation. It is a very open field of study, providing a relative amount of autonomy in terms of subjects to study at the graduate level. The field itself is culturally diverse and provides a sense of mastery as studying a foreign language in detail is strongly encouraged. And I think it’s sense of purpose is very simple – there can quite possibly be no greater study in the foreseeable future than observing and understanding human cooperation and conflict.
So this brings us to the present day. How do we integrate the website as it’s presently constituted with these ideas of anthropology and human cooperation? After all, this is an outdoors website, not a political or cultural exchange. I think at the very present time I do not have a clear and concise answer. I can develop a Mission Statement but feel it would be merely temporary as I continue to develop how the site applies to my own field of study. As it grows and people provide me with more feedback about what they’d like to see and what is important to them I’m sure it will continue to evolve and possibly change drastically. I’m quite okay with that. In fact, even this essay was primarily motivated by a short conversation that asked that very pointed question.
In the short view I think I have a few things I can say regarding how we proceed. The site is focused on sustainability of the outdoors and that’s a mission I plan on continuing to research and apply understanding to as I study human beings. The election podcast, while seemingly an anomaly, is actually quite important to reinforcing that point. I think in the future, however, I’ll be far more explicit in taking seemingly unrelated events and providing context for how they should matter to us in the industry. And if I’m able to do that effectively, there will be no shortage of topics to cover over the next several years. In fact, several topics I can cover for listeners and readers can detail non-specific items such as how understanding politics helps us or IF they even help us.
In the long view, I’m quite open to suggestion and am certainly not setting any single idea as ironclad. What I can tell you is that I’m very interested in posing philosophical (often ethical) questions that are designed to force us to shift our perspective to understand people we disagree with. I’m interested in providing DIY-type outdoor tips to help people looking to spend time outside get the bare essential information they need. I want to continue to explore the idea of a sustainable business (which has a lot of potential in the suddenly wide-open outdoor industry in Southern California). But most importantly, I want people to engage in the conversation and learn how to be effective speakers and leaders in their towns and cities.
So… the million dollar question. Why do we exist? Here’s my best shot at a mission statement:
“To foster the relationship between different peoples, their cultures, the environment, and science.”
Thanks for reading.
Simon Sinek's website:
Dan Pink's Website (appropriately named):