Westbeach’s original customers had been women interested in the wrap shorts. I’d expanded the women’s styles, but my female customers had been overtaken by 25 to 40-year-old men demanding the reversible barbecue shorts.
There was about to be another shift.
I had begun to experience how the Westbeach store was virtually empty during the day. Lunch hour would be busy when businesspeople came, but otherwise, little happened…until 3:30 p.m. every after- noon, when the store filled up with kids – young boys, mostly between 12 and 16. They weren’t just coming in to look. They were buying.
Barbecue shorts had turned into skateboard shorts.
Back in the mid-’70s, skateboarding had experienced an explosion in popularity. As with surfing, the skateboarding boom traced its roots to southern California. Some of this history is portrayed in the 2005 film Lords of Dogtown, based on real-life skateboard figures Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams, and Tony Alva.
By the mid-’80s, public skateparks had appeared all over North America. This coincided with skaters building their own ramps in their backyards, and using whatever public spaces (steps, railings, and numerous other things) they could find. At the time, smaller skateboard companies, owned by skaters themselves, were cropping up – these companies were on the leading edge of this dynamic new trend.
As with surfing, the unique physical demands and range of motion in skateboarding required baggy, loose-fitting garments – better yet if they hung long enough to cover and protect the knees. Of course, the low front rise and high back rise worked the same for skate as it did for surf. It was bringing those boys into my store.
It did not take me long to realize that this was my new customer base. I adjusted the store to match. I bought a piranha named Jake, put him in the fish tank, and fed him every afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Jake was aggressive and grew quickly. I also bought a Commodore 64. You couldn’t do much with it – input an address (which was useful as a mailing database for me) and execute a few simple commands – but it was something the kids loved and gravitated towards as soon as they came in the store.
As Westbeach was the only surf and skate store operating in Canada, to supplement my own inventory, I became the distributor (or licensee) of surf and skate brands from the US. This included apparel made by Gordon & Smith, Santa Cruz, Stüssy, and Billabong, among others.
Outside the store, I took measures to ensure I had a close connection with the skateboarding scene. There were not yet any public skateparks in Calgary, so I invited the local skateboarders to build a ramp in the backyard of my ramshackle house.
The ramp went up quickly, and just as quickly got lots of use. It got so much use – at all hours, no less – that I finally chained it at night so I could sleep and sent out mailers with its hours of operation (this is where the address database in the Commodore 64 came in handy).
All these efforts to position Westbeach and myself at the front of the skateboarding scene were working. Westbeach made around $90,000 in 1983, exponentially more revenue than it made in its first few seasons.
Still, of that $90,000, perhaps $30,000 went into labour and production, and another $30,000 went into wages and leases. Financially, the brand was not yet at a critical mass, especially since I was mainly just selling in my own stores. To maintain its position at the front of the market, Westbeach would need to grow and evolve further and faster – at some point, competitors and imitators were bound to appear.
The year 1983 was also marked by two important lessons in integrity. The first had to do with a car. As a young entrepreneur, I was trying to make ends meet wherever I could. I got rid of my Mercedes and replaced it with a used Volkswagen station wagon.
The station wagon would’ve been the perfect vehicle for what I needed, but it soon became apparent I had been sold a lemon. Exhaust fumes were coming up into the car. I either had to always drive with the windows down – not ideal in Calgary winters – or suffer a terrible headache. I realized I had to get rid of the car. So, I sold it. And I said nothing about the exhaust fumes to the man who bought it.
A week or two later the man called me. He said I’d known about the problem when I sold him the car, but I hadn’t told him and had let him buy it anyway. He said I wasn’t a very good person. It hurt me, but he was right. I didn’t take the car back or refund him his money.
Part of this was because I was in survival mode with my business. But, part of it was because I justified my actions – somebody had done it to me (the person from whom I’d originally bought the car), so I turned around and did it to somebody else. After the man on the phone told me I wasn’t a very good person, I decided I never again wanted to be in a position where someone could say that about me or call my integrity into question.
This leads me to the second lesson. Not long after that incident with the car, I was in the Westbeach store, and I saw $200 in $20 bills on the ground. I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and looked around. There was nobody in my store just then, and $200 was a lot of money.
A little while later, I was sitting with the owner of an outdoor restaurant next door to Westbeach. During our conversation, a young woman came up to us, in semi-panic mode, and told us she’d lost $200 somewhere around here. I asked her what denominations the money was in. She told me it was in 20-dollar bills. So, I pulled the $200 out of my pocket and gave it back to her.
She was relieved to have her money back. Maybe that was her month’s rent. Then she went on her way. It felt good to help her out, but what was important to me at that moment was looking in the restaurant owner’s eyes and knowing he saw me as a person of integrity – a person he could trust.
Those were two of the greatest teachings of my life.
Smoking in the Store
Another lesson I learned in the early days of Westbeach was in brand-building. I decided I would let no one into the store who was smoking. You must understand how radical this was in the early ’80s. For most people, it was like telling them not to breathe oxygen. Shoppers would scream and yell and swear and promise they would never bring their business to me.
But I was determined to stand my ground. Even with the little evidence we had then, I felt sure smoking was making people sick. It seemed filthy and was not something I wanted to have associated with the youth and athleticism of my brand.
I could tell that making enemies of the people I didn’t want to wear my product created a stronger group of loyalists who wanted to back a brand that stood for their health. The idea of outwardly targeting who the customer is not (highly non-inclusive) would become a cornerstone of the lululemon brand.
As Westbeach transitioned into a skating brand, I was still training intensively. My training was of a deeply personal nature. I’d always been a one-girl guy, and when Cindy broke off our relationship (and cleaned out half of our joint Westbeach account), I was devastated. My focused athletic activity and daily runner’s high gave me an escape from all those feelings of heartbreak. To suppress my misery, I decided to do the Ironman.
My training also confirmed for me something I’d learned a couple of years earlier – my true passion was athletic clothing and technical apparel. Our clothing at Westbeach was flying off the shelves, which was terrific, but I still felt somewhat unfulfilled. I felt the Westbeach clothing was more about fashion than performing a specific function.
The 1983 Ironman was held on October 22 in Kailua-Kona. There was no requirement to prequalify
for the Ironman in 1983. For most people, it was their first time at an event of this length.
I was a bulldog in a race of greyhounds that year (a few years later, I would win the Clydesdale division of the Vancouver Triathlon). Later, I would joke about having had the opportunity to meet every- one in the Ironman – during the swim I’d been one of the first out of the water, then everyone said hello as they passed me through the bike ride. I met many of those who had passed me while I was on the run because I ate ferociously on the bike ride. Many runners fell over from lack of nutrition.
After I crossed the finish line, I got a milkshake then went for a massage. At that moment, I swore I’d never do something like the Ironman again. I would participate in 10k runs, and I would take up squash and mountain biking, but I knew my body wasn’t meant for long distance.