This is a book about ordinary people who took an opportunity to be creative, to be innovative, and to maximize their potential. My part in this story comes from the learnings gleaned from having made thousands of mistakes. I set the culture, business model, quality platform, and people development program, then got out of the way. Lululemon’s exponential growth, culture, and brand strength have few peers, and it is because of those employees who chose to be great. Lululemon was a social experiment to determine if putting people development above profits would yield extraordinary profits. The experiment proved successful.
This book is also about missed opportunity – five years of missed opportunity. I was playing to win, while the directors of the company I founded were playing not to lose. Lululemon invented a new context for apparel and how we think about clothing. In 2013, just when five years of exponential growth was in its infancy, when the way people dressed was at the precipice of the most significant change in history, lululemon self-imploded. The company went from owning 95 percent of the women’s technical apparel market in 2011 to 10 percent in 2018. It is this part of the book from which I hope entrepreneurs will learn.
There are two parts to a successful business. First, there are the product and customer. This is the part the entrepreneur knows better than anyone in the world.
Second, there is the business of public board governance. It includes the Machiavellian power moves and survival struggles of top executives and board members. This is generally not something the entrepreneur knows very well – certainly not as well as he or she knows the product and the customer. In this regard, my story is not unusual. The more I speak to successful entrepreneurs, the more I see that what happened to me is quite common.
I believe every person in life has a different genetic makeup and unique expertise that the world needs. My expertise was seeing athletic and apparel trends. My first company, Westbeach, saw the rise of the surf, skate, and snowboard culture from 1979 to 1997. In 1998, I had the same sense that some- thing big was about to happen with yoga.
I had no way of knowing just how huge yoga would be – and how lululemon would explode like nothing else. The little company that I founded in Kitsilano, Vancouver would go on to redefine how generations of people dressed and lived. The financial rewards for my family and me would be enormous, but at the time I was rolling the dice – I could have just as easily lost everything multiple times. The journey was exhilarating and terrifying. I was 42, I had a young family, and I bet the farm.
After a thrilling 15-year ride at lululemon, I got hit by a proverbial “sensational media” bus. The need for the media to create fiction to drive advertising revenue was starting to gain traction. I became gun shy
when it came to discussing my thoughts, and I played defense for the first time in my life; being authentic was no longer acceptable or possible. However, I am no longer concerned with negative media because I choose not to acknowledge comments from writers of fictional sensationalism. I am out to live a great life – and to be great, I must be proud of the future I foresee that few are aligned with.
This is the story of that journey and an account of what I’ve learned.
It is just like me to immediately go off script. One of the manifesto terms I wrote on the side of the lululemon shopping bags said, “Without the first plane invented by the Wright Brothers, the jet would never have been made – greatness has to start somewhere.” In the 80s and 90s, the term “visible panty line” was coined. On that note, I want to acknowledge the person who invented thong underwear as a solve for this major female complaint. Without the thong being invented, I doubt lululemon and street technical apparel would have grown as it did.
Chip Wilson, 2021