Listening to Chip Wilson, Founder of Lululemon Athletica

December 08, 2016

I attended an event at the University of Calgary this past week featuring an interview with the founder of Lululemon, Chip Wilson.   I wanted to share some of his stories that really impacted me:

At the Wayne Henuset Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, University of Calgary, from left: Wayne Henuset, president and owner, Willow Park Wines and Spirits; Chip Wilson, founder of lululemon athletica; Elizabeth Cannon, president and vice-chancellor, University of Calgary; and Jim Dewald, dean of the Haskayne School of Business. Photo by Kelly Hofer, for the Haskayne School of Business
At the Wayne Henuset Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, University of Calgary, from left: Wayne Henuset, president and owner, Willow Park Wines and Spirits; Chip Wilson, founder of lululemon athletica; Elizabeth Cannon, president and vice-chancellor, University of Calgary; and Jim Dewald, dean of the Haskayne School of Business. Photo by Kelly Hofer, for the Haskayne School of Business
  • Before having found success at Lululemon, Chip was a striving, struggling entrepreneur like so many others.   As the founder and operator of WestBeach, Chip Wilson said he would work 18 hour days and worked IN the business for all of the 18 years he had it.   Like so many entrepreneurs, he hadn’t figured out a system or an approach to have the business operate without him.  He was at the centre of it all and subsequently it required so much of his time.   It inspired me to see that Chip’s success with Lululemon, while explosive, followed many other attempts and years as an operator.
  • Chip told a terrific story about his best day being his wedding day … but not why we might think.   He had launched Lululemon with considerable personal risk.  Sales were coming but had not exploded globally yet.   He got the numbers from the business the weekend of his wedding and said that sales had jumped from $10,000 in daily sales to suddenly $30,000 in sales.   Chip said he had the realization that the business was going to be successful and that with those types of sales, he could comfortably provide for his family.  He went to the church with an overwhelming sense of relief at being able to make a commitment like marriage knowing he could provide.   For any entrepreneur that has experienced the instability of a start-up and then finally reached the point of cashflow stability, it is a massive sign of relief and satisfaction.
  • Chip said that reading the famous book, the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, was a turning point for him.  He had sold WestBeach and was starting Lululemon; he knew that he had to find a better way to work in order to be able to enjoy family but also make the business work.  The insights offered by the E-myth around systemizing and creating process for everything changed the way he went about structuring Lululemon.   It grew so quickly and was able to do so because the first store was designed with such strong process and systemization of all aspects (none of which were dependent on Chip).
  •  Chip’s latest venture, Kit and Ace has grown massively in its first 2 years surpassing the $100M sales mark.  This incredible growth has been made possible by the focus on process, systems and scalability in their model.   The downside of this fast growth has been the struggles of implementing culture in the organization.  Chip was honest that at the executive level culture was strong, but at the other levels of the organization people, stores and sales were added so fast (and sometimes on an online basis) that culture within the people and the team was a struggle to create.   It is great to see a CEO recognize that growth alone is not success without a team that also supports and buy into the business.
  • Chip talked about his mindset in approaching the management of the business each day.  He had a fantastic perspective on being present in the business each day.   He focuses on primarily looking at the business in the moment and with fresh eyes and an open mind each day.  He does not worry about the past too much; as it can’t be affected any longer.  He also isn’t too committed to future plans as they are so dynamic and being tied to a set plan is as much a limitation as an opportunity.   This is a great perspective since so many CEO’s and owners can get bogged down in what has happened or too tied to a singular future plan.   Being present and flexible also makes the day to day more enjoyable to live out.
  •  Chip had a great exercise he used in making big decisions.  He fast forwarded to his deathbed at an old age of 90.   He presumed he made the decision the way he was leaning.  He then asked – looking back now, was that a good decision?   Changing the time perspective of a decision to the future and then looking back on it allowed him to play out the decision and its impacts better than just deciding from the present.  A great CEO always finds methods to make better decisions and to see the long-term impact of that decision.
  • A piece of Lululemon’s success has come from their culture but also from the belief that staff are great on the day they start with the business.  Chip’s belief in people set the HR practices in motion – they assume that staff were great on their first day.   They invested $2000 into staff immediately.  They expected them to perform at their best level now.   This approach is so different from the traditional model of forcing an employee to prove their worth before investing anything in them.
  • Part of the growth plan for Lululemon came about as a result of Chip’s commitment to his team.  He had a strong team of people as Lululemon was starting out.  As those team members needed more of a career path and more income to help them do personal things like buy homes, get married and start families, Chip felt that Lululemon needed to support that.  So a portion of his plan to scale Lululemon was driven by the desire to help his staff in their lives.
  • Chip spoke about his ability to see trends in society and he watched for convergence of trends that might have a business application.  He knew there was a demographic of young women (more career and health focused, delaying children) that was growing.  He knew yoga was a coming trend.   These types of things allowed him to create the plan for Lululemon.  Chip was quick to point out that no, he had no idea yoga would become the global phenomenon it did.   But to support the idea of growing and thinking big, Chip is a believer and user of BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
  • As Chip’s time has become more and more in demand, he has often made people fit his schedule and not worked his schedule around them.  He said that he has invited people many times to a hike up Grouse Mountain at 6am.  This does a few things: they exercise together and learn about people’s approach to health and work.   It fits with Chip’s schedule and so it not something to have to “add in”.  It gives them an hour of good conversation and uninterrupted time.  Finally, it weeds out a lot of people that don’t show up.   It’s great to see someone really valuing their time and recognizing that most meetings don’t need to 60 minutes in a boardroom.

Chip’s presentation gave many nuggets of insight into his business and his life philosophy.   These are just a few of the learnings and messages that I got out of the interview and Q&A.  I found Chip to be open, honest, friendly and relaxed.  Great qualities that have created his business success.

Share your nugget of wisdom below…

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