Few of us are successful in founding an iconic brand. What is it like to start one of the greatest outdoor companies in the history of the world?
We talked about his first paying job at ten years old; “I hunted gophers to sell their tails to people who made flies for fly fishing. I was an entrepreneur. I couldn’t pronounce the word, but I loved it. It was freedom!”
In 1968, Hap acquired The North Face – then two small stores in California and turned it into a global apparel business that he ran for 20 years. His big idea was to apply technology from the military’s Vietnam war effort to a commoditized business and create a new industry.
He also used influencers to expand his company’s reach; “Markets are wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. You need to know who the influencers are in your business. In outdoor gear, it was the mountaineers.” Hap emphasizes that he focused The North Face on value and performance, not price.
Hap understood the importance of the brand over the product. He adds that the best advice he ever got was from Dick Salomon, the first chairman at The North Face, who said, “Products have an ever-shortening life cycle, but brands last. They carry an enduring message and belief”.
Hap also did content marketing early on; The North Face’s yearly catalog featured employees using the gear on their own trips both here and abroad. The catalog also became a place to promote environmental activism. Unlike other companies of that generation, The North Face took a stand on these types of issues.
Hap even worked with Buckminster Fuller to make bigger and stronger tents. “Bucky applied a new math to structures, and we made a geodesic tent. Stress is equally distributed, and as it gets larger it gets stronger. As Bucky pointed out to me, most things – physical, political, economic – get weaker as they get bigger. But they don’t need to.”
He says his biggest achievement is that “eleven of the people who worked for me at The North Face went on to run other great companies in the industry, including Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia Japan, and Title Nine. To see them thrive is very gratifying to me.”
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