Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Raising The Bar

Most business books sound too self-congratulatory, especially if written (well, really, ghost-written) by a company founder. But Clif bar has always been one of my favorite bars (since Eric House introduced them to me in 1993), and the front cover of the book had a picture of a cyclist pushing his bike on a dirt path through the alps (an experience I've had once or twice), so it boded well.

The story of Clif bar was very well-written. I hadn't known that they had stayed private through all those years (despite almost getting bought out), and the metaphor Gary Erickson used for running his company was that of a self-supported bicycle tour through the alps! The comparison between secondary roads, pioneering new paths, and big main roads are used very aptly, as is the tips for businesses Gary thought he learned on his bike trips.

But perhaps the most revealing piece of the book is his commitment to his business. I've read a lot of well-meaning pieces written by various company founders as to their aspirations for their businesses (including my current employer), but rarely do these commitments pan out: it is rare to see companies do anything really serious about sustainability, and for all the statements about work-life balance I've seen, most companies just want to squeeze as much work as possible out of each employee.

Gary Erickson is actually proud that his company's offices are empty by 5 or 6pm. He instituted a 9-day fortnight (meaning, every other weekend is a long weekend if you work for him). His sabbatical program for his employees get used, and yet aren't just used to jump ship (as is all too frequent in the tech industry). He deliberately chooses to grow the company slowly. You can argue that perhaps he's in an industry perfectly suited for such an extreme work environment, but the truth is, it takes a special person to choose the road less traveled, and it's clear that Gary Erickson is one of them (for an example, I've asked many members of my 700-person strong bike club if they would like to join me on one of my tours, but none have ever taken me up on it).

This book wins a two thumbs up for me. It's a great book on cycle touring, and a good book on Clif Bar's business. Consider me sold! The negatives are that the layout is terrible, and there are too many interruptions and diversions to interrupt the rhythm of reading the prose, but that is probably another one of Erickson's point.

1 comment:

md said...

My impression is that companies flog their employees because of an ever-increasing "need" to boost productivity. In public companies, this results in a requirement to always exceed the previous quarter's earnings.

I suppose if you keep your company private, you don't have that problem; as the CEO you get to decide how much work you want to wring from your employees in order to line your pockets. No shareholders to worry about, the buck stops with you.

However, you will have the problem that you're competing with other companies that may be able to undercut you by squeezing their employees, using offshored labor, or whatever. Suppose Coca-Cola produces the Spif Bar, a bar similar to Clif but half the cost, grabbing Clif's market share. Clif may go out of business if they don't drive down their costs. The employees can say bye-bye to their vacation days.

Does the book explain how Clif was able to avoid this? They just have a big moat, like Harley?