lululemon is one of the most trendy athletic apparel company’s on the planet. The brainchild behind the whole operation is a man named Chip Wilson, who founded the brand in 1998 in his native Canada, and has since grown it to the household name we all know it as today.
But being an entrepreneur is far from easy, we all know that, and Wilson’s journey with lululemon has had a ton of twists and turns since its launch 21 years ago. Along the way he learned a helluva lot of lessons, one of which is, in his mind, that the best kind of entrepreneurs are the ones who don’t require any money in order to pursue their goals.
Money isn’t everything, but when you really dig into your personal values, where do you rank getting a paycheck over going after your passion? Are you willing to hustle and go above and beyond a 9-to-5 job in order to work nights and weekends for free to be successful in growing your own business? If not, you aren’t an entrepreneur, you’re more likely a want-repreneur; and Chip Wilson’s here to tell you why working for free while starting a company is the best kind of quality a hopeful businessperson can have.
In Chip Wilson’s experience, he found that being told “no” from people did, in fact, impact him at the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey. Talking to Amanda Smith at Bench, the lululemon founder said that, because people didn’t like his ideas, he began to lose trust in others and just stopped listening to then, deciding that he wanted to build a company all alone.
“With every idea I ever had, people told me that it was a lousy idea, from the time I was a little kid. But about four or five years afterwards, those ideas actually came into fruition. So I started out in business with this notion that I shouldn’t listen to other people, or that they don’t understand. But I took that too far—when I actually got into business I didn’t ask anybody for help.
“The biggest misconception is that the entrepreneur has to do it all themselves. What got you to where you are isn’t going to get you where you’re going.”
Obviously, trying to run any business, whether it be small or big, takes collaboration and help. Remember, there’s only 24 hours in a day, and even the most passionate, hardest working person can’t survive by doing something solo to really scale and build a company. While being an entrepreneur isn’t easy and most want it all to happen for them yesterday, it’s unrealistic to think it’s going down that way. It’s what Chip Wilson found for himself, but, in his case, he was able to channel in order to use as motivation.
“For an entrepreneur the business can never go fast enough to catch up to the possibility they see for the future. An entrepreneur is always creating the future—five, six, seven years out—but the frustration is that it can’t happen now.
“That’s what keeps me up at night: because it’s so easy for me to see that future, I think there must be millions of other people seeing the same possibility. But they don’t. It’s natural to think there’s competition coming. The answer is just to be super calm and do everything the right way so you don’t mess up your business model.”
While Wilson’s lululemon eventually took off and became what it is today, it was a process that took a long time. In fact, Wilson told Bench that, after deciding that he wanted to take the brand to wholesale, he nearly became bankrupt twice, which forced him to take jobs in order to finance his own passion; his brand.
“I learned that with lululemon: I had decided early on that I never wanted to wholesale. But at one point I had my back up against the wall—I was near bankruptcy twice.”
“When I started lululemon my only goal was to get to economy-of-scale production. In order to make that happen I had to borrow on my house a couple times to the limit. And I had to leave lululemon and get another job to finance lululemon. I mean I think these are the natural things an entrepreneur has to do, with a long-term goal in mind.”
While Wilson was forced with a difficult choice in order to keep his company afloat by taking another job which took him away from lululemon initially, the income he was making was all for the good of the brand. In fact, Wilson thinks that the best trait an entrepreneur can have is passion, which is why he was willing to work for free to get his brand off the ground at first, recognizing a problem in the market and trying to find a solution.
“What made me a good entrepreneur is that I would have worked for no money. I had passion: I was an athlete and no athletic clothes were working for me.”
With the success of Wilson’s lululemon, he had one final choice to make — remain running the company and work 18 hours, or cash out and spend more time with his family. His decision? That his kids were too important to miss out on.
“The day I knew it would all be okay was April 20, 2002 — the day I married my wife Shannon. Sales went from $10,000 the previous Saturday to $30,000 that day. So sales tripled in one week. That was the day. That day I felt like ‘Oh, finally’—I knew that I could take care of my family.”
“We were almost too wealthy to work 18 hours a day. We wanted to focus on our children.”
“We could either pick the kids up from school or we could actually build the business the way it needed to be built—we couldn’t do both. Which is also why I sold out of lululemon. I’m not 100% owner today because I realized I only have one chance with my kids.”
Chip Wilson served as CEO of lululemon until 2005, which is when he sold a 48 percent stake to two private equity firms. He later retired from his executive post as chief innovation and branding officer in 2012, remaining as the chairman of the board of directors until December 2013, which is when he stepped down from his role as non-executive chairman.
Through his experiences founding, hustling and operating lululemon, it’s clear that Chip Wilson’s learned a lot of lessons that other entrepreneurs should know. But the most important one seems to be passion, knowing that there’s no paycheck that can make a person want to work when nobody else is watching. That can be difficult, but, in his case, it proved to pay off.