Going the Distance
Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.
I don’t often promote outside projects here—aside from the fact that this blog owes its very existence to the germinal impulse to market my own work—but I wanted to take a moment to encourage you to visit the online magazine The Distance, if you haven’t done so already. My wife, Wailin Wong, is the site’s editor and sole reporter, using all the resources that its sponsor, the software company Basecamp, can afford, and each story is beautifully written, illustrated, and designed. For all its surface pleasures, though, its mandate is seductively simple: it publishes deeply researched profiles, one each month, of privately held businesses that have been in operation for twenty-five years or more, and its subjects have ranged from a suburban bra store to an educational music program to the developer of the modern hamburger patty machine. In other words, if most business stories feel like a snapshot of the present moment—a new product, a new update, a new earnings report, often from a company that has been in existence for only a few years—The Distance is more like a series of portraits taken over time, showing how these businesses have changed and evolved. And while I’m far from an objective observer here, I think it’s a site that should be read by everyone interested in business, creativity, or the risks involved in constructing any lasting vision.
Because what strikes me the most about The Distance is that while each piece centers on a memorable, often highly eccentric entrepreneur—you could write a whole essay on how it takes a certain kind of idiosyncratic personality to build and sustain a business for a quarter of a century—the real, hidden protagonist of all these stories is time itself, as it is in a movie like Citizen Kane. A company that survives for so long, like a novel or a human face, is partially a reflection of a single individual’s will, but also of the outside forces that have edited it like a second author, to the point where the shape it finally takes is one that never could have been predicted at the outset. Horween Leather was founded at a time when leather was widely used for industrial components like seals and gaskets, but as the realities of the market and global production changed, it evolved along with them, moving into high-end goods like cordovan shoes and expensive watchbands. The Hala Kahiki became a tiki bar because its owners happened to economize by redoing the walls of their original tavern with bamboo fencing, which suggested a theme that has persisted for nearly fifty years. It’s as if each owner is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the marketplace, which imposes incremental revisions and occasional wholesale reinventions over the course of the company’s lifespan.
You see this kind of evolution everywhere in business—Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse where sailors would gather to make deals, and Nintendo started out by selling playing cards—but it takes a certain breadth of vision to make those patterns visible. It’s no coincidence that The Distance focuses on private businesses that haven’t taken outside investment: publicly traded firms or startups funded by venture capital rarely have the luxury of figuring things out over decades. Yet the example that these companies provide is a crucial one, even if it isn’t conventionally newsworthy, or if its lesson is ultimately one of how little we can predict or control. The single greatest obstacle facing most startups lies in finding a way to accelerate these evolutionary processes to fit within the timeframe that venture funding demands. You can see traces of it everywhere in the language entrepreneurs use, from the concept of the pivot, in which a company drastically changes its mission overnight, to the clichéd admonition to fail faster. But these buzzwords also hint at an underlying terror, a suspicion that the model under which such companies operate may be unable to tolerate the kind of gradual adaptation that a successful business requires. Time is an asset that most lean startups don’t have, which is why so many focus on apps or crowdsourced services that can be rapidly developed and discarded, rather than big, ambitious ideas that require complicated infrastructure to get off the ground.
Whether it’s possible to compress the kind of extended, serendipitous refinement that results in a company like Horween Leather into such unforgiving timelines, while still creating products and services that can change people’s lives, is an open question. All I know is that it’s a problem with enormous implications for our entire culture, and that the examples we find in The Distance amount to an indispensable starting point. As Bruce MacGilpin, the founder of the art storage company The Icon Group, says in the most recent story:
The thing that the old timer brings to any business is the confluence of experiences that they have over time, because sometimes you learn by trial and error and by sticking your hand in the fire when you didn’t really want to…So it’s often a difficult, evolutionary process…You try to capitalize on the right things and minimize the wrong ones.
MacGilpin doesn’t sound all that different from a startup founder fresh out of college talking at this year’s FailCon, but the process he’s describing unfolds across decades, not over eighteen months. And while money can make up part of the difference, there are also qualities that time alone can provide. What separates a company like Fantasy Costumes from the cheap pop-up stores that compete with it each October is the depth of its inventory, an assortment that has grown like a living organism over close to fifty Halloweens. It can’t be developed from scratch; time and chance selected it as much as its owner did. That’s true of everything about these firms. And the first step to understanding the challenges that affect creative endeavors of all kinds is listening very carefully to the stories that the survivors have to tell.