Evergreen Businesses are Thriving in Silicon Valley

Diana Price, Tugboat Institute

October 22, 2019

Dave Whorton, CEO of Tugboat Institute®, spent his early career as co-founder of three technology companies and as an investor at one of the leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley—the very firm, in fact, that birthed the get-big-fast approach that now defines Silicon Valley’s playbook.

In 2013, Dave began a learning journey, seeking out iconoclasts who were leading private, Purpose-driven, growing companies built for the long-term—with no plan to sell. The conversations he had over the next year with more than forty of those iconoclasts transformed his thinking and led to the founding of Tugboat Institute to serve these leaders. 

Last week, roughly six years after Dave’s journey began, 75 Tugboat Institute members gathered in California for the Tugboat Institute @SiliconValley experience, coming together to learn, share, and connect around their commitment to building successful Evergreen® companies. Hosted by four early Tugboat Institute members currently leading Evergreen businesses in Silicon Valley, this Tugboat Institute Exemplar Visit delivered. 

The experience began at Levi’s Stadium, home to the San Francisco 49ers. Located in Santa Clara, the stadium sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, but Jed York, CEO of the 49ers, leads the family-owned business with deep alignment to the Evergreen 7Ps™. A member of Tugboat Institute since 2013, Jed greeted his fellow members via a heartfelt welcome video, commending the leaders gathered on his home turf for their commitment to the Evergreen movement. He then introduced key members of his management team, who then offered attendees a rare glimpse into the inner workings of this storied franchise (which happens to have a record of 6-0 this season!).

The evening’s programming covered topics ranging from players’ experiences to the strategy of the front office to the team’s community engagement. Four-time Super Bowl player and current Vice President and Senior Advisor to the General Manager, Keena Taylor, shared his perspective through a fireside chat with Dave, followed by insight into the 49ers’ commitment to their community, delivered by Hannah Gordon, Chief Administrative Officer and General Council. Brent Schoeb, Chief Revenue Officer, provided a deep dive into the business of football, and Moon Javaid, VP Strategy and Analytics, offered a fascinating look at the technology utilized to improve the 49ers’ customer experience. A stadium tour and a dinner gathering in the Citrix Owner’s club rounded out the evening. 

On Wednesday morning, members traveled to Redwood City to learn from Tugboat members Mac Harman and Don MacAskill. Mac’s company, Balsam Hill, launched in the tradition of many a Silicon Valley startup—in student housing on the Stanford University campus, where Mac attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business—but the Evergreen journey that followed saw his ecommerce company take a wildly divergent path from the Silicon Valley norm. As an online retailer of artificial Christmas trees, Balsam Hill’s products are literally “evergreen,” and it was clear, as members heard from executive team members, including Caroline Tuan, COO, Kristin Gasior, CMO, and Claire Magat, EVP of People, that the company is deeply committed to Evergreen principles. Through authentic stories of defining moments that included challenges as well as successes, gaps as well as triumphant leaps, the Balsam Hill team offered the audience an overview of an inspiring, market-leading, Evergreen business. 

Following a tour of Balsam Hill headquarters and lunch, Don MacAskill introduced his company, SmugMug, and described his unique position as a Founder and CEO in the Bay Area: “I founded and continue to lead a bootstrapped, family-run technology company in Silicon Valley. I’m pretty sure we’re the only company that meets that description around here.” Don went on to describe the continual innovation that defines the business—the first online, subscription-based internet business—driven by the company’s laser focus on serving photographers with exceptional products and customer service. From the early days and through the company’s recent acquisition of Flickr from Yahoo/Verizon, the company has tuned into the voices of their customers to cut through the noise of Silicon Valley’s technology hype and the ongoing stream of VC-backed photo startups to grow a large, loved, Purpose-driven company for the long-term. 

Thursday’s itinerary brought members out of Silicon Valley and into San Francisco to learn from an Evergreen business that leads from the heart to nourish their community. The Bi-Rite Family of Businesses, led by Tugboat Institute member Calvin Tsay and his partner, Sam Mogannam, includes two Bi-Rite markets, the Bi-Rite Creamery, a catering business, a café, and 18 Reasons, a nonprofit community cooking school. Sam and Calvin shared the rich history and Purpose-fueled journey of their business, sharing their love for food with the Tugboat audience through stories and food. Calvin reminded the group that, “You can’t build relationships and connection through a four-inch screen.” 

That afternoon, members explored the city on gorgeous bluebird day, with a walk along Chrissy Field for some and a tour of Alcatraz for others. Thursday evening’s celebration brought the community together at SmugMug headquarters in Mountain View. There, surrounded by stunning photographs that reflect the MacAskills’ passion for photography, members shared a meal catered by the SmugMug chef and enjoyed Obsidian Ridge wines contributed by member Arpad Molnar, oysters contributed by member John Finger’s Hog Island Oyster Co., and a tequila tasting hosted by Arturo Lomeli and Juan Sanchez, Tugboat members and owners of Tequila Clase Azul. The evening was a perfect finale, filled with gratitude and promises of maintained connections among members who headed home with a renewed commitment to the Evergreen path.

While many members traveled home on Friday morning, about 15 remained in Silicon Valley to attend a Stanford University Center for Entrepreneurial Studies symposium, “Entrepreneurship: Long-Term Organic Growth,” which featured panels made up of Tugboat Institute members, moderated by Dave Whorton and Tugboat Institute Fellow Spencer Burke. Attended by over 100 Stanford University alumni and students, the panels and discussion that followed reflected the rising interest and engagement around alternatives to our society’s current definition of business success—one that is too focused on venture capital’s playbook, raising cash over generating cash, and big exits. It was exciting to hear the enthusiasm expressed by the audience for Evergreen businesses and principles—an energizing and affirming finish to the inspiring week. 

Diana Price is Content Manager at Tugboat Institute.

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