Rucks, Family And The Power Of Listening: Learnings From Sun Valley

Stephane Fitch, FitchInk

July 05, 2016

Almost 100 businesspeople went to Sun Valley, Idaho last week for the annual Tugboat Summit. I was one of them. I went hunting for concrete ways to make my company stronger, to grow it at a reasonable pace while remaining purposeful and putting my people first. In other words, to become more Evergreen.

Now, as I write this on a cross-country flight home, I face the task of unpacking an enormous haul. I pore over my pile of inspiring insights, new relationships, novel directions and constructive exercises. Then it hits me. Commander Rorke Denver is a damned genius.

Rorke spent more than a decade fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He survived countless battles and watched good men die for a cause that didn’t always make sense. He spent many days with a rifle in his hand, multiple radios strapped to his chest and a pack of heavy gear on his back. He thought deeply about what lessons — large and small, literal and figurative — he could take home to share with the rest of us. One of the best ones Rorke presented to us in Sun Valley was about that heavy pack: “Choose your ruck wisely,” he said. Pick one that won’t tempt you to overpack.

Post-summit, I think I may be coming home with an oversized ruck. But it’s hard not too. The annual summit is like a Middle Eastern bazaar of mind-expanding business ideas and inspiring stories. I didn’t want to leave any good ones behind.

I got to hear my old friend F.K. Day tell the story about the life-changing insights that he, his brother and a few friends gained stumbling through the early years of building Chicago-based SRAM, now the second-largest maker of bicycle parts in the world. One of the most compelling lessons: Get close to your customers and listen to them. Their feedback will make you a better innovator.

I got to hear celebrated entrepreneur Amy Simmons, founder of Amy's Ice Creams in Austin, Texas, explain how she regards her Evergreen approach to business as a powerful antidote to the widely-held view that capitalists have a “fuck you, I got mine” attitude. Amy is one of many Evergreen owners who insist on sharing key financials with employees. She is a relentless community-builder and philanthropist. She helped a Texas cancer center build a game room that resembles an ice cream shop and has freezers stocked with frozen treats for the young patients and their families.

Then there’s artist Phil Hansen, famous for his 2013 TED talk, “Embrace the Shake,” who reminded me that “creativity sucks.” That’s his shorthand way of saying that if you rely only on true “bolt from the blue” moments of inspiration, you’re in trouble. It’s important to come up with systems that can dependably produce incremental creative breakthroughs — practical innovations, if you will.

For every idea I got from a formal presentation, I picked up two more in casual conversation. Melanie Dulbecco, chief executive at San Francisco-based R. Torre & Company, makers of Torani syrups, inspired me with a passing suggestion that my colleagues and I create a picture — an actual, physical image — of our shared vision for our firm’s future. I expect us to be sharpening our colored pencils in the weeks and months to come. Darcey Croft, founder of beauty-products startup Barenaturals, challenged me to set aside my reticence to self-promote. Carrie Van Winkle Greener, founder of Pappy & Company, reminded me that one of the most powerful sources of new business ideas and energy is one’s own family. The list goes on and on.

If you didn’t attend the summit, the good news is that you’ll be reading about all of these ideas and watching all the presentations in the coming weeks and months in the Evergreen Journal. Hell, I’ll be reading the EJ and reviewing the presentations myself, just as a way of refreshing my mind. But still … There’s something about being at a Tugboat event that is hard to capture. And I’m not just talking about how we all went skeet-shooting in Sun Valley.

What is it? Dave Whorton, the former venture capitalist who started Tugboat, recently explained it to me when I wrote about the Evergreen movement for Sun Valley-based magazine BigLife. Most Evergreeners, he says, are “lone eagles.” Eagles almost never flock. “But in extraordinary circumstances — once a year in Haines, Alaska, for example — they do flock,” he said. And like eagles, when Evergreeners get together, “amazing things happen.”

Stephane Fitch is the Founder of FitchInk.

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