The low tech alternative

When people ask me who I admire most as a leader, I often refer to Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. I can speak about him from first-hand knowledge, having met him and having spent time with him during a trip he made here to the Lake District to talk at one of our conferences. He is a humble man with strong values, a clear vision and the tenacity to achieve great things. As both an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer and a committed environmentalist, he has brought together his passions in the form of a hugely successful business, that is also a great place to work. 

"I had always tried to live my life fairly simply and by 1991, knowing what I knew about the state of the environment, I had begun to eat lower on the food chain and reduce my consumption of material goods. Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: never exceed your limits. You push the envelope and you live for those moments when you’re right on the edge, but you don’t go over. You have to be true to yourself; you have to know your strengths and limitations and live within your means. The same is true for a business. The sooner a company tries to be what it is not, the sooner it tries to 'have it all,' the sooner it will die." - Yvon Chouinard

One of the many things that suprised me about Yvon is when his personal assistant revealed to me that he doesn't have a computer! He spends much of his time travelling, fishing and adventuring in remote parts of the world and has little need of one. The few, very brief emails I have received from him have been from his assistant's computer.

When I am battling through the literally hundred of emails I receive daily, much of which I have generated for myself by registering with internet shopping sites, responding to inbound eshots and managing a global business through correspondence, I often look out of the window and wish I was more like him.

But it wasn't always like this...

When Impact started in 1980, we used a cheap, portable, manual typewriter to craft our early mail shots. There was much use of Tipp-Ex and we had to be especially careful when typing "o" as if we pressed too hard it would make a complete hole in the paper. Every hand-typed letter we sent out, in a handwritten envelope was accompanied by a self-addressed, tick-the-box postcard with three choices to make:

  • Please contact me to arrange a meeting
  • Please send me further information on your programmes
  • The time isn't right for me at the moment, but please keep me in mind for the future

Optimism goes a long way when you are starting your own business and because we stuck a first class stamp on every card, we got a suprisingly high return rate. One of us could usually manage between eight and ten letters in a day, so progress was slow. Then, new technology came, in the form of a gestetner duplicator, borrowed from a local school, which enabled us to mass produce the same letter hundreds of times in minutes. We just needed to write in the name of who it was being sent to and try not to smudge the ink!

By 1983, we had acquired our first computer, an Apricot. We didn't really know how to use it, but it looked really cool in the office. It was connected to an electronic typewriter, so we could create letters, invoices and proposals. Any mistakes could be spotted and corrected on screen before being printed - an absolute revolution! We would even print off an extra copy to put into the filing cabinet!

Things really started to move in 1985, when we were engaged by Apple computer to deliver a programme for their newly formed, UK-based marketing and sales team. Half way through the programme, the marketing director announced that they didn't have the full budget available to pay for the event and so we accepted two Apple Macintosh computers as part payment. 

We never looked back and as we embraced the technology available to us from these two amazing machines, we started to build a level of computer literacy across the business. The great thing about the early Apple computers was that the machine taught you how to use it. We could literally sit a new member of the team in front of one, someone who had absolutely no computer experience or knowledge, and within a day or so they would be familiar with most of the applications. 

The queues soon started to form around our two Macintosh computers and we gradually started to invest in further machines. As a dedicated "Mac house" we were often frustrated by the fact that Microsoft and other PC-based applications would not work on our Macs, but our preference for these user-friendly machines has never wavered. As a company policy, we now equip every member of our team with an Apple MacBook or iMac and a smart phone so we can keep in touch, retain our agility and create collaboratively. 

I don't think I could run our global business without the technology we now often take for granted. Calendar invites, Skype calls, internet based research, eshots, LinkedIn, and yes even emails are all vital contributors to our business success. Not only that, but through smartphones, we can do it just about anywhere.

That's all well and good, but I'm still not sure that spending the best part of my day gazing into a screen is how I want to be! 

My inbox is overflowing, I'm struggling to stay on top of the hundreds of requests for a response, junk needs deleting and there are so many distractions that are just too interesting to ignore. 

I sometimes drive home wondering if technology is enabling me to be more efficient or separating me from life.

Is this the future of work or am I missing the point?

The sun is shining. The hills are beckoning and there are real people out there who want to meet up. 

I bet Yvon Chouinard doesn't have a smart phone either.

David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO.