Focus on innovation rather than profitability is key to success

NOTE: An article I wrote for work, published in the Philippine Star’s Business as Usual Section on November 29, 2010.


MANILA, Philippines – “Anticipating trends is an important facet of any industry,” explains JanSport co-founder and Vice President for Global Public Relations Skip Yowell. “One of the best ways to recognize trends is to connect with young people.” During “SkipIN Class”, a series of talks held on Nov. 4 to 10 at different colleges and universities in Manila,Cebu and Davao, Yowell shared the secrets to JanSport’s success:people, passion and innnovation.

“In 1970, our hiking day packs occupied a small space in a Seattle bookstore. Our breakthrough came when students started using the day packs to carry their books,” shares Yowell. “We owe our bestselling day pack to the students who didn’t want to get their books drenched in Seattle’s rains.”

Yowell, author of the business book and memoir “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen”, says that focusing on innovation rather than profitability was key for JanSport to become a global brand.

“We wanted to start a business that was also our passion,” explains Yowell. “We created products based on our own needs as outdoor enthusiasts.” Together with co-founders Jan Lewis and Murray Pletz ,JanSport became the first company to manufacture dome tents and put zippers on packs.

“Back then, lots of people would say that we were just three beer drinking hippies who spent too much time above the tree line,” shares Yowell. “And it was true. It was during our time outdoors that we would bond, strategize and get feedback from fellow outdoor adventurers.”

Yowell and the rest of the JanSport team continuously push their boundaries all in the spirit of fun and adventure. From kissing llamas to make quirky advertisements, weathering a blizzard during a 21-mile cross-country hike in Blewett Pass, WA to claiming the summit of Mt. Everest, the JanSport team doesn’t flinch.

“Each JanSport pack is infused with the freedom-loving, trail-blazing lifestyle of frontiersmen,” enthuses Yowell. “Encouraging people to have adventures remains JanSport’s reason for being.” JanSport’s unconventional approach to business is featured in the “The Skip Yowell Story,” a film that traces JanSport’s evolution from a a three-person operation to one of the world’s most-recognized backpack brands.

Now on its 40th year, JanSport continues to change the outdoor gear industry landscape by introducing radical products inspired by current trends. In 2006, before the digital music player trend started, JanSport launched the LiveWire line. The line includes Recourse and Audio Pack, day packs with headphone and playback support as well as Alt Pack, which is equipped with Bluetooth connectivity.

All these innovations have helped JanSport keep the outdoor industry’s top spot. In 2010 alone, JanSport’s sales enjoyed a seventy percent increase in Asia, a fifteen percent increase in Europe and a twenty-two percent increase in South America.

In the United States, JanSport emerged with an eighteen percent increase in sales despite the country’s economic downturn. According to Yowell, surviving the economic downturn in the US entailed being willing to fail. “It’s easy to imitate what’s worked before, it’s safe,” says Yowell. “But if you refuse to fail, you’re also refusing to grow. We’d rather fail than imitate.”

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