#216 Paul Van Doren Founder of Vans

Summary Notes


In "Authentic," Paul Van Doren recounts his journey from a high school dropout to the founder of Vans, a company that revolutionized the shoe industry with its canvas and rubber waffle sole deck shoes. Emphasizing problem-solving and cutting distractions, Van Doren's success hinged on his unique talent for system efficiency and his willingness to learn by doing. Despite lacking a grand ambition, his knack for identifying opportunities, such as tapping into the skateboarding culture and embracing direct customer engagement, propelled Vans to prominence. Van Doren's story is one of grit, determination, and the importance of doing what's right, with a business philosophy that prioritized people over products. His narrative, written as a 90-year-old reflecting on a life of hard work and creative troubleshooting, offers wisdom on overcoming adversity and the significance of leaving a legacy through the stories of our lives.

Summary Notes

Early Life and Childhood Lessons

  • Paul Van Doren's success was not due to a single big idea, but rather his ability to solve problems and cut out distractions.
  • His father was a significant influence, teaching him the value of hard work, ingenuity, and integrity.
  • The Great Depression and World War II shaped his perspective on hardship and adaptability.

"My entire life, I've never had one big idea. What I've accomplished comes down to one thing, my knack for identifying and then solving problems." "So much of who I am, what I believe in, and what I know how to do, I learned from my parents, my father."

The quotes highlight Paul's humble acknowledgment of his problem-solving abilities as key to his success and the profound impact his father had on his life and values.

Career Beginnings and Entrepreneurial Drive

  • Paul Van Doren's career started at the Randolph Rubber Company, where he learned the shoe industry inside out.
  • Witnessing his boss being humiliated by a client reinforced his desire to never let anyone have control over him and to avoid working with disrespectful people.
  • His experience at the Randolph Rubber Company laid the groundwork for his future in entrepreneurship.

"All I needed to know about making canvas shoes I learned at the Randolph Rubber Company in Randolph, Massachusetts." "I could not imagine letting some jerk humiliate me... Someday, some way, somehow, I would figure out how to get rid of the middlemen."

These quotes underscore Paul's early industry education and his resolve to maintain dignity and independence in his professional life, which would eventually lead him to start his own company.

Founding Vans and Business Philosophy

  • Vans' early success was attributed to hard work, creative troubleshooting, and understanding the customer base.
  • Paul Van Doren believed in a people-first approach, seeing Vans as a people company that made shoes, rather than just a shoe company.
  • His business and personal life were closely intertwined, with a focus on doing what's right and treating people well.

"My business would be a business that felt authentic, not just making a quality product, but by operating in a way that was true to who I was." "One of my credos, which still stands at vans decades later, is that we weren't a shoe company, but a people company that made shoes."

These quotes reflect Paul's emphasis on authenticity and people in his business approach, which he believes is crucial to his success and the legacy of Vans.

Reflections on Life and Loss

  • Paul Van Doren acknowledges the contributions of family, friends, and colleagues to the success of Vans.
  • He reflects on the joy and losses throughout his life, including outliving many peers and his wife, Drena.
  • His writing is based on memories, highlighting the importance of the people who helped shape his journey.

"Without my kids, vans wouldn't exist. They, alongside their mother, Dolly, and me, got their hands dirty and worked for tacos." "I've experienced a lot of joy. I am also all of what I've lost."

These quotes convey Paul's gratitude for the support he received and the personal nature of his losses, emphasizing the human elements behind his business achievements.

Legacy and Impact

  • Vans is associated with expressive creators and trendsetters, reflecting Paul's own way of doing things.
  • Paul Van Doren wrote his memoir to share his life lessons and experiences with future generations.
  • He values the contribution of every individual who played a role in his life and the growth of Vans.

"Five decades after I started the van Doren Rubber Company, our brand is associated with expressive creators, the artists, musicians, skaters, and surfers, the trendsetters, the ones who go their own way." "I've had one hell of a ride, and in telling my story, I tell vans."

These quotes highlight the cultural impact of Vans and Paul's pride in aligning the brand with individuality and creativity, as well as the importance he places on storytelling and legacy.

Recognition of Potential Failure and Embracing Challenges

  • Paul Van Doren acknowledges the satisfaction derived from overcoming difficult tasks.
  • He sees potential failure as thrilling and a source of growth.
  • Paul relates this to his personal experience with his company, Vans, which faced bankruptcy and was turned around successfully.

"I recognize the thrill of potential failure. That unless something is difficult to do, there's not a lot of satisfaction at the end when you actually complete it."

The quote explains Paul's belief that the true value of success comes from the struggle and difficulty faced in achieving it. The greater the challenge, the more satisfying the victory.

Family Influence and Work Ethic

  • The family dynamic and parents' approach to life greatly influenced Paul's values and work ethic.
  • His parents emphasized the importance of being the best version of oneself and prioritizing people over material possessions.
  • A strong work ethic was demonstrated by both parents, which Paul adopted.

"My parents taught me the principle of working hard by example."

Paul credits his parents for instilling the value of hard work in him, which played a significant role in his success.

Questioning the Status Quo

  • Paul was encouraged by his father to question why things are done a certain way.
  • This mindset led him to constantly seek improvements and efficiencies in processes.
  • He began working at a young age, which contributed to his practical understanding of business.

"He always pushed me to come up with the why. And I've always had a knack for figuring out the how."

Paul's father taught him to be inquisitive, which helped him develop an ability to improve processes and systems.

Autonomy in Childhood

  • Paul's parents gave their children significant freedom to explore and learn independently.
  • This autonomy allowed Paul and his siblings to develop self-reliance and creativity.
  • Such freedom is contrasted with modern parenting, which often involves more supervision and control.

"The extraordinary thing about being kids was that we were allowed to stretch out in any direction that pleased us."

Paul reflects on the freedom he had as a child, which he believes contributed to his ability to think and act independently.

Embracing Risk and Discomfort

  • Paul expresses a preference for high-pressure situations, believing they lead to growth and learning.
  • He finds defeat to be a learning opportunity rather than a setback.
  • Paul's attitude towards risk and failure is intertwined with his competitive nature.

"I can't imagine anything worse than not caring if I win or lose."

Paul's competitive spirit is evident as he discusses his emotional investment in winning and his aversion to losing.

Dropping Out of School and Entering the Workforce

  • Paul dropped out of school after 9th grade, feeling unchallenged by the academic environment.
  • He began working in the shoe industry, applying practical lessons learned from his father.
  • His decision to leave school was driven by a desire to work and a belief in learning through experience.

"School didn't challenge me. The idea of being a high school dropout, the idea that I would rather work never bothered me."

Paul explains his decision to leave school and start working, emphasizing his preference for practical challenges over formal education.

Logical Progression in Manufacturing

  • Paul learned the importance of logical progression and efficiency in manufacturing from early jobs.
  • He questioned why his employer only made parts of shoes instead of whole shoes, leading to a significant change in the company's business model.
  • His approach to questioning and improving systems is a consistent theme throughout his career.

"While making clothes pins and sparklers, I'd learned the importance of logical progression in setting up manufacturing systems."

Paul discusses how early work experiences taught him valuable lessons in manufacturing efficiency.

Entrepreneurship and Common Sense

  • Paul's story highlights the power of common sense and questioning the status quo in entrepreneurship.
  • He demonstrates that mastery of an industry and serving customers can lead to a successful business.
  • His approach to business is accessible and inspiring to a wide range of potential entrepreneurs.

"I can come up with a way to make a better shoe and come up ways to sell a better shoe."

Paul's entrepreneurial spirit is summarized as he describes his mindset towards improving products and business processes.

System Design and Work Ethic

  • Paul's relentless focus on system design and efficiency led to numerous improvements in his workplaces.
  • His work ethic and practical approach to problem-solving were key to his success.
  • He believed in the value of paying attention and asking "why" to improve any process or system.

"My work ethic was my calling card in business and in life."

Paul emphasizes the importance of work ethic in his career and how it has been a cornerstone of his success.

Quality Control and Executive Knowledge

  • Paul challenged the subjective quality control processes at his workplace, revealing a lack of understanding among executives.
  • He believed that hands-on experience was crucial for effective management and quality control.
  • His approach to management was grounded in practical knowledge and a disdain for executives who were detached from the work.

"The people in charge of quality control had no idea what they were looking at."

Paul criticizes the lack of practical knowledge among executives in charge of quality control, highlighting the importance of hands-on experience.

Continuous Improvement and Listening Skills

  • Paul valued self-awareness, the ability to listen to others, and the willingness to adopt better ideas.
  • His openness to advice and continuous improvement contributed to his success.
  • He did not seek credit for ideas but rather focused on the success of his endeavors.

"I have always been aware of my own shortcomings and have never had a problem admitting them or taking advice of experts."

Paul speaks to his ability to listen and learn from others, which has been a strong asset throughout his career.

Incentivization and Productivity

  • Paul Van Doren discusses the impact of incentivization on productivity and quality.
  • He implemented a system where workers could leave early if they completed their work with high quality in less time.
  • This system was previously used by Paul on the East Coast and proved successful.
  • Paul's approach was to balance production quotas with quality, addressing the issue that focusing on one often diminished the other.
  • The incentive system evolved into offering a four-day workweek without compromising quality or production numbers.
  • Workers embraced the new system, leading to increased efficiency and a rejection of unionization.

"I decided to create an incentive plan for the benefit of the workers. Essentially, if they could complete 8 hours of work in 6 hours, they could be free to go home."

This quote explains the core of the incentive plan Paul implemented. It shows the strategy to improve productivity by allowing workers to go home early if they completed their work efficiently and with high quality.

Business Leadership and Management

  • Paul Van Doren's leadership style emphasized constant communication and working alongside employees.
  • He was directly involved in the factory floor rather than staying in the office.
  • His approach to management focused on people rather than just production quality.
  • Paul's leadership style led to workers favoring his system over unionization.

"They embrace a new system. And when they were given the opportunity to vote on whether or not to be controlled by the union, the result was unanimous. They voted the union out."

This quote highlights the success of Paul's management approach, where his focus on people and effective communication led to workers rejecting unionization in favor of his system.

Entrepreneurship and Business Creation

  • Paul Van Doren's transition from being an employee to starting his own business is detailed.
  • After leaving Randy's due to a disagreement with the new management, Paul was approached by a Japanese supplier for a potential business venture.
  • Paul's expertise in the sneaker industry led to the creation of the Van Doren Rubber Company.
  • The business model was simple and vertically integrated, selling shoes made in their own factory.
  • The company faced challenges from former employers and suppliers but overcame them by controlling the supply chain.

"I knew with certainty I had done the right thing by quitting. But I won't lie, I was more than a little scared."

Paul expresses the fear and uncertainty that came with leaving a secure job and starting a new business venture, despite being confident in his decision.

Customer Engagement and Direct Sales

  • Paul learned the importance of direct customer engagement for retail success.
  • He valued the direct connection with customers, learning from them how to sell his product.
  • Vans offered customization services, tapping into markets such as women who sew their clothes, sports teams, and schools.
  • Simple marketing techniques like direct mail postcards and flyers were effective in customer acquisition.

"In the end, my best teachers in the art of retail were the customers themselves."

This quote emphasizes the importance of listening to customers and learning from them to improve sales and product offerings.

Expansion and Growth Strategy

  • Paul Van Doren's strategy for business growth was based on opening more retail stores.
  • Despite some stores not being profitable, the overall company made a profit, and Paul believed in scaling up.
  • He decided to open additional stores to increase volume and decrease cost per unit, despite the risks.
  • The decision to open standalone shoe stores was unprecedented at the time and was a bold move that paid off.

"I grinned. We need to put in an additional ten stores."

Paul's quote reflects his ambitious and risk-taking attitude towards expanding the business, even in the face of financial challenges.

Company Culture and Niche Marketing

  • Vans found its niche market with skateboarders and surfers who adopted the brand organically.
  • The company embraced the "off the wall" spirit, aligning with the renegade image of skateboarders.
  • Paul learned from Nike and Adidas to connect with star athletes and create specialized shoes.
  • Vans' partnership with the skateboarding community gave the company a strong identity and purpose.

"When skateboarders adopted vans, ultimately, they gave us an outward culture and an inner purpose."

This quote shows how the adoption of Vans by a niche market helped define the company's culture and gave it a clear direction and purpose.

Observations at Olympic Trials and Strategic Thinking

  • Paul Van Doren reflects on his observations at the Olympic trial event in Eugene, Oregon.
  • He notes the distinctiveness of Nike Cortez track shoes and contemplates expansion of strategic thinking.
  • Paul considers the competitive nature of sports sponsorships between Adidas and Nike.

"I didn't know how many of Nike's twelve styles were being worn competitively, but the Nike Cortez had been released the year before, and the distinctive look of these track shoes had already set them apart."

This quote reflects Paul's attention to the competitive sports shoe market and the standout nature of Nike's product, prompting him to think about strategic expansion.

Innovation and Market Opportunity with Skateboarders

  • Paul Van Doren identifies a market opportunity with skateboarders, similar to Adidas and Nike's approach with Olympic athletes.
  • He notes the unique needs of skateboarders, such as wearing out shoes unevenly due to the sport's nature.
  • Paul leverages Van's vertical integration to cater to the specific needs of skateboarders, offering single shoe sales.

"Skateboarders may not have been an Olympic sport yet, but what about the skateboarding championship? Might vans have or create an opportunity to support those?"

This quote highlights Paul's strategic thinking in identifying and seizing a new market opportunity within the niche of skateboarding.

Building Relationships with Athletes and Customization

  • Paul Van Doren discusses the importance of building relationships with athletes to understand their needs.
  • He emphasizes the value of customization, creating shoes specifically tailored for skateboarding.
  • Van's commitment to the sport and its athletes helps build the brand's reputation and business.

"Just know Jordan advised what he needed from, like, the skateboarders start telling him he does shoes specific for their sports, so he's able to improve even better because he's the only one in that niche."

The quote illustrates the importance of athlete feedback in product development, leading to better-suited products for the sport and a stronger market position.

Life Advice and Resilience

  • Paul Van Doren shares life advice about handling uncertainties and overcoming challenges.
  • He emphasizes the unpredictability of life and the importance of resilience.
  • The advice includes learning from hardships and moving forward despite defeat.

"Life is only partly about how you hold and handle your cards. Don't ever be so goddamn sure of anything, because nothing in life is given."

This quote encapsulates the life lesson of being prepared for the unexpected and not taking success for granted, as well as the importance of adaptability.

Business Leadership and Burnout

  • Paul Van Doren discusses his burnout after years of leading Vans and decides to step down.
  • He reflects on his career and the decision to let someone else lead the company.
  • Paul shares his personal dream of going to the horse races, a passion he had since childhood.

"By 1981, after 15 years in business, days went round and round... I'd become burned out."

This quote conveys the personal toll of long-term leadership and the recognition of when it's time to pass the baton for the sake of personal well-being and the company's future.

Focus and Business Strategy

  • Paul Van Doren emphasizes the importance of focus in business success.
  • He criticizes his brother's lack of focus, which led to the company's financial troubles and loss of core identity.
  • Paul compares the business strategy to horse racing, suggesting that companies should wear blinders to maintain focus.

"Complete lack of focus kills... Whenever a situation went sideways and things looked dire, I always called up my one superpower, focus."

This quote highlights the critical role of focus in overcoming challenges and steering a business through tough times.

Bankruptcy and Strategic Customer Focus

  • Paul Van Doren shares insights from the company's bankruptcy and his return to leadership.
  • He stresses the importance of focusing on customers rather than competitors.
  • Paul's strategy involves returning to the company's roots and core competencies.

"My initial meeting was with the lead attorney. He asked Paul, who's your competition?... I never made a list of competitors."

The quote reflects Paul's philosophy of prioritizing customer needs and product quality over competition, which he believes is key to business success.

Legacy and Authenticity

  • Paul Van Doren discusses the importance of authenticity in building a brand.
  • He reflects on his legacy and the alignment of his business principles with the brand's success.
  • Paul emphasizes the significance of the people behind the company and the relationships built over time.

"Vans is a people company that makes shoes, not the other way around."

This quote underlines the philosophy that the value of a company lies in its people, which is central to Vans' identity and success.

Personal Tragedy and Reflection

  • Paul Van Doren opens up about personal tragedy, including the death of his wife.
  • He shares his grief and the impact of loss on his life.
  • Paul finds solace in the stories and narratives of his life, which lead him to write his autobiography.

"The whole Drena's absence left in my life is just a big, gaping, hungry abyss, and I will miss her forever."

The quote conveys the depth of Paul's grief and the profound effect of personal loss, underscoring the human aspect behind business success and the importance of legacy.

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