Why Hippies Make Great Business Leaders

Guest
post from Michael Klassen:

After three decades of working in marketing, I
thought I had heard or read nearly every story of innovation and
entrepreneurship out there.  Then I
uncovered a story of business invention and reinvention that nobody knew
anything about.  A tale that featured
three dozen or so people who hatched forty-some innovative ideas and products,
all in less than two years’ time, that over time accrued a collective value of
nearly a trillion dollars and employment for millions.. Today we fondly refer
to these extraordinary American innovators as Haight-Ashbury hippies.

Who were these people and how did they do it? 

Fred Rohe was a high school trouble-maker who had
a penchant for vegetarianism – very odd for a teenager in the 1950s.  He left his upstate New York home in 1959 for
San Francisco to become a “beatnik” and work in the food business.  .  By
the end of the decade, Fred had opened the nation’s first organic/natural
supermarket, café, trade union, and distribution center – almost
single-handedly engineering what has become a $200 billion-plus collection of
industries devoted to selling and distributing natural/organic food.

Judith Goldhaft employed the assistance of fabric
designer and fellow hippie gal, Jodi Palladini, to create an apparel design
that would permit San Francisco’s homeless women to sell their very own fabric
creations.  A hippie icon, the tie-dye
shirt, first produced in the basement of a Haight-Ashbury church, has
consistently sold into the millions of dollars year after year for nearly 50
years.  . 

Laurel Burch sold homemade jewelry out of a fishing
tackle box on Haight Street and eventually built a multi-million dollar
international design company. 

Jeanne Rose (Laurel’s friend and fellow single
mom), is known today as the “godmother” of herbalism, essential oils, and
aromatherapy.  A best-selling author and
sought-after speaker, Jeanne has helped shape the highly lucrative American
health and beauty care industry over the last four decades. 

Tsvi Strauch and the late Hyla Deer, husband and wife retailers employed
both young businesswomen, Burch and Rose, to help stock their Haight Street
boutique in 1966, and today they are responsible for the creation of an $11.5
billion men’s accessory fashion industry.

Nancy Kamren drew from her grandmother’s yogurt and
cottage cheese recipes from the Great Depression to help feed members of the
Haight-Ashbury commune that she and her boyfriend lived in.  This, at a time when most Americans had no
idea what yogurt was. Today, Nancy co-owns (with another well-known hippie,
Chuck Kesey) Nancy’s Yogurt which made $20 million in 2010 and is responsible
for shaping a yogurt and probiotic market in the US that had grown to over $20
billion by 2013.

Along with
products, Haight-Ashbury hippies conceived of innovative ideas that transformed
product development and advertising. 
Before the hippies, most products were developed and advertised for what
they DID contain; after the hippies, product were promoted for what they DID NOT
contain: no sugar, no fat, no pesticides, and so forth.  Their “no-approach” was quickly adopted by
7-Up in the early 1970s for their Un-Cola campaign. 

How could we
forget about the hippie music industry. 
The most popular of all, I nevertheless judge hippie music a “middling
industry” compared to the billions created by the sales of many other authentic
hippie products, such as herbal tea, screen-printed and graphic tees and, of
course, marijuana, which today ranks in the top-3 largest crops in America
(alongside corn and soy beans) at between $20 and $35 billion annually.

How did they do
it?

First, hippie
businesspeople exercised a principled approach to their ventures and
innovations by insisting on using several high-minded ideals – such as
environmentalism, support for local business owners and family farmers,
non-violence, and the healthy nurturing of authentic and transparent
relationships – to define and guide their creative endeavors.  These principles, seen at the time as pipe
dreams that had no practical impact on everyday business lent a keen sense of
definition, purpose, and mission that was quickly adopted by non-hippie
businesspeople who made the connection between hippie ideals, outstanding
customer relations, and developing product offerings that consumers loved.

Second, hippie
businesspeople were sticklers for detail. Contrary to the idea that the hippies
were spontaneous and haphazard, most took a very studied and thoughtful
approach to their innovations.  Artist Wes Wilson, the inventor of psychedelic
design, drew inspiration from 19th century artists, such as Austrian
Gustave Klimt, spending days in San Francisco art museums and libraries.   Skip
Yowell and Murray Pletz,
won a product design contest sponsored by Alcoa
and used their meager winnings to develop a scaled-down backpack that would
appeal to college students more interested in climbing the corporate ladder
than scaling Mount Everest.  Their
company, JanSport, eventually became one of the largest makers of consumer backpacks
in the world.  Mo Siegel took a simple hippie practice of combining regular tea
with natural additives and sweeteners found in nature to develop Celestial
Seasonings (today owned by Kraft), and he helped create the template for a
highly successful, modern-day RTD (ready-to-drink) flavored bottled tea
industry.

Third, the
hippies were masters of re-invention and continuous innovation.  By expanding on and developing new ways to
reconfigure old products – pressed jeans into distressed denim, Army
Surplus-issued apparel into Camo clothing; and centuries-old German worship
styles into a $4 billion dollar “contemporary Christian worship” industry of
music, lights, and entertainment – the hippies were able to work with what they
had and knew, skipping a costly and time-consuming R&D process, and
becoming the first kids on the block in a city teeming with new Baby Boomer
consumers open to innovation and intent on “doing their own thing.”

Fifty years
ago, it was anyone’s guess as to what would be the commercial outcome of the
hippie movement.  Today, the guessing is
over.  Fifty years hence, will employers
pay special attention to the strange job applicant with an imagination primed
for innovation and sure-fire money-making business ventures?  The Haight-Ashbury hippie businesspeople
provide plenty of reasons to believe they should.


Michael Klassen is the
the author of HIPPIE
INC.: The Misunderstood Subculture That Changed the Way We Live and
Generated Billions of Dollars in the Process.
 He is a
marketing professor at the University of Northern Iowa, business consultant,
and the author of five books and over fifty journal articles. He received his
Ph.D. from Kansas State University in 1987 and since that time has spoken to
audiences at national and international conferences and invited lectureships in
Asia, Europe, and South America. His research has been featured on ABC 20/20,
NBC News Magazine Europe/Asia, and he has appeared on Dateline NBC.