Yvon Chouinard Blackbird Protostars

The Importance of Passion Projects

Date Published:
September 20, 2022

Patagonia's founder and Blackbird Protostars have more in common than you think

Last week, Yvon Chouinard announced that he was giving away the $3B outdoor apparel company he founded, Patagonia, to a trust and charity dedicated to combatting climate change.

The week before that, in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, two brilliant young teenagers stepped onto a stage to share their passion projects, a video game about politics in 1980s New Zealand, and poetry about the human body, with 700 strangers. 

These two facts are more connected than you think. 

Back in May 2022, I delivered opening remarks at the Electrify Aotearoa conference that we were privileged to host with Ministry of Awesome in Ōtautahi Christchurch. The talk was about the importance of building a company that you would never sell, and how it all starts with passion projects. 

Startup conferences are inevitably about successful founders and how they built their companies. But I am equally interested in what comes before the company. 

Who is the proto-founder, and how are they made? 

The founder of Vimeo, Zach Klein, delivered an amazing talk named “Build the Company That You Wouldn’t Sell”. It is absolutely awesome and you should watch it. 

In this talk, Zach recalls a story about the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard and how the Patagonia Company was a direct result of his passion for rock-climbing. 

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia

A desire to conquer more difficult climbs led the young Chouinard to teach himself black-smithing to make hiking tools, which led to him selling those same tools to support his travels to attempt yet more climbs.  

This, in turn, led to Chouinard founding the Patagonia Company to sell technical wear, which was so successful that he had the option to sell his company for hundreds of millions. He ultimately decided not to sell so that he could continue to use the company as a vehicle for the thing he cared for most: environmental activism and building a great place to work.

And then last week, Chouinard gifted his ownership in Patagonia to a trust dedicated to the thing that inspired it all: our beautiful planet and its vast, but threatened, wilderness. 

The under-appreciated thing in startups is how much it all starts with the founder’s passion for something.

At Blackbird, we try to learn a founder’s story, to understand who they are and what brought them to where they are today.

Truly iconic, generational companies are built by founders who are doing their life’s work. 

You discover your life’s work not by following a playbook, or following a path someone else laid out for you.

You discover it by spending a lifetime being passionate and curious about something, anything, for its own sake. 

Passion leads you to be creative, as it led Yvon Chouinard to learn blacksmithing to create climbing equipment.  

Big things can come from creatively pursuing your passions.

Early employees of Patagonia

We believe so intensely in the importance of passion and creativity that our Creative Director and Head of Foundation Joel Connolly set up a program called the Blackbird Protostars to give out $1000 microgrants to young people to pursue their passion projects.

To date we have given away over $100k to artists, activists, scientists, engineers, theatre-makers, authors, comedians, bloggers, fashion designers, game developers, podcasters, poets and musicians from all over Aotearoa and Australia. 

You can check out the online exhibition from Season 1 here.

It is impossible not to be optimistic about the future when you realise what abundance of creativity and initiative exists in young people today. 

Two weeks ago on 6 September 2022, two of our Protostars recipients got up and presented their work to the Sunrise Aotearoa audience alongside film and web3 founders. 

Loredana Podolska-Kint is a medical student who used her first grant to publish a science poetry book. With her second grant, she is now developing interactive poetry workshops for primary school children in Aotearoa.

Oliver Coates is developing an educational game called Turning Point featuring history, strategy, economics and politics. The player takes on the role of the New Zealand government during the 1980's.

If a love of climbing led to the Patagonia Company, what could any of these passions lead to? 

Of course, not every passion project will become a company, but, some will. 

And some dreams are so big, so ambitious that they require many people and lots of money to become real. 

Blackbird was built for this kind of journey. 

It’s  the kind we took with Canva. We invested $250k when it was just Mel & Cliff working out of Mel’s Mum’s living room. 

We have now invested over $100M invested into Canva, making us the largest investor. Today Canva serves over 60 million monthly active users and employs a team of over 2500 people in its mission to democratise great visual communication and do the most good in the world it possibly can.  

But you don't get to be a huge success without first being passionate about something.

Through intense investments of time, skill and care, beautiful things can be created. 

This is the beauty and wonder of humanity, and we must nurture and protect it. 

We need to celebrate passion for its own sake. 

I will leave you by repeating these final words of wisdom from another protostars recipient, Bridget Kelly

Follow Your Interests

Who knows where it could lead?