Our Founding as a Social Experiment
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

At 22, I was a university basketball player in business school. I enjoyed many of my business professors, particularly John Church and his annoying, repetitive, brilliant question, ‘Why?’, Bernie Schell and her fight for a place for authentic emotion and humanity in business, and my Marketing Professor David Gillingham as he twisted his skinny legs into pretzels and our minds around a new idea. I enjoyed their tests less so. But it was Thoreau’s tattered and torn, black and blue paperback Walden (or Life in the Woods) that rarely left my backpack and whispered in my ear as I walked the wooded path between residence and practice on my small northern Laurentian University campus. I admired Thoreau’s direct experiment with life, with walking into the woods with almost nothing, with his pursuit of direct experience, and with his quest for self-reliance and simplicity. I appreciated his rejection of the passive acceptance of conventional wisdom and of what others said life was or had to be.

I had no interest in living alone in the woods, but I constantly wondered what I might learn if I recreated his Walden Pond social experiment in the context of a modern life and walked into the wild of the modern day competitive, business world, stripped of all but the very essentials, and experienced business at it’s most basic and primitive level? What would I learn if I could get beyond the books and theories and plentiful advice and just experience it first hand, and learn directly what it had to teach me, both its harsh and hopeful lessons? There would be plenty of both ahead.

I walked into the ‘woods’, on October 22nd, 1988. My wife and I lived in a small, cheap (but lovely!) apartment so I had a roof over my head, and a working telephone in the living room (no cell phones in those days). We could keep food on the table and I had enough cash for bus fare. I had no experience or contacts in the consulting or learning field; in fact I couldn't even speak in front of a group without my nervousness showing. I had the idea that I wanted to create a business with a social purpose, hopefully a learning business; but what that business might actually offer I had no idea. I remember that first bright morning in October. I was sitting on a chair facing both of my two options, the phone or the door. Make a call (to who or for what I wasn't sure) or walk out the door (to where wasn't clear) but either way I remember thinking let the experiment and the learning begin.

As we celebrate our 25th year in this experiment I can look back now along that journey. I am very happy I started in exactly that way. It wasn't easy but it did force me to learn a great deal and to come to grips with the fundamental nature of business, the raw material that actually makes some businesses work and makes others fail. I learned that the building blocks, the essential DNA elements of business itself have less to do with external resources and much more to do with internal ones, your own and the others that you are fortunate enough to build relationships with along the way.

When you have no external resources your internal ones are your only tools for survival. You get to know and understand on a deeper level the strengths and weaknesses of the few internal resources you have. The one most overlooked and under-rated is good health and energy; nothing can be accomplished without these but with both a great deal can be learned from the environment around you. Confidence I found out is over-rated in business. I never had complete confidence this social experiment would turn into a global business. I ran into many other entrepreneurs with much more confidence at the time, and I thought that was their strength. Most of them are now out of business. Confidence is a nice feeling but it is not required. Just get started. Do the work and confidence will catch up to you. It helps to have a reservoir of persistence and the ability to get up, even if slowly, after you have been flattened, some level of creativity, a willingness to challenge your own thinking and a deep hunger to explore, learn from good people and make a positive contribution. There are other DNA elements for sure, ones perhaps that you have learned from your own experience, but these are the ones from my own ‘Walden Pond’ experiment that were the most fundamental elements – to me they are the DNA of business.

Don Jones
Founder and Chief Experience Designer