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Shelf Life

A hippie’s guide to backpacks and success

Marketplace Staff Feb 7, 2007
Shelf Life

A hippie’s guide to backpacks and success

Marketplace Staff Feb 7, 2007


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Does the name JanSport sound familiar? It might if you’ve ever strapped on a backpack to carry your books around while you were in college. The name is well-known among hikers too. Cash Peters takes us behind the scenes for a look at the creative team responsible for the popular brand.

SKIP YOWELL: In 1967, my cousin and I, Murray, designed a frame for backpacking . . .

CASH PETERS: Yeah, well anyway, just in case you’re not fascinated by backpack design stories, here’s the short version: Boy meets girl. Girl, boy and second boy invent backpack. Backpack makes everyone incredibly rich. The end.

Well, OK, there’s a little more. Back in the 1960s, Skip Yowell and the co-founders of JanSport were San Francisco hippies.

CASH: What percentage of your career decisions have been made when you’re totally stoned?
SKIP: I was never really into drugs much. Smoking marijuana, all I’d do is go to sleep.

Hmm y’know, for a hippie, Skip is strangely, like, together, man. But the lingering ’60s vibe at JanSport means it’s a fun place to work. And of course a shrine to backpacks.

JANSPORT WOMAN: We’ve got dots, we’ve got stars, we’ve got camo, we’ve got all the greatest cool things.
CASH: How do you sleep at night? You’re way too excited.
WOMAN: Look how cute that is. And that’s going to make some little girl really happy.
CASH: Even though her friends may pelt her with Pepsi cans for wearing something so gaudy?
WOMAN: She would not! That is so cute.

SKIP: For a period of time we made these frame packs for dogs, and . . .
CASH: So it was backpacks for dogs.
SKIP: Yeah.
CASH: And how long did that last?
SKIP: Not very long at all.

What a surprise. Anyway, most people only ever get one visit from the Ideas Fairy, but Skip, I mean, he got two.

YOWELL: We designed the very first dome tent. At that point everything was A-frame tents. Today, no matter where you go in the world, there are dome tents based off our original design.

That’s true, and do you know how much he makes off each one? Nothing. And do you know why? Because he forgot to patent it. I found this out when Skip and I and one of his colleagues, Larry Harrison, somewhat improbably went backpacking together.

CASH: How much have you lost?
LARRY: $200 million.
CASH: $200 million wasted?
LARRY: The one thing I know, though, is that Skip would have squandered it in the endless pursuit of fun.

Oh I’m sure. But hey, don’t go thinking that Skip’s nuts and doesn’t care. You don’t get a 30 percent share of global backpack sales — or 30 percent of anything — by not caring.

SKIP: It hurts me if something’s not successful. CASH: When the dog backpack failed, were you just in floods of tears? SKIP: I don’t know about tears, but I was not happy.

Luckily they don’t make many mistakes. In fact, things have gone so well for JanSport that Skip’s just written an inspirational book: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder.

Containing such refreshing advice like as . . .

YOWELL: Approach your life openly, approach it honestly, and it’s going to bring you great things.

Oh yeah? Well I tried that. And look! I’m still a radio journalist.

In Oakland, California, among successful people, I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace, dude.

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