I’ve written about Portland, OR-based outdoor clothing retailer Nau and its compelling brand of “business activism” here before. Today, I’m sad to report that Nau is closing shop. I spoke with Ian Yolles of Nau today and he confirmed that they were unable to close their latest round of funding, and after exploring every option, are left with this crushing decision—it turns out there’s not much room in today’s retrenching capital markets for the soaring ambitions of a company like Nau.
A word about those ambitions before we start picking apart the business model and intoning knowledgeably about why it failed.
From the start I found Nau’s plan almost breathtakingly ambitious—but unimpeachably right-minded. The founding idea at the heart of the company was that business has a responsibility (and a great opportunity) to contribute to positive and lasting change in society and the environment. Nau’s founders were so serious about this, they took the unprecedented move of writing a triple bottom line into the corporate charter. From the start, Nau wasn’t simply interested in producing killer product (although they accomplished that by pushing the boundaries on sustainability, performance, and style further than anyone has before in the outdoor industry—when do Vogue and Rock & Ice ever rave about the same product?), they were also intent on disrupting the economics of their industry, changing the way people shop (in futuristic “webfronts” that I believe contain powerful signals of what’s next in retail), and inspiring a wider movement among businesspeople and consumers.
As CEO Chris Van Dyke put it to me in his laid-back and guileless way, “Why would anyone start a company for any other reason?”
I think that’s even more true today than when Nau’s band of founders were first hashing out those ideas over coffee at the Urban Grind in Portland a few short years ago. We’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again: great companies don’t just offer great products or great services, they stand for important ideas. Ideas with the power to fundamentally reshape the sense of what’s possible among customers, employees, and the wider world. Having a meaningful idea agenda doesn’t guarantee you’ll win (as the events of today demonstrate), but not having one is a sure path to failure.
As Alex Steffan points out in his elegant elegy on Worldchanging (channeling Aristotle), there are many ways to fail, and Nau has failed in the best possible way. How? Because they’ve left a legacy of important ideas—ideas that represent a gathering force in the world and continue to animate a wider community (the “collective” Nau saw as its audience rather than any consumer demographic). And because they’ve modeled a different way to be a company: one in which the first order of business is for every person to be remarkably thoughtful about what it means to be good and to do good at work and in the world—and to be equally meticulous about matching their every behavior to those beliefs.
I could go on (and I have, as anyone who’s caught me in a Nau item and asked, “Where’d you get that?” knows all too well). But I’ll let the folks at Nau have the last word. Here they are thinking big and thinking right even in the toughest moment:
Nau set out to show the world that business can be a force for positive social and environmental change. Although our current financial obstacles have proven to be insurmountable, it does not mean the ideas associated with Nau are unattainable. Nau was merely one attempt to express a larger idea that was around before us and will survive long after. It remains as urgent as ever for businesses to take the lead in creating a sustainable future for humans and the planet. We, as individuals and as members of a grander collective of the change-minded, look forward to continuing that journey.
P.S. Check out the site ASAP for incredible bargains on the remaining inventory.PermaLink: NAU: Ahead of its time?