In a quiet revolution, one company stands up to the mega-giant. We discuss their decision, their vision, and their nomadic lifestyle in the wilds of the world.
I saw the following note on Facebook, and I waited.
I waited for the media stir, for the public applause. I waited for the backlash of defense from parents whose early memories included Shamu and a trip to the iconic SeaWorld of old.
Nothing happened. Google searches for “Outdoorplay” and “SeaWorld order cancelled” yielded not a whisper.
The letter, posted to Stevie Trujillo’s Facebook wall on June 3, 2014, looked like this:
Dear Sea World,
Thank you very much for the attractive order you placed with Outdoorplay. Unfortunately, we had to cancel your order. Although I would love to take your money, our company does not support the ethics of your current business model. There are more important things than profit. We hope that you reconsider your company vision, free the animals you have in captivity, and reinvent yourself as a true conservation organization.
Considering the exposure CVS generated with its decision to stop selling tobacco products by October 1, 2014, or the publicity blitz of the “This is Wholesome” ad and subsequent video response put out by Honey Maid (I even wrote a commentary on that one for GMP) I thought surely that social media, if not mainstream media, would be abuzz with hashtags and official statements. But no. Nothing. Nada.
If They Did It For the PR They’ve Really Screwed This One Up
Unable to find any information through the usually forthcoming Google search, I visited the only link I found for Outdoorplay, their main website. There I found a retail site featuring everything I could need or want (and a great number of things I would not know what to do with, but was immediately curious about) to experience the great outdoors.
I also found a phone number. On a mission now, I dialed and, not finding a “Tree” on the company directory the automatic system recited for me, I took a chance and selected the number for customer service. A perfectly delightful lady who gave her name as “Erin” told me that Tree and Stevie worked remotely, and could only be reached via email, but if I cared to contact them she could give me an email that would reach them.
I cared. But I rather doubted they’d do more than give me an official statement and send me on my way.
To my surprise my email congratulating them on their somewhat startling business decision and asking for assistance in writing a story, got a prompt and positive response; “Thank you for reaching out. We would be thrilled to participate on any level. Just let us know what you need.”
The email went on to say that he and Stevie lived and ran the company remotely from South America, so any interview would need to be via Skype or email.
While we were figuring out the best time to meet up via internet/phone, I followed up on a hunch from one of our Senior Editors. Surely Ric O’Barry, the world renowned dolphin trainer (he trained the five dolphins who played Flipper) turned dolphin advocate (over the past 40 years he has actively freed and rehabilitated dolphins while becoming the leading voice in the fight to end dolphin hunts and captures) would have been alerted to this decision.
A quick Facebook message to Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project page and I had a response. They hadn’t heard of Outdoorplay’s decision, but they had an official statement:
“We applaud Outdoorplay’s decision and their company joins the ranks of other companies & celebrities that don’t support Sea World’s out dated business model.”
SeaWorld’s Business Model – “Outdated, Unsustainable, and Unethical”
An “outdated and unsustainable business model” was exactly what Tree (official name, John) Trujillo cited when I asked him to put into words his reasons for cancelling the order from SeaWorld.
He and his wife and partner, Stevie, are quick to point out that they did not single SeaWorld out, SeaWorld came to them. And Outdoorplay made a business decision based on personal and corporate principles. The bottom line comes down to this:
“SeaWorld is a corporation that puts corporate profits ahead of ethical issues.”
“So where,” I asked the husband and wife team, “should profit be in a company’s priorities?”
“We’re a for-profit too, and a for-profit has to make a profit. But if you have to violate your ethics – that’s the tipping point.”
While they didn’t single SeaWorld out from the other corporations they see putting profit before ethics, the nature of SeaWorld’s model and extent of their reach made the decision to not claim them as a customer an easy one for Outdoorplay to make.
Know Why You Make the Choices You Make
“It’s not just SeaWorld, but they have so much power and cut such a wide path. And this is the world our daughter is going to grow up in.”
Their daughter, Soleil, will turn two in October, and Tree and Stevie intend to raise her as a “citizen of the world.”
Stevie’s first birthday present to her daughter is a post titled, We Did It For the Wild, and it says a lot about why this nomadic couple has elected to live and run their business from a van (yes, they live in a van) and why they feel at peace with turning down an order from SeaWorld.
They don’t feel right disclosing the size of that order, and I don’t press the point. But Tree tells me that, while it wasn’t big enough to retire on, it was sizable. Their decision, he asserts, would have been the same regardless of the size of the order.
As Stevie says in her letter to their little bundle of love and hope, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”
So they’ve vowed to bring the love of the wild to as many people as possible, and to not be a party to anything they believe is destroying the wild that they love so well.
Living in a van, they say, makes it easier to refuse an order from SeaWorld.
They’ve “replaced material things with natural things,” and, according to their personal blog site, as of this instant, they’ve been on the road now for four years, eight months, 20 days, and 53 minutes.
They park their van in one location for anywhere from two weeks to two months, and their ultimate goal is to work their way all the way around the world.
As Stevie says in a follow up note to me, “We’ve learned through experience that making sacrifices to live authentically is worth it. By choosing our minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, we give up a lot of comfort and convenience (not to mention the specifics like my entire income and part of Tree’s salary) that is expected in the States, but, at the same time, by living outside the cycle of debt and consumption as much as we can, we are able to live our dream, which is to travel the world, spend as much time together as a family, make friends, and connect with other cultures and wild places. So when we were faced with denying the SeaWorld order and surely losing any hope of future orders, we were already inured to the short-term sacrifice, but we knew that what would come in its stead would be gratifying in a way that can’t be quantified monetarily. No one can deny that it feels good to live for what you believe in.”
Know the Price and the Compensation
Their loves and lifestyle carry a price tag beyond refusing business. Tree is quick to acknowledge that, although the business is doing stellar, he and Stevie are giving up a large paycheck in order to live the gypsy life.
He still works at least 40 hours a week on the business, but he pays highly qualified people to be onsite managing the operation. I tell him there are many kinds of compensation. Yes, he agrees, they’ve chosen freedom as their value, money comes after that.
Freedom. Freedom of expression, since, as Stevie says, traveling and learning the wild world is how they’ve chosen to express themselves. Freedom of lifestyle, of course. And freedom of principles, allowing them to refuse business from a mega-giant like SeaWorld in exchange for peace of mind.
As they’ve spent more time in wild places, experiencing the cultures of the world, their perspective has evolved, become more holistic. Not that their core philosophy has changed, but their choices reflect their experiences and new understandings.
Be Willing to Evolve as Your Exposure Changes Your Understanding
Raised by a “Berkeley Hippie” who was an avid environmentalist, Tree recalls the eighth-grade paper he wrote on dismantling nuclear weapons. He started Outdoorplay as a kayaking school when he was 20. “It was that or go to college,” he tells me. “And I didn’t want to go back to school.”
His first mission was just to expose other people to the wild outdoors. “Being in the wilderness changes you. It gave me the confidence to choose an alternative lifestyle, and I wanted to share that with other people.”
But he says that, had the SeaWorld order come in during his early days in business, he might have taken it out of ignorance, not understanding the impact that SeaWorld’s current business model has on the world. “Exposure changes our decisions,” he says. He hasn’t changed, but he makes decisions from what he now knows.
Stevie tells a different story, with a similar lesson. Growing up in Los Angles, and later living with Tree in Venice, California, she thought of herself as “environmentally conscious.” They recycled, they conserved. “But, we were largely unaware of how our lifestyle contributed to a systemic problem.”
Removing themselves from that lifestyle, while still running a highly successful online retail operation, happened gradually. Tree says the fact that it is possible at all is due to having many top employees who have been with Outdoorplay for more than a decade, allowing him to “sit behind the scenes directing traffic.”
Surround Yourself With People Who Align With Your Principles
Tree did discuss his intention to cancel the SeaWorld order with a trusted senior manager and with their newest employee, Erin. But he says the entire company was in alignment with the decision.
Asked about personal or business mentors, both Tree and Stevie get a little wistful. Nope, no mentors, but they have a big time hero in Certified B (Benefit) Corporation, Patagonia. “They’re counter-intuitive,” Tree says. Doing things that no board of directors would think would be a good idea, like putting up a page on “cyber Monday” that says, “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.” The perfect example, he and Stevie agree, of a company making a healthy profit while not only upholding their ethics, but contributing to the greater good as well.
Throw a Pebble In the Pool Even If You Can’t See the Ripples
What impact, I ask, do they prophesy that their decision will have? Not much, they figure. Not in the public eye, and not long term.
But what if, I persist, the story did spread? What if it brought some awareness, or created opportunities for them and their company? Would they be averse to that happening?
Of course not, nor are they concerned about the people who would say they only did it for the PR. There will always be people who say that, just as in the examples of CVS and Honey Maid. But Tree and Stevie are also OK if no one ever hears about it. It is just one more way for them to respect their own well-being, and the well-being of the planet.
We wrap our time together with a curve-ball question. Tree fields it with exceptional grace and insight.
“What if,” I ask, “SeaWorld called tomorrow and asked you to take the helm? What would your first decision be?”
Tree’s first response is that he can’t think of a job he’d want less. But he is silent for a moment, taking the question to heart. Finally he says, somewhat sadly,
“There is no way I can see to repair their non-sustainable business model. I believe I’d have to reinvent the company mission.”
Let Yourself Dream, You Never Know What the Future Holds
We begin to get excited visualizing a world where the resources SeaWorld wields are committed to becoming an “impactful conservation and scientific organization.” While it seems likely that the profit structure would also have to change, we agree that being profitable could be part of the model.
Stevie has three areas of value already in mind that a reinvented SeaWorld could provide; psychological well-being, increased environmentalism awareness, and respect for other species. SeaWorld has already made some inroads, she says. They’ve introduced the denizens of the deep as intelligent creatures, capable of cooperating with humans, instead of frightening monsters of Moby Dick proportions. But she adds,
“Public perspective has changed. We just need to take the next indicated step.”
If anyone is going to reinvent SeaWorld’s mission, Tree and Stevie are exactly the type of people I would choose.
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by OutdoorPlay co-founder, Stevie Trujillo
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