"It was a nice party anyway": the wonderful history of the Whole Earth Catalog
July 23, 2011
I was in the library the other day doing some research for a project on small publishers. What a surprise to find, within a book called “The Do-It-Yourself Publishing Handbook”, a brief first-person history of the founding of The Whole Earth Catalog.
The _Catalog_, for those who don’t know, was a collection of creative and sustainable-living products, and sort of an icon of the counterculture in the late 60s and 70s. If you’ve read Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he calls it “Google in paperback form… idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”
Anyway, it’s a great story. I can’t reprint the entire history here, though you can buy it from Amazon, but here are a few highlights. Everything in quotes is verbatim from the book.
Stewart Brand, the founder, says he came up with the idea for the catalog at what must have been a pretty significant moment for him – hours after the funeral of his father.
The catalog was created to solve the problem of access for counterculture projects and living. If you are running an apiary, where do you get a beekeeping manual? If you want to build a windmill, where do you buy the materials? That sort of thing. Many people at the time were trying to establish their own little civilizations, something I think we’re seeing re-emerge in some ways in the form of the Maker movement (I need a 3D printer, how can I build one?) and in the form of the increasing number of people who are trying to live “off the grid” with the help of e.g. solar power, renewed interest in small-scale animal husbandry, eating locally.
One of the things I like about Brand’s story is that in the midst of talking about this very successful idea, he also talks about the other things he was working on that didn’t work out.
I’d been desultorily working for [Dick Raymond at the Portola Institute] for about half a year, had helped instigate one costly failure (an “Education Fair” which aborted) and was partly into another doomed project I called EIEIO (“Eletronic Interconnect Educated Intellect Operation”).
I love the frank admission of failure – not only that, but “costly” failure. Sometimes I wonder if failed projects are the manure in which really great ideas grow. I anticipate more of my own failed projects, and I think that belief is probably necessary to keep going when things don’t work out. And in fact, not only had these ideas not worked out for Brand, but he didn’t even know what he was doing now. He goes on to say that the guy he was working for “listened gravely and asked a few questions I had no answers for”. What were these questions?
“Who do you consider to be the audience?”
“What kind of expenses do you think you’ll have?”
“How often will you publish it, and how many copies?”
In other words, some of the most basic questions that an entrepreneur or designer is supposed to answer before embarking on a new project.
Obviously, there is something romantic about this story; I am only writing about The Whole Earth Catalog because it succeeded – and inevitably, one of the millions of projects that starts out in such a haphazard way will succeed. So if you read this and want to tell me that therefore there is no lesson here, I’d understand that. Indeed, “for over a year Portola Institute had been nothing but… a few expensive projects with big ideas and little to show.”
But on the other hand, how many great projects don’t get tried out simply because the answers to these questions are unclear?
An early test
And yet the next thing we learn is that Brand took a very sensible next step. This was going to be a cheap failure, not a costly one.
“In July ’68 I printed up a mimeographed six-page ‘partial preliminary booklist’ of what I’d gathered so far (Tantra Art, Cybernetics, The Indian Tipi, Recreational Equipment, about 120 items). With samples of each in the back of our truck, Lois [Brand’s wife] and I set out to visit the market… in about a month the Whole Earth Truck Store did a stunning two hundred dollars of business. No profit, but it didn’t cost too much and was good education.”
So he did this boring thing called “market validation”, but it sounds like it was still pretty fun. Starting up, spending a couple months to get a version of the product together. Then getting in a truck and calling it a “Truck Store”, and going out to visit the communes where most of the Catalog’s customers would probably be. I guess it’s OK to be dreamy especially if it helps you develop your idea to this point.
After this, Brand hired a few more people and published the first catalog. Surprisingly, it sounds as if the initial launch of the Catalog was sort of a failure. “We sent them to the fifty or so subscribes we’d got with mailers and personal contact. We carted some around to stores, who didn’t want them, not even on consignment. (‘Too big. Too expensive. What is it?’)”.
I guess that last question was the most surprising to me. Even after doing pretty well in an initial test, suddenly they were running into the fact that people didn’t even understand what the catalog was. I wonder if they considered going back to the Truck Store idea again?
The store, and expanding readership
For some reason that I don’t completely understand, Brand’s next step was to open up a store. They signed a five-year lease at this point, and continued hiring more people to help with production and running things. Not many people actually came into the store, but at the same time the catalog was about to go what I guess we would call “viral”.
“The readership was a small sort of cult then, most of whom seemed to know each other, or wanted to. Also in January we produced our first ‘Difficult But Possible Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog’. It was a thirty-two-page newsprint collection of friends’ letters, old pamphlets like Abbie Hoffman’s ‘Fuck the System’, a solar heater, new _Catalog _suggestions.”
I guess this is where I wish the story had more detail. Obviously the Catalog was filling some kind of need in the counterculture community. And obviously people were hearing about it, and the “cult” was expanding through word of mouth (there’s no mention of much deliberate marketing, other than door-to-door sales in Menlo Park, in the history).
But why did it continue expanding, and why did Brand have the confidence to start making fairly serious commitments to the business despite the fact that revenues vastly outpaced expenses and “none of us knew how to run a store, and we were learning the hard way?” The catalog wasn’t even being mailed properly.
“Periodicals are mailed second class, a faster, surer and cheaper service than third class, which is junk mail. The classifications man in San Francisco said, ‘It says _Catalog _right here on the cover. Catalogs go third class.’ …The thing was ambled, letters to our congressman, rulings and rulings, to this result: we had to send _The Last Catalog_ third class. When a mail truck gets stuck in the mud, third class is what they throw under the wheels.”
I just wonder what is missing from the story. All of a sudden, “We were being mentioned in a lot of underground papers… and then Nicholas von Hoffman wrote a full piece on the Catalog that got syndicated all over the United States. We were caught. We were famous.”
Why? Did they luck into it? Was the catalog such a powerful symbol of a particular way of life, or mindset, that people naturally gravitated to it? The price came down a bit, and the catalog got bigger, in the meantime. Was it just incremental growth and improvement? If so, another reason to start projects even if you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going or how you will get there. Was it having the right friends (Brand’s included Richard Brautigan and Ken Kesey)? Another reason to spend more time goofing off with your buddies!
The rest of the story
Brand goes on to chronicle the growth of the catalog and his eventual boredom with the project. (Surprising for such an iconic personality and publication). Brand kept working on the Catalog, and fit some other projects in as well.
“I actually thought I could fit Liferaft Earth – which involved going foodless for a week in a crowded public place to personalize the inevitable overpopulated future – in between the September _Supplement _and the fall _Catalog_. Setting up the event was even harder than production. Then starving for a week was no way to recuperate. Dumb… Then Christmas was upon us. About this time I went over some edge.”
A few years after starting it, Brand wound the catalog down, though it appears to have been published occasionally into the 90s. He concludes by telling us that
“A lot of other stuff happened too; ask anybody who was there. Ask Bernie Sproch to show you his Whole Earth stamp collection.”
Why I wanted to write about this
I thought this was an interesting, and incredibly exciting story, for several reasons:
I think, being in business school, one often forgets that this type of project – a creative or intuitive one, one that pretends it doesn’t have any limits – can succeed. In fact, it can also be tremendously valuable, though perhaps not monetarily. The academic portion of business school is about learning frameworks, putting things in boxes, etc. I’ve found that somewhat useful. But I think this method of teaching almost actively obscures the fact that many truly great projects don’t make very much sense at the beginning. I worry often that business education is too much about the sensible, and easily explainable, and conservative.
You can see all the stages of starting a business in this story. But they’re approached somewhat wildly, and actions that make sense are combined with what appears to be pure optimism. For example, the Catalog in at least one of its incarnations was simply a listing of products along with where to get them, which is a really smart idea. And yet they couldn’t figure out how to get it delivered second-class mail.
There’s lots missing from the story. I would like to know more about how people heard about the Catalog, why it grew in popularity so quickly, and what purpose it served for its customers. I’d like to know why it was so ephemeral – was there really no way to turn it into an enduring cultural institution? It would even be interesting to look at their financial statements!