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David Hieatt is a doer
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David Hieatt is a doer
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David Hieatt is a doer
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"You can’t flourish if you’re not doing something you love."
Conversations
1 January 2013

David Hieatt is a doer

Interview by Liz Evans
Photography by Siddharth Khajuria

Liz Evans on David Hieatt

Those who do, inspire. David Hieatt does a lot. Ideas are everything to David, but without love they mean nothing.

Driven by passion, he cares deeply about what he does, who he does it with, and who he does it for. His work ethic is unquestionable, but perhaps more importantly, his endeavours are infused with a great spirit of intimacy and enjoyment, and in supporting others to realise their full potential, David is almost visionary.

Arguably one of the more proactive people on the planet, David’s business address is nevertheless, his chicken shed, and his daily journey to work consists of crossing a donkey field. Dynamic, yet relaxed, he possesses all the ingenuity of a cutting edge businessman combined with the laconic cool of a snowboarder. But his gentle manner and personable nature are what you really notice. Softly spoken, with a warm Welsh accent and a slightly ruffled air he is a thoughtful man who likes to place himself, heart and soul, into whatever he does.

For David, work is all about community, place, care and consideration, and ultimately, creating change. These principles underpin the Do Lectures, an annual event co-founded five years ago by David and his wife Clare. Held at eco-camp Fforest, in the hinterlands of West Wales, and at the American Campovida, two hours’ drive north of San Francisco, each event is a four day long whirlwind of talks, live music, and locally sourced food.

Location is crucial to the sense of occasion; hence the remote settings and tents, ensuring Mother Nature has her say in the unfolding of events—which can be a challenge in Wales. Speakers come from all manner of backgrounds, but all share the gift of having birthed a truly worthwhile idea that has the potential to change the status quo. Attendees come to get inspired, and many leave with a business plan of their own.

Originally a young employee with cutting edge advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in London, David went on to set up ethical sportswear company howies, in Wales with Clare. Eventually the couple sold out to Timberland, a move they later regretted, but howies has since gone small again and returned to Wales, where, more recently, the Hieatts have begun lovingly designing and marketing organic jeans for discerning creative types—a move aimed at reviving the textiles industry of their hometown, Cardigan.

Love, community, ideas—these are the lynchpins of work and life for David Hieatt, whether with Hiut Denim or the Do Lectures. It may not be a common business formula, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s definitely a common sense formula, and one we can all take inspiration from.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

LIZ EVANS: I’ve been thinking about the concept of doing; how what we do affects who we are and vice versa. As the founder of the Do Lectures, what is your view of doing?

DAVID HIEATT: Well, I like the things I do to be a reflection of my code or values, so I try to do things that I’m interested in, believe in, and I think have a worthwhile purpose. I draw three circles that represent my interests, beliefs and skills. Where those circles come together is where I should be operating, both in business and privately. I try and align all of that in order to go forward.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

Life is precious, and what you’re handed out in the time bank you have to spend well.

I do worry about those people who keep telling me they’ve got a deferred life plan. In five years’ time, they say, they’re going to start doing the thing they really love. I say to myself, Yes but what if you don’t make the five years?

Your awareness of mortality is quite striking, and implies a level of consciousness opened up by personal experience. What happened in your life to precipitate this heightened sense of living in the present?

I think my dad’s death, five or six years ago now, really made me think about stuff. On the wall here, I’ve got his “to do list” from the day he died. I don’t look at it in a sad way, but more like, Fuck it, lets get on with it! There will be a day when your “to do list” doesn’t get done. So I think I have a sense of urgency in doing, and I’ve always felt that way.

But I felt it more after he died. Even on the last day he died, he didn’t do anything exceptional, he just did the things he always did. So I think that spurred me on to get cracking. The shortness of the twenty-four-hour period has always been with me. I get frustrated with how little you can get done in a day. Even this morning I lit the fires, I did the hoovering, I made breakfast. I haven’t seen to the rats yet but I saw to the chickens, and it’s just that thing of the race of the day. I’m just like everybody else.

I’m not sure you are. I think you’re tuned a little differently to other people who, as you say, don’t get round to doing things, or even thinking of things to put on the To Do List…

Well, the sad thing is when people aren’t doing the thing they love. Steve Jobs died at fifty-six, but I mean, who’s lived more—the guy who dies at ninety-nine but spent forty years doing stuff he didn’t love, or Steve Jobs? Part of you is dead anyway, if you’re not doing what you love. So I would hope what I build or work on now, says something about me. I’m happier doing something I feel passionate about. Work has to have a purpose other than simply to make money.

Is that kind of integrity what you’re looking for in a Do Lecture speaker? In fact, how do you pick them? They all seem pretty amazing…

They are. Some people apply to speak with us, and obviously as the whole event grows, that’s happening more often. But I think a lot of it is simply about being aware of people doing remarkable things. You need to have your radar on 365 days a year, so you’re attuned to hearing about remarkable people. You have an eye for a great quote, you’re going to hear about a great book being published, that kind of thing. We only have to find twenty or thirty people, so it’s quite easy.

Trying to persuade those people to come over to the furthest reaches of West Wales isn’t easy though, but overall we’ve been pretty successful at it. I think they’re intrigued by the event and then they all go away and tell their friends about it, and how they’ve never been to anything like this. Usually, as a speaker, you go to a conference, speak and you’re on the next train or plane out of there. But with the Do Lectures, the speakers get just as much out of it all as the attendees.

It’s not really a conference though is it? It sounds more like a festival to me, with all that music, good food and hanging out in tents…

I don’t know what it is.

People keep asking me, ‘Is it a conference?’ Well, I just switch off at that word actually. That word just makes me think of bad coffee.

When I think of festivals I think of wellies… Well, we have wellies, and we definitely have rain. It’s a combination of experiences; from music to food, to community, to weather to talks. The lectures really fire up the other talks that take place in the canteen.

We measure the success of it all by the decibel level in the canteen and how late everyone stays up on the Saturday night. That’s a good way to measure success because people are hanging in rags by Sunday, emotionally and physically. At Fforest the music’s in the barn and everyone dances ‘til four in the morning. So, it is a 360 degree event that impacts you on every level.

I spent my childhood holidays in Wales, and it’s absolutely stunning, but very removed from the cultural and urban life of central England. That contrast reminds me of the social and geographical proximity of Tasmania to mainland Australia, and it makes Tassie a pretty special place. How do you think the location affects what happens at the Do Lectures?

The place is almost critical. It has many roles. It is extremely difficult to get to which means you have to make a commitment to come. Once you’ve spent a day or two travelling to it, you’ve accepted that you’re going to stay there regardless of what you think of it. When you’re in a city—and I do this—you do your talk and you’re back on the bus. But with this, everyone says, ‘Hey I might as well stay.’ It’s really important for the event to be quite far away.

Duke Stump (the curator of the Do Lectures in America) calls it “the genius of place” because the location should transport you. It shouldn’t remind you of where you left, and, it’s not on purpose, but the broadband is especially bad. You have to leave the office behind. It’s elemental. When the wind blows the tent moves, when the rain hits the tent you have to speak louder. It reminds you of things that perhaps you’ve forgotten; that we can’t always live in centrally heated houses, that everything’s not perfect.

But it also reminds you of the importance of a great hot meal and a cup of tea. It’s also really important to be in a magical setting, and both Fforest in Wales, and Campovida in California are just stunning places to visit.

I’m wondering how growing up in Wales affected you…

I grew up in a place with one butcher, one newsagent, one pub. I was five minutes away from the mountain which I’d burn down on my bike in the summer, and in the winter I’d drive my car which was slightly illegal. I played in the local football team. It was small. I quite like small actually.

So that’s it—the link between your personal experience and the way you operate in the world. Community is central, and always has been. This is what gets recreated at every Do Lectures event.

Yeah. I like to keep a low profile, but I like to be part of a community because I believe in teams. We get asked all the time to come and do the Do Lectures, in South America and South Africa, all sorts of places. I always say to people, ‘Well come to the one in Wales or California, get a sense of the vibe, and see how place is central to that.’ Because we don’t want to do many of these things, we just want to be exceptional at what we do.

Let the TED talks be Starbucks and we’ll just be a really cool espresso shop that focuses on giving you a great coffee each time.

I think what TED does is brilliant, and they get fantastic speakers, but people come up to me and say, ‘Look, I’ve been to nine TEDs and it’s been a really important part of my life and business life and I’m a huge fan, but this thing is completely on another level.’ The reason is that people have to spend time with each other—standing at the bar, singing and playing the ukelele… They get the chance to really connect.

Things get stripped down to the bare essentials. I imagine the Dos are quite intense and possibly quite confronting for some people. In fact I noticed that the website for Fforest where the Welsh Dos are held, is coldatnight.co.uk…

People tell me they’re really cold at night and I say, ‘Oh dear, well, you’ll survive!’ It’s a good reminder of how mortal we are, to go from thinking, ‘I’m the champion of the universe,’ to ‘Oh, my toes are cold. Oh no, I’m human after all and I’m quite vulnerable really.’ It should be a challenge though. A conference hall doesn’t challenge you, does it? I think of a conference hall and I think of the opposite of life—in terms of energy and a place that you would want to spend time in to be inspired.

The place where you go to be inspired should be inspiring in itself. It should be a challenge and if people don’t like it, they bitch and moan. But they often go away and realise the event has changed the way they think.

What about the challenges people may feel in relation to ‘doing’ or ‘not doing?’

It can be completely intimidating or completely inspiring. Yes, for some, these people could seem too remarkable. But I look at them and see human beings, who’ve just been a bit more focused, or who didn’t give up, who had to battle, be really stubborn—I get really inspired about that. These people are just like you and me, they’ve had difficulties but they’ve overcome them, they’ve risen to the challenges, they’ve had great ideas.

Since you started the Do Lectures, have you noticed anything in particular about the people who ‘do?’ Are they of a kind?

People who come tend to be on the cusp of things. They’re at the edge of where they want to be and they come for a final nudge. Most people come from corporations, and most people leave those corporations after they’ve been to a Do Lecture. They start their own businesses or change direction.

It’s getting harder to sell tickets to corporations now because they know they’re going to lose their people if they come here. The Do Lectures are a big nudge in the direction of wherever you want to go. But man, there are so many different types of people who attend. They come from all walks of life, we get everyone from CEOs to nurses. It’s an eclectic bunch of talks, with an eclectic mix of speakers. In fact last year we had a couple of attendees who gave talks and they were absolutely stunning.

Did that happen spontaneously?

Yes, it wasn’t planned, but it became an amazing thing. We asked everyone present to vote for the attendee they would like to hear speaking. Five people got up and pitched their talk. Then we voted and the two talks turned out to be one of the highlights. We also have students who are sponsored by different companies come along—it keeps the bloodline interesting.

Presumably these students are from the younger age groups, which leads me to wondering, what is the role of age in “doing”. There can be a naivete in youth that is very mobilizing, but as we grow older we often stop…

It’s a complicated subject, but the thing with naive—and I use that in a positive way—young people is that they don’t put barriers up.

You say, “Why?” And they say, “Why not?”

That’s a great state of mind, where you go, Well I don’t know how to do this thing but I’m just going to go and do it. As we grow older we become trained in putting barriers up, and they stop us from doing remarkable things.

People tell themselves they can’t do things because they have a big mortgage or whatever it is, whereas a youthful mind doesn’t do that. That’s the beauty. You can have a youthful mind at forty or you can have an old mind at twenty. There’s that beautiful quote from Satchel Paige, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

Fear and comfort can be very effective barriers….

I think there’s a whole bunch of reasons why people put barriers up. We all have dreams, but what happens if we strive for our dream and we don’t get there? There’s the fear of finding out that we might not be any good at the thing we love, that we might fail. As humans we like routine and security. Change takes those two things away; we don’t like that so much.

So there’s a whole ton of reasons why you can stay as you are, and tell yourself the status quo is fine. But there are always a bunch of people out there who actually just want to change things, which might be personal, or on larger scale.

It seems to me though, that some people are disposed to risk-taking.

Yes, I think I take risks, but it doesn’t make the journey any nicer; you’ve just calculated the potential for success or failure, and have come to terms with the possibility of failure. Sometimes people get hooked up on failure, but as the cliché goes, buy a toaster if you want a guarantee. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, you can’t go back to John Lewis and say, ‘It isn’t working anymore…’

What makes you ok with failing, with being vulnerable?

Being vulnerable is being open. If you accept the fact that you have nothing to lose, you can accept failure, because you never had anything anyway. The nice house or car — if you value those then you’ve got things to lose. If not, you can be vulnerable because there is nothing to lose. I try not to get lost in the past; in terms of things that worked or didn’t. People don’t go forward if they think the past has the best of them. I’m a football fan. The penalty takers who overthink things tend to miss, but the ones who just kick the ball succeed.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had nothing to lose?

Several times I’ve been in the situation where everything was to be lost. You have to accept it. What is the worst thing that can happen? Losing your house? Losing your reputation? You have to square it in your mind. But some people just aren’t risk-takers. If everybody were a risk-taker, the world would be a scary place.

Tell me about the focus on entrepreneurship at the Do Lectures.

It’s about us getting to five years of age really. You have to keep challenging yourself, and in a way you have to reinvent yourself. It’s no longer enough for us to host this extraordinary event, we have to keep excited about it. It’s like publishing a magazine — you have to keep it interesting not just for the customers, or the readers, but for yourself. If you tread the same track twice, you get bored. And for us to maintain a remarkable event we have to keep challenging ourselves, so I’m getting everyone to try something new and different, to take a risk.

We’ve always run the Do Lectures as an eclectic event and we’ve always resisted having a theme, but that’s changing now. We’ll still have the format of twenty talks, but this time they’ll follow a path that starts with the idea and finishes with forming a company, and it’ll be practical but inspirational.

For example, we’re trying to get the chef René Redzepi to come along from Copenhagen where he started a restaurant, Noma, in 2004. He went from struggling to get fifty people through the doors, to being voted best restaurant in the world three times in a row, and having 2500 people on the waiting list in a matter of years. Now, that’s a start up situation, and it’s a remarkable story. Once people have a taste of starting something, that’s exactly what they go and do, and at the end of it there could be a business—who knows what that will mean?

Well, that’s a good point—what will it mean? How do you manage or contain what might be created here?

Part of what we’re going to be talking about is how to do things that matter. Having a principled business with an understanding of why it exists. Uffe Elbæk, who founded the Kaos Pilots—an ethical business school in Denmark—said, ‘We didn’t want to be the best business school in the world, we wanted to be the best business school for the world.’

We want to create a culture of ideas that change things for the better. You can’t tell people what to do but you can encourage them in what to consider, which is: How are we going to change things? So, for example, building another app isn’t going to change the world but building an app that reduces energy consumption by ten per cent could do. So it’s a question of trying to bring purpose to what we do.

Where does your social and environmental conscience come from? Who inspired you?

One of my sisters and I were born in New Zealand, and my other sister was born in Australia. When we came back to Wales we returned to where my grandfather lived. He was a coal miner. The miners would wash the coal in the rivers and that turned them black. During the miners’ holiday the rivers ran clean. And the people who ran the mines had libraries for everyone, so they killed them by day but educated them by night. I’ve always remembered these things—those images of the river, and the libraries. These childhood things stay with you, don’t they?

My dad was in the Merchant Navy, and he sailed the world. He told me once, that he got so upset by all the other guys not doing their jobs properly that he started signing his work; he put his initials on everything he did. It was his way of saying he did his job well, and no one else could take the blame or the credit for it. And actually, putting your name to something is saying you’re happy with it, there’s great pride in that. We all strive for that, don’t we? So he inspired me, and he also lent me some money for my first business to fail quickly and painfully!

I was also very lucky when I was twenty-one to be working at the most creative advertising agency in the world at the time, Saatchi & Saatchi in London. They wanted us to fly there—so I grew up in an amazingly creative atmosphere, where you worked hard, had great ideas and it was always fun. It’s very important to have fun.

If you’re always watching the clock then perhaps you’re not in the right place.

You can’t flourish if you’re not doing something you love. Now, I’m a believer in getting young, dynamic people and letting them fly — saying to them, ‘Go and do your best here.’ I love to see people grow and I’ve seen people come and help to run the Do Lectures and to begin with they couldn’t organise a cup of tea, but by the time they leave they are super-confident, amazing young people.

Love seems to play a significant role in what you do, and you’ve spoken in your own Do Lecture, as the guy who heads up Hiut Denim, about doing what you love for the people you love. How do you bring love into business without basing your business on sentiment?

If you do something that matters to you—business that makes a difference, or matters to you personally—that’s a personal mission. I could earn a fortune doing other things, but life is short and its incumbent on a person to do things that matter. It’s quite easy to live for the weekend, but there are five more days to live through, you should be having fun at home and work. Why settle for two fun days?

Making a product you don’t love, well I find that a difficult notion. If you can find a product you love and sell it to customers you love that’s a pretty good thing. Now I love jeans. Jeans are the uniform for the creative individual, and that’s who I want to make jeans for because creative people change things and that’s the world we’re interested in. If I can respect and admire and be inspired by our customers then I would hope to run a company that would inspire them too. All these things, to me, are just common sense. Sadly, common sense isn’t as common as we would like.

I believe in quality and great design. We throw things away, not because we’ve worn them out, but because we’re bored of them. Things that are conceived of in the moment die in a moment. I believe in an understated design ethic because actually, it endures. I like the sense of community that making jeans can bring back to my town, Cardigan, which used to make jeans. If we’re brilliant—and we need to be brilliant to take on the competition—then our town has found its mojo again. But we have to have great ideas. I’m scared of that because great ideas rarely come along. But I’m also completely comfortable with it.

There’s a real sense of intimacy to all of this—the carefully designed, manufactured and niche marketed jeans, and the small, but very conscious event that is the Do Lectures. The scale is small, but the potential impact is huge….

Yes, there is an intimate aspect to these things. You have to create a culture that invites people to believe they can do their best and most exciting work, because when you see people care it’s really hard not to care about them, and you want to support them as much as you can. Negativity is contagious but so is positivity.

You know how there are just certain people you want to hang with because man, they’re just so good to be around? And that energy is transferred to you and you realise you can do anything when you’re around those people. The spirit of the Do Lectures really is like an intimate dinner party, and it’s amazing.

When I met Duke Stump I just knew he would be the perfect person for the Do Lectures in the USA, it was all to do with the luck of finding him. I told him I had no idea what he would get out of the event, other than meeting some great people, but that would be enough.

The other thing I said is to think of it like a dinner party. Who would you like to invite? And if you change seats at every course, you need to be as happy to sit next to the new person as you were with the last. So it’s a very intimate and random event. Wherever you line up for your food is where you’ll end up sitting, so the conversations are very eclectic because you can’t choose to be in on anything, and there’s no separation between speakers and attendees. No one wears a badge. So the person you’re sitting next to might have invented the internet, or they might be working on the internet. You won’t know until you join in with the conversation.

How do the USA Do Lectures compare with the UK event? Have you noticed any striking cultural differences?

The Californian one was amazing this year actually. You forget about sunshine sometimes don’t you! By and large it was a Californian audience and I do think Californians are very different to other Americans. But the spirit of the event is totally on the same level as the Welsh event—the optimism, the open-mindedness, the laughter and the food. I go there and I’m quite humbled by it really. I feel just as good leaving there as I do leaving Fforest.

In amongst all the doing, is there a place for not doing, for just being? I’m thinking about the importance of dreaming and finding a space for stillness…

It’s very important. Sometimes we’re busy fools and just having those quiet, reflective times is really important. I have those quiet times when I’m doing sport, when I go for a run where I can have some peace. Not just peace as in peace and quiet, but a kind of productive peace.

William Rosenzweig of Physic Ventures in San Francisco—the first venture capital firm which invests in keeping people healthy—came and spoke at the Do Lectures about “wu wei” which is the art of not doing. If you look at nature, there are times when it seems as if nothing’s happening, but in fact a ton of stuff is happening underground and before you know it the shoots are coming up. So yes, we definitely need to press the pause button occasionally, and have time to reflect, calm down and think. If you have a lot of energy it can actually go in the wrong direction really fast.

So, there is a relationship between time and doing or not doing?

You can be ahead of your time, and that can make it hard. There is a timeliness to some ideas, just like when you’re running and the wind is on your back, it helps. So doing the start-up thing now, for us, is oddly timely. There is a need for more great companies now. I tend not to read the newspapers, but the political climate in the UK right now is all rubbish.

We can’t leave the future to politicians, we have to guide it ourselves, and we can do that by launching companies that matter and that make a difference to where we are and where we want to be.

Liz Evans

Liz Evans is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer based in Hobart. You can find out more about her work at lizevanspsychotherapy.com.

Photography by Siddharth Khajuria

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