When I found out last week that Blake was dead, unexpectedly, and at the age of 58, I searched for him in my inbox. I found this email from November 26, 2014.
Hope you and yours have a great Thanksgiving. Just had the opportunity to look at your most recent catalog with the Ford Bronco on the cover. I thought overall it was really well done, and though you didn’t ask for it, I thought I’d put in my two cents.
I’m not very creative, so I would have skipped the picture on page 2 and 3.
Page 4: great looking sweater, a little hard to read the print, and you don’t list sizes.
Page 38: I think there needs to be more clarity about the various fits and washes, and depending on the customer, which one they may want to buy. Whether it’s on that page, or something at the end. You may nail this on the website and want to encourage customers to go there.
Page 49: I think it would be hard for a customer to find their item through the description on the bottom quartile of the page. Could you have a number next to each item or some easier way to follow it to eventually order?
Page 54: I didn’t quite get this page. Is this for clearance, because you’re talking about 20% off at the bottom? Is this a focus for women?
It went on. Every single thing was about the customer. Over four years later, we are still working on his feedback from page 38. Smile.
The last time I saw Blake we were in his office in Seattle. It was a cold and windy day in August. I showed him a pair of white Vans I was wearing and had just bought at the flagship store below their headquarters. He flashed his trademark smile. Someone in an online obituary said they never saw him without it. It made me stop and think. I never saw him without it, either.
We got into a conversation that afternoon on the relationship between costs and margins. I mentioned to him that we had been able to bring our costs down as we got scale, and we’d be better able to split the margins with Nordstrom. He flashed his toothy grin and told me that he doesn’t like when brands and retailers do that. He’d rather we invested more in the product or passed on the savings to the customer. He made a joke about how he sometimes gets in trouble for saying that.
The moment passed, but it stayed with me. It ended up having a profound effect. A big part of our strategy this year at Bonobos is based on it.
I asked Blake what he was up to that day. He said he was answering customer emails. I was puzzled.
“How do you have time?” I asked him.
“Oh I block some time every day. Or I answer them in between meetings. I also never do any external stuff. No panels, no talks. Clears up a lot of time. I’d rather be talking to our customers or here with the team than out there on the circuit,” he said, with a wave of the hand.
As someone who does too much external stuff, I gulped.
“How many customer emails do you get a day?” I asked.
“Usually about 30,” he said.
“You can’t possibly answer them all,” I replied, indignant.
“Of course I do,” he said, in an aw shucks way. He grinned; then he gave his assistant the credit.
“Don’t some customers just keep going back and forth with you?”
“Oh sure,” he said. “There are some people that are never going to be satisfied.”
A woman walked by his office. It was an executive they had hired recently. He enthusiastically invited her in to meet me, celebrating her background and what she does at the company. We chatted. She left.
Out of nowhere, then, and with a big smile:
“Have you met my Dad??”
No, I hadn’t. Blake walked me down the hall to meet him. Bruce, at 85, was in the office, working. “I’m the chief scorekeeper and the chief cheerleader,” he told me, also with a big smile, clearly hereditary.
To my great surprise his dad was wearing Bonobos. I was smitten. I asked Blake to take a picture. He took several. He said he got some good ones. I had to laugh. In none of the photos are my eyes open. I posted one anyway.
Later I remember regretting that Blake wasn’t in the picture.
As we wrapped up, Blake mentioned that I absolutely had to read a copy of his dad’s book. I asked Bruce for a signed copy. It’s called Leave It Better Than You Found It.
Blake did just that in this life.
It never occurred to me that he would be leaving anytime soon.
His charisma was in the way that he listened and engaged as much as it was in what he said. Every time I was with him, he transmitted positive energy. He was unflinchingly honest and curious. He had courage. He cared intensely about taking care of customers and the members of his team. The common thread reveals what Blake was really all about.
I didn’t know Blake that well. As I take stock, what I realize is how much every interaction, however quotidian, matters. There are very few big moments in life. There are a million small ones.
Handle each one with care.