You may not yet know the creator, but you certainly already know the shoes.
Paul Van Doren is one of the cofounders of Vans, a shoe brand beloved by skateboarders, creatives, and “off-the-wall” fans everywhere for its laid-back, Southern California aesthetic. In his upcoming memoir, Authentic (Vertel Publishing) Van Doren shares his unlikely journey from high-school dropout to sneaker-industry pioneer.
“When I was approached to write the book, I wondered how I could explain my life as a series of tidy lessons,” Van Doren tells Fortune. “Eventually I realized that what I would offer is less formula and more whatever the opposite of formula is—let’s call it fluidity. Because the truth is the boundaries between my personal and professional lives have always been blurred.”
Van Doren led the company from its inception in 1965 until 1988. Two of his children are still leaders at Vans. Now entering his ninth decade, Van Doren continues to serve as a brand ambassador for the company’s people-oriented company culture.
“My famous credo: get your hands dirty,” Van Doren advises entrepreneurial readers. “If a young entrepreneur came to me today and asked how to start a company, I would say right off the bat: know what goes into making what you’re selling. If you sell from a place of total confidence in the quality down to the details, you will succeed.”
A blue-collar kid with no higher education and zero retail experience, Van Doren started out as a 16-year-old “service boy” at a local rubber factory. In 1966, when the first House of Vans store opened in Costa Mesa, Calif., there were no standalone retail stores just for sneakers. Van Doren’s bold experiments in product design (including the iconic checkerboard slip-on shoe), distribution, and marketing made Vans a cult classic and a household name.
Over the next few decades, Van Doren leveraged a knack for numbers, a genius for efficiency, and the know-how to make a great canvas tennis shoe into an all-American success story. What began as a family shoe business evolved into a globally recognized brand with annual revenue of more than $4 billion.
But there was also back-breaking work, bankruptcy, family turmoil, and a profound shift in how customers think about athletic shoes. Authentic details Van Doren’s personal life, but also hard-won business lessons learned over six turbulent decades in the shoe trade.
“The way I’ve run my business is the way I’ve lived my life. The one thing that has always been sacred to me—and this goes for life as much as business—is just this: always try to do what’s right,” Van Doren says. “I learned early on that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. If you put thought into something and do what’s right every single time, you won’t be far off from doing the best you can—the best any of us can.”
Authentic: A Memoir will be available on April 27, 2021.