We had the good fortune of connecting with James Dong and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi James, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I never want to “reinvent the wheel” so I started my journey by looking into existing gear shops and companies with rental platforms to see if that’s something that I could join. The more I learned though, the more I realized that the depth with which I wanted to pursue a social and environmental mission just wasn’t really out there.

Last Minute Gear’s mission is to reduce waste & increase access to the outdoors. We do that by creating alternatives to buying. That sounds easy on the surface, but the truth is the way I think about innovation across the board is consistently fixated on this mission. That’s why unlike any other shop that offers similar programs…

1) we rent the highest end gear at the lowest prices (we don’t want to rent lower end ear to market & upsell higher end gear)
2) we repair our gear for maximal utilization and offer these same repair services to the community (we don’t want to sell off after 1-2 seasons)
3) our borrow program is a free gear lending library (it’s ok to cannibalize our business to broaden our impact)
4) we produce content that helps people understand if gear is really necessary or if at-home substitutes can be used (because we don’t want people to buy stuff)

Basically, the mission drives us to constantly extract less from the community and give back more. Look, I get it, that’s not what our economic system incentivizes and that can hurt our growth & profitability. But that’s what excites me: Can I make a business financially viable without compromising on the mission, in a way that very much turns how we think about consumerism on its head?

I didn’t see other businesses asking these questions, so I started Last Minute Gear! The advice I give to entrepreneurs consistently is that your business should be meaningfully different. That’s what will give you the energy to push through the moments that are profoundly difficult.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I just don’t accept that this version of life we have in our culture and society is (or should be) the end-all-be-all. This version of life is for many people: spend most of your time working to make money. Spend that money on things. Repeat. Keeping up with the Joneses, the rat race. It’s funny that we have all these memes and descriptors for this trap, and yet just accept that it is. And worse, we export this cultural notion to the rest of the world to emulate.

Even visionary tech entrepreneurs feel like they’re just selling a more advanced version of the same. The adrenaline rush of a flight to space may be a higher high than the latest iPhone, but it’s fleeting all the same. Does everything about society just feed into each other to prop up this version of life? Is hyper consumerism making us feel better and more numb to 9-5 work, or is that what the streaming services are for? Is a good education just fuel on this treadmill?

It takes an enormous level of privilege to have this perspective. I mentioned I don’t have health conditions or debt, and nor do I have family or other financial obligations. I came to this realization because I had the fortune to work a high paying job and discover that this version of life–to make money to spend it–doesn’t make me happy.

Last Minute Gear is my attempt to equitably spread more of this realization to everyone. We create alternatives to buying, like renting, to prove that anyone can have equally enriching experiences with quality products, but without money.

Part of how I’ve sustained myself with a small business that doesn’t pay me is because I reject traditional consumerism. I’ve unlearned the idea that things make me happy, and get the few essentials that I need from The Buy Nothing Project. I even get food in part because I’ve traded the assets I already own and the skills I already have. This version of life might be extreme for some, but on the flip side, there is no shortage of examples of people who live the extreme hyper consumerism version of life (looking at a lot of social media influencers here).

My friends say I’m the most principled or action-oriented person they know. I will spend the rest of my life trying to build alternatives to buying and alternatives to money as a foundation for everyday transactions. Everyone learns in economics 101 that money evolved for a good reason, but… who says that evolution has to stop? With all the technology that we have, what other forms of capital can power our economy? What should capital even be? Asking these questions is liberating for me, and I hope to empower more people to do the same.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I love the San Francisco Bay Area for the amazing outdoor adventures that can be had just within the bay or even the city itself! Some perfectly full days would be:

1) Hiking in the rolling hills of Marin all the way down to Stinson Beach. Grabbing a bit in town, hanging out at the beach (or perhaps a quick climbing session there!), before taking the bus back (so convenient, you can sleep the whole way and don’t have to leave a car at each end!)

2) Biking the perimeter of the city, along Ocean Beach, through Land’s End and the Presidio, along the Embarcadero through downtown, the ballpark, and down into the Dogpatch. It’s a great way to encapsulate all of what San Francisco is in a very long but memorable day!

3) Exploring & camping on Angel Island! (Since we’re dreaming, we can ignore how hard it is to get these campsites). Angel Island is the Ellis Island of the Bay Area with an amazing immigrant history to learn about, and ridiculous views of downtown San Francisco and the entire Bay Area to lull you to sleep and greet you with the next morning

4) Since I went to UC Berkeley and a walk through campus is always nostalgic for me, I’d love to take a visitor on a day through campus. Exploring some of my old haunts, and seeing the constant changes that are happening. Yes there’s hiking to be had as well… sunset in the Berkeley hills behind campus you’ll find some of the best views of San Francisco!

5) Sunny lazy park days are a San Francisco staple. Pick a park… there are so many: Dolores, Alamo Square, and of course, Golden Gate Park. Lounge out with friends, a picnic, some drinks, and the entire day will just fly by. By the time you get home you’ll be so sun-spent that you’ll slip into blissful sleep immediately

6) A wind & water sport adventure on the bay! Ok I’ve never done this myself… because it’s expensive, but we’re dreaming! In Fort Funston, there’s a launch pad for hang gliding, and dotted throughout the water you’ll find windsurfing, paragliding, and the like!

7) If I could have a day slightly further afield, I think if someone is visiting from far away and may not come back, one just has to visit Yosemite. There’s a reason it’s the most visited National Park in the country. Spending a whole week there would not do it justice, but if we could squeeze in a quick overnight camping trip, and enjoy a short hike to a waterfall, some quick bouldering at Camp 4, I think that would round out an amazing trip

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Starting a business, and leaving a cushy corporate career track, is a huge risk in every possible way. Financially, I was only able to do this because of how privileged and lucky I am; at the start of my journey, I was already largely financially free. Not to say that I was rich or had rich family to fall back on, but that I didn’t have any health conditions or student loan debt that otherwise would require me to significantly reduce the amount of financial risk I could take on. Especially in a city as expensive as San Francisco, I constantly hear stories of people who can’t afford to work for their values, and I’m so fortunate that I could.

I have to therefore give my parents the first shoutout for paying for my schooling. I immigrated here from China at 6 years old because my parents envisioned a better future for me. And while their vision had a… different career path than the one I ultimately went down, they ultimately succeeded because they gave me the freedom to choose. I could choose to leave the corporate rat race and literally follow my heart largely in part because of how hard they worked to ensure I had no debt.

The second shoutout is for Debbie Rhodes (founder of the nonprofit Natural Legacy) & Karla Klay (founder of the nonprofit the Artist Boat). They were the leaders of the inner city youth organization I was a member of in high school that exposed me dramatically to the outdoors. Growing up in Texas, all of my environmental sensibilities had to be intentionally cultivated; it wasn’t omnipresent enough for me to just have absorbed! With their organizations, I experienced the most amazing camping, backpacking, kayaking, canoe trips; learned about the delicacy of ecosystems and the importance of ecology; and documented all in art that fostered a growing sense of connection & empathy. Last Minute Gear’s borrow program is a reflection of the fact that on all of those trips, the organization lent us the gear!

The shoutouts would never end if I could go on forever. Going to Berkeley, there were many who taught me that my environmental sensibilities could be actioned in a way beyond just… recycling & composting. At each of my jobs, there were many who taught me the irreplaceable skills that have allowed me to succeed in building my own business. And perhaps most importantly now that I have been on this journey for 5+ years, I am grateful to the friends who continue to stick by me despite the craziness and unpredictability of my work hours, who feed me and buy me things I need for the shop when I’m hesitant about the cost, and who provide the unconditional emotional support that is as critical to the growth of my business as anything that I could ever do.

Website: www.lastminutegear.com

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/jmzbond

Facebook: www.facebook.com/lastminutegear

Yelp: www.yelp.com/biz/last-minute-gear-san-francisco


Image Credits:

Amy Scott Photography

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