6 Ways Mountain Climbing Trained Me For Startup Life
Consumers don’t care about your founder story.
I wake up with a half-eaten PB&J in my hand. I may not have been asleep, to be honest, but the lights went out for a moment. When I come to, I remember where I am. How could I forget? I’m sitting against a wall 14,505 feet above sea level. I’m sitting at the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
How did I get here? I’d be lying if I said I arrived at the summit of Mt. Whitney with grace. My two hiking companions had just ditched me, after all. I remember hearing them complain about their headaches and how they needed to get off this “God-forsaken” mountain. I was fine though. So fine, in fact, I could take a nap…
So that’s how I ended up alone: I needed a break. I was exhausted. I got to my feet, snapped a few pictures, and turned back the way I came. I thought I could catch up to my friends, but I didn’t see them until I found the car six and a half hours later.
I recommend hiking alone. That’s something I thought I’d never say. Even though I was delirious from the elevation and fatigued from hiking more than a vertical mile in one morning, I learned something new about myself. I had nothing but time to search through my head. I had time to question my mortality.
For the first time, I realized how alone I really was.
Starting a company is like summiting a mountain. It’s hard. You probably won’t summit if you haven’t done it before. You probably won’t summit if you aren’t properly prepared. You probably won’t summit if you go it alone.
Even if you do summit, you probably climbed a false peak. There is always a taller mountain to conquer, and a more intrepid way of doing it.
“Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.”
— John Krakauer
My best friend and I started a beverage company two years ago. It was mostly his idea. He was the CEO, so I never felt like my life was bound to the idea.
Then COVID-19 happened, and I panicked and parted ways to focus on myself. Fortunately, I didn’t bet my life on the business. I held onto my part-time job, even though it was excruciating to do so, and I am doing just fine right now.
Like many of you, we didn’t have any prior experience starting a company. We learned everything on the fly. We learned to solve problems as they came our way.
I’ll never be upset about how everything shaped up. Just like my trip up and down Mt. Whitney, I learned invaluable lessons that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
1. The experience is priceless
Let’s start here. I may not love subjecting myself to mild acute mountain sickness, but I wouldn’t trade my hiking adventures for anything. Most people aren’t doing what I do, and there is something special about that. Along those same lines, I probably won’t be reimbursed for the hours I spent on my startup.
But, I wouldn’t go back in time if I could.
I made deliveries out of a pure passion for the process. I created flyers because it was what I needed to do. I ordered hundreds of business cards even though I didn’t use them. If I’m eventually paid for the time I put in then that’s great!
So, if in the end, you think you failed, or completely wasted your time, just know that you didn’t. There are ways to spin your experience.
For example, I spent two years putting my marketing skills to the test. When I apply for jobs, I can say with confidence that I have two years of real and practical marketing experience under my belt. There are ways to skew your wisdom in your favor. It’s up to you to figure out how.
2. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
I’ll divulge part of our preparation before climbing Whitney, one of the United States’ hardest day hikes. It’s actually really funny. Three of us drove to basecamp the day before our climb. We were fit, tenacious, and planned to complete the 22-mile trek in one day.
We thought a half-day of acclimating around 8,000 feet above sea level would suit us fine. We ate lunch in Lone Pine, then spent the afternoon hanging out in the woods.
When we checked into camp, however, our realities were shattered. The park ranger recommended we wake up at 2 a.m., at the latest, if we wanted to make it to the top in time. That figure blew our minds. We thought we’d be fine getting up around 5 a.m.
My camping stove hardly worked that evening, so I had to heat these “chicken” burgers the best I could with a wavering flame. To our luck, these burgers weren’t chicken. They were veggie patties that required cooking before consumption. I’m not sure how we didn’t get sick, and I’m not sure how we didn’t realize what we bought, but that was essentially our dinner before waking up hours later to cold coffee and two-day-old rosemary potatoes.
For the rest of the day, our meals consisted of nuts, beef jerky, and my PB&J. I would also run out of water on my way down the mountain.
How does one prevent this from happening to their business? Before you start a business, make sure you’re cooking real chicken patties with a functional stove. In other words, are you sure you know what you’re doing? Do you have funding? Do you have a go-to-market strategy? Are you prepared to work on the clock 24/7? Are you sure people even want your product?
The fact remains that most of us haven’t done this before. It’s fun to think of the next big thing that’ll change the world. It’s also fun to think of products that won’t change the world but will make you money.
Thinking and talking about a product is one thing, but until you’ve done your homework you may not be as prepared to become an entrepreneur as you think.
3. Work with people you trust
Other than preparedness, this is probably the most important lesson. It’s almost impossible to run a business on your own. There’s no way I would have finished our climb if my friends weren’t with me. I would have stopped at the slightest inconvenience and turned back.
They pushed me, and I pushed them. I’m forever grateful for the companionship.
Being a lone wolf entrepreneur is a death wish. I saw this with my friend before I decided to join him in the beverage world. He had already accomplished so much. He set up the foundation of his company all by himself: he sourced ingredients, filed legal documents, and found co-packers.
But, at a certain point, he hit a wall. You need much more than a product to sell it. You have to actually figure out how to sell it and keep up with demand (if there is a demand at all).
One of the hardest jobs of a CEO is hiring a team you can trust. If you can’t do that then you are screwed. You have to let go of pieces of your idea and give them to someone else. It’s impossible to control 100% of every aspect of your company.
You need to have faith in others. You aren’t a graphic designer, a social media manager, a salesman, and a finance guru all bundled up into one package. You’re the person with good ideas and a knack for solving problems. It’s okay to give up a part of yourself for the betterment of your startup.
4. Create something you will use every day
What would you bring on a long hike? A common list of hiking equipment might include sunscreen, a compass, good shoes, and walking sticks. These items are designed to make your trek easier, and also to make you more comfortable in harsh conditions.
Your product is not the mountain. The mountain is the journey and you are carrying yourself, as much as your product, to the summit.
Why not create something that you will use yourself? It’s much easier to sell a product if it’s something you believe in. If you don’t see yourself using it every single day, do you really believe in its success? Of course, this depends upon the product or service you are creating.
For my friend and I, we created a bottled tea. I love caffeinated drinks as much as I rely on them, but I wouldn’t drink our product every day. We have a future vision for our product, but we aren’t there yet.
I imagine myself drinking the product of our dreams every single day, but as it currently stands, I don’t whole-heartedly believe in its success.
Create something you are passionate about, and see what consumers want. What are their needs? What are their desires? What is the market missing, and is there a reason it’s missing? Just make sure to put your consumer’s needs before your needs.
5. Creating a brand is hard
I consider myself a relatively creative person. My partner and I went into this venture thinking that we could do everything ourselves, including the graphic and website design. I’m a confident photographer, but a much less confident designer.
In fact, it’s difficult enough to think about what to put on the label. What does it need to say? What do customers want to know?
Where do you even start? You may have one great idea and roll with it, but what even is branding anyway?
According to the Branding Journal, one may consider a brand as the idea others have in mind when they think about your company’s name, product, message, label, etc. Essentially, it’s one big cohesive machine. If one cog is out of place, then the machine doesn’t run as efficiently as it should.
Consider this before you start a company. A brand isn’t built overnight, nor is it ever truly completed. It’s constantly changing, and if you aren’t willing to adapt to your market’s needs, or hire someone with a brand-building background, then your “brand” won’t have a leg to stand on.
6. Consumers don’t care about your founder story
You will see other hikers on the mountain. It’s a nice reminder that you’re not exactly alone on your journey to the summit. You’ll cross paths on the trail, and you’ll be cordial with each other.
“Hello, how are you?” you’ll say.
“I’m doing well. The weather is great today isn’t it?” they’ll inquire.
You’ll both silently chortle about the ridiculous situation you’ve gotten yourselves into, and then never see each other again. These hikers on the trail are the other founders and consumers you’ll encounter.
They are always nice upon first greetings. They are always interested in you for a moment, but then they go on their way. They have to worry about their own problems. They are in the same situation as you, and when it comes down to it, it’s always survival of the fittest.
If you’re reading this, you might actually care about another founder’s story, but that’s only because you’re interested in brand building.
The regular consumer, who doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of what it takes to build a brand, doesn’t care that you found inspiration on a men’s retreat to Yosemite in 2016.
You know it and they know it: you’re not that special. Take that as you will, but I mean that in the kindest way. Unless you’ve already achieved fame in some capacity, chances are that you’re a regular person like everyone else. You’re great at a few things, but mediocre at others (yet another reason to hire a team around you).
My partner and I put too much attention to this when we first started. Our story went a little something like this: Our company was created by a group of friends with a desire for adventure. Do you get my point? There are dozens of founders with this same story. We just put it into our own words.
You’re just like everyone else, but don’t get down about it. You are just like everyone else, so everyone is just like you! Just be yourself.
Tell your company’s story. If you have an incredible tale to tell, tell it to the world. Even if nobody else cares, all that matters is that you got your story out there. That’s an accomplishment of its own.
To sum things up
Creating a startup sounds like a good idea until reality hits you in the face: it isn’t going to be easy.
- You must prepare for the worst. The mountain is fickle. It can brew a storm at any time.
- Build a trustworthy team. Your companions are your lifeline.
- Create something you will use yourself. You wouldn’t pack a desk-chair for a hike, would you?
- Consider your brand and what it stands for.
- Don’t bet everything on your founder’s story. It’s cool to have one, but don’t expect to earn millions in sales because of it.
Consider these factors and you’ll be steps closer to your summit.
It takes time to get there, and if at first, you don’t succeed, just know you’re not the only one on this journey.
Originally published on medium.