Saturday, November 9, 2013

Resolute Adventures, Ascending the Summit - How Mountaineering Prepares For Entrepreneurial Success

Many people try to start businesses. And there are those who try to climb mountains. There appears to be connections for the people who are passionate about both [see Ten Steps to the Top]. The ones who are good at both say that learning the skills to do one can help with the other.
Ascending the summit of entrepreneurial success doesn't necessarily happen in the classroom. Though huddling for studies at the Entrepreneurial Studies Program at UNC Kenan-Flagler provides a good base camp.
After a notable career, Randy Myer, Professor of the Practice of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, decided to return to the business school of his alma mater nine years ago to share his entrepreneurial experiences. His students give him high marks for his thoughtful teaching of Entrepreneurial Marketing and Business Plan Analysis. What they might not realize is his coaching in the classroom of key lessons learned have roots built on a very solid and rugged foundation through his passion for mountain climbing.
"Months of training in order to climb Mount McKinley and Aconcagua with a carefully selected team reinforced my desire for independence and to have control of my own destiny, " stated Randy Myer. "So I left partnership at Booz Allen Hamilton to start my own company."
Having reached the figurative summit of making partner at a leading consulting firm, he, like many driven business leaders, was already looking for the next summit to climb. "Going into high altitudes reinforced my desire to be an entrepreneur. Climbing required drive, motivation, individual energy, and quick decision making."
While at Harvard Business School, Myer caught the bug for climbing from his class mate from Banff Alberta, who eagerly taught him the ropes during visits to neighboring New Hampshire. Then, while at Booz Allen, Myer would catch a long weekend here and there to try new challenges such as ice climbing. While he found consulting to be very intellectually challenging, he viewed mountain ascension as a very strict physical challenge that required months of training with a single minded goal to get to the top often an entire year later.
Similarly, entrepreneurs are goal oriented and must have high energy to summit the journey. Unlike being a consultant or working at a large corporation, "in starting one's own company, it's more about the quality of ideas, operational effectiveness, building a team - networking. You don't have to be book smart to start your own business - or to be a successful mountaineer - you need to be goal oriented."
Myer ascended Mount McKinley, Aconcagua, Rainer, and Kilimanjaro, each requiring a full year of preparation, all while working at Booz Allen. He would book the tallest hotel while on business travel so that he could awake before sunrise to run the stairwells with whatever work materials and books from his hotel room, bible and magazines, could fit into his back pack to simulate his ninety pound mountain pack.
After leaving Booz and inspired from mountain climbing, Myer dug into his entrepreneurial adventure with vigor and founded Best Friends Pet Care, which he grew into a national chain of high-quality pet services facilities. Raising initial $3 million seed capital to launch his idea, he completed three additional rounds of successful financings and built it into a $30 million chain with over 55 U.S. locations. He sold his interest in the company in the mid-1990s to outside investors.
People who are passionate about climbing will be passionate about training and putting in as much effort as they can. This passion is very similar to entrepreneurs starting a business, poring in almost every non sleeping hour into their start up, while visioning future success. An entrepreneur feels pressure from investors, customers, employees, and family. Accountability in climbing is to your team, financial sponsors.
"Major climbs have three phases that are not unlike starting a new business. The first phase, planning, is quite similar in both," states Myer. "The second phase, the actual journey is much the same although the climb gets harder as you get higher which is probably the reverse for starting a business."
Finally, there is the third phase, reaching the summit, which has some of the same characteristics of a successful exit. For most climbers, the excitement is in the journey as it is for entrepreneurs. "But the outside world often measures you by the third level - did you reach the summit or have a successful exit," explains Myer, "We love the journey much more. But people that ask about climbing or my startup seem to focus mostly on the end result. "
Both the downhill ascension in mountain climbing and the integration post exit associated with a venture that has been acquired can be anti-climatic and surprisingly challenging. True mountaineers and entrepreneurs trudge through this post phase as quickly as possible in order to start the cycle over, earning the "serial" descriptor.
Are entrepreneurs risk takers or just highly driven folks? Those who do not climb probably think risk first and drive second. For Myer, "the risk does not really enter my mind - like bungee jumping there is thrill to it, but if you think risk first, you would probably never jump. I always assume the risk is one I understand or can manage."
When the group leader told the team that conditions would force them not to attain the summit, Myer reflected, "Did I want to turn back on McKinley? Absolutely not. But I did not argue with our leader. That is the hardest part for me - managing the drive to excel - to get to the top."
A recent inspiring guest speaker to Myer's students was Brenda Berg, founder of Scandinavian Child, exclusive North American distributor of unique children's products headquartered in Raleigh, and an avid 'rock jock' whose license plate reads "CLIMBING".
One student asked how Berg managed the fear of starting a business. She explained, "I am a rock climber. I like to scare myself. Fear is a way of life when you start and run your own business. If you can't handle fear, starting a business is not for you."
Reaching new levels in business is very much like climbing. Berg explained, "There are times when you have to put all of your focus on one giant leap - trusting yourself, your gear, and your partner to make sure that it happens, or that they catch you on the way down. Moreover, if it doesn't work, you have to get back on the rock and try it again, or the fear will take over and paralyze you."
She finished answering the fear question by explaining that as an entrepreneur, she "lives with fear every day. Fear is a good driver when channeled positively, especially as a leader."
Like Myer, Berg started climbing during school and planned her life around her studies and work with her passion for this adventure. "There was nothing practical about it - it was all all-encompassing - like having a second career." Similarly, starting and running a business is easily like working two jobs, in time, energy, and focus.
"For years I did nothing other than school, work, and climb all over the country, plus Mexico and New Zealand." Like Myer, she would often travel five days a week for work as a management consultant, then detour to rigorous climbing locations. She then climbed for the weekend before heading off on her next business trip.
Looking back, Berg states, "I can see that I succeeded in climbing for many of the same reasons that I am able to start and run a business - I enjoy the challenge!" Climbing gave her lessons in leadership. "In times of crisis, I learned that I can be calm and in charge. This gives me added confidence in my work."
"Climbing is a great way to learn your strengths and weaknesses. It is all about facing your fears head on," Berg concluded by giving climbing credit for having a positive impact on her starting and running a business. "If you really have a passion for climbing, it means that you are up for a challenge. Taking that challenge and applying it to starting a business is a great next step."
For some climbers, the quest is a family affair, with the goal of tackling the seven summits - the highest peaks of the seven continents. For John Spivey, founder of Gardens of the Carolinas, a full service design/build landscape firm, has ascended Mount Kilimanjaro, Elbrus and Aconcagua with his grown son and they are planning now for Denali in Spring, 2010. "Climbing the seven summits with my son has become a unifying aspect for us." While his son trains on the mountains in Boulder, CO Spivey regularly runs or treks, complete with weighted pack, at Umstead.
An entrepreneur at heart, Spivey registered for incorporation of his business the first work day after his graduation from NCSU, where he played on the soccer team, as Myer did also at UNC. He remains very active in the day to day activities of his design/build landscaping business which has benefited from his passion for mountaineering. "In climbing, I must plan for the unexpected. My approach to gear, food and route are crucial. This sort of planning has stimulated a more complete approach to my business planning."
Another local climber who has begun his quest to conquer the seven summits, is Zachary Maurides, who works as a product quality analyst at eprocurement leader SciQuest, and also continues to run the two thriving businesses he founded while at Duke. While on full scholarship to play football, Maurides was awarded the Markets and Management Entrepreneurship Award and was on both the Academic All ACC and ACC Honor Roll.
While a student at Duke, Maurides reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In August of this year, he will attempt to summit Elbrus. Like Spivey, he and his father would like to ascend all seven summits and make it a family tradition. He is currently getting in at least one strenuous workout a day such as climbing the stairs of Duke stadium with a fully weighted pack as well as one light workout of a long walk of over 3 miles.
"Starting your own business involves a lot of risk," says Maurides, "and I think this appetite for risk is what allows me to think I can conquer these seven mountains." Stepping back, he reflects, "I also think that climbing a mountain, like any other difficult task, helps to give a person perspective on their life. It makes the day to day struggle of starting and growing a business seem small."
Maurides served last year as teaching assistant for a public speaking class in which many Duke student athletes were enrolled. "Zach is simply an amazing guy with a go and compete mindset," stated Kip Frey of Intersouth Partners and the professor of this course. "I often tell executives who work for me - you must own the problem - how are you going to solve? Zach gets this philosophy - he is no nonsense, no excuses."
"My advice would be to decide you are going to do it and make a promise to yourself, and other people if necessary. I find that from there my pride will push me to finish the task. The last thing I want is to tell all those people how I backed out," explains Maurides to those who are considering preparing for mountaineering. He adds, "It's the same thing with starting a business, decide you are going to do it, then find a way."
Spivey goes on to advise aspiring mountaineers, "Do your research, talk to people that have been on the mountain, train hard, and hold true to the motto 'the summit is an option, base camp is mandatory'."
Berg stated she was a planner and tended to take on that role with her climbing friends in organizing their weekend excursions. New entrepreneurs are often advised by those who have walked in their shoes, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Being a successful entrepreneur takes planning and all the key ingredients laid out in the "Ten Steps to Reach the Top".
Spivey concludes by stating the positive impact climbing has had on running his business, "One learns perseverance and commitment to a well laid plan can be rewarding. However, sometimes things uncontrollably end differently and you must find solace, knowing you gave your best effort."
[Side Bar]
Ten Steps to reach the Top: Can leadership on the mountain translate into business success? How, when and why do mountaineers go on to be successful entrepreneurs? Is it important to have reached the literal summit or is it the preparation and the journey that give rise to proven leaders?
1. Visioning. Includes the recognition that a powerful vision is compelling. It energizes the visionary and enables them to excite others to participate. The group dream.
2. Choosing the right team mates. Ones that fill the team from a critical skill set and personality standpoint. A quality group that supports the common vision, provides needed feedback, and implicitly trusts one another.
3. Committing to the goals and strategies. Need to fully commit and understand what it's going to take. Decide if team wants to attempt a "first route" - to traverse where no one else has yet set foot. Akin to a breakthrough invention.
4. Understanding what constitutes truly reaching the summit. Agreement amongst key stakeholders - the team - each step along the way - when to turn back? What is the difference between a 'successful exit' and 'failure'? Successful serial entrepreneurs and mountaineers know to focus on enjoying journey.
5. Developing the action plans and understanding the rules of the road. Relates to knowing 'how things have been done'. Don't reinvent where it's not necessary. Must have explicit plan - route, camps, back up camps, how you will communicate, financing. Leverage best practices. Be able to be specific and tactical to reap resulting success.
6. Being correctly resourced. You need to have enough provisioning to weather the most treacherous and unexpected of wintry conditions. Have the right staff at base camp to keep foundation solid.
7. Getting sponsors/advocates. Relates to investors, supporters, and more.
8. Avoiding dangerous ideas, people or routes; but knowing when to take. Don't do unethical things. Avoid toxic people. Be flexible and respond to the right opportunities. Know when to innovate/take risk and when to follow.
9. Understanding the power of the press. Getting positive coverage will help you get support for your next summit, helps you develop a reputation, can help you bring attention to another cause you care about, can open up other doors of opportunity.
10. Knowing when the time is right to make the ascension. Season, weather, politically, personal life. Are all the stars aligned to maximize likelihood for success?

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