[YS Lounge] Climbing Mt Startup – Reflections on entrepreneurship and mountaineering
How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end - to know there's no dream that mustn't be dared. . . To struggle and to understand - never this last without the other; such is the law. . .
― George Mallory, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory
I’m not someone who typically holds regrets. Mistakes are learning opportunities and failures are to be cherished. But even now, 16 years after I failed to scale the summit on a mountaineering expedition, it’s still a painful memory.
Yes, we were at the summit camp after an eternity of lugging heavy ruck-sacks over steep Himalayan terrain. Yes, my snow-boots were cracked and the two layers of socks with polythene bags had failed to protect my toes from frost-bite. Yes, perhaps our leader wanted a small contingent for the summit attempt and selected those he favoured... But somewhere, I know that if I had pushed myself, if I had pleaded with the leader, if I had shown that I had what it takes – I would have reached success at 22,400 feet.
Today, when I find myself in the midst of the startup ecosystem, I can’t stop thinking of that expedition and of the similarities between mountaineering and entrepreneurship.
It’s about grit, determination and perseverance
When you embark on a mountaineering expedition, the initial trek is relatively easy. The gradient is not so steep and there are trees to give you shade. There is the excitement in anticipation of doing something great; of pushing one’s self to achieve; of doing something different that not many others have done...
As you gain altitude, breathing the rarefied air gets tougher and you’re gasping for breath. When you go above the tree-line, you suddenly realize how alone and vulnerable you are. The initial exuberance of walking in snow is soon replaced by the exhaustion that every step causes. When you climb in snow, you need to kick your feet forward, then press down as you foot sinks till you hit hard ice; it’s like building each rung of your ladder even as you climb! The sun scorches your skin during the day and the cold freezes your body at night.
In the face of such adversity, your body begins to protest and your mind tells you it’s not worth it. By the time you get to the summit attempt, you feel completely drained. But that is the time when you need to put in all you have and keep going.
As with entrepreneurship, there is nothing holding one back from dreaming about scaling a peak. And as with scores of climbers who give up in the face of adversity, so many people give up on their entrepreneurial ventures. The initial bits are relatively easy. It is when the going gets tough and every instinct tells you to quit that you need the grit, determination and perseverance to carry on; to push yourself for that summit attempt...
Discipline and planning are key
For an Everest attempt, experts recommend that you start training 6 months in advance. You need to work on physical fitness, stamina and importantly, mental conditioning. Closer to the expedition, you need to carefully plan out your itinerary and get all the equipment in place. You need to check all weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. Failure to plan well can mean death.
On the expedition itself, you need to pace yourself. Trying to go too fast may lead to exhaustion. Going too slowly will mean not making it to your camp for the day on time. Beyond a certain altitude, you need to break for a day to allow your body to acclimatize. Water and food need to be rationed. You need to constantly monitor the weather and have contingency plans for any adverse changes. In the mountains, the clouds can come within minutes and leave you in absolute darkness. Blizzards have wind speeds of over 50 kmph, leading to near-zero visibility and temperatures going down to -10 degrees.
In entrepreneurship too, planning and discipline are critical. You can’t start a business without a proper business plan. Once you embark on your venture, you need to constantly monitor the market – what are your customers saying; how is your competition responding? You need to exercise strong financial disciple and constantly make trade-offs. Lack of foresight, planning and preparedness can mean the death of your venture.
Team is everything
There are those daring ones who, like Reinhold Messner and Goran Kropp, choose to climb Everest solo. But for most, mountaineering is a team effort.
In a high altitude expedition, you need a leader and guide to navigate you through the treacherous terrain. Failure to follow the leader’s commands, even by one member, can lead to catastrophe. Severe cold combined with fatigue and lack of oxygen can really play with your mind. It can cause severe depression, hallucinations and even suicidal tendencies. You need team members to motivate you and propel you forward; you need people to talk to and drive away the mental anguish. With high wind speeds, you can’t even pitch a tent alone. And of course, you need porters to help carry your supplies and equipment. Even with 25-30 kg in your backpack, you will have just a fraction of the equipment and supplies needed for a high altitude expedition.
Glaciers have deep crevasses into which you can fall for a certain death. That’s why mountaineers rope up the entire team to each other for a glacier march. Even if 1 person falls, the others can arrest the fall and pull the person up. In such conditions, teamwork is not a nice catch-phrase; it is the difference between life and death.Entrepreneurship without a team can be just as catastrophic. It is no wonder that one of the first things that entrepreneurs look at when deciding to invest in a company is the team. What’s important is not the just the profile of the team – the backgrounds and capabilities – but how they work together. How do they bond? Are they willing to sacrifice for each other and for the company? Is the collective team more capable than the sum of their parts?
I haven’t tried a high altitude expedition again after that failure so many years ago. Reflecting on the above, I am telling myself that I will go back one day and I will scale that peak I had left behind. And one day, I too will be an entrepreneur...