What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From a Walk in the Woods

A couple weeks ago, I headed into the backcountry of Banff National Park for a 5 day, 40-mile hike. This was my fourth major hike since 2004, and perhaps the most grueling due to the weather. Eight hours into the hike, the skies opened and did not close until the final morning. So as I slogged through the mud, trying not to step on Grizzly Bear paw prints, I asked myself: why am I schlepping a sixty-pound backpack in cold, driving rain and at the risk of a fatal attack by 500-pound mammal?

One reason is that hiking provides an opportunity to see different aspects of life in new ways. During this trip, I realized that backpacking is a lot like launching a startup. Below, in no particular order, are the reasons why.

Limited resources fuels innovation
A hiker’s resources are limited to what he can carry (tent, sleeping bag, clothes) and what the forest provides (wood, water). If you forget – or lose – something, it is gone and you better hope that you don’t need it. After a few days of living with such constraints, the mind becomes incredibly inventive. During this trip, for example, we rigged up a sturdy multi-level clothes-drying rack using nothing but branches and logs. During a past trip, we crafted a way to drag our packs across snowfields in order to limit falling through.

All businesses but especially start-ups are resource limited. Capital, talent, and time are in short order. As a result, start-ups constantly innovate not only in the products they offer but in the way they operate. My favorite story of innovating to survive is Airbnb, which designed Obama O’s cereal and sold the collector-edition munchies to attendees at the Democratic National Convention. They raised $25,000 to fund their start-up.

As start-ups mature, however, they must shed the patchwork operations that they “innovated” during the lean years. Relying too heavily on Excel – or Google Docs – is a prime example. When resources are limited, it is acceptable to cram everything from salary planning to project management into a spreadsheet. As the company proves longevity, it must invest in the proper processes and technologies in order to support sustainable growth. Not doing so is equivalent to using an open fire and rack of branches to dry clothes, despite being out of the woods and having access to an electric dryer.

Risk management takes on a whole new meaning
Hiking is a risky endeavor. Any number of events can happen on the trail, including getting lost, injuring yourself, running into an aggressive animal or getting hit with a major weather event. These events can easily result in death – and it is usually a slow and agonizing death. But they are all avoidable. With the correct maps and trail descriptions and an ability to read a compass, the risk of getting lost is greatly diminished. (Heck, you can even bring a GPS that pinpoints your exact location, but that takes the fun out of it.) Talking on the trail and hanging your food 100-plus meters away from your tent are both actions that reduce the threat of a bear attack. Throw in bear spray and a general understanding of what to do in the event of an encounter and you’re in pretty good shape. Lastly, reducing injury is common sense: never jump; be careful with your knife and around the fire; stay hydrated, dry and warm; carry a first aid kit.

Risk management is dependent upon understanding the probability and severity of an event occurring. Once you understand these two factors, you can triage mitigation. As I walk through the woods, I’m constantly calculating and triage-ing. During this trip, for example, I calculated the risk of a bear encounter to be moderately high; by my calculations there was one Grizzly for every 10 square miles of habitable land, and we were traversing 40 miles. On the other hand, the risk of getting lost was low; the trail was through a valley with steep, rocky mountain faces on each side – the equivalent of bumpers on a bowling alley lane. I adjusted my behavior accordingly.

For start-ups, risks lurk around every corner: system outages, patent trolls, legislatures, unethical employees. A founder’s job is to identify, triage and manage these risks. Unfortunately, though, risk management is often sidelined during the frenzy of creating a new product and winning customers. After all, it is difficult to pull oneself away from the exhilarating and vital task of crafting the next generation of a product to draft a contingency plan that may never be used. Founders also have a difficult time shifting money away from R&D and sales and towards risk management expenses like insurance, lawyers, and monitoring systems.

Remember how fortunate you are
Hiking helps remind me how fortunate I am. I have my legs to carry me, my eyes to take in thevistas and my ears to hear the sounds of rushing mountain waters and high-pass winds. I have also chosen to live a “pre-civilization” lifestyle by sleeping on the ground in a flimsy shelter, pumping water, keeping warm and cooking with fire, and placing myself lower on the food chain. For millions of people this is not a lifestyle choice; 884 million people, for example, do not have access to clean water. Lastly, I’m reminded of the military, who basically hike through the most treacherous places on earth – from the mountains of Afghanistan to the jungles of Vietnam – with one additional risk: enemy fire.

Start-up founders are also fortunate. In many ways, founders are responsible for their destiny. They envision an opportunity and have the courage and talent to execute upon that vision. However, there are factors outside of their control that increase the likelihood of success. Health and physical appearance is one example.

Success is also dependent on origin of birth and residency. Over the last 400 years, the United States has developed systems and institutions that foster entrepreneurship. In the United States it takes 6 days and only a few hundred dollars to establish a legal corporate entity, whereas in Brazil it is four month journey that could cost more than one thousand dollars. Throw in bankruptcy laws that do not discourage risk taking, a court system that upholds property rights and legal contracts and a functioning insurance market, and innovation flourishes. In short, an entrepreneur operating in the United States has a much greater chance of success than his equally talented counterpart in just about any other part of the world.

Stayed tuned to hear the insights from Hike 2012, which will hopefully be in Glacier National.