5 lessons for startups from the mountain top
A few days ago, I climbed Stok Kangri, a mountain 15km south of Leh-Ladakh that marks the beginning of extreme high altitude mountaineering. Our trek spanned over 10 days and 100km via the Markha Valley culminating in a 16-hour ascent and descent. While battling altitude, weather, hunger, and exhaustion during our penultimate day, it occurred to me that there’s much in common with climbing a mountain and starting up. Here’s a summary of that epiphany.
1) Preparation takes longer than the climb
When we began our trek, I was nursing a back injury that made its presence felt whenever I bent. But magically the discomfort faded away as the days rolled by – I can attribute the recovery to long-term fitness. It took several months of continuous training for the body to endure a climb. In the end, you realize that the time spent on the climb is a lot shorter than the preparation that gets you ready for one. Growing an organization is exactly that – it takes a lot of continuous preparation when no one is watching to finally climb the mountains that matter.
2) Conquering is over-rated. Be humble.
We often hear about conquering mountains. Any long-term climber would tell you that many conditions have to come together to facilitate a climb from your body to the weather to gear to the team. Inside our heads is an imagined point of success. Little do we recognize the work that remains after that point. The descent from a mountain can sometimes be more challenging than the ascent. Life goes on after ‘conquering’ – usually, on to the next climb.
It’s the same with business. There’s something wrong with leaders projecting themselves as superhero conquerers who made it all happen. Be humble and recognize the many factors that have brought about the success of your startup. It’s simply a bonus that you got to climb one.
3) Simple disciplines bring freedom
Climbing, as with starting up, has inherent risks that you need to manage. The only way to climb a mountain or grow an organization with freedom is ongoing discipline. Often these disciplines are so simple that we tend to ignore them because our minds like complex challenges. A couple of my fellow-trekkers ignored the discipline of climbing slowly on earlier days and could not attempt the climb because they exhausted their physical capacity. I noticed a group of trekkers playing football at basecamp – wrong call at 5,000m altitude. Nearly all of them returned within a few hours of ascent the next night.
Even with all our preparation, the small stuff shows up from unexpected quarters to bite us. On the final day, I developed a blister on my big toe that rubbed against the long one. A blister-tape from a kind friend curtailed the injury and helped me move forward. Starting up a company can be overwhelming but simple disciplines of watching cashflow, seeking client feedback, listening to employees can help companies gear up for the long-term. It allows us to handle the unexpected blisters with more poise.
4) Conserve your resources
We underestimate the resources we need when we most need them. There’s a middle path between being conservative and reckless – we can teach ourselves to find the right balance through practice. If we are too fearful, we end up not attempting the climb. If we are too arrogant, the mountain shows us our rightful place, down in the plains. The same goes with starting up. Developing the maturity to constantly make risky but conservative decisions is important to manage resources, which is so often in short supply for entrepreneurs.
5) It’s a mind game.
In reality, most of our imagined risks never play out. Climbers aren’t swept away by avalanches anymore than airline passengers are marooned on islands. Startups don’t always end up dead – look at all the businesses around you that were startups once.
Our trouble stems from our inability to go through imagined pain in our mind but not the pain itself. If we can accept that as humans we are genetically wired to have the ability to survive and figure things out, we would live with lesser fear. In the end, it’s a mind game. When I walked up hungrily to the kitchen tent one day, my trek leader told me to relax my mind and that humans can survive up to three weeks without food. Starting up should be easier.