Believe it or not, the process of building a successful start-up is a lot like planning and executing a (typically) crazy expedition. Whether launching an expedition idea that seems to defy the limits of human endurance, or building a new business that challenges existing market orthodoxy, you need to achieve a small miracle: creating something from nothing. I have also been involved as an investor and CEO in creating, growing, selling and merging several businesses in diverse sectors from digital media to environmental sustainability, concrete reinforcement, creative agency, management consulting and IT services.
It might seem strange that our lessons learned should be so closely aligned. But let’s take a look at the context of both roles.
Expeditioners aim to:
- Do something incredibly challenging and highly original
- Come back alive, while taking risks most people would never dream of
- Have fun doing it, despite the pain and suffering that comes with the territory
- Win financial support from sponsors, while inevitably putting their own financial future at stake
- Learn more about themselves and the limits of their physical and mental capability and endurance in the process.
Entrepreneurs aim to:
- Bring their passion to creating a new product or service the world needs
- Work as hard as they can at bringing their offering to market, learning fast and adapting on the fly as endless obstacles are struck and overcome
- Have fun and keep up the spirits of their team, despite the heavy toll of long hours and deflating setbacks
- Raise money from early investors, who typically insist the entrepreneur commits all their ‘hurt money’ first.
- Be the best leader they can be, developing their strategic, financial, marketing, cultural and operational capabilities on the fly, building a team that can cover his or her blind spots
The Golden Rules
- Get clear on your true purpose: when times get tough, it’s your ‘Why’ that will guide through. It’s your ‘Why’ that sponsors and funders need to get behind, and it’s the cause your team will enroll in. You can’t fake your ‘Why”, you have to truly believe it if you want anyone else to.
- 100% Commitment: You can’t fake it; no one will follow a leader that doesn’t truly. Madly, deeply believe in their ideals, their own product or expedition. You have to be willing to be the first person to jump in the deep, taking the lead before you can expect anyone to follow.
- Be willing to adapt: Focusing on your outcomes, and the milestones you have mapped out along the way, improvise intelligently in the face of obstacles. Tinkering, trial and error, risk-controlled experimentation – all have their place in edging your way ahead.
- Don’t sit still: An old CEO of mine had a favourite saying, “losers mistake hope for action”. Movement in any direction is better than being stuck. Rolling back a product update, retreating from a peak that cannot be safely descended, sustain your sense of purpose and summon your strength for another go.
- Maintain your composure: In the pleasure of your own company, maybe it’s OK to lose it. But in the presence of your customers, your team, your backers and the world at large, don’t let them see you sweat. Your cool, calculating, committed self is the best person for the toughest situations, not an angry, screaming mess.
- Preparation, preparation, preparation: War gaming yourself with all of the things that can and will go wrong is invaluable. Investing the time to research and understand the risk environment you are venturing into, and building mitigation plans to maintain your resilience, will often be the difference between life and death, success or insolvency.
- Beware the Black Swan: Rarely is the reason for a business or an expedition to fail any one event. It is the culmination of several events, which alone would have been manageable, adding up to a black swan event – a catastrophic failure of the system. If multiple layers of redundancies exist for key equipment, people and processes, then the ability to deal with the black swan event if it arises will be within your reach.
- Hold on to your big ideas: They are the currency of your future. While you can often only execute them one at a time, it’s the possibility your ideas for the future hold that can inspire and fuel your efforts today.
- Don’t worry about your gaps, focus on filling them: You’ll never have 100% of every skill and capability you need. Be honest about where your edges are; ask others to highlight your blind spots. Find like-spirited people who think different, act different and will make the difference as part of your team.
In the face of limited funding, fierce competition, scarce resources, daunting challenges, noisy naysayers and an uncertain, harsh environment, success is only ever hard won at considerable personal cost and risk.
As you are planning your start-up or go-to-market launch plan, I suggest you take the time and step back to reflect on one question: “How would you approach this if your life depended upon the outcome?” Read a little of the adventures of people like Cas and Jonesy, Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart or Sir Ernest Shackleton. You might just find the inspiration and practical tools that will enable your business to survive and prosper.