Climbing and Entrepreneurship
“On Belay?” — so starts any rock climb, from a straightforward lazy afternoon jaunt up an easy, low risk cliff to a committing line up the gnarliest cliff facing subjective and objective dangers. Through it all, there are only two things keeping your risk level securely within an acceptable range. The first is your partner, whose belay keeps you from plummeting all the way to the ground in the event you fall. The second is your level head, acknowledging the fear without giving into it. Together these things enable you to make smart decisions with limited information. There are direct parallels with starting and growing a company, from whom to trust as your partners, through navigating the competitive landscape with nothing but your wits and a new idea that will change the world.
I’ve found that enlisting the right partners is the key to a successful climb or a startup adventure. After all, you must trust your climbing partners with your life, and your business partners with your professional life. Finding folks that complement your strengths increases the chances of success. Overlapping skillsets enables you to pick up each other’s slack when facing unforeseen challenges. Imagine a challenging and scary pitch that takes every ounce of strength, technique, and sheer determination to lead through. You will likely arrive at the anchors physically and mentally exhausted. With a well matched partner, you know he’ll be able to take the next lead while you recover. If you’re mismatched, you won’t be able to climb at your absolute limit, because you will need to keep reserves of strength and mental energy for back to back pitches higher on the wall.
Most people that haven’t thought about it think that rock climbing and starting a company are all about taking risk — often equating both to gambling. In reality, both are about risk management. The best entrepreneurs have great clarity about their vision and how it is different from the status quo. This insight establishes a competitive barrier that the competition will have a hard time rising above. They focus on pursuing the risk where there is competitive differentiation, building products and offering a value proposition to customers that achieve the vision. In all other areas of the business, their goal is to follow best practices, or common ways of building and running a company. Amongst other things, this simplifies training and ramp up times for new employees, which translates directly into more effort directed at winning in the market. There is a parallel set of rituals we use in rock climbing. Every climb starts with double checking each others harnesses, knots, and comfort level using the same ritualistic process every time. This ritual enables the climbers to have confidence in the system, compartmentalizing the risk to the climb itself, rather than being gripped in fear at the crux of the climb with worry the system will fail.
While there are many other parallels, there is one last one I want to leave you with — “style matters”. The sport of climbing comes in many forms. My favorite form is when it is you against the rock, and the gear is only there for protection, never used to make forward progress — This is called “free climbing”. Likewise in business, there may be many ways to achieve a goal, but my favorite approach is the one that adheres to the style of best practices but results in a categorically better outcome because your team was able to execute better than the competition. In climbing as in business, when you achieve your goals employing the best style possible, you are rewarded with a sense of fulfillment as you prep for the next hard pitch.
Read Tad Hunt’s Agent of Change Story on our Website.