Many people try to start businesses. And there are those who try to climb mountains. There appears to be connections for the people who are passionate about both [see Ten Steps to the Top]. The ones who are good at both say that learning the skills to do one can help with the other.
Ascending the summit of entrepreneurial success doesn’t necessarily happen in the classroom. Though huddling for studies at the Entrepreneurial Studies Program at UNC Kenan-Flagler provides a good base camp.
After a notable career, Randy Myer, Professor of the Practice of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, decided to return to the business school of his alma mater nine years ago to share his entrepreneurial experiences. His students give him high marks for his thoughtful teaching of Entrepreneurial Marketing and Business Plan Analysis. What they might not realize is his coaching in the classroom of key lessons learned have roots built on a very solid and rugged foundation through his passion for mountain climbing.
“Months of training in order to climb Mount McKinley and Aconcagua with a carefully selected team reinforced my desire for independence and to have control of my own destiny, ” stated Randy Myer. “So I left partnership at Booz Allen Hamilton to start my own company.”
Having reached the figurative summit of making partner at a leading consulting firm, he, like many driven business leaders, was already looking for the next summit to climb. “Going into high altitudes reinforced my desire to be an entrepreneur. Climbing required drive, motivation, individual energy, and quick decision making.”
While at Harvard Business School, Myer caught the bug for climbing from his class mate from Banff Alberta, who eagerly taught him the ropes during visits to neighboring New Hampshire. Then, while at Booz Allen, Myer would catch a long weekend here and there to try new challenges such as ice climbing. While he found consulting to be very intellectually challenging, he viewed mountain ascension as a very strict physical challenge that required months of training with a single minded goal to get to the top often an entire year later.
Similarly, entrepreneurs are goal oriented and must have high energy to summit the journey. Unlike being a consultant or working at a large corporation, “in starting one’s own company, it’s more about the quality of ideas, operational effectiveness, building a team – networking. You don’t have to be book smart to start your own business – or to be a successful mountaineer – you need to be goal oriented.”
Myer ascended Mount McKinley, Aconcagua, Rainer, and Kilimanjaro, each requiring a full year of preparation, all while working at Booz Allen. He would book the tallest hotel while on business travel so that he could awake before sunrise to run the stairwells with whatever work materials and books from his hotel room, bible and magazines, could fit into his back pack to simulate his ninety pound mountain pack.
After leaving Booz and inspired from mountain climbing, Myer dug into his entrepreneurial adventure with vigor and founded Best Friends Pet Care, which he grew into a national chain of high-quality pet services facilities. Raising initial $3 million seed capital to launch his idea, he completed three additional rounds of successful financings and built it into a $30 million chain with over 55 U.S. locations. He sold his interest in the company in the mid-1990s to outside investors.
People who are passionate about climbing will be passionate about training and putting in as much effort as they can. This passion is very similar to entrepreneurs starting a business, poring in almost every non sleeping hour into their start up, while visioning future success. An entrepreneur feels pressure from investors, customers, employees, and family. Accountability in climbing is to your team, financial sponsors.
“Major climbs have three phases that are not unlike starting a new business. The first phase, planning, is quite similar in both,” states Myer. “The second phase, the actual journey is much the same although the climb gets harder as you get higher which is probably the reverse for starting a business.”
Finally, there is the third phase, reaching the summit, which has some of the same characteristics of a successful exit. For most climbers, the excitement is in the journey as it is for entrepreneurs. “But the outside world often measures you by the third level – did you reach the summit or have a successful exit,” explains Myer, “We love the journey much more. But people that ask about climbing or my startup seem to focus mostly on the end result. “
Both the downhill ascension in mountain climbing and the integration post exit associated with a venture that has been acquired can be anti-climatic and surprisingly challenging. True mountaineers and entrepreneurs trudge through this post phase as quickly as possible in order to start the cycle over, earning the “serial” descriptor.
Are entrepreneurs risk takers or just highly driven folks? Those who do not climb probably think risk first and drive second. For Myer, “the risk does not really enter my mind – like bungee jumping there is thrill to it, but if you think risk first, you would probably never jump. I always assume the risk is one I understand or can manage.”
When the group leader told the team that conditions would force them not to attain the summit, Myer reflected, “Did I want to turn back on McKinley? Absolutely not. But I did not argue with our leader. That is the hardest part for me – managing the drive to excel – to get to the top.”
A recent inspiring guest speaker to Myer’s students was Brenda Berg, founder of Scandinavian Child, exclusive North American distributor of unique children’s products headquartered in Raleigh, and an avid ‘rock jock’ whose license plate reads “CLIMBING”.
One student asked how Berg managed the fear of starting a business. She explained, “I am a rock climber. I like to scare myself. Fear is a way of life when you start and run your own business. If you can’t handle fear, starting a business is not for you.”
Reaching new levels in business is very much like climbing. Berg explained, “There are times when you have to put all of your focus on one giant leap – trusting yourself, your gear, and your partner to make sure that it happens, or that they catch you on the way down. Moreover, if it doesn’t work, you have to get back on the rock and try it again, or the fear will take over and paralyze you. duke energy customer service