Monday, August 9, 2010

Business Lessons from the Highest Peak in Utah

2 weeks ago I was one of 26 14-18 year-old boys, youth leaders, and fathers that embarked on a 63-mile 5-day backpacking trip in the Uinta mountains.  King's Peak, the highest mountain in the state at over 13,500 feet in elevation, was just one of the many challenges of the week.  Here are some important lessons we learned, and how they apply to our businesses:

Lightweight Business Model
When I prepared my pack for this grueling adventure, every ounce counted.  And trust me, by the last day I felt every fraction of an ounce.  I started with the staple needs - tent, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, headlamp, etc.  Regardless how many days I would be gone, I would need the same amount of these items (one tent, one sleeping bag, etc.).  These are like the fixed costs in your business.  We want them to be as light as possible, because we will be adding more weight to them per day we are gone - changes of clothing, food, fuel, and more.  A lightweight business model is one that does not over-burden the business with heavy fixed costs and tries to structure itself to function, as much as possible, on variable costs.  The lighter the fixed costs, the lower the break-even point and the more flexible the business will be to change its course and take advantage of the right opportunities as they come along.

Foundation Determines Success
I quickly learned that feet, the foundation of the body, were the most important part of the body on this trip.  One person bought a new pair of shoes 2 weeks before the trip and had several blisters after just the first day of hiking.  He was plagued by these and the rest of the blisters that appeared thereafter throughout the duration of the trip!  He had to go much slower than the rest of his body wanted because of the pain from these blisters.  Those who experienced the least amount of pain and enjoyed the most comfortable experience were those with the right shoes and socks and they worked to keep their feet dry while hiking (we were rained on every day, with the worst torrential downpour I've ever experienced on Friday) and warm at night (temperatures dropped into the thirties each night).  In business, we have to strengthen and take-care of our foundation, which is usually a combination of working capital, the best employees, and our customers.  Without these three things we are in for a very painful business experience.

Difficulty is in the Eye of the Beholder
We hiked 12 miles on Monday, 15 miles on Tuesday, 7 miles on Wednesday, 13 miles on Thursday, and 16 miles on Friday.  Before Monday, the youth would complain before a 5 mile hike.  By Wednesday morning, after days of 12 and 15 miles, respectively, 7 miles was the easiest thing they had ever heard of.  Comments like, "Oh, we only have to go 7 miles today," and "Today is going to be a piece of cake," became the opinion.  The business application - what may look difficult today is likely not nearly as difficult when put into context.  You may be going somewhere you and your team have never been, but few challenges end up as hard as they might initially appear.

Snapshots are Less Valuable than Overall Perspective
Kings Peak is not all that intimidating when you are next to it.  On Wednesday night we camped just south of Kings Peak in Painters Basin, only about 2,400 feet lower elevation than the peak - it would take a hike of just over 3 miles to summit the next morning.  What was interesting was the reaction of the youth.  "That doesn't look like the tallest mountain in Utah," one young man offered.  How quickly they forgot how far and how high we had to hike just to arrive at that point.  Just two days later we would finish our adventure at 7,800 feet.  The point is this - our perspective is often limited to the immediate surroundings of that at which we look.  We need to broaden our perspective so we can see the whole picture of our business.

One of the leaders on this trip frequently said that it would not be an adventure if we knew the outcome.  Starting, owning, and running a business is, therefore, an adventure.  With these four lessons learned, we can hopefully create the outcomes we desire!