Building a startup — 9 lessons from my hike to Everest Base Camp
We were completely tired after a 6 hour hike to Phakding (8.6k feet). Crushed is a better description. It was the end of day 1 — the easiest hiking day and mostly downhill. The hardest part was supposed to be landing at the Lukla airport (9.3k feet) considered as the most dangerous airport in the world. (They are not kidding about the “dangerous” piece — yes, that is a cliff at the edge of the runway and yes, that in orange is a crashed airplane that has been moved out of the way. Two people died in the crash, two days before we landed here.)
But back to the end of day 1.
How were we crushed on day 1? What happens next? If we got our a** kicked on day 1, how are we going to go through the next 9 days. Why were we doing this again? Whose idea was this?
Why am I telling you this?
Lukla Airport — the jump off point to Everest
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the Netflix documentary “14 peaks” — unbelievably, insane mountaineering “impossible!”. This inspirational journey transported me to my hike to base camp.
I started comparing my base camp journey to another I am doing today i.e building a tech startup — Launchable Inc (definitely less harder than “14 peaks”). I have been part of another startup journey (CloudBees) and felt that there are some commonalities between the base camp hike and building a startup.
Here are the 9 lessons that I took away from my Everest Base Camp hike. (While I have your attention, let me take you on a visual tour to Everest.)
Day 2 Namche Bazaar: A mission that inspires & you have fallen in love with
The hike to Namche Bazaar (11.2k feet at its lowest) is considered one of the harder days on the hike. If we were to get past our down spirits from day 1, we needed something to inspire us. For us, hiking to see Everest up close was massively inspirational. After all, we had spent 8 months prepping for it. One bad day wasn’t going to kick us down forever.
As you think about building a startup, find a mission that you absolutely love. A start up is going to test you. Plus, you are going to be on 8–10 year journey. If you are looking for quick exit, then building your own startup is not it. Find a mission that inspires you and lifts you on down days. You must absolutely love coming into work every day.
(My only plug for Launchable in this blog — At Launchable, our mission is to help software development teams become data driven scientists. We want to help software teams deliver fast & with high quality using data to make informed decisions. This brings our passions (Developer Productivity, Data) and past expertise (DevOps, Continuous Delivery) together in a unique package that we can offer the world.)
Namche Bazaar: Best sunrise view ever
Day 3 Hotel Everest View: The team absolutely matters
“What do you mean that we are supposed to hike on acclimitization day? I thought, we are resting tomorrow”. This is how our previous day ended and I had to muster every ounce of mental strength to drag myself for the acclimization hike.
The hike to Namche and then Everest View Hotel (do check their website and tell me if these aren’t one of the best views ever!) tested our collective spirits.
This is where the character of the team came through.
Lhotse 27.9k feet — 4th highest mountain in the world from Everest View Hotel
Walking a swinging bridge on a canyon took some courage. Finding that a yak can throw you off the bridge AND you should run on this bridge if you see a yak come from the other side — took the risk to a whole new level (Yaks walking through the village video).
What made this risk palatable was doing it with a group of friends I absolutely enjoy hanging out with.
As you build your startup, find people who are passionate about the mission and ones you know you can depend on when the journey gets hard.
People you can trust to call out “Yak! ahead” when the going gets tough.
Bridge to Namche
the team after crossing the bridge — on the edge of a cliff
Day 4 Trek to Tengboche: Find guides that have done the journey before
The trek to Tengboche (12.8k feet) starts gentle and downhill. Tengboche has a famous monastry that I was looking forward to visiting (it smells of hiking socks because you know visiting the monastry is the only thing hikers can do).
As soon as you cross another one of those bridges that a Yak can throw you off from, you start climbing a hill. (we did have a friend that was almost thrown off one today!)
The whole area was enveloped in fog. We ended up dis-oriented and lost track of one of our team mates.
Tengboche — where is it?
Luckily for us, our guide Bijay Lama had done this trek about 45 times. He knew ins and outs of this landscape. What could’ve been a major issue, turned out to be a minor hiccup because of his experience and insight.
While building your startup, stack the odds in your favor by bringing in advisors who have done the journey before. They can see through the fog and make the journey a lot more easier. They cannot do the journey for you but can help you find a sure footing.
Most mentors want to give back and are willing to help if the mission is inspirational. Find as many as you can recruit possibly.
Day 5 Dingbouche: Walk in with a plan
Everest Base Camp wouldn’t be possible without a good plan. You have a good set of milestones planned and you try to hit them. You have a good idea of your strengths/weaknesses. Mapping this for a startup, implies having a good idea of your hypothesis, an idea of what your GTM may look like, strengths/weaknesses of your team. You then, chart out a plan, ball park milestones, get to executing and adapting.
Back to Dingbouche (14.7k feet — roughly at the elevation of the highest point in Europe!). We started getting a picture that each subsequent milestone is going to be tougher than we envisioned, as the lack of oxygen started impacting us. That said, we felt we had a plan and had great milestones to look forward to (like getting to see Ama Dablam — one of the most revered mountains in Nepal. Matterhorn twin ) and we could accomplish them. That said, we adapted as well, we slowed down to an achievable pace and handed off more luggage to our porters (God bless them!).
first view of Ama Dablam (mother’s necklace — 22.3k feet)
Highest bakery in the world; Roughly at Mont Blanc elevation
Day 6, 7 Dingbouche Acclimitization — One step at a time, process matters
Ten days of hiking approximately 10k feet is really a journey that is taken one step at a time. There is no point about thinking on what the top of base camp looks like.
Just put in the work. One. Step. At. A. Time.
Mapping this to a startup, it means forgetting what your exit looks like (one of the most commonly asked questions to a startup CEO is what your exit looks like) and get busy executing.
There isn’t a point thinking about exit — it really is about building a great company one step at a time. What that means is recruiting great people, letting them do what you hired them to do, focussing on customers (at Launchable, on of our core values is “Make customers our fans”). Setting up processes for execution and managing those processes well.
Dingboche acclimitization 16k; Ama Dablam in the back
Day 8 Hike to Lobuche: Have a sense of humor
Day 8 turned out to the be the hardest for me where altitude sickness hit me on the first half of the day. Realizing that I would’nt have the energy to walk back to a lower altitude or be evacuated was a sobering thought. But. “Hey, at least no Yaks at this altitude to throw you off a bridge” was an amusing thought. (Walking the valley of breathlessness video.)
As a startup team, keep the humour bit in mind. The last startup that I worked for (CloudBees) folks had a wicked sense of humour and that journey was absolutely delightful. A sense of humor keeps you going when the going gets tough.
Sometimes though, you just accept a difficult situation with grace and silence — nods to the monument of the fallen Everest climbers which came upon us after a hard day.
monument to the fallen Everest climbers
Day 9a Hike to Gorakshep: Celebrate milestones along the way
Startup founders & teams tend to be extremely focussed on achieving their goals. If you reach a milestone don’t launch yourself into the next milestone right away.
Pause; enjoy the victory; boost your spirits; and then move to the next one.
On our last day, the hike got a lot more intense (no surprise!). The altitude and the fatigue from 8 days of hiking was really starting to show. We found lot of strength from this (30 sec video ,9 second video, 18 second video) milestone. This point was higher than Base Camp, it gave us confidence that we have now crossed the altitude of base camp and getting to base camp would not be a problem at all. It did help that it perhaps is one of the most breathtaking places on earth.
Find milestones (big or small — doesn’t matter) along the way. Milestones that give you the confidence and the energy that you are on the right track. Savor them.
top of the world: Pumari 23.4k, Lhotse 27.9k, Everest 29k
Day 9b Gorakshep to Base Camp: Enjoy the hike (& the destination)
Rocks big and small show up on the hike. Nevertheless, the hike itself offers spectacular views, if you stop enough to look around and enjoy them.
Enjoy the hike, take the scenery in and build memories along the way.
Rocks along the way
Everest peeking behind the peaks
Lhotse — Everest hides behind it
Everest Base Camp — Standing on Khumbu glacier
So obviously, I made the journey to Everest Base Camp and we know how the story ends. The journey of a start up is much less predictable.
Thus, one last bit of advice — keep the faith! You can do it!