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Black Toes, Bruises and Blisters on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. Lessons for start-up founders.

As the West Coast Trail Express sped off into the distance early the morning of July 31, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. “I’ve forgotten my poles,” I said to Janice.  “They’re sitting in my parents foyer back in Esquimalt.”

I’ve used trekking poles when hiking for the past 15 years.  You can go faster on an ascent, and they take the pressure off your knees on a descent.  Here I was, at the start of a 5 day packing trip – the first I’ve done in several years – and I had left the darn poles behind.

The Juan de Fuca Marine trail stretches along 47 kilometres of rugged coastline a little over an hour’s drive west from Victoria.  The terrain varies from beach to forest, and flat to steep ascent.  Those scant 47 kilometres pack over 2,700m (approximately 9,000 feet) of elevation gain and loss in, of which nearly 1,000m is on the second day alone. It’s as tough as anything I’ve ever hiked.

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And I had forgotten my poles.  Ouch. Big error. Three days later I was feeling the pain as my big toes, hammered by the repeated impact of climbing up and down the headlands on the trail, turned first a deep purple, and then ultimately black.

So, what does that have to with a blog about technology and technology start-ups?  It turns out that there are a lot of lessons start-up founders, or indeed any business people, can learn from distance hiking.

You’re only as good as your plan. You can never be better, you can only be lucky.  Without my poles, I still made it through this trip.  I taped my heels and toes with duct tape (the most versatile hiking aid known to man), and the supply of Advil in my first aid kit numbed the pain in my toes to the point that it was bearable. I had a contingency plan.  Every business needs one too.

You’re only as good as your team. There were eight of us on this trip, and it became pretty clear early on that if we were all going to enjoy the outing, then we would have to shift the weight from some in the group to others.  Some were simply carrying too much.  Everybody carried to their ability, nobody complained, and we had a great time. On a hike there’s no room for a slacker, nor is there room for a diva in a start-up.

You must focus on the essentials. In the case of backpacking, the key determining factor is weight.  There comes a point when that one extra kilogram suddenly turns your pack from a comfortable tool into a medieval torture device.  Every beginner hiker learns this lesson the hard way.  It makes you ruthless about cutting out non-essentials, and sometimes causes you to go to extremes to reduce weight.  One hiker I know routinely cuts the handles off his toothbrushes.  A start-up needs the same focus on the essentials – what are the keys to success, and what are unnecessary luxuries?

Getting to the end means making incremental steps toward your goal. You can’t set out to hike the entire trail in the first day.  And by the end of the second day, you’ll be wondering whether you’ve made a mistake.  Getting to the finish line means taking incremental steps – climbing one hill at a time, passing one way point followed by another, and not giving up.  Sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? You achieve the big goals, whether in life or in business, by focusing on the small steps that get you to the finish.

Five days after we set out, we emerged no worse for the wear, hiked 3 kilometers into Port Renfrew, had a nice cold beer at the Port Renfrew Hotel, and hitched a ride back to Victoria with the West Coast Trail Express.  It was five days of paradise, hiking the shorelines and temperate rainforest of BC, camping on the beaches, watching the whales and otters swim by.

Who cares if my toes are a little bruised!

Here are a few photos, and you can find plenty more in my BC 2010 Flickr set.

Sunset, slack tide, Chin Beach, Vancouver Island

Sunset, Chin Beach

cascade, Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island

Waterfall, Sombrio Beach

Rocks at Sunset, Slack Tide, Chin Beach, Vancouver Island

Rocks, Chin Beach

Driftwood closeup, Sunset, Vancouver Island

Driftwood at sunset

Payzant Creek, Juan de Fuca trail, handheld HDR

Payzant Creek

Botanical Beach Tide Pools, Vancouver Island

Tide Pools, Botanical Beach

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Trail’s End

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Brad Templeton August 17, 2010, 10:20 am

    I presume that you didn't have gloves to use or borrow or something else prevented you from doing what I do in this situation, which is finding a trusty stick or two?

  • Alec August 17, 2010, 10:23 am

    I picked up a few sticks along the way, Brad, but could never find something "just right". Eventually I just gave up and swore to never again forget them.

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