Business Becomes You.......

6th Nov 2014

I suppose all businesses start the same way.  Maybe it's a seed of an idea in a person's head or a shared conversation.  Maybe someone takes over a family business from their parents or falls into running a business because they excel in a certain type of saleable expertise.  For Peak Mountaineering it was a slow grower of an idea.  I am from a family of entrepreneurs and I guess that's something which gets passed down in your blood even though it can lay dormant for a while.  I had grown up seeing my parents work very hard in various businesses and, although I could tell it wasn't all plain sailing, I could sense the buzz of satisfaction at growing something from a fledgling concept.
 
It was many years later when my seed germinated.  My partner Caroline and I discussed starting a guiding business during a climbing trip in Australia and I vividly remember scribbling some initial ideas as we sat around a campfire at Arapiles.  Even then it was a number of years later when we officially set up Peak Mountaineering and, with a well established business now under our belts, it is easier to reflect on what a rush it has been.  It also makes it easier to objectively offer some advice for anyone planning on starting a business. Here's some thoughts on the journey so far......
 
There is always stuff to do
I love running a business but my first love is still instructing - I would never wanted to be glued to a desk all the time.  In the early days this meant a day in the mountains was followed by every evening answering emails.  I now get plenty of help with admin but there is still a lot of enquiries that need my personal attention.  They need me to answer them whether I'm in a Nepalese Tea House or on a family holiday.  It's not always easy but I know that if I don't answer a person's enquiry they are likely to go elsewhere.  
 
That's only the start of it.  There's also people to call, publicity to manage, blog posts or reviews to write, equipment to organise and a million other things that need attention.  Running a business can easily be a 24/7 job......but then every enquiry that turns to a booking is someone new to inspire and a potential long term member joining the Peak client family.  And, of course, every new client is also a revenue stream which is the life blood of any business.  So I may be wearily typing out an email at a ridiculous hour of the day but I don't mind one bit - I will only mind if there ever stops being emails to answer!
 
You become the brand
We've always known the importance of a strong brand image and over the years I'm really proud to see how the Peak Mountaineering brand has grown in recognition.  At the inception of the business  we contracted a designer to create our logo (based on inspiration from a Patagonia T-shirt I owned many years ago and which now has pride of place in an oak frame on our office wall).  Okay, so we aren't BP or Apple but it's surprising how often I mention the company name and people say how they saw us here or there.  Similarly, people often recognise the logo. The brand is really strong and I'm extremely proud of that.
 
Of course, this takes work and I've always got a stock of publicity leaflets in the vehicles ready to stick on a cafe notice board or leave on a shop counter.  All our vehicles have Peak Mountaineering brandished on the side (and front and back!) which can feel a bit obstructive when you turn up at a posh restaurant or wedding. I'm invariably wearing a logoed T-shirt or fleece and even my kids have logoed clothing.  We spend time getting our logo on other websites, displayed on posters in shops and information centres or even on stickers dotted through the tea houses of the Khumbu Valley.  Brand exposure is a work in progress, but every time I speak to someone who has seen it somewhere or tells me they recognise the swirly sun and jagged mountain symbol it feels great.
 
Of course a brand is more than just a logo.  We try and push the brand in the way we do business and that all takes time too.  Whether it's sending a follow up thank you email to a course participant or taking the time to chat through course options with someone who's unsure which training to choose.  Maybe it's time ploughed into environmental work (such as our annual pick and play event) or sponsoring a charitable event - everything helps to define our brand and every bit is important.
 
Having a business takes over your head
I used to read far more than I do now.  I used to take a stack of books on expeditions but nowadays I tend to just take my iPad.  Why? Because reading has fallen by the wayside in favour of writing.  Writing blog entries, proposals, new course content and a thousand other things.  There are always ideas floating around in my head that need recording.
 
Similarly, I think a lot about business while I'm cycling, running, watching films (that particularly happens when I've taken my children to the cinema to watch something they like but which doesn't float my boat!), driving, washing or just about any other time I have a free minute.  Climbing is one of the few things that distracts me and I love that about our sport - when you are 100% focussed on a climb there is no thought space left for anything else.....until you are on the journey home!
 
Having a business can take over family life
Cal officially manages our office and her hours are 9-5 on weekdays, but this only tells half the story.  She will still be dropping climbing equipment to groups on Saturday morning, checking there are enough biscuits for a first aid course during her evening shopping trip, delivering a course participant who has arrived by train to a venue and a million other errands that need doing out of office hours.
 
Just the same, my children may be dragged along to some business development meeting, be sent on errands to post certificates at the post office or help sort climbing gear after school. The  business also affects them in so many other ways when I'm away for weekends or on longer trips.  Having a business is a family affair.
 
Of course, I try to inspire them with my work and my skills get used on lots of family adventures.  I also believe there is a lot to be gained from children seeing parents who work hard because it's likely to embed a strong work ethic in them too.  There is also a dream nestled in the back of my mind that maybe one day they might choose to follow my instructor career and that, by then they'll be a business they can take over if they choose.  I learnt a lot from seeing my parents run their  businesses and I hope my children do too.
 
Make sure you leave time for personal playtime
If you work as a climbing or mountaineering instructor it is likely you started on that chosen career from a background as a leisure climber and mountaineer.  Hopefully, even though you climb for work you'll also still have that personal passion for it too.  There is always a risk, however, that running a business and being out instructing won't leave any time for the personal stuff and this kind of defeats the whole point.  
 
I can't deny this has sometimes happened to me but you do get more skilled at fitting the personal stuff in around work as time goes on.  Staying out after a day's instruction, adding some time on to overseas trips or simply blocking out some days when you aren't going to book in other work.  It all helps keep the personal fire burning.  Setting climbing goals and having ongoing projects to keep you focussed helps too.  It's not impossible to combine business and personal - it just takes good management.
 
Running a business lacks stability
It gets easier over time but I would suggest that every business in the outdoors could be categorised as what I describe as a slow grower.  Money can be ploughed into advertising and a shiny website but most of your clients will still come from word of mouth, personal contacts or repeats.  Building up this client network takes time.
 
Outdoor businesses also inevitably have peaks and troughs to their business year and it takes time to start to see when these will happen and to be able to plan for them and balance the finances to ensure there's money in the pot to pay the mortgage and other bills at the end of the month.
 
For anyone coming from regular paid employment that will be a shock and it takes times to sit back confidently and predict when the phone is most likely to be quieter or there will be money in the pot to tide you over the quieter moments.   But it does happen.
 
Love what you do
There's that quote that if you love the work you do you'll never have to work another day in your life (or something like that!).  In my case it's absolutely true.  My business enriches me, inspires me and I am constantly driven to make it better.  It is a great feeling that I didn't come as close to in any other job I did.  Business is a powerful drug - a legal high!  If you want a fix my advice would be DO IT......but don't expect it not to impact on every single aspect of your life :)
 
Posted by Paul