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Scaling the Freelance Mountain

Everest from afar

I was talking with a friend of mine when an analogy struck me. Building a business is like scaling a mountain: sometimes, you just need to acclimatize before you can move forward.

Ten years ago, I attempted to reach Everest Base Camp. I learned a lot that year in the Himalayas, and I learned even more from my failure to achieve my base camp goal. In fact, when I interviewed the VP of Amazon Marketplace last year, he had this to say about failure: “Without failure, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are.” They [Amazon Marketplace] failed and started up again. Three times. So, in honour of all failures, I bring you four lessons I learned trekking in Nepal.

With my Sherpa, Iswori.

1. Lead from the back.

During our climb to base camp, I noticed the head Sherpa waited at the back. He never walked ahead of anyone. On the contrary, as the leader, he waited behind to make sure every last one of us made it safely.

This lesson struck me hard because often in business, leaders lead from the front; whoever gets left behind, well, they gets (sic) left behind. But a true leader is one who ensures every member of their team is successful, even if it means coming in last themselves.

Whether you’re in the corporate world, running a small business, or freelancing, remember to lead from behind and help others along their mountain.

2. Take one step (or day) at a time.

OK, so this lesson isn’t exclusive to trekking in the Himalayas, but it is a lesson I learned the hard way while trekking in the Himalayas. Basically, altitude can kick your ass. Everyday activities you take for granted—like tying your shoelaces or walking to the bathroom—are hard AF when you’re thousands of metres above sea level. As my Sherpa put it, "Bistari, bistari, Karina." (Translates as "Slowly, slowly.")

I’m the type of person who likes to get shit done, and get it done quick. But sometimes, it just ain’t possible. That’s why it’s important to know when things are out of your control, just let them go and focus on what you can control.

The only way to make it is to take your time; that's how you'll get there successfully. And of course, take time to smell the roses. If you’re in business for yourself, enjoy the freedom this lifestyle affords you and your family.

3. Help strangers on the mountain.

Even though I was with my Sherpa, people either coming or going would stop to check on me, offer assistance, or give me helpful words of encouragement.

My dentist (of all people) suggested I bring candies to help with the altitude; I brought Werther’s (because Mmm!), and when I saw this woman struggling (she couldn’t keep any food down because of altitude sickness or walk without assistance), I offered her all my Werthers.

When I ran into them at our guesthouse in Kathmandu, I asked for an update. She got up and hugged me and said that my simple gesture (candy) gave her the boost and sugar she needed to get back to the city.

The moral of these stories? You are not alone on your trek. Even if you are alone.

Strangers from all walks of life and every corner of the globe will/would do anything to help you on the mountain. We’re in this together. A ‘solopreneur’ (gag) is never really solo in his or her journey; there are so many supportive networking groups, Facebook groups, MeetUps, etc. filled with people who either went through or are going through the same struggles. They’re there for you—providing a sense of unity, a sense of family, a sense of community.

This was a profound experience I had on the mountain all those years ago that is also true of small business owners—something I have seen first-hand as a business owner myself from the community around me.

Who knew that 10 years later those moments would still resonate with me. So, offer up those little gestures, because you never know whose life (or business) it might save.

4. Give yourself time to acclimate.

When trekking to base camp, you have to follow a very strict schedule of climbing, acclimatizing, climbing, acclimatizing, before you can reach base camp to make sure your body doesn’t spontaneously combust (I’m being facetious, but it’s also kinda true). That’s why it takes us sea-level folks about 10 days when locals can do it in two or three days.

Some start their trek in Kathmandu while others fly into Lukla and leapfrog to 2860m. From Lukla, you trek two days and rest at Namche Bazaar. This is where you take two days to acclimatize, followed by two more days of trekking, two more days of acclimatizing, and two final days of hiking. Ish.

This one lesson came to me today, 10 years later, and is what prompted this post. A friend was telling me she didn’t yet know what her 2018 business goals would be and I said it’s OK not to grow each-and-every year of business. Sometimes, you guessed it, you need to acclimatize. When scaling a mountain, like Everest, you can’t just go at it in a day, especially if you haven’t grown up at altitude.

Business, in my opinion, should be treated the same way. With my own business, I sort of flew into Lukla (read: was dropped at 2860m and left to figure my way up the mountain without a Sherpa). Now that I’ve reached Namche, I am choosing to acclimatize for a few days (read: a year, possibly two) before I attempt to go up to Dingboche (another 1000m).

Suspension bridge

Why? Because I want to enjoy the view from here, take in the scenery. Because I want to make sure I am 100% awesome at this level of the game before I try to scale my business any further. What good is taking on more clients than I can handle, making more money than I have time to enjoy, if I end up losing my footing somewhere along the suspension bridge?

Plus, this way when I do move to the next level, my clients will have a Karine who is ready for it, as opposed to a Karine who is trying to figure her next-level shit out.

So for everyone out there who isn’t entirely sure what their next business goals are going to be, or how they’re going to scale up, to them I say this: Why not just take a minute to acclimatize before moving forward? Breathe, savour the moment, and enjoy the view. After all, not everyone gets to be here.

Well, my friends, those are the lessons I’ve learned from my time in the Himalayas, which still have a stronghold on my heart and mind.

Share some of your entrepreneurial lessons and tell us how you’ve scaled your freelance mountain.


Edmund P. Hillary 29/5/53

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