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Business is like climbing a mountain

30th September 2021

Starting and growing a business is like climbing a mountain, says Zakhele Mkhize. He featured in this column some weeks ago as the founder of Entsika and the Entsika Foundation.

Zakhele has been climbing the tallest peaks in seven continents, and last year would have tackled Everest had the Covid-19 lockdown not intervened.

Mountains require preparation. Zakhele tackled the mountains in order of elevation and strangeness of terrain to prepare for the world’s tallest. The snow on Kilimanjaro (5149 metres) was scary and then fun. And it prepared him for the much stranger icy terrain of Mount Vinson in the Antarctic (4892 metres) and Mount Elbrus in Russia (5642 metres).

That kind of preparation requires an obsessive determination to keep going regardless of the pain and fear. I’ve been in the Drakensberg for the last week and noticed that even in our relatively trivial preparation, those who do best have an element of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. That works for entrepreneurship too – those who succeed are driven to keep going at a speed and determination that leave others behind. Like mountaineering, business requires stamina and relentless persistence.

It also requires resilience. Training in personal initiative and resilience can benefit entrepreneurs even more than business courses. Zakhele encountered a storm on Mount Elbrus that threatened their lives. They called for a helicopter, but the weather prevented it from helping. “Sometimes in business, you won’t get the help you are looking for, from government, friends, family, banks, customers, creditors, regulators; not because they don’t want to or have an agenda against you, but because the conditions at that moment do not allow. You are not a victim. Don’t give up on your dream.”

Zakhele kept strong by remembering that storms pass. “Most people who die in terrible weather are not killed by the storm but by their panic,” he explains. What a brilliant analogy for what we have encountered over the past year.

Climbing requires learning new skills. On the mountains, Zakhele had to learn to handle ropes and associated equipment. In business, it isn’t enough to know the technology of your chosen product. You need to know about marketing and sales, finance and bookkeeping, regulations, hiring and managing staff, operational processes, and strategy and planning.

When you reach a mountain the reality doesn’t look like the travel brochures. I once read about homesick Italian prisoners of war in Kenya who broke out of their camp and climbed Mount Kenya with only the label on a tin of beans as their “map”! They actually summited, returned and broke back into their prison camp, but most of us would have died in the attempt. A romantic view of entrepreneurship is not a map. Having a guide beside you who has been there before can help point the way and prevent accidents.

Every gram of luggage has to be carried, at steadily higher altitudes with less oxygen to breathe. So you learn to carry less. Zakhele describes leaving base camp on Mount Vinson with very carefully selected contents in his rucksack, only to be required to halve it at a higher camp, and halve it again at the next camp. You learn to do without what you thought were essentials.

What are essentials we can do without entrepreneurial summiting? Spending cash flow on unnecessary overheads like an impressive office or the new car and flashy clothes has killed many a business before it became sustainable. Then there is attitudinal baggage that will weigh you down, like pride, greed, jealousy and a scarcity mentality. Sometimes success requires letting go of status.

Like climbing, business is tough but brings a huge sense of achievement. “But never forget to help others climb their mountains,” adds Zakhele.

 

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 24 May 2021 and is republished with permission.


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