Dave Graham, the CEO of Latitude 38 Entertainment (which produces a Napa Valley music fest called BottleRock), has gone fishing for as long as he can remember. “I fish a ton,” he says. His father taught him first; they’d go to various rivers and reservoirs around Napa. “It was just an escape for me,” says Graham. “If you were feeling stressed out and needed a jolt, you could always find it in fishing.”
Over the years, fishing became more than a mere escape; it became a hobby Graham took almost as seriously as his job. Indeed, Graham gradually came to see fishing as a kind of metaphor for business, and to derive several business lessons from his passion. Fast Company caught up with Graham to learn more.
If business is about competition, there are few better places to train that instinct than on the river, says Graham. He calls the feeling he gets when he feels the fish tug “almost primal… There’s about to be a fight, and it’s not only a physical fight, it’s a mental fight.” When facing down a wily steelhead, for instance, Graham says it’s “almost a chess game.” While pitting your strength against that of a 25-pound fish, you’re also having to be smart about where to maneuver it, calculating the effects of forces like the current and obstructions like rocks.
“Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up,” says Graham. The river offers that to him. He never sets out to go fishing in order to find solutions; they simply come to him while he’s on the river. “One minute you’re thinking about nature, and the next moment, without even trying, some thought comes to mind.” He’s made some of his most consequential decisions in business–whether to leave a company, whether to found one–on a river. “In order to make a good decision, you need to block out the noise,” he says. And he’s been happy–“absolutely, 100%”–with each of these decisions. “Being on the river allowed me to flip ideas on their head, to reimagine things, and that’s the key to business.”
Despite being a largely peaceful setting, things can surely go wrong on a river, too, especially if you venture to the back country. Once, on the Klammath River, a boulder landed on Graham’s leg, trapping him in the water. He and his cousin managed to get the boulder off, but his cousin–a park ranger–determined that Graham was likely to go into shock if he sat still while waiting for a helicopter. “So I had to hike up the mountain back to the car on one leg,” he recalls. He thinks it’s an unusually literal metaphor for how the startup founder can only take one step at a time: “I could only focus on the next step ahead of me and did so at a sustainable pace.”
Every stretch of river is different, but one thing remains constant: if you fight a big enough fish, you need a nice patch of level ground in order to bring the thing on land. Particularly if you’re planning to release the fish after you catch it, you need a level area with a gentle current where you can remove the hook while holding the fish against the water, so oxygen can run through its gills.
But in mountainous terrain, such patches of ground aren’t always easy to come by: you might have to lure a fish 40 feet, then ford the river to find a good exit. “Whenever I throw a line in, I look to see what possible spots I might be able to bring the fish in. In business, it’s the same. You have to decide: do I want to build this business to run for the rest of my life? Do I want to build it and sell it, because I know another company is trying to move into this space? What is your exit strategy?”
Graham feels there’s no better way to get to know another person quickly–who they really are–than by taking them out on the river. “In order to bust through that cement wall to find out who a person is, take them fishing,” he says. You get to see so much about a person: how they handle new information, how they make decisions, how they handle adversity, how they gloat or are humble over success. “You may like me or you may not end up liking me, but you’re going to come to a conclusion either way, and faster than you normally would,” says Graham–from experience. He’s declined a few deals, and declined to hire one person, because of behavior he saw on a river. The most revealing thing is how someone reacts to a lost fish: Do they throw a tantrum? Are they overly concerned about a missed photo op? Or do they appreciate a lesson learned, and a day spent in nature?
Graham has been on the Trinity river countless times, and each time has been a pageant of failure, success, and ultimately, learning. He knows every hole and every current, he says, “because I’ve hooked fish and lost fish in every stretch of that river.” He recalls a recent instance where a friend and colleague hooked a 25-pound fish with a line rated only for six-pound fish (avid fishermen use lighter lines both because they’re tougher to spot, and it creates a more dynamic challenge once the fish is hooked).
“The fish was basically going to break the line, because it was about to go into a Class IV rapid,” recalls Graham. So he coached his friend: on how to loosen the drag so there was less tension on the line, on how to navigate the salmon into a bit of current where he could gradually wear the fish down, and on how and where to ford the river in search of a better beaching ground. Graham’s friend hoisted the fish out some 20 hard-fought minutes later. It was a vivid reminder of how the past failures of one person can lead to the success of another, and it’s a reason Graham still reaches out to mentors today.