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What Mountaineering Taught Me About Building A Company From Scratch

You can’t do it alone, and often you have to make up your own rules.

What Mountaineering Taught Me About Building A Company From Scratch
[Photo: Flickr user Stephan A.]

When I first started mountaineering, I would get dropped off by a helicopter at the top of the mountain and ski down. The experience was exhilarating and technically challenging, but I felt like something was missing. I felt like I was cheating and taking the easy way out.

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So I started climbing mountains with friends, first in the Swiss Alps, then in places like the Shawangunks in New York and Ben Nevis Caste Ridge in Scotland. I found the sense of freedom both thrilling and shocking. In my everyday life, I have to wear a seatbelt or ride with a light on my bike. Not so on the side of a mountain. There, you can literally risk your life and there are few people around to supervise.

Running a private company isn’t life threatening, but that risky, no-rules environment can be just as exciting–and daunting. If you don’t plan well or think carefully, you lose your route, and you’re the only one you can blame. Both require perseverance, and when you make it past an obstacle in either pursuits, whether it be a rock ledge or a major business win, it feels extraordinary. These are a few of the lessons from my mountain-climbing hobby that have fed into my experience as a startup founder.


Related: How My Entry-Level Job Helped Me Become A Mid-20s Entrepreneur 


Don’t Get Ahead Of Yourself–Start At The Bottom

I built my first company, Bibit, on top of existing payment infrastructure that hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Our solution was like a nice coat of paint on a crumbling interior. I soon discovered that this approach was like skiing down the mountain rather than scaling it. So I decided the next time I would start from the beginning and build a company from the ground up.

In 2006, two cofounders and I launched Adyen as an entirely new payments infrastructure, which gave us greater control over more parts of payments transactions. We focused on technology first, then sales, building from the inside out. The scope and mission felt different and better.

Make Every Big Decision As A Team

Mountaineering is a very personal pursuit; you’re left to choose each new foothold on your own. But determining when and whether to set out on a climb should never just be a solo affair. Responsible mountain climbers are always looking out for each other. If someone has a good reason to believe the weather might change, we’ll pull out the barometer and decide what we should to do together.

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Related: Five Lessons This Longtime Cyclist Learned As A First-Time Business Owner 


My startup’s tight-knit founding team is still at the company today because we’ve maintained that same open, collaborative culture despite growing at a tremendous pace. For example, we make very few hierarchical decisions–if someone believes that they’d just walked out of a terrible negotiation, we’ll regroup and figure out what we should do as a team.

Don’t Underestimate What You Can Do

In climbing, there is a yawning gap between what you can accomplish physically and what you can accomplish mentally. Closing that gap requires grit and singular focus. Similarly, at Adyen, we knew our target customers were large enterprises, not small businesses. But initially we struggled to sign our first customers because we were ourselves a small company trying to do something incredibly difficult (not to mention, without a track record). But we persisted–and eventually found a foothold. We never took our eyes off those companies in our target market.

Choose Caution Over Speed

On one of my treks, I ran into a famous Italian mountaineer and asked him, “What do you think makes a good climber?” He said, “Somebody who always returns.” I’ve tried to keep that in mind as a startup founder, too. A good company is one that survives. There’s a perception that entrepreneurs are risk takers, but in fact they’re risk mitigators. My team and I have intentionally adopted a thorough, controlled approach to making any major decision.


Related: This Tech Exec’s Secret To Life And Career Success? Kitesurfing


One of the reasons I was drawn to mountaineering is the culture of fellow climbers. They’re a crowd that sees the world differently than the rest. This is also something I look for in my employees–independent, talented, hard-working individuals who are willing to pull together for a common goal. After all, for me it’s the journey and human connection that makes it worthwhile–so why rush to get there? Whether I’m taking in the view from the top of a peak, or celebrating the latest big win with my startup team, it’s the experience that matters most.

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Pieter van der Does is the CEO and cofounder of Adyen.