In the land of startups, it’s easy to drown in metaphors and analogies when you’re talking about the trajectory of growth. Rockets anyone? How about a hockey stick?
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman even describes the startup growth journey as the evolution from pirate to Navy. In his podcast Masters of Scale, he says Uber went from the “swashbuckling risk-taking in early entrepreneurship (pirates don’t convene committee meetings), and the necessity to evolve from seat-of-the-pants pirate captain to by-the-book navy admiral as a company grows.”
These are all helpful (and hopeful) illustrations of startup life, but for me, none are very accurate. What the rocket, the hockey stick, and the swashbuckling pirate all fail to tell is that startup life is hard, harder than anyone thinks it will be when they first set out.
So, I’d like to propose a new startup metaphor for a new decade. Running a startup is like climbing a mountain. But not just any mountain.
This is what I mean.
Stage 1: The valley
At first, when you have a great idea that you know will work as a business, it’s a little like walking along an intriguing mountain trail that disappears into the clouds above. You see the base, you know it’s solid, but the clouds obscure lots of what’s ahead. In this stage, the path is challenging but the mostly gentle mountain trail leaves a lot of margin for missteps.
At this stage, you’re with the few friends who you convinced to go on this journey with you. Maybe you have a guide that’s helping you along the way, but you’re figuring it out as you go along and coping pretty well without too much expert advice.
As you continue up the mountain, the path narrows. You hone in on your goals, and how to get there. The clouds clear as you walk to reveal what’s next. And that’s when you realize it’s not just any mountain you’re trying to climb. It’s the mother of them all: Everest.
Stage 2: Base camp
Base camp usually equates to your first product or commercial launch: a frenzied place of limitless dreams of conquest. At base camp, you hear the eerie sound of avalanches crashing down from the direction you’re heading. In startup land, those avalanches are companies ahead of you on the journey that have ominously tumbled into oblivion.
Still, being at base camp is exciting, and the thrill of putting a product out into the world, and the prospect of climbing Everest drives you forward. Here, you also meet lots of new people, some who might be going on your exact trek. You make more connections, your team grows. You see lots of the rest of the journey now, but once you commit to summiting, this is your last chance to turn back.
Stage 3: Icefalls
The next phase in startup-land is what I’d call Everest’s notorious Icefalls. One website describes the Icefalls this way: “There are countless scary things that can happen here. A crevasse might open under you. An ice-pinnacle can fall on top of you. The entire area can collapse.” Anyone who has built a startup will immediately understand that language.
It takes a lot of courage to set out on this journey, and the most sobering realization at this point is that there is no turning back. When you look behind you, you may see 50 of your teammates clinging to the rope scrambling over treacherous ladders spanning crevasses and navigating daunting technical climbs. The air is thin, the ice is slippery, and the margin for error up here is much smaller than it was in the early days as you ambled through meadows up the mountain paths to base camp.
Stage 4: The camps and the summit
On Everest, the camps come after the Icefalls. These are the places you rest along the way, between harrowing pushes and up and up, as you further scale the mountain. I’ll risk pushing the metaphor to unreasonable heights by calling Camp One the Series A of the trek, Camp Two Series B, and so on.
Not everyone makes it to the camps, and reaching the next camp is never guaranteed. At this point, teams change, people drop out, and you have to consistently rework your plans and strategy to ensure a safe and successful climb. Teams often bounce back and forth between camps for weeks (or, for startups, years) before trying for the final summit, before finding the perfect conditions that will get them there.
Of course, the whole goal of the journey up the mountain is the summit. But even experienced climbers will tell you that every journey up is different and that the summit doesn’t look the same every time.
For some startups, the summit could be a sale. Or, it could be a series of mergers or profitability and growth on its own. Or, an IPO. Few people see the summit, but everyone will tell you it was worth the climb.
As an entrepreneur on my way to the summit now, I’d agree.
Jeff Kofman is the CEO and founder of Trint.