There are several blog posts about startups not needing a business plan or any plan at all. Spreading the mantra of quick prototyping, iterating and failing. I am a fan of quick iterations, exploring and learning, but always according to a basic plan. There is a story I’d like to share.
In 2002 I was lucky enough and got a chance to be present during the planning phase of a climbing expedition in Africa. Not just any climbing expedition. Four Slovene guys decided that they are going to mark a new route in the highest vertical wall in Africa – on the Mount Poi in Kenya and than two of the four would climb the route, while the other two will be photo-shooting. The fifth joined as he saw a great opportunity to fly his parachute from the top of the mountain as the first human ever and joined the team.
But this is not a story about the expedition, even though their adventure was really an adventure in every possible way. This is a story about getting things planned and plan for the worse.
The planning and preparation started out six months earlier than the expedition. The training for the two climbers started even earlier. Almost each day for the next six months they meet up for 15 minutes and delegated specific tasks to one another. Moving on from high level tasks such as “prepare the time schedule for the days in Nairobi” to lower level tasks “buy 30 kilos of pasta (Barilla)”. One could call those meetings, product meetings.
Then there were weekly strategy and study meetings. Looking at photos from the single previous expedition to Mount Poi, studying the existing route and the massive vertical wall for a potential new route. I never again saw such attention to detail in a preparation phase. Of course these guys knew, as expert climbers, even though they were all in their mid twenties, that only such dedication and preparation will bring them home alive. They played with the negative scenarios, including the time it would take to get to the nearest hospital at any given moment during their expedition.
I see a similar pattern with startups. There are many weekend projects selling themselves as startups, but most of them lack the intense preparation, planning and study phase that is needed to execute properly, specially when trying to solve hard problems. If you know that in six months, when you will be in a full speed ahead mode, you can count on a good plan and not get distracted by every small detail you stand a much better chance to stay in the game a little longer. You might argue that having a planning phase will slow you down, but I am actually finding it quite the opposite. Thinking about several scenarios that can happen a bit in advance can help you move quicker and predict the future better.
Lastly, they had a day to day execution plan that had some buffer for unpredictable events. Even though they planned for a lot of things a few unpredictable events happened but they overcame them easily with on spot improvisation. As they later explained they did not think on the spot, but just acted and adapted the planned scenarios to the reality that was happening around them.
My take form this experience was to think a lot about what can happen, so you can react faster when it does happen. If you are unprepared it my cost you your life or the one of your team mates. In climbing as in startups.
In memoriam: this post is dedicated to Rok, who tragically passed away while doing what he loved. In the end, you can not plan for everything.