Vc Gordon Ritter Scaling Aconagua And Strategies For Success
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Seven Summit Strategies for Reaching the Top
Ascending the highest mountain outside the Himalayas and building a software
company share many of the same strategies for success according to one venture
capitalist, serial entrepreneur and outdoor adventurist.
By Gordon Ritter, Emergence Capital Partners
Mar. 17, 2010
On January 24, 2010 at 3:45pm, our team stood atop the 22,840-foot summit of Aconcagua, the highest
peak outside the Himalayas. It w as an amazing, unbelievable feeling. It had taken tw o years of planning
and training, eleven days of climbing, the expertise of our guides and the fortune of good w eather to get
us to the top together. We w ere all thrilled!
When I returned home and described the ups and dow ns of our journey to my colleagues, I realized my
experience as a softw are CEO had actually helped prepare me for the expedition. The skills and best
practices needed to summit a major peak are very similar to those needed to build a successful softw are
Based on my experience climbing Aconcagua, I recommend entrepreneurial business leaders consider
these "Seven Summit Strategies" for reaching the "top."
1. Drive to "Do" Different
I didn't really set out to be a mountaineer. I simply w anted to do something different - something few
other people set out to do as they approach their 45th year. Two years ago w hen my roommates from
college and I began to talk about climbing a major mountain peak, I realized that it could be a life-changing
Sure, some of my friends referred to Aconcagua as my personal manifestation of a mid-life crisis. But I w as
very motivated to try something new. I w anted to do the un-obvious. Avoid the easy path.
So on January 13, 2010, our team of climbers and three guides set out from the village of Los Penitentes,
Argentina to reach the summit of Aconcagua. The Andean peak is the highest outside of the Himalayas and
the second-highest of the Seven Summits after Everest.
The commitment to take on Aconcagua is just another example of my love for a challenge. When I began a
web services platform-as-a-service company in 2000, Softw are as Service Inc., the vision of today's rapidly
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expanding SaaS and cloud models w as anything but clear. But I knew the softw are industry was changing
and the benefits of the technology were compelling. We took a risk and w ere rewarded as the market took
This drive to "do different" is one of the differentiating characteristics of entrepreneurs. Where many
people excel in the established, highly competitive paths of legal, medical or business school, others don't.
I was one of those "others." Very often, entrepreneurial individuals w ant to change the game and play by
their own rules. A degree of comfort with risk-taking and taking on unique challenges plays a big part in
that personality - and the potential for future success.
2. Live to Climb Another Day
We did not use porters to carry heavy loads on Aconcagua. On several days during our climb, w e carried a
60-pound pack up over 3,000 vertical feet, dropped its contents, descended to the lower camp to sleep,
and then ascended the 3,000 feet again the next day w ith another 60-pound pack. Along with our need to
move our supplies up the mountain, this is a valuable process of acclimatization w hen climbing a high
mountain peak. It can also be somew hat demoralizing. The effect is that w e basically climbed the top-
10,000-feet of the mountain twice!
But these grueling climbs w ere not the hardest part of the expedition. The climbing, pressure-breathing,
altitude challenges, snow storms, how ling w ind, sub-zero nights - all of these w ere factors I had
anticipated. The biggest challenge w as the mental games my mind would play on me - especially at night,
when harsh conditions meant sleeping w as often impossible. "How am I going to climb tomorrow if I'm not
sleeping now ?!" Lying like a mummy in my sleeping bag, I could not even read a book because gloveless
hands w ould freeze in minutes and I could not turn the pages w ith gloves on. I found myself at times
gasping for breath from the stress of what might happen.
"Don't panic," I continually told myself, using a simple but profound mantra from one of my business
mentors. "Just make it until daw n. It really w on't be that bad." Sure enough, on most nights, I ended up
getting enough rest to recuperate and rally in the morning.
With a startup, panic situations are common: A big customer just dropped its contract, the product release
is late, an investor backs away from a deal, and so on. The key to surviving these seemingly near-death
events is staying calm. It invariably happens that the next hour/day/week/month will be better. As w e
used to say w hile growing up in Maine, "If you don't like the weather, w ait a minute."
Leaders simply cannot panic. It doesn't soothe the team, solve the problem or build your reputation. You'll
get through the rough patch if you calmly assess the situation and determine the right course of action.
Conversely, the same advice applies during times of great excitement, growth and success. Unfortunately,
good times can end just as quickly as bad times. It is important to remember to prepare the board and
internal teams for both types of changes in the w eather w hen running a startup.
3. Trust Y our "Guide"
One of the most impressive things I saw on the slopes of Aconcagua w as the expertise of our guides in
action. These expert mountaineers have climbed many peaks around the w orld - in fact, some had already
climbed Aconcagua multiple times. Their experience with big mountains and w ith hundreds of climbers gives
them unparalleled insight into the entire process of reaching the top of a major peak.
Their secret is that they have done it all before. The guides can recognize patterns on the trail, patterns in
the w eather, patterns in behavior. They can look in a climber's eyes and decide if he or she is really losing
it, or just having a bad day. They monitored our status carefully, with regular checks for blood-oxygen
levels, blood accumulation in the lungs, gastrointestinal issues and other signs of altitude sickness. I found
myself trying to stay right behind a guide as w e climbed so that I could talk w ith him and learn more from
At first, I thought of our guides as the CEOs of the expedition. But I soon realized that all of the climbers
were CEOs - responsible for our ow n loads and for making it up the mountain under our ow n pow er. The
guides really served as coaches w ho provided us with the tools and guidance w e needed to reach the top.
The softw are industry is full of "Type A"-ego CEOs w ho often seem to know it all. But no matter how savvy
an entrepreneur or how much experience a founder might have, it is critical for CEOs to reach out to a
mentor or coach w ith more and/or different experience. For entrepreneurs, it is invaluable to find the right
coach and enlist his or her commitment to the startup and its goals.
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4. Maintain a Steady Pace
As w e reached 18,000 feet, I was happy that the climb had gone so well. Our guides told us that the
weather looked good and that if w e reached High Camp at 20,000 feet the next day, w e would "be in
position" to summit.
Everyone w anted to hear those w ords. I was feeling strong and w as in a good mental state. But the lead
guide pointed out that everyone on the team w as not feeling 100 percent. He floated the idea of taking a
rest day before pushing up. He spoke to the group as a whole and then w ent to each climber individually
to gauge their interest in proceeding.
I was ready. When the guide came to me, I told him I felt great and that I could even take extra weight in
my pack if it w ould help others w ho w eren't feeling as well. The team eventually decided to advance the
next day -- and the guides rew arded me w ith my heaviest load of the trip. My pack w as probably 50
percent heavier than the packs I had been carrying up to that point.
The load proved too much. I reached High Camp at 20,000 feet, emptied my pack and returned to low er
camp exhausted. It w as by far the toughest day of the climb. I w as extremely tired but again I couldn't
sleep that night. I rolled around in my tent feeling physically ill. I had overdone it - pushed too hard - and
now there w as a chance that I w ouldn't make it to the top.
Luckily, the next day was a planned rest day. After emerging from my tent in the morning as a physical and
emotional w reck, I w as able to return after forcing dow n some bites of breakfast and finally fell asleep for a
couple hours. The rest was critical and I was feeling better by day's end.
When in pursuit of a major goal, it is tempting to push the accelerator all the w ay to the floor. The reality is
that can be the fastest w ay to burn out. In a startup, too often leaders push themselves and those around
them beyond their capabilities. I have found that it is more productive to step back, assess the full scale of
the goal you are after, and move steadily if you w ant to reach the top.
5. Embrace Confidence and Perseverance
Our final push to the summit of Aconcagua w ould require a 3,200-foot ascent. One mountaineer I spoke
with w ho had also summited Everest said that Aconcagua actually had a tougher "summit day." The w ind
can how l across the peak at more than 70 miles per hour. Before you reach the peak, you must navigate
the Canaleta - a very steep climb through a rocky, tight scree field covered in snow. And you have a full
pack of protective gear in case the weather turns bad along the w ay.
Despite the obstacles, our entire team reached the summit of Aconcagua after more than eight hours of
climbing. I w as unbelievably proud.
Surprisingly, how ever, I w asn't relieved. I had really never doubted that w e w ould make it to the top.
While on the summit, I w as overwhelmed w ith a sense of accomplishment - not relief. Instead I thought,
"What's next? How can I take this amazing experience, build off of it and identify a new challenge?"
Self confidence is one of the keys to achieving success. Psychologists uniformly note that w e increase our
confidence by continuously identifying obstacles, overcoming them and acquiring a sense of mastery. We
do it first as children: We can't read, and then w e learn... We can't sw im, and then we learn... Tackling
each challenge is w hat teaches us a sense of accomplishment and gives us the ultimate confidence in our
ability to execute. Confidence is a strength you can build on - it breeds on itself.
The summit experience w as also like raising a financing round for your company or even taking it public.
Many founders have a belief that their funding event is a sign that their w ork is done. The reality is that it
is simply another intermediate step on the very long road to building a successful company.
6. Remember "Team Matters"
Most summit teams pictured on the top of major peaks are just a fragment of the original team that set out
from base camp. Multiple guides are part of each team so that one or tw o guides can be left behind to lead
"dropped" climbers back dow n as the rest of the team continues to climb for the top.
The beauty of our summit photo is that our entire team is in it: We all made it to the top of Aconcagua.
Despite illness, exhaustion, and a host of other personal challenges, the entire group exhibited a spirit of
camaraderie w hich had us rooting for each other and driving us all upw ard.
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We knew that our team would only be as strong as its w eakest member. If one person had an injury or
illness on a certain day, w e all changed our pace to stay together. One guide w as alw ays accompanying
the slow est climber on any given day.
Our success was a team effort - not any one individual's personal achievement. The same is true in
business. Leaders must work hard to address the needs and spirits of the entire team. Sometimes it might
be necessary to moderate a relentless pace to enable the team to reach the top together. Founders have
to be careful not to create an atmosphere of internal competition w here it is impossible to "w in" as a team.
7. Break It Down into "Steps"
If you've ever seen footage of mountaineers climbing near the top of the highest peaks on Earth, you
know the process looks incredibly slow and painful. Minutes seem to elapse betw een each step. The
climber appears as if he or she might keel over at any moment.
The reality? Yes, they are tired, but they are also performing what is called a "rest step." At high altitudes
with heavy packs, climbers keep their weight on their straightened back leg, position their front foot for the
next step and take a deep breath - or two or three - before stepping forw ard. The rest step is exactly the
opposite of the w ay we w alk in the "flatlands" - by advancing our w eight to our lead foot - and it takes
some getting used to.
It is a simple technique but an extremely effective w ay to deal w ith the monotony and challenge of the final
ascent. With the rest step and a breathing technique called "pressure breathing," I felt like I could climb
forever - even in the thin air. Our team stayed together. We kept our minds focused on the climb, even as
the hours ticked by.
With w hat I know now - and a few more ascents under my belt - I could imagine attempting to climb the
highest mountain in the world. It still seems like an overw helming "obstacle" but w ith the techniques I've
learned and the experience I've gained on Aconcagua, I could break dow n the complexity of such a climb
into smaller pieces and grind it out.
Facing the challenge of launching a company is equally daunting. But once you're in the midst of it, the
process isn't as mystical and impossible as it seems from the outside. Any goal can be broken dow n into
more simple and achievable "rest steps" - best practices that ensure continuous milestones of progress. As
they say, it is possible to eat an elephant - one bite at a time.
Before I left, my 12-year-old son asked me why I w anted to climb Aconcagua. "You might not come back,"
he said. "You w ant me to do this," I replied. "You w ant me to keep trying to take on new challenges - not
rest on my past experiences." Now that I'm back, he gets it. On summit day, after he saw my blog post he
forw arded an email to his friends, "That's my Dad!"
My greatest learning from the Aconcagua climb? It is critical to continue to set goals - both personal and
professional - that seem unattainable. When you stop challenging yourself and/or your team, and you feel
yourself coasting, it is very likely time to make a change. I've realized that w hen life seems toughest and
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most challenging, that's when I feel most alive.
Gordon Ritter is Founder and General Partner of Em ergence Capital Partners. Read more about the journey
up Aconcagua on his blog at www.em cap.com /blogs/ritter/.