Recently, I have been getting a lot of e-mails and questions about how to make a living or start a business in the Outdoor Industry. So I thought I’d write a post about my experience and nine lessons I’ve learned as the founder and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
There are risks and hardships that are involved in backcountry camping and starting your own company.
I started my company as a naïve 24 year-old who wasn’t thinking entrepreneurially, but rather as an idealist who wanted to help other people get outdoors. It sounded fun. What could be better than encouraging folks to get out on the trail, right?
Much like my attitude towards hiking the Appalachian Trail at age 21. I am glad that I started my company before “I knew any better.” If I had been aware of all the 24-7 complexities of self-employment, plus the liability, plus the pressure and lack of security – not to mention horrible health insurance options, then I would probably be working for someone else right now. Which might be more secure, but probably not as fulfilling.
If you don’t know how to backpack or run a business, then you’d better be able to adapt pretty quickly.
I learned pretty quickly that it doesn’t matter what industry you work in, there will still be administrative, accounting, marketing, and management needs. And when you start your own business as a sole-proprietor you will be fulfilling all of those demands. You have to be able to stay your toes and adapt to your environment or else you will most likely get off the trail and do something different. It's a fact that most small businesses fail in the first three years and most thru-hikers quit on the first half of the trail.
The basics of backpacking and business are still pretty basic.
I love the simplicity of backpacking. There are lots of thoughts and theories, which can make business seem really complicated but in the end I think it's pretty simple. Sure, there are plenty of days when I wish that I had a business or marketing background but if you can hike the entire Appalachian Trail then you can run your own business. The basics of budgeting, people skills, goal setting, and organization are the same.
It costs more than you think it will.
There are more costs associated with thru-hiking than most people realize: replacement gear, a hotel room when you really need it, and more food than you ever realized you could eat. Running a business also has more costs than I anticipated. No matter how frugal you are it is hard to run a business without at some point needing a lawyer or accountant. Blue Ridge Hiking Company is a pretty simple and small company, but still it still requires more time and more money than I anticipated at the outset.
A job in the outdoor industry does not mean you will spend all your time outdoors.
From the beginning I have spent more time behind my computer than on the trail. I get to spend time writing books and articles about the outdoors, but I also spend a lot of time e-mailing with clients, guides, land management bureaus, local businesses, insurance and risk management contacts, not to mention the e-mails which concern publishing or speaking.
Honestly, I like that my work has a “desk” component because being in the field all the time would mean too much time away from my family. Plus, I am a wimp in cold weather and I prefer to hibernate and write books during the winter.
Having ‘help’ doesn’t always make it easier.
I constantly go back and forth between thinking that hiking by myself is harder than hiking with a group. It is the same in business. I am fortunate that my company has grown over the past seven years and now includes my husband, a part-time employee and 10 contract guides. But more people means more paperwork and more management issues.
You have to be a creative problem solver.
If you are adaptable AND relentless you will be a good creative problem solver on and off the trail. On the trail I have seen dental floss used as sewing thread, a rain poncho that doubles as a tarp, and duct tape used to fix about every piece of broken gear possible. I have also had times where trails are closed due to weather or wildfire and your choice is to either quit hiking or create your own reroute. In business you need to be able to fix things with the knowledge and tools you have on hand and you need to be able to create a reroute - you should also always have duct tape on hand.
Decrease your weight.
The more you put in your backpack to try to stay comfortable on the trail, the less comfortable you will be. Yes, being in business does cost more than you might expect, but if you are able to lower your overhead, then you will be able to make faster gains.
Success is different for everyone.
Some people have a goal to spend the night on the Appalachian Trail, some folks want to complete the trail in sections, some want to hike the entire thing all at once and a crazy person attempt to hike from Maine to Georgia in 46 days. There is no right way. In business some people want to get rich, some folks trying to create a successful work-life balance, other individuals want their work to be deeply meaningful and impart a legacy, and there are others who are just trying to provide a decent life for their family. Define your own success. And don’t judge. HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike) ya’ll.