Ed Stafford — former Army captain turned adventure. Ed’s website.

Learn to be a better entrepreneur with Ed, the naked adventurer

I’ve written before about how one of the biggest challenges we face as entrepreneurs is maintaining our motivation and finding the strength to push on, overcoming obstacles and regrouping after setbacks. In my own case this is especially true when we are going through phases with Digital Profile where the stuff I’m doing feels tedious, repetitive or doesn’t give that sense of progression or achievement that I thrive on.

Obviously startup life (like the rest of life) isn’t going to be 100-miles-an-hour excitement all the time, but for a lot of us that’s what we find so exciting about being entrepreneurs. In the slower times I find inspiration in articles and blogs from fellow founders. Often they’ve been through exactly what I’m facing which can be really helpful if I’m wondering how I should deal with this specific situation, right now.

That said, something I really enjoy is drawing inspiration from people who work in other fields. Sometimes I want to be shown exactly ‘how to do it’ done but other times I’m feeling the desire to improve myself so that I’m better equipped to deal with the things as they come up or predict and avoid issues before they even become a factor. In other words I’m interested in developing my personal resilience.

When I’m in that mood, hearing from people who have performed incredible feats can really give you an insight into the mentality and attitude they need to do what they do. And perhaps I can bring some of that back to my work in technology.

As someone who is quite visual (my degree was in Graphic Design!) I often prefer to watch videos so I find compilations like 5 TED Talks Every Entrepreneur Needs to Watch are a good source for a quick fix if you’re feeling a bit flat. I’m also a pretty outdoorsy type so I do enjoy a good survival documentary from someone like Bear Grylls.

Searching for something Grylls-like I recently came across Ed Stafford and his show Naked and Marooned. He is a former Army captain turned adventurer and became known for walking the entire length of the Amazon, and was the first person to ever achieve that.

The title of this show pretty much gives the concept away. Ed strands himself on an island. But this is serious stuff. No water, no knife, no supplies of any kind. There’s no TV crew here, and as the title says he is there without even the shirt on his back. The only things he arrives with are a bunch of cameras so that he can record his adventure. The only safety net is a first aid kit and satellite phone for emergencies.

In the first series he heads to Olorua, an uninhabited island in the Pacific ocean, for sixty days. All alone, it’s clear very quickly that there are some basic things Ed needs to sort out. Shelter, clean water, fire and food. It can be exhausting just to watch. We follow him as he spends days just hacking away at a tree with a clamshell, trying to gather up the resources he needed to put up some kind of shelter.

The series develops a storyline across the episodes, rather than simply presenting a new set of challenges each time. This allows us to go along with Ed on his epic journey, as well as seeing his attempt to progress from being stranded and hopeless to becoming something of a hunter gatherer who manages to be self-sufficient. Staying in one place is important to this series and it reminds me of taking on an idea and turning it into a startup reality — sticking with it over a pretty long period of time.

Now of course running a startup isn’t precisely like learning to survive on a deserted island naked and alone… but I still think there’s some interesting parallels! Bear with me. Let’s think of some of the things Ed needed just to keep going and compare them to things my startup needs to do the same. Clean water for me is money. Fire is my product and food are my customers.

I need all of these things to keep the startup up and running. Watching Ed force himself through really difficult situations (at times totally horrible situations!) at times reminded me of starting a new business. In the early days it’s the really simple stuff. Where is the ‘fresh water’ coming from? Because I need to pay the team on Friday. Finding that you are weak in any of these areas puts a strain on the business but more to the point for this article — your state of mind. There’s wider comparisons too, but these really got my mind to thinking about what I could learn from the show.

There a moments of conquering triumph as well as desperate setbacks. I’ve previously talked a bit about the importance of recognising and celebrating each little victory and achievement. It was interesting to notice that I was starting to do this just watching the show. That’s something I’ve learnt is important for keeping up my motivation through hard times — and something I’m still not very good at. I often move straight onto the next task without pausing to recognise (and maybe celebrate) what has just been completed.

I found myself celebrating each little triumph with Ed. You can see his mental state deteriorating before springing back up almost to jubilation when something went right. Catching some rainwater, getting a fire going, discovering a tin can… and perhaps the most important success: achieving a state of calm and serenity in the face of the things he had no control over. That’s a really important lesson for entrepreneurs. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the factors beyond your reach — whether they are to do with your product, your industry or the economy more widely — but getting caught up in it is fruitless and a waste of your mental reserves.

He describes the snails he ate as tasting like ‘gritty balls of phlegm’ and his body reacting to the dehydration and diet with stomach cramps, ‘explosive’ diarrhea and rocketing blood pressure but the effect on his mind was probably the thing he struggled to cope with the most. As humans, we are generally very social creatures. The loneliness is a bigger challenge than you might expect. Struggling with dehydration, hunger and the heat makes decision making and simply thinking straight really tough, because you haven’t got anyone else to help keep you on the rails.

As an entrepreneur I sometimes feel a bit isolated. As the sole or main founder you find that you have more riding on success than anyone else and this puts more pressure on you. No matter how committed your team is, at the end of the day they go home — whereas switching off for me is hard. This reminds me how important it is to find people to join your team who understand that and are able and willing to not just do their jobs but to go beyond and be around for moral support when it’s needed as well, especially in the early days.

Ed generally keeps a positive attitude and crucially he stays focussed on a set of key priorities. He persists through adversity. Thinking about my own work that focus is really important. It’s easy to get dragged off course by competing objectives. It’s especially important to regularly assess how you prioritise your targets to be sure that what you’re working on really is the most important thing. Unlike Ed, I have the luxury of pen and paper (well, a Google Doc) to get these things written down and I return to this every couple of weeks which is kind of like getting my head out of the sand.

Through the episodes I began to see Ed move from simply surviving and onto thriving. And I think that’s what I took from this. The show isn’t just watching a man put himself through an ordeal and manage to get out on the other side — he actually makes it work. Eventually, he was really enjoying the experience and able to actually take advantage of the opportunity. Right now, I’m in that bit of just surviving. We are always establishing something new, trying to embed it, coming up with the next set of ideas and it feels like spinning plates.

Perhaps the biggest thing to take from the show is that with persistence you can eventually thrive. I know that one day things will begin to settle down and some of the things that are hard now will become easy. I’m looking forward to that day. So here’s to being more like Ed!