About two years ago, my wife and I decided to exchange our stable home in Switzerland for a small sailing boat in order to sail around the world. As you can imagine, this was not an easy decision to make. Our children said goodbye to their friends, to 95 percent of their toys, to their cozy bedroom and to their familiar playground. My wife and I locked the doors to our home for the last time, hopped into the rental mini-van that contained all of our belongings, fetched the kids from daycare, and then drove to our boat -- the “Maya” located in the south of France -- to begin our once-in-a-lifetime journey.
Since the day we set sail, I have started a new company, which has had a very successful launch recently. To be precise, this is my second company. I am working and communicating with my team members -- situated in different parts of the world including Switzerland, Finland, Mauritius and Portugal -- while sailing, on anchor or when in a marina. Just recently, we crossed the Panama Canal into Costa Rica on the Pacific side. Then we set sail to Galapagos, and from there, we'll head to the island paradise in the south Pacific.
Not many entrepreneurs can say that they launched a company while on the open sea. Perhaps I’m the only one, or maybe one of the first? Through this whole process of sailing with my family and starting a business at the same time, it occurred to me that there are indeed lessons from sailing that also apply to startups. In this article, I’ll address five sailing essentials and their respective counterparts in the startup world.
1. Sturdy boat.
This part might seem the most obvious, but having a sturdy boat in sailing is like having a strong team. When building a company, how does one ensure that the team they put in place is going to be strong enough to endure the challenges, as well as enjoy and appreciate the good times? Ideally, I’d like to meet candidates in person, but I put faith in screening candidates multiple times via video conferencing until I am sure of the hiring decision. I made three hires while I was on anchor. (I’ll highlight my sailing path in the conclusion.)
I believe in recruiting worldwide. This allows us to meet the best people wherever they feel home. It also allows for 24/7 customer support with a tiny team. Therefore, I am a big believer of distributed teams.
2. Compass and stars.
As most of our charts are on the iPhone -- and we've lost that in the water already twice. I no longer carry the phone on deck for navigation. This means that we went back to traditional navigation -- studying where to go, writing down directions and distances and using the compass for navigation. Only rarely do we check with the electronic chart on the iPhone, which has to stay inside the cabin while on the water. The compass and even the stars have thus been an important part for navigation for us. They have helped sailors throughout history steer in the direction they want to go, and help them stay on course. My compass is super helpful and always a valuable and trustworthy guide.
In the business world, choosing the right problem to solve is equivalent to having a trustworthy compass. As such, I can’t stress enough the importance of picking a problem worth solving when building a business from the ground up. This helps you plot the right course and stay on course once you’ve set off. Check with your customers often if the solution you believe you are providing is still the right one. Your customers are your nautical charts, which is stressed by Y Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham.
Communication is key, wherever you are. And when you’re sailing, you want to have the best communication tools available. We have the following communication tools:
Four iPhones for redundancy when one or two or three fail. We use electronic charts on the iPhone for navigation on top of paper charts, compass and stars.
One Android phone to have a constant phone number.
One Satellite phone, marine VHF radio, and shortwave SSB Ham radio.
A pactor modem for sending emails via shortwave radio. The satellite phone and the pactor modem are most important for weather reports on high sea.
When it comes to the business world, especially when looking at the new company that I started, the team is using HipChat and Trello. HipChat allows us to synchronize on a daily basis. Everybody writes what they were doing during the day and what is planned next. This, for me, is the most important tool. Time difference and the lack of face-to-face contact during lunch or coffee breaks make this the most important source of information on what everybody is doing.
Let’s not forget the importance of communication in general among crew members. In this case, my family and me as the captain and my wife as the capitana. It’s important that everyone is on the same page, particularly when the seas get rough. The same holds true in business. You have to be able to have an open dialogue among the team in good times and bad, in order to move the company forward.
4. Being honest to everybody, including yourself.
This is one of the most important lessons I have learned in life. It is extremely important to be honest with yourself and others. Always speak the truth without judgment, whatever it costs. It is not always easy, but it pays off in the long run. For example, when sailing, I need to sail to a destination where I will stay a day due to a meeting or whatever reason. But, I don’t feel like doing it because the weather might be tricky. Being honest to oneself is very important. I could ignore the feeling and just tell myself to carry on. However, this can be fatal. In business, it's the same way.
Being honest with others gives respect. When we arrived in Curacao, we had some troubles with the boat -- and we had kids in tow. We didn't have time to go to customs to check in, but we did go two days later. When they asked us when we arrived, we could have lied and said that we just got there. Nobody would ever find out. But, I didn't want to lie, so I told them the truth. They were not happy, but in the end, they told me that they appreciated my honesty. This builds trust, and this is the basis for everything great.
Mishaps will happen in life, whether in your personal or professional world. I can’t tell you how many times during our sailing adventure problems or situations would rear their ugly heads. The latest misadventure was having to replace the toilet seat on the boat. We were in Costa Rica and it’s not like a replacement toilet seat can be easily found at the local Home Depot. So we used some ingenuity and asked a local repairman to create a piece out of some material collected from the trash bin. He turned it into a replacement part, and it worked.
In a startup, you often need to prepare for the worst. You also need to trust in your team to come up with solutions when problems arise. For example, our marketing director learned to how to code rails and html. When we needed a video, we just made one ourselves for less than $500.
Being able to improvise along the the way is the difference between success and failure -- or at sea, it could mean life or death. Having that ability to troubleshoot and find solutions to problems is a critical skill set to have as a sailor and as an entrepreneur.
In closing, life on a boat truly is like life in a startup -- unpredictable. There is always something unforeseen happening. Wind changes, something breaks, lack of electricity. No more wind is like changes in the stock market, customer preferences or launch delays. The key is to realize that every day is different, but it also offers an opportunity to do something new -- a chance to come up with a new win. In startup life, not a single day is predictable and every moment is very unique.
Therefore, my take away is that entrepreneurs should never have to worry for anything, ever. As the Buddhist saying goes, “If you have a problem that can be fixed, then there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, then there is no use in worrying.” So why worry.
In case you were wondering, the path I took from the south of France, take a look at our blog.