To my fellow entrepreneurs and runners...
August 28, 2019
by Matt Mouritsen, interim dean and professor of accounting
To my fellow entrepreneurs and runners in the 2019 Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run: A message to start strong and finish well
As an entrepreneur embarks on a new idea, it’s generally with a healthy dose of anticipation mixed with excitement. Earning a PhD, teaching in the MBA for 13 years, and teaching e-business, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I embarked on a new app development project; I was wrong. At the starting line, I was prepared for a steady paced jog, but I ended up with a 100-mile endurance sprint.
My aim in this blog is to offer some simple yet tried-and-true advice to new and seasoned entrepreneurs as they face the challenges before them. To do so, I’ll frame this guidance using the perspective I’ve gained as a trail runner and long-time participant in the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run.
Next week, over 300 runners will stand at the starting line of the 40th running of the Wasatch 100. There will be excitement on their faces and nervousness in their voices. Many of the runners will be attempting that distance or that race for the first time, hoping to finish within the allotted 36 hours. Many others will be running it with the goal of improving on a past performance or trying to complete it in hopes of one day earning the coveted 10-time finisher ring.
Wasatch 100 runners, like entrepreneurs at any stage, face many challenges: Fatigue, sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, stress, and the uncertainty of whether or not they will cross the finish line (business success). They will also experience the highs of summiting a peak after a long climb (experiencing the first month in the black), gliding downhill (learning how to fail gracefully and move on quickly), and the satisfaction of running further than ever before (successfully capturing a small piece of that market pie ). As stated on the Wasatch100.com website, “Wasatch is not just distance and speed; it is adversity, adaptation, and perseverance.” From my experience, this is absolutely true! My own experience as an entrepreneur and a professor has helped me know it is also true of the experience of starting a business. Modified slightly, the above statement could read “Entrepreneurship is not just about successes and failures; it is adversity, adaptation, and perseverance.”
ADVERSITY ON THE TRAIL, ADVERSITY IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Running an ultramarathon and working toward a new business concept are difficult challenges. Both place the participants outside their comfort zones. Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultra-runners of all time and author wrote: “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.” The 25,000+ feet of climbing in the Wasatch 100 and the never-ending list of tasks you will have starting a new business will certainly place runners and entrepreneurs in a state of discomfort. Scott Jurek also stated that “not all pain is significant.” When facing the adversity of a race or the difficulty of pushing a new concept, runners and entrepreneurs must ask themselves how significant the pain is that they are willing to endure. Speaking from experience, runners will “hit the wall” or encounter an injury that requires that they withdraw from the race earning them the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). In business, there are varying degrees of pain – the pain of industry and investor feedback, the pain of multiple deadlines, the pain of money pouring out, and the pain of balancing work, business, and personal life. There’s also pain that is truly significant. Physical, mental, and emotional distress may require professional care, in which case growing a business may need to take a much lower priority or hiatus. Just as in ultramarathons, there are hundreds of free or low-cost experts as well as willing mentors to assist with the significant pain that exceeds the typical discomfort experienced by new entrepreneurs.
Advice on Adversity: Push through the discomfort. Learn from it. Accept it and even thrive alongside it. It’s preparing you for steeper climbs and more challenging days ahead. But when discomfort becomes significantly too painful and you feel immobilized by it, seek help. Talk to your mentors, business cohorts, past college professors or a counselor. Do not remain silent. In ultramarathons, it’s not uncommon for runners to be accompanied by a trusted pacer. This too can help entrepreneurs fight through adversity – stay close to those whom you trust.
ADAPTATION IN TRAIL RUNNING, ADAPTATION IN BUSINESS
As in ultra-running, an entrepreneur’s life requires constant adaptation to changing situations. It may be monthly, yearly, or even daily that roadblocks will require new approaches to learning and adaptation. In my case, technology and user expectations were changing nearly as quickly as we developed our mobile app! On the Wasatch 100, steep climbs and long sections of the course between aid stations might require the runner to slow down or consume extra nutrition. There are times that the best adaptations occur prior to the race or prior to enrolling in another semester of courses. For example, I had run a section of the Wasatch 100 course four times, each time during the annual race. Unfortunately, each time I reached this particular section of the trail it was at night. Trail running from Millcreek Canyon to Brighton Lodge past Desolation Lake in the darkness is difficult and somewhat dangerous. Finally, one summer day, along with some good friends, I ran the same section of the course. It was beautiful. The views from along the top of the ridges at about 10,000 feet elevation were spectacular. About a month later, as part of the Wasatch 100 race, I ran past Desolation Lake again at night. This time I could picture it in my mind as I had seen it in the daylight. I relaxed as I traveled the climbs, knowing much better where I was on the mountain. I could recall the views from the ridges and red dirt above Desolation Lake. I may not have been much faster, but I was more at ease and confident in my abilities to get through that section at night.
In starting a business, looking at the both the product (or service) and market or markets from a new perspective can make the difference between launching a successful business and drawing out an idea destined to fail. This new perspective may be gained through social media mining, or tapping the ideas and feedback from a completely different or even unintended audience. Recently I was given the opportunity to teach budding 15-17 year old business students in a leadership summer camp. I was teaching a hands-on class on app development and on a whim, asked them for feedback. They are not my intended market, but seeking a different view point, I got amazing new ideas I’d never even thought of and new information to help me adapt to the next version of the app.
Advice on making adaptations: Gain a new perspective by linking what you are building to what is familiar to you. If you have hobbies, relate the business ideas to the details of your hobbies – how do you grow and progress in your hobbies? Obviously, I can relate trail running and ultramarathons to nearly every aspect of what I teach (just ask my students). Also, regardless of your perspective, you must remain focused and fully engaged in the growth process (and in trail running). Many entrepreneurs must be cognizant to remove distractions (people, habits, unnecessary obligations) and even disable notifications while engaged in deep thought so that they don’t interrupt their focus. In trail running, don’t even think about looking at your phone, answering unnecessary emails, or going down the rabbit hole of YouTube while plowing down a steep trail.
PERSEVERANCE IN AN ULTRAMARATHON, PERSEVERENCE IN BUSINESS
If over 20 percent of new businesses fail during the first year of being open, it’s slightly worse for starters of the Wasatch 100. Each year about one third of those who start won't finish the race. There are many reasons for each and too many to address now. However, the impact of one’s attitude toward patience and endurance, as applied to running and learning, is powerful.
Scott Jurek learned early in his life that “sometimes you just do things!” Rather than complaining or whining, or wondering how to get out of it, we simply need to “just do things!” In the time it takes to complain or whine or wonder why a market behaves the way it does (or a hill must be climbed), you could be engaging in creative research like social media mining to come up with new answers. Do it, do it now, and move on. See what’s next. Similarly, and shared by Jurek in his book Eat and Run, Robert Frost said that “The best way out is always through.”
Jurek, who won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run seven consecutive times, wrote the following: “Run for 20 minutes and you’ll feel better. Run another 20 and you might tire. Add on 3 hours and you’ll hurt, but keep going and you’ll see—and hear and smell and taste—the world with a vividness that will make your former life pale.” Yes, sometimes we “just do things” that need to be done but committing to them for the duration required to complete them well might actually be transformative. Speaking of transformative, Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM said, “Growth and comfort do not coexist”. If you embark on the journey with the mindset that you will experience discomfort, you won’t dwell on it, rather push through it to reach your next small success. At the Wasatch 100, there are times when all a runner can do is hope to get to the next aid station, which might be 5-10 miles away. Surprisingly, the runner, upon reaching the aid station, may find that they’ve found new energy and a new attitude and rather than dropping out, they continue on, and on. The same is true for entrepreneurs with a roadblock in technology, no’s to initial funding, initial negative feedback from the market.
For those who finish an ultramarathon, the prize is usually a belt buckle. Why? That’s another story. For those who start a successful business, the prize is financial freedom. However, for runners who are finishers and entrepreneurs who become successful business owners, those simple tokens of completion represent so much more. In Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, the modern version of William James’ 1906 statement is attributed to Scott Jurek: “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” That’s what a belt buckle and a business represent: the acquisition of strength we never thought we had in ourselves. With that new-found strength, what we choose to run, or learn, or achieve next is even more within our reach.
Advice on Perseverance at the Wasatch 100 and as an entrepreneur: Stay the course. Accomplish the small tasks or the small climbs. Spend 20 minutes, then another 20 minutes. Take the next step. Involve your friends and family as your crew and your pacers in the race and in your growth. Think of the belt buckle or the success that awaits, but don’t forget to enjoy the experience along the way. “We focus on something external to motivate us, but we need to remember that it’s the process of reaching for that prize—not the prize itself—that can bring us peace and joy (Jurek).”
In running and in business, you may hit a roadblock that isn’t worth everything, like your long-term health. So, in business, keep an eye out for when enough is enough and if you have to adapt, create a detour, do it fast, learn and run in another direction. (and good luck runners at the 2019 Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run)!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew L. Mouritsen is the interim dean of the Goddard School of Business & Economics as well as professor in the School of Accounting & Taxation. He served as the director of the Master of Business Administration Program from 2008 - 2019. He teaches financial and managerial accounting courses and courses in the MBA Program in the field of information technology management and project management.
Prior to his appointment in higher education, he was a technology manager overseeing asset management, disaster recovery and information security functions at a regional bank.
Mouritsen received his Bachelor of Arts in accounting at WSU and an MBA and PhD in business information systems and education at Utah State University. His research is directed at practitioners and includes publications and presentations in technology asset management, pedagogy, ethics and stakeholder trust.
Matt is a ten-time finisher of the Wasatch 100.