Wilderness survival; business survival
I marvel at their survival skills and determination, while critiquing some of their choices from the comfort of the couch with the survival tools of wine and popcorn at my side Super fair, right?
The show gives a lot of food for thought—and sometimes that's the only food to be found—about goals, focus, skill, balance, and adaptability. There are really "just" two priorities:
- Get food
- Build shelter
And of course a slew of other "minor" priorities, like maintaining a clean water source, staying healthy, not getting bitten, attacked, lost, frozen, or going crazy. But none of those matter if you starve before then.
It seems to be primarily a balancing act between food and shelter.
Those who spend a lot of time and energy on shelter upfront end up with the nicest digs, but when the weather turns cold, their rock-and-clay hearths don't keep them fed.
Those who spend all their time upfront establishing good food sources and smoking salmon for the winter with little regard to shelter can miss the window for building something warm before snowfall and risk their gear and food stores being ruined by weather and critters.
For survival, participants need both.
So survival becomes a balancing act between acquiring food—efficiently, quickly, and a lot of it—while also building wind, rain, and snow-proof shelters for sleep, cooking, and protection. Both activities burn calories, and people frequently weigh their efforts against the possible calorie gain or loss before deciding what to do.
Should I hunt today, and risk getting nothing? Or stay home by the fire and reduce energy expenditure, while guaranteeing no food?
It's rare to see someone on the show with too much food, but "too much" shelter can be detrimental in the survival phase. It takes a lot of energy, and while shelter can seem like a sure thing, you can't eat it.
Why would anyone "overdo" shelter?
I don't have any science backing this up, but from my cozy spot on the couch, I think the reasons people overdo shelter in lieu of getting more food include:
- Shelter feels good - it's nice to be warm and comfortable.
- Shelter IS necessary, so building one isn't something to completely avoid.
- It's hard to know what kind of shelter to build, and how much is enough (especially if you're freezing and starving).
- Hunting for food can be super frustrating and seem like a fruitless waste of energy at times...
- ...So focusing on shelter feels like a "sure thing."
The problem isn't that shelter is bad or unnecessary—it's both good and necessary. It's that it is difficult to know how to balance shelter with food.
For survival, businesses need both, too.
This wilderness survival balancing act got me thinking about the process of starting a business, which is also a survival activity in a different form. Just like being dropped off on a remote shore on Vancouver Island isn't immediately surviving the show Alone, setting up an LLC and naming a business isn't the survival of the new company.
The business survives when it has enough work (for service-based businesses) or sales (for product-based businesses) to not only cover its expenses, but turn a profit and grow.
The work is like food in wilderness survival: without it, the business might be able to coast on the founder's savings or startup funding for a while, but eventually it will burn through that, eat itself, and collapse.
Business development (everything from registrations, to bookkeeping, branding, advertising...) is sort of like the shelter of the business. Without those things, it can be difficult—or impossible—to maintain work and continue getting more.
Balancing "food" and "shelter" for business.
Just like food, without work the business will starve—it's just a matter of time.
Just like shelter, without development, the business risks unnecessary energy expenditure to "stay warm"—to maintain current work, streamline processes, bring in and handle new work, rest, recover, and ensure that food stores aren't ruined by critters. (Oh wait, that part of the analogy skews to the Alone side of things—unless your business involves food in warehouses).
How to build a shelter without starving.
Just like on Alone, over-emphasizing non-essential pieces of business development too early can result in starvation: not enough work. But, just like shelter building, some of these activities are fun, comforting, protect current work, bring in new work, or create efficiency. And sometimes it's hard to know what type of "shelter" is worth the "calories" when getting started.
A non-exhaustive list of business development (aka "shelter building") activities, broken into two somewhat blurry groups:
activities that use energy, time, and/or money now with the hopes of payoff later
- Branding (like logo design, designing or selecting brand fonts and colors, producing brand merchandise)
- Digital presence (building a website or online store)
- Organic audience building (like building social media channels, SEO, writing blogs)
- Complex overhead (like buying/renting a big office, construction, workspace customization, etc.)
- Print advertising (like running magazine ads, posters, billboards)
- Digital advertising (like paid Google ads, social media ads)
- Networking (trade shows, LinkedIn, Chamber of Commerce, BNI and similar meetups)
- Outreach (lead generation, cold emailing, phone calls, referrals)
- Prospecting (meeting with possible clients, creating estimates, bidding on jobs)
activities that use energy now, to prevent using more time or money in the future
- Research, market analysis, idea generation
- Registration and incorporation (depending on where you live and operate your business, the complexity varies from a few hours and $100 to thousands of dollars and years of time—but in either case, skipping the basics of setup will likely create problems down the road)
- Administrative setup (email address, phone number, software needed)
- Hardware setup (computer, phone, desk, warehouse for physical goods)
- Process optimization (having standard procedures and/or software in place for necessary tasks like invoicing, billing, bookkeeping)
For creative freelancers, Kat Boogaard has an excellent library of reasonably priced digital tools and templates »
- Outsourcing to experts (accounting, legal advice, technology, engineering)
The classifications of "energy burning" and "energy preserving" are somewhat tough to truly classify—spend enough time and money on a "preserving" task and it becomes a "burning" one. Or skip an "energy burning" task and find that it inhibits your business later on. There's no perfectly clear line that is true for every business, every time.
There are also so many possible business development activities out there, ranging from general activities that pretty much every business must do, to very industry-specific niche tasks.
It's such an enormous, possibility-filled field that there are entire careers devoted to the business development aspects (though this is unlikely to be the case for brand new small businesses!) The BD School, a resource for business developers, has this to say:
If you work in business development and you often wonder what activities you should be focusing on, you came to the right place. And you will be happy to know that you’re not the only one to struggle to create a successful plan of action.
In fact, we found out that the majority of business development pros have a hard time even explaining what they do. Why is that? The main reason is that business development tends to be quite complex as a field.
As a quick recap, we define business development:
A set of tasks and processes meant to develop and implement growth opportunities within and between organizations in a sustainable way.
I know…it’s not very straightforward, right?
And that’s the issue with business development. In a field in which you have so many choices, it becomes easy to freeze and not be able to focus on the right activities.
Nevertheless, good business developers exist and the only reason why they are successful is that they identified the right business development activities they should be doing.
The bottom line on shelter building:Prioritizing the critical and ignoring the rest.
The leaner the shelter, the more time and energy remaining to focus on getting work. Bottom line, work is what is needed for survival—not the best branding, the most refined idea, or a perfect website.
Of course, it's not good to jump in with no plan and no evidence of success with an idea or product, or to work so frantically that there's no plan for the future.
It's also not good to spend SO much time perfecting branding, business plan, etc. that you get stuck in the pre-work, shelter-only, no-food place.
I've met business owners with companies that are thriving without a synergistic cross-platform social media strategy, entrepreneurs who keep getting referrals without having a business card, and stores that sell plenty of product under the logo they designed for $20.
And I've met aspiring business people who stay incredibly busy before launch, revising their branding one more time, tweaking website copy, and updating services offered dozens of times before anyone has even purchased (or knows about!) those services.
Advice from survival experts—in business and in wilderness
In her interview, Pipedrive Partner & Sales Automation Expert Liz Peterson had this to say:
Starting any business can be overwhelming and, as cliche as it sounds, I’ve watched countless entrepreneurs fail before they got started because they failed to start. For anyone dipping their toes into a business, I’d say:
Onboard your first client before you know exactly how to price your services. Sell a physical product before you’ve nailed down your packaging. Say yes to a project that may be a stretch because you know you can figure it out (or if all else fails, you can subcontract the work and still deliver!). Use a stock contract. Use your LinkedIn before your website is 100% up and running. It’s okay, you can change it all later.
Photographer and owner of Gud Times Photo Studio & Event Center Gabriel Conover echoed a similar sentiment in his interview:
My biggest piece of advice is to have a business process or approach, but know that it is going to be imperfect. Teach yourself how to be ok with not having everything go according to plan all the time, while still trying your best to stick to your daily tasks/schedule.
Everyone has million dollar ideas. But very few people actually act on them. I don’t share my ideas unless I’m physically working on getting them out there. Because no one cares what you are GOING to do. They care about what you are doing.
Jordan Jonas, Wilderness Living & Self-Reliance Expert and a contestant on Season 6 of Alone had this to say about the shelter vs. food issue:
Heating a cabin with a campfire would be difficult as even if the smoke issue is solved, an open fire is not hot enough (without burning your shelter down) to accumulate much thermal mass...an external fireplace/chimney is very inefficient and in Arctic conditions will not be adequate.
[The] choices as I saw them are to have a leaky/frigid shelter, a sealed shelter (warmth when needed and no air movement), or an elaborate cabin WITH a nice door and an indoor fireplace (which until finished will remain “cold” just like option B.
Ultimately, I decided that all the time and calories that would be spent building an elaborate shelter is time that I must be getting food…whether by fishing, hunting, or crafting (nets, poles, traps, etc). Not only would I burn calories expending the effort needed to build something more robust, but also I would lose all potential calories I could be acquiring while hunting/fishing at that same time. I have spent multiple winters in tipis in weather as cold as -58…it is doable.
What isn’t doable is spending even one winter without adequate food. It IS possible to live in the north, to overwinter, and to even thrive. But your priorities must be in order. Food is my top priority.
Make your shelter perfect—later.
With plenty of food—or work—you can spend all the time you want improving and perfecting your shelter to make a comfortable place to live and work for years to come.
Like in wilderness survival, business survival is a balancing act. Without business development, new or continued work may struggle to flow in and inefficient internal processes can waste time and energy, making it difficult to scale the business.
But spending all the starting capital and energy on development alone, and not actual work, can mean it's over before it's begun.
Hunt first, and "feed" your business real work.
There is plenty of time later to insulate the walls with pine boughs, refine your visual brand and logo, create a stellar website, develop a sophisticated email marketing strategy, create birch bark shingles, build a custom office, create merchandise, and decorate your shelter with carved antlers.
Until then, drape a tarp over a branch and get to work!