Traveling to the North Pole is like creating a startup

Traveling to the North Pole is like creating a startup

This article was written by Raffi Sarkissian, co-founder of Lago.


Back in 2020, I decided to go on my first extreme polar trip. After two years of lockdown due to Covid, this finally happened in 2022. The goal of this trip was to travel to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and then walk eight hours a day for seven days on the ice of the Arctic Ocean.

During this journey, I started to think that, in some ways, exploring the North Pole is similar to building a startup.

People skiing on ice

Bad decisions can kill you

Living outside, day and night, at -40°C is not an easy challenge. The decisions you make have an immediate impact on your physical and mental condition. Nothing (really nothing) should be left to chance. The position of your gears in the sled, the amount fuel you decide to burn with your stove, the number of layers you decide to wear, all those small details in a day-to-day life suddenly become critical out there. However, making no decision is probably more dangerous than making the wrong one.

It’s kind of the same for you startup. In December 2021, Lago was about to pivot. We had built a data tool for Growth teams that was very hard to sell. With the team, we were starting to mull over our options. We weren’t able to make quick decisions: should we try to stay a bit longer in this data space? What other ideas could we work on? When we finally defined a clear “framework for new ideas”, we moved on and managed to pivot in less than two months. Our runway was vanishing, so our survival depended on our ability to gather our energy and keep moving.

Someone pulling a sled

One step at a time

It’s not so important to think about how many days you stand on the ice, how many frozen sleeps you have or how many miles a day you manage to ski. What matters is how focused you are on each step you take. When crossing a frozen river, you need to slow down and test the ice, one step at a time. It’s even more stressful if you start to think about future challenges or obstacles. Focus on the present to live in the future.

Running a company is an addition of hundreds of tiny steps that make you grow as a business. Don’t start planning your series A when you’re still figuring out how to onboard your first customers. At Lago, we decided to convert each step into a six-week roadmap cycle. We feel that’s enough time to build a good first version of a feature, but short enough to focus on the essential elements. One step at a time, we plan to build the best billing solution for SaaS companies.

Enjoy every success

Trust me, when your start having sore toes, when your hands are frozen, or when you get frostbites, every single success is a huge achievement. For instance, on the second day, I was able to set up my tent in eight minutes and it made my day (compared to the 20 minutes of the previous evening).

That’s the same for a startup. Don’t forget to celebrate every team success, not only because it’s good for teamwork, but also because it creates a positive momentum. When you visualize successes, you’re able to achieve more and more.

North Pole landscape

Learn from best-in-class

When I was younger, the stories of Roald Amundsen or Umberto Nobile made me dream. These guys were tough as nails. In the early 20th century, when you went to the North Pole, it was without Patagonia or Columbia gears. This is when I started to learn techniques to survive in such a hostile environment. My trip was led by three polar guides (two IPGA guides and a trainee). One of them was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who had decided to take Prince Harry to the South Pole a couple of years after being shot in the neck by a terrorist. These guys know way more than you will ever know about polar environments. They can teach you how to set up fences against polar bears, set up your tent, fix your gears, etc. When you listen to them, you acquire knowledge and create a routine for yourself.

At Lago, we receive advice from amazing people who’ve built successful companies. Having access to these people is probably one of the biggest advantages of Y Combinator. Don’t isolate yourself and try to be open to others. This will help you learn faster than ever.

Eat well and take some rest

When sliding on the ice, you need to take a break and eat every two or three hours. Your body needs a lot of calories to travel 20 kilometers a day when it’s -40°C outside. Your health depends on two things: food and sleep.

One tip from the intense 90-day YC program is to eat well and get enough sleep. Bad habits will affect your work and also the dynamic of your company.

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