High-Altitude Entrepreneurship

Article by:
Aaron Houghton, EO Raleigh-Durham
Aaron Houghton
EO Raleigh-Durham

Aaron (pictured, in gray cap) is the co-founder and chairman of iContact Corporation, a two-time Inc. 500 winner and the provider of e-mail marketing solutions to more than 60,000 small businesses and non-profit organizations. E-mail Aaron at [email protected].

I’ve always liked a good challenge. I get great enjoyment from the two software companies I run because every day brings new and exciting opportunities for growth. Sometimes, though, I need a slight change in scenery. In 2006, I read a great book called No Shortcuts to the Top, by Ed Viesturs, an American mountaineer. It inspired me to set a goal: Visit Mount Everest to see the world’s highest mountain in person.

After some extensive planning, I invited three friends to accompany me on a 17-day trek to Mount Everest. We settled on a Nepali trekking company, negotiated a price and blocked off May 2009 on our calendars. My wife, family and friends, two executive teams and 200 full-time employees would stay behind while I spent a month in and out of communication in Southeast Asia. There was a lot to plan for, on both a personal and profession front. During my preparation, I realized that while I would face a lot of challenges in the mountains, staying in touch with my businesses would be the biggest one.

I immediately decided to establish and maintain an open line of communication, no matter where I was on my journey. I started by communicating the trip timeline with my business partners. Since they would be running the companies in my absence, I informed them of my goal and the steps I would take to achieve it. With the expectation set that I would likely be out of touch for a month, I spent the rest of my time researching ways that I could send an occasional update on my progress. Here are some lessons I learned about how to communicate effectively while getting far, far away:

  • Research your route in advance. A quick Google search for travelers’ journals or blogs will tell you a lot about your destination. When I’m looking up information about my trips, I scan Web sites for mentions of local Internet cafes, cellular phone support and international phone cards. I also put more faith in the entries of recent travelers, rather than the details provided by local businesses or government organizations. I find the latter often claim a region is more technologically advanced than it actually is.

  • Consider using Internet in the cities. If your travels take you along common tourist routes, you will find plenty of cafes where Internet service can be purchased at a reasonable rate. In Kathmandu, for example, Internet access was available for about 25 cents per half hour during the daylight hours (while the city had electrical power). When I’m traveling, I make it a point to bring some extra cash in case I need to access the Internet.

  • Take advantage of rural Internet access. Even without local access networks or terrestrial wireless bandwidth providers, the most remote parts of the world have Internet access. The big unknowns are the costs involved and whether the service is functioning when you need it. In the villages near Everest Base Camp, the Internet could be used for a few hours each day, depending on the weather; however, the rate was roughly US$5 per minute.

  • Invest in a satellite phone. Satellite phones have the widest network of service worldwide and don’t rely on local power grids or local currency for you to place calls or send text messages. While the downsides include the weight (they can range from two to four pounds depending on the model and number of batteries), the value of the unit (consider buying travel insurance worth US$1,500-$2,500 to cover theft or damages) and the need for a perfectly clear sky in order to make a connection, satellite phones are generally reliable for long-distance communication.

  • Text messaging is magical. During my trip, I found the length restrictions inherent to mobile text messages to be quite refreshing. It reduced the expectation that I would send home a full report of my activities and let me focus on communicating just enough information to put everyone at ease. Additionally, a text message can be sent in a matter of seconds and is uninhibited by the noise of the mountains, whereas a phone call would be more difficult.

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