Arctic Dispatch: Bootstrapping an Expedition

Arctic pack ice Photograph by Peter Funch/Gallery Stock

Editor’s Note: Collin West is part of a team, which includes MBA graduates from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Wharton, attempting to cross the Arctic Ocean in a rowboat to raise awareness of global warming. He is blogging about his experience on the Arctic Row team for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Things we have not done in 31 days: jumped, eaten a fresh vegetable, showered, been more than 15 feet from each other, watched TV or any sort of video, had a heater, shaved, had a beer, surfed the net, or moved faster than 5 mph by foot or boat.

One thing we have had is coffee. We brought plenty of Dunkin’ Donuts brew, our favorite. However, we sleep so regularly throughout the day (for two hours, three times a day) that we try not to have caffeine since we need to dive into deep REM sleep quickly. Otherwise, we risk not recovering from 12 hours of rowing each day. So we generally enjoy coffee only on days like today, bouncing around on anchor in a big, unrowable, storm.

It’s the little things that count out here. A warm cup of joe brings you home for a few minutes, and the escape is priceless considering the cramped cabin and uncertain environment outside. The problem is that it also results in a lot of excess energy that manifests itself in some pretty lively conversations. Some are appropriate to share, others not so much. You can’t imagine how collegial the environment is with four guys stuck on this boat for more than 31 days now.

Anyhow, one of the sharable conversations I recently had with Paul, my teammate and fellow Kellogg Northwestern alum, was about how building this expedition has been a lot like an entrepreneur building a business from scratch. The parallels are striking.

In my professional life, I spend time evaluating young businesses, or startups, as a venture capitalist. When we meet a promising startup, my fund invests money in that company in exchange for part ownership, or equity. These investments are risky, because young companies fail all the time. So venture capitalists are continually looking for creative ways to find the next great investment. One way my fund, Correlation Ventures, does this is by employing a data-driven approach to venture investing. Like the Moneyball of VC, Correlation Ventures adds quantitative measures to a traditionally qualitative industry to make great investments.

In addition to using this method, I use a simple framework to evaluate investments and make sure I ask all the important questions. In a four-step process, I first like to learn about the market the startup is entering. Then I learn about the team, the business model, and finally the deal mechanics. Although our expedition is not a traditional startup, I used this method to evaluate it and the goal of being the first ever to row across the Arctic Ocean before diving in head first for the past two years. This was my thinking:

Market: Nascent at best. Ocean rowing is a very small community. More than 3,000 people have topped Everest (including two of my teammates) but only about 300 have rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. And the Arctic Ocean is the last ocean to remain uncrossed by rowboat. This brings about additional risks compared with the other oceans because of (1) cold weather not present in other rows, and (2) no “how-to” manual from prior expeditions. Our thinking was, however, that all the tallest mountains have been climbed and all the oceans crossed—except this last one. To complete that loop was compelling. I liked the “market,” so I moved onto the next criterion.

Team: The world is full of great ideas, but it takes a team that can execute and breathe life into intangible ideas to make them real. And, like a startup, there were many jobs to be done for this seemingly simple goal. We needed an experienced captain: Paul rowed across the Atlantic solo, the youngest American to do so at the time. His expertise is unparalleled, and he is a driving force behind the fine details that could have been overlooked. We also needed sponsors, logistics, websites … the list goes on. Neal (a Wharton MBA) was the man for the job. His “bias for action” has proven to be a great asset, and he tackles work head-on.

We also needed to document the experience. Scott is a rower, paramedic, and believe it or not, an outstanding filmmaker, too—jack of all trades and still master of quite a few. And since everyone had prior experience on dangerous expeditions, this minimized team risk. So the team is solid. Moving on ….

Business Model: Most startups explain their business model in terms of profit/loss, revenue, users/adoption. This expedition’s value proposition is different. We want to raise awareness of (1) the plight of the Arctic and (2) the companies that supported us along the way. This is where having a great media specialist in Scott makes the expedition so strong.

The business model is simple: We create great content that is then syndicated in both media and our film. Then, hopefully, everyone who sees it at home gets a bit more exposure to the Arctic Ocean and its fragile ecosystem and our sponsors. Funny thing is, I didn’t really have a strong view on the impact of newly melting ice in the Arctic until the last month on the water. Storms, reversals of currents and winds, and fields of dangerous melting icebergs have a way of making the plight of the Arctic very real—and it makes for great content to boot.

Deal Mechanics: This means that even the most promising startup I want to support could eventually cost me too much either in dollars or contract terms, economics or control, and result in a missed investment. For the Arctic Row, it was important that all four of us were willing to play a role in raising the money we needed (economics) as well as affecting the strategy and decision-making process (control). We are equal partners in this, and it has worked well for us thus far.

After this framework, I felt comfortable that we were finding compelling answers to tough questions, so we dove in and haven’t regretted a single moment. I wonder if this framework would apply to other life decisions. Any readers out there do something similar?

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