What rafting can teach us about running a small business

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Twenty years ago, Connie Martinez decided that she and her friends needed to have more fun. Martinez was a smart, ambitious woman living in Silicon Valley. Most of her friends were also accomplished women who put their energy into their careers and their families. Like many businesswomen and entrepreneurs, they didn’t spend much time looking after themselves.

“One day, Martha Kanter and I were together,” Martinez said, and we said, “We need to have more fun. My family and I had been white-water rafting, so I had the idea to get together with friends for rafting.

So Martinez created the “Wild Water Women” – a group of about 25 women who once a year travel from the Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, where they see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, do shopping, going to the spa and hanging out.

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The Wild Water Women gather each year for a weekend of fun, shopping, dining and white water rafting.

But the activity that cements the group bond is a full day of whitewater rafting on the Upper Klamath River.

This is not a snooze cruise. It is a continuous series of 47 named rapids, many of which are rated IV and IV+. Rapids are rated on a Class I to VI scale with Class IV “characterized by intense, powerful, turbulent water…the risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high”.)

“We only had one reason to come together,” Martinez said, “to have fun and enjoy each other. There is no networking, no job hunting. No one is here to use each other.

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How to create a sustainable organization

“We had only one reason to come together,” says Connie Martinez of the annual Wild Water Women trip: “To have fun and to entertain each other.  There is no networking, no job hunting.  No one is here to use each other.

I’m lucky Martinez, a friend, invited me to become a Wild Water Woman. Over the years, I have learned a lot about business, myself, and the Wild Water Women friendship.

You too can learn a lot about running a small business from the people who have made Wild Water Women successful for two decades.

Martinez, in particular, is an example of how to create a sustainable organization. She did all of the following:

  • Had a vision based on a real need.
  • I found a unique and interesting way to fulfill this need.
  • Gathered the resources to achieve his goal.
  • Motivated people who could realize his vision.

More importantly, Martinez took charge and accepted responsibility. She organizes the trip every year, makes all the decisions such as where the group will eat or stay. There is no debate on trivial matters. Since the members of Wild Water Women are all extremely accomplished people who make dozens of decisions every week, they are happy to let someone else take the lead for change.

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Identify the right people, a goal and a process

Martinez attributes the group’s longevity to three things – and these are three key aspects you should be able to articulate when building your small business:

  • People. Martinez has carefully curated a group of smart, fun, and respectful women, so they all get along.
  • Objective. There’s only one clear reason for the band: to have fun.
  • Treat. Martinez makes all the plans. Responsibility does not shift. Decision making is clear.

For 20 years, Martinez has chosen Noah’s River Adventures in Ashland, Oregon as the outfitters who guide women on the thrilling stretch of whitewater on the Oregon/California border.

“Throwing 30 people down a big river and having multiple issues, and that’s where I shine, but put me in an office with a permit to fill out, and I’m squinty,” said Burt Baldwin, owner of Noah’s.

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Baldwin and another experienced river guide, Justin Wright, bought the business from founder Noah Hague in 2007. Fortunately, Baldwin recognized that he had to know business, not just rafting.

“Noah had taught a business class before starting the company,” Baldwin said. “He was really organized on the classification, the details. All the t’s were crossed out, all the i’s were dotted. We protected our employees, paid them well, listened to them. I had a very good mentor in Noah.

What can river running teach you about running a business?

I asked Baldwin, “What has being on the river taught you about running a business?”

Here are its biggest lessons:

  • There are a lot of things you want to control that you can’t control.
  • Plan ahead and schedule things where there’s even a half percent chance it could go wrong.
  • When things happen, you can drop your plans, like a tight schedule. Take care of what you need, even if you have to change your plans.
  • Don’t overreact. You just have to learn to attack it calmly, not to dwell on it.

As you tackle the challenges of your small business, remember these lessons from those who regularly navigate rocks and treacherous whitewater shoals.

And don’t forget to have fun.

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