Shackleton Hired Entrepreneurs

Apparently this is the ad that Ernest Shackleton placed in the London papers when he was recruiting team members for his now famous failed expedition to cross Antarctica on foot. If it is authentic, then is shows that Shackleton understood something fundamental about recruiting for high-risk / high-return ventures – the right motivation is more important than specific domain expertise. Note that he isn’t recruiting for “sailors with 15 years experience tying slip knots…” but looking for those who are motivated by the ultimate prize and willing to undergo intense personal hardship in pursuit of it.

Shackleton’s expedition is a great metaphor for entrepreneurship. There will undoubtedly be times when your start-up is stranded on the pack ice and, by definition, a start-up is all about sailing for help in a small boat in near freezing conditions. Couple of words of advice to those considering their own expedition:

  • Don’t start the journey unless you are so passionate about the end goal (changing the world, revolutionizing an industry, seeing your technology in mass adoption…whatever) that you are willing to suffer “constant danger, safe return doubtful.” As others have pointed out before, if you understand “expected value” you probably won’t start an entrepreneurial career.
  • Don’t start the journey unless those around you are completely on board. This is the challenge of starting a company when you have a family, mortgage and other obligations and haven’t already made f-u money. I have a friend who’s start-up stopped; wife didn’t speak to him for 72 hours. Reality.
  • As the headline suggests, if you decide to start the journey, recruit fellow entrepreneurs. They will be the ones you can rely on to live through “long months of complete darkness” without starting a mutiny. In my personal experience, they will also be the ones with whom you will most want to share, “honor and recognition in case of success.”
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3 comments

  1. Chris Noble

    Shackleton’s expedition was heroic, but a colossal failure almost from the very start due to bad planning and bad execution. Maybe because he recruited people based on their motivation rather than on their skills and experience? Getting out alive is definitely better than dead, and makes for a thrilling and inspiring story, but not one about entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs need to have the skills, experience and self-awareness to have a reasonable chance of success. Would you fund a startup that recruited the core team like Shackleton did? I wouldn’t, but I’d watch the movie after it was all over.

    • Thanks Chris. I’m certainly not arguing against entrepreneurs having experience, skills and self-awareness. That would be foolhardy. But to blame the failure of Shackleton’s expedition on bad planning and execution, possibly due to his team, is inaccurate. The expedition arrived at its last port before the final trip to Antarctica and Shackleton was advised by knowledgeable local whaling captains that unusually low temperatures and thick pack ice made it a risky time to continue the venture. With incomplete information he had to made a call – wait it out or press on, much like an entrepreneur deciding to quit or keep going; he chose to press on, which turned out to be the wrong call and that is what ultimately doomed the expedition. My bet is that once they hit the Weddell Sea and it started to close in around them, no amount of experience, skills and self-awareness could have saved them from the 15 ft. thick ice. However, possibly because he recruited a team of fighters and adventurers, they were able to survive.

  2. Shackleton shakes

    As honour is spelled with a “u” in English English it is doubtful that this in genuine.

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