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Atop Mount Kilimanjaro – Lessons to Apply to Your Multi-Unit Franchise

Taking risks brings out strengths we didn’t know we had.

It was just after 6 a.m. The view was spectacular, but I was tired and cold and I still couldn’t see the top. When I took out the earphones that distracted me from the arduous task of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the thoughts slipped back in: Why in the world am I doing this? This is too hard! Maybe I should just turn back.

Then I had another set of thoughts: How much money I had spent to get here? How far I had already come in five days? How many people were cheering me on or maybe hoping to see me fail? How I would feel about myself later if I gave up now? Then I said out loud, “I’m going to make it up this mountain even if I have to crawl!” Test passed.

Even if you haven’t climbed a mountain, every franchisee has had similar thoughts. Maybe they came with the first unit, or maybe as you were expanding to new locations. I’ve experienced those emotions more than once. Climbing Kilimanjaro provided new perspectives on the challenges I’ve faced, as well as those still to come.

Sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that come.

I never planned on climbing Kilimanjaro. A few years earlier I had put climbing a mountain on my bucket list, mainly to see if I could still push through a hard circumstance. I had often pushed myself to the edge both mentally and physically in building our business, but after a string of successes, I had become used to the rewards.

Like the Emperor and his Sardaukar army in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic “Dune,” I feared I had become soft from success. My plan had been to climb a smaller mountain in Colorado because it would be challenging, but manageable. Kilimanjaro, on the other hand, was much higher, and there was a real risk of failure. I would never have picked that on my own, but when the opportunity came, I knew it was something I had to do. That fear was not so different from signing for my first location or buying a 10-location area development agreement a few years later. Taking risks like that brings out strengths we didn’t know we had.

Knowledge is strength, ask someone who’s been there.

As I researched various training regimens, I was surprised at how many people wrote about how they were preparing and packing for an upcoming climb compared to those who posted what they had done, with honest reflections on what they should have done differently. Aspiring climbers seemed to have more opinions on how to do things right than those who had made successful summits. I ignored the majority recommendation for extreme training regimens and took a more relaxed approach based on articles by experienced climbers and guides.

Always look past what “everyone” is saying and learn from the most experienced and successful people.

Rather than extreme cardio workouts, I focused on leg and core strength. Instead of long runs, I went backpacking and sprinted up stairs. Rather than proactively taking altitude sickness medication, I chose a route that allowed me to acclimate naturally. As a result, my climb was not only successful, but also enjoyable, with a fraction of the preparation that “everyone” said was needed. Always look past what “everyone” is saying and learn from the most experienced and successful people.

Anytime Fitness multi-unit franchisee Mark Stevens and Travis Hunsicker, who is a member of Steven’s Anytime Fitness club in Tupelo, Miss., pause on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The friends share a passion for outdoor adventures. Photos courtesy of Mark Stevens.

Anytime Fitness multi-unit franchisee Mark Stevens and Travis Hunsicker, who is a member of Steven’s Anytime Fitness club in Tupelo, Miss., pause on Mount Kilimanjaro. The friends share a passion for outdoor adventures. Photos courtesy of Mark Stevens.

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The better the guide, the better the climb.

Choosing a well-respected outfitter provided us with a great guide. That not only helped us have a successful trip, but also made the ascent faster and less painful than we had expected. Having climbed the mountain hundreds of times over 20 years, our guide not only knew it well, but also knew how to read people. He took time to get to know us, eased us into the climb and kept watch on our progress. He began to gently push us closer to our limits early in the trip so that we would be better conditioned for the hard work to come. At his guidance, we took a more aggressive approach to cut a day off of our trip and still have more time at the summit. Another climber we met, however, chose a cheaper outfitter, got a novice guide who hadn’t been trained well, and not only didn’t make it, but was at risk due to a medical condition the guide tried to manage in all the wrong ways. Likewise, not only do I want to be associated with a strong franchise, but I want my franchise consultant to be knowledgeable as well.

Sometimes you have to focus on the next step, not the summit.

One of my most profound realizations was counter to the commonsense wisdom I’ve practiced most of my life. Motivational speakers talk about keeping your eye on the goal, but sometimes when you do that, the overwhelming emotion is despair because after all your hard effort, it still seems too far to the top.

As the sun came up one morning, we stopped to drink water and remove a layer of clothing, and I had the conversation with myself that opened this article. We had been climbing for nearly three hours in the dark, looking only as far as our headlamps could shine, and fell into a rhythm behind our guide. Seeing in daylight how much further we had to go was disheartening, especially when the trail got steeper and more difficult due to loose volcanic skree.

I chose to forget the summit and focus on nothing but the next step. It was both physically exhausting and boring, but that’s what it took to succeed, so that’s what we did. Likewise, there are times in building a business where an intense focus on the present challenge is what’s required to succeed.

When you reach the top, rest, but then find a taller mountain.

Although the whole trip was challenging and summit day was the most grueling day of my life, I enjoyed it all. Reaching what you think is your limit and then pushing past it is deeply rewarding. However, I didn’t really reach that point. Yes, it was hard and I seriously considered giving up, but even at my most fatigued, I knew I had more to give if I just kept going.

One reward was learning that I was stronger than I had thought. Once I reached the summit, I wanted to keep climbing, but there was nowhere to go. Rather than shortening my bucket list, even before I was off the mountain I was compelled to try something harder.

As I’ve returned to life as a franchisee, I am feeling the same urge. I’ve been blessed with business success, but I haven’t pushed myself as hard and gone as far as I could have, so I’m feeling soft and a bit guilty for not using my gifts to their full extent. I’m not sure what form that challenge will take, but just like with the mountains, it’s something I’m compelled to do.

Are you a franchisee, maybe of multiple units, who “climbed a mountain” of effort, but have now become too comfortable in your success? Do you have skills and experience that you “paid” a lot to acquire? If so, why not tackle another challenge? Why not climb another mountain?

Mark Stevens and his wife, Kristie, own six Anytime Fitness clubs (four in Mississippi and two in Alabama), along with four franchise territories. They expect to open their seventh location this winter. Find him at via the directory.


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