My El Camino Journey

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
On May 22nd, I left Atlanta and began one of the most challenging and rewarding “journeys” of my life. It’s called the El Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile hike from the France/Spain border eastward to the city of Santiago, which is just about 50 miles east of Spain’s Atlantic Ocean coast. The walk dates back to the early first century. Millions of people have made the pilgrimage from start to finish. Many others have started and not finished.

For me, this journey would be like no other. I would walk 15-18 miles a day starting with the long trek up and over the French Pyrenees Mountains, crossing the very hot and flat “Messeta”, and finishing with the rolling hills surrounding Santiago, a place that is believed to be the burial place for the Apostle St James.

For most of the journey, I was walking alone. Occasionally I would pair up with a fellow “pilgrim” for a day or so. Sometimes I would go days without hearing my native language English. At nights I would stay either in a large hostel with 50-100 people sleeping in bunk beds or in a small inn enjoying a private room.

On the 30th day of my journey I arrived in Santiago feeling very exhausted, extremely sore, and quite proud of my accomplishment. Of the El Camino walkers, maybe 20% complete the walk as I did. Some get injured. Some quit. Others do the walk in smaller increments over a period of several years.

I had lots of time to think on my daily walks. One of the most enlightening moments was when I realized that many of the key success factors that I experienced on my journey were very similar to those in small business. Here are just a few:

#1. Start with a clear vision for success. A destination. A BHAG. (big, hairy, audacious goal). In my case, it was to make it to Santiago in 30 days. Over 500 miles. Anything else would have been a failure on my part. Once I established the BHAG, I also had to establish daily milestones. In my case it was a minimum of 12 miles per day and an average of 15 miles per day. The milestones create a logical path to the BHAG.

Best-selling author Jim Collins suggests businesses think of a time frame of ten years or more for their BHAGs. Just thinking of the BHAG should create some level of anxiety in terms of its achievement. In my case, I was very nervous prior to the trip about finishing the hike. 

#2. Establish milestones. 500 miles always seemed like a very long ways to walk. Even 100 miles seems really tough. As a result, I set a number of different milestones during the trip that would help me achieve this seemingly insurmountable goal.

First, I determined where I needed to be at the end of each week. Based on that milestone, I next figured out how far I needed to walk each day of that week. That was usually anywhere from 12-18 miles per day. Next, I would look at the map and break my day into 3-4 somewhat equal portions. Usually 3-5 miles between villages. Finally, as I was walking I would look ahead 300-500 yards and pick out some visible object to walk to. It could be a rock, a sign, or a building. I would than tell myself that I just needed to walk to that object which would get me closer to the village which would then get me closer to a bed that night.

How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time.

I believe your business can set similar milestones as you are chasing your BHAG. For example, you have established a BHAG of $5 million in annual revenue within the next five years. Now you can work backwards to figure out how much revenue growth you will need each year between now and the end of that five-year time period. Next, based on that annual goal, you now zero-in on quarterly goals that are aligned with the annual number. Finally, you work your way down to monthly, weekly, and possibly even daily revenue numbers. Now that revenue BHAG doesn’t look quite so tough.

#3. Find or Create a Guidebook. My book was “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” written by John Brierly. The book is updated each year as the author revisits the walk on an annual basis. The book laid out the walk for me into 33-day segments with great detail on each segment such as the length, the altitude of the climb, sights to see, places to visit, and recommended hostels/inns in each village or city. This book was my playbook. Without it I was lost. With it I could walk each day with confidence in terms of where I was walking and how I would get there.

The business equivalent of the guidebook is a business plan. It could be 100 pages or one page. It identifies the mission, vision, goals, and strategies for the business just as my book did for me. Most small businesses do not have a plan. The majority of those same small businesses fail within 5-7 years. Why? They get lost just as I would have on my walk without the book.

#4. Find a mentor(s). Mine was Scott Pate. Scott had walked the El Camino twice before. He was very familiar with the journey. Scott helped me prepare for the trip and made himself available to me at anytime while I was on the hike. His insights were invaluable to me.

Business owners need mentors as well, someone who has been where you are in the past in leading a small business. Someone who has made all the same mistakes as you and has also achieved great success.

#5. Enlist a Support group. I had a great support group starting with my family and also including many friends. They all made a point stay in contact with me as I walked. Encouraging me. Supporting my efforts. While I never considered quitting the walk, there were definitely times that I questioned my sanity. It seemed that whenever that would happen, I would hear from the right person at the right time to pick me up when I was feeling down.

For a small business that support group may also include your family, your friends, your employees, your key stakeholders, maybe even a board of advisers or a Vistage group. Leading a small business certainly has its peaks and valleys, and a strong support system is extremely important.

#6. Call an audible when necessary. In football, an audible occurs when the quarterback approaches the line of scrimmage before a play and realizes in the moment a need to change the play. Throw a pass instead of run the ball. Option right instead of left. Go long instead of a short pass.

I called several audibles on my journey. On about the sixth day I arrived in a very small town that for whatever reason had very little appeal to me at the time. Despite what the book called for, I called a taxi and ventured on to the next village. Great call. I found a very nice inn in a larger town with more amenities. I made a similar call a week later and took a brief train ride. About two-thirds of the way, I needed to make up about several days and I decided to rent a bike for three days. Great decision.

Small business owners need to call audibles from time to time as well. Sometimes the circumstances we face are quite different than those we anticipated. Call a different play. Other times we find ourselves further ahead or further behind than where we thought we would be. Call a different play. Choose an audible. 

#7. Keep it simple. After several days on the walk I fell into a fairly simple daily regimen. I would wake up around 5:15 am, get dressed, gather my belongings into my backpack, and start walking. After 6-7 hours, I would arrive at my destination for that particular day, find a bed, find a “cerveza grande” (large beer), and then enjoy doing as little as possible the rest of the day as the extreme pain in my legs would begin to diminish. I would eat dinner and fall asleep around 10 pm. Life was very simple.

My first day back to work the internet connection on my computer broke down, my printer stopped working, the upstairs television stopped working, my pool looked like a swamp, and… my car wouldn’t start. This was all within the first hour or so of my first day back to work. Simple life? Not so much….

Since my return to civilization I am trying very hard to keep my life as “Camino” simple as possible. It hasn’t been easy. We all live very complicated lives with many inherent complexities.

What about our businesses? Is it possible to simplify our businesses? I think so. It starts with the design of our business. Just as I designed my days on the El Camino, I believe it’s important to build a similar level of design into our organizations. This includes policies, procedures, systems, flow charts, and more. The better the design, the fewer possibilities for surprises.

I loved my trip to Spain. The El Camino was a journey like none I may ever experience again. I am also very happy to be home with family, friends, and my clients. Did I mention Chick-Fil-A? I look forward to building these success factors into my own business and those of others as well.

Buen Camino.