What can you learn from a whitewater expedition?  Much, I say.  I was reminded of this as I was listening to the Joshua Gagnon podcast and the leadership team was recounting stories from a teambuilding canoe trip their church leaders had taken.  As I was listening to them talk, I realized there was much to learn from a whitewater trip.  So learn from these lessons from the rapids.

Lesson 1: Prepare first.

The Right Team

So much can be said about this.  One thing that was interesting about the Joshua Gagnon group is that none of them had paddled before.  I would recommend against that.  The dangers of whitewater are significant. If you don’t respect it, you can die.

If you are going into business for the first time, it’s best you know what you are getting into.  I recommend that before you try launching a business on your own, work with some other business owners so you can learn some of the lessons in the trenches.  Nothing prepared me more for running my own business than helping others run theirs first.  I spent almost eight years at high levels in small to mid-sized companies, learning about what it takes to run a small business.  I also ran my own side businesses twice (a DJ business in college and a web design firm for the past 20 years).

The right equipment (tools, processes, procedures, etc.)

Another lesson, equipment is also important.  If you are camping on the river, you should make sure everything is packed in watertight storage.  Nothing is more miserable than setting up camp and realizing your sleeping bag is soaking wet.

Hanging on to your equipment is also important.  I remember a canoe trip where we lost a paddle in some rapids.  For the next day, that canoe had to paddle with only one person.  It’s a lot harder to get the job done without the right equipment!

Years ago I was on a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River in Wyoming.  Our guide threatened us to hold onto our paddles.  In one of our first rapids, I was the lead paddler on the left side of the boat.  We hit the rapids hard and my paddle was pinned against the boat.  Remembering the threat from our guide, I held on for dear life!  After we got through the rapids, I held up my paddle to show him.  The force of the current was so strong I now had a curved paddle!  Needless to say, out guide was impressed that I was able to hold on.   (Don’t believe me, that’s me in the blue shirt.  Check out the shaft of that paddle.)

So what is the lesson for business owners?  You must have the right tools to build your business.  Tools include equipment (computers, machinery, automobiles, etc.), software and whatever is necessary to sell and service your clients.  But it goes deeper than that.  Tools include the strategy, the process and the means to get the job done.  If you go into business purely on your gut instinct alone, you will only get as far as that instinct takes you.  At some point, you are going to need tools to take your business beyond that.

Lesson 2:  Pick your spot

So you have the equipment.  Now you are on the river.  You are coming up to your first set of rapids.  What do you do?  The first thing you have to do is “pick your spot”.  This is normally the job of the person in front of the canoe.  If you are on a raft, you might have someone in the back calling these shots.  In whitewater, you want to look for a “vee” in the water.  This is a smoother, glasslike reflection you see between the two most prominent rocks at the beginning of the rapids.  This is, in most cases, the best place to enter the rapids.

In business, we have to pick our lane.  Too many business owners try to be all things to all people.  Consequently, they end up unfocused, undisciplined and (most importantly) unsuccessful.

There is a fine line between diversification and unfocused.  For example, I have two primary business services that I focus on.  In reality, there are four or five items I can offer.  But I find it much more effective to focus on the two primary services.   That does not mean I won’t offer those services if asked.   But it is not my primary objective.

Lesson 3:  Paddle hard

This is a strange phenomenon that those who haven’t gone on whitewater do not realize.  It came up with the Joshua Gagnon group as well.  When you get in the rapids, the worst thing to do is to try to avoid the rocks.  When you try to avoid rocks, you are simply slowing down your momentum.  By doing this you increase your drag in the water and you magnify the impact when you inevitably hit rocks.

Consequently, the goal in whitewater is to paddle hard through the current.  This keeps your boat or raft skimming quickly across the surface.  If it comes into contact with a rock under the boat or on the side, it will typically just glance off it and keep going.  The momentum created will carry you through some of the most treacherous moments in the rapids.

In business, once you have picked your lane, paddle hard!  Focus on that lane and push forward with persistence.  Your goal is to create positive momentum so that when you hit the rocks (a bad month, an angry customer, a project goes south), you can glance off it and press forward.  Nothing helps solve business problems more than positive momentum!

Lesson 4:  If swamped, keep your feet ahead of you

So, here’s another important lesson.  If you swamp your boat, you might have to float on your own a bit.  The important thing is to keep your feet ahead of you, pointing downstream.  That’s because it’s a lot less painful to hit your heal on a rock rather than your head or back!

In business, we are going to occasionally swamp our boat.  We may have a product fail.  We may have an entire business go under.  When that happens, protect your most important assets.  Focus on protecting your people, your health and your reputation.  Many businesses have survived seemingly catastrophic events because they maintained composure, focused on keeping their assets safe, and searched for the safest way to move the business ahead.

Lesson 5:  Some rocks will always win

Sometimes in canoeing, you pick the wrong spot and find yourself trapped.  Other times you are facing such a strong current, there’s no way to go through without hitting a rock.  If you have trained ahead of time, have the right equipment (life jackets, helmets, etc.), and are doing everything you should, you will most likely come out of it okay.  Therefore, preparation is key.

I’ve been on a canoe trip where we lost a canoe (sucked into an underwater cave).  I’ve been on rivers where people have died the week after I was there.  And I’ve had my share of injuries that cause you to think twice about going back.

In business, there are some rocks that can prove fatal.  An indiscretion.  Fraudulent activity.  Corruption.

Some rocks will always win.  For the business owner, it’s critical that the business stays focused on the vision and values of the organization.  If those values are where they should be, then you have started in the right direction.  You must ensure that all members of the team paddle in the same direction, that they all share the same values.  Consequently, these fatal exceptions are much less likely.

I remember once on a canoe trip, we had a guy who was disappointed that he hadn’t swamped his canoe all trip.  Going into the last rapids, he tried his best to swamp the canoe.  His partner was doing everything he could to NOT swamp the canoe.  After getting through the rapids safe, the guy decided to just take it into his own hands.  So in calm water, he swamped the canoe by leaning over the side.

The lesson for this.  If someone wants to swamp your business, they can, if you don’t have the necessary processes and controls in place to ensure your values are followed.


Running a business is exhilarating.  Much like navigating rapids, you have to constantly keep your wits about you, have the right training, equipment, and skills.  And, most importantly, have a winning attitude AND strategy that will take you through the toughest times.

Want to know more about navigating the rapids of business ownership?  Contact me, or give me a shout at jjennings@focalpointcoaching.com.