Modern Vikings & Entrepreneurship

Over the last couple of years I have done some reading about the Great Era of Arctic Exploration and love the parallels between what these brave men accomplished and what intrepid founders accomplish today. Their stories are so tangible, visceral and vivid. One example, the story of Ernest Shackleton’s survival along with all of his crew through a three year and 2,000+ mile journey, is perhaps the best known story of this age.

Every year, I give a lecture to my BYU Financing New Ventures class themed after Shackleton’s struggle for survival. In my experience as a seed investor, most company-building looks a lot more like the voyage of the Shackleton’s vessel, The Endurance, than not. Commitment and ability to overcome adversity end up being more important than genius and carefully-laid plans. Shackleton’s elegant plan for discovering the South Pole was very important until his ship was crushed in the ice, which was when the real journey began.


In life and in entrepreneurship, the results do matter. For all his ability to survive, Shackleton didn’t win the race to the South Pole. That was accomplished by an incredible Norwegian entrepreneur by the name of Roald Amundsen. Roald Amundsen’s story as chronicled in The Last Viking by Merloyd Lawrence is so compelling because in addition to the super-human courage and skill that was required, Amundsen applied the time-honored techniques of the entrepreneur to gain an incredible victory for the upstart nation of Norway over the venerable British Empire. Amundsen had other brilliant victories (including being the first navigate the Northwest Passage) but this was his crowning achievement.

Quick context setting. The year is 1910. The North Pole has been claimed and there is a global race to see which adventurer can claim the South Pole for his country. Glory, riches and global power are at stake. The British have an unparalleled history in discovery based on the prowess of their legendary navy. Norway, newly independent of Sweden, is a fledgling nation with few resources and looking for respect. The hope of the Norwegians is quickly turning to Amundsen following his successful navigation of the Northwest Passage.

Early Amundsen. Amundsen had the optimism, determination and radical self-belief that is typical of many entrepreneurs. At a young age, Amundsen decided that he would be a great explorer and began systematically building the skills he felt would be necessary. Growing up in Norway was tremendously helpful in this regard. He spent much of his early life perfecting his technique in the rapidly developing sport of cross-country skiing and subjecting himself to intense cold. Although an indifferent university student, he applied intense rigor to the study of past Arctic expeditions and came away with a few important insights. One was an appreciation for the skill and wisdom of native cultures that enabled them to survive in the Arctic. Another was the nature of leadership in expeditions; he felt that a significant weakness of past expeditions was that the leader was not also a ship captain, which tended to divide leadership between the overall leader and the technical leader while at sea and on the land. Both of these insights would be critical in his defeat of the British.

Learn from the natives. In his voyages, Amundsen spent years with the native people of Alaska and Norway. He learned a few important things:

  1. The skins of the polar animals were warmer and more water resistant than wool, the best that Europe had to offer.
  2. Polar animal meat, when prepared correctly, produces natural forms of vitamins A & C that can be used to combat scurvy.
  3. Specially-bred sled dog teams could be used to move rapidly over the frozen terrain. The dogs had several advantages including speed and flexibility; they could also eat the meat of polar animals and were well suited to the climate.

Great leaders are in the details. Amundsen was determined to get his experience as a ship captain. Despite his hunger to be an explorer, he lacked the reputation and financing to begin, so he volunteered to be an officer on another expedition, the Belgica. Though this was a poorly led expedition, Amundsen was able to gain nearly three years of valuable experience. In the grand tradition of entrepreneurs, he was able to secure this valuable opportunity largely because he was willing to serve the entire time for no pay—a three-year internship where he risked life and limb every day. This experience gave him confidence in his ability, his leadership (based on the incompetence that he saw amongst his superiors) and his insights into surviving the polar regions (the crew that refused to eat penguin and seal meat suffered debilitating scurvy).

Amundsen v. Scott. Amundsen’s great rival was the legendary English explorer, Richard Scott. Scott was a military man after the grand tradition of the British Empire. He was known for his courage and ability to communicate. The success of his voyage, Discovery, a scientific expedition to Antarctica, made him the global favorite to be the first to reach the South Pole. In many ways, Scott is typical of the incumbents (in any industry) that our entrepreneurs see all the time – successful, proud and inward-focused. His operation (the British exploration establishment) was well-financed, had a track-record of success going back hundreds of years and was the undisputed world leader. His officers were the most pedigreed in the world and could draw upon vast expertise and financial resources. They were also unapologetic snobs and were convinced of their own superiority. Scott was more concerned with his position relative to his peers in Britain (e.g. Shackleton) than with the upstart Norwegian, Amundsen. He saw Amundsen’s use of native technologies—clothing, dog sleds, and seal-meat diet—as uninformed, unnecessary and even barbaric.


(Image sources: Amundsen, Scott)

This is another “David and Goliath” story. Despite more funding, a “better” crew, and more advanced technology and materials, Scott not only lost the race to Amundsen, he also lost his life in the process. Scott got the strategy wrong because he tried to apply the institutional knowledge of the British to this new problem of conquering the South Pole and refused to accept data against the strongly held beliefs of his organization. The result was a disaster for him personally and the reputation of his country.

Here is a quick overview of key decisions and how they differed for Amundsen v. Scott:

Amundsen Scott Implications
Goal Be first to the South Pole and survive Collect important scientific data, be first to the South Pole and survive Divided focus can mean death to explorers and startups
Leadership Strong leader, deep technical competence Strong leader, pedigreed team, relied on experts for technical details Despite his maniacal planning, Amundsen adjust to meet new realities and feedback from the team
Crew Competence, trust, track-record, flat structure Pedigree, connections, track-record, hierarchal Amundsen’s flat org structure and proven team allowed for both cohesion and feedback
Transportation Dog sleds trained by Amundsen for years for gear, skis for men Ponies, motorized sledges and a few dog sleds, few skiers Lack of focus, heavy and inflexible, Brits refuse to ski
Fuel Dogs fed Arctic animal meat, humans ate dogs when they had to Fodder for Ponies brought from England, humans ate ponies Brits lose a lot of flexibility because they have to carry all the fuel with them
Fundraising Weak Strong Brits didn’t have to choose a strategy because they felt like they could try it all
Food Rely on arctic animals for food + vitamin C Brits refuse to eat seals and penguins Brits battle scurvy and starvation the whole time.
Clothing Arctic animal skins Wool The waterproofness of the Norwegians likely saves the lives of several

Amundsen won, but it was far from inevitable. It’s fascinating to see how the nearly unlimited resources and reputation of the British were key drivers in creating this failure. For example, Scott was not forced to choose between a scientific expedition and a race to the Pole, and he didn’t have to choose one main form of transport because of his access to resources.

On the other hand, Amundsen was always operating under highly-constrained resources. He had to choose. He invested the time and energy to really understand the nature of the challenge and he made the hard decisions before the crisis. In many cases, this meant he personally had to become an expert. He chose the team, the strategy and the materials necessary to be effective. He didn’t have the option of recruiting a highly-pedigreed team so instead he opted for one with deep experience, strong work ethic, broad skill sets and radical commitment to seeing a common dream fulfilled.

The most fundamental lesson for me in this story is the relationship between choice and resources in entrepreneurial leadership. Great entrepreneurs recognize that financial resources, as important as they are, rarely determine a winner in a market. The prize is more likely to go to the entrepreneur with the deepest commitment, the most customer insight and the creative ability to put it all together. It goes to the one who can assemble the right team and lead them to execute on the opportunity, and it’s often spearheaded by compiling 10,000+ hours of detailed, technical knowledge about the problem.