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5 Lessons from Alaska's Dalton Highway

And how you can apply them to your business transition plan.

I was able to check something off my bucket list a week ago.

I had just signed a new client in San Diego and it was time for me to schedule a visit with him at his offices. Since we’d gotten to know one another over the last several months, he knew that going to Alaska had been on my bucket list. I know that he goes to Alaska every summer. He suggested that rather than meeting in San Diego, we should meet in Fairbanks. I jumped on it!

Alaska had been closed to travelers and only recently reopened to those who were willing to submit to a COVID test. Let me just say that an emergency doctor friend of mine calls it a “brain biopsy” - and now I understand why. So, COVID free, I jumped on a plane to Seattle where my client and I met up for the last flight to Fairbanks. (By the way, Fairbanks is farther north than I realized. It’s nearly a 4-hour flight from Seattle. Add that to the 4-hour flight from DFW to Seattle, and 8 hours on a plane with new COVID restrictions was a less than stellar experience, but nothing would get in the way of me checking Alaska off the old bucket list!)

Preparing for the Trip

Our plan was to fly into Fairbanks, then drive up the Dalton Highway into the arctic circle for a few days of sightseeing and exploring. Dalton Highway is basically a truck road between Fairbanks and the arctic ocean. Since I’d never been there, I decided to read and learn as much as I could before the trip. It really helped that I had a “guide” - someone who had been there before. He sent me “The Dalton Highway Visitor Guide” - a 24-page document that gave the history of the highway, as well as things to do to prepare for the trip.

Here are some of the warnings found in the visitor guide, and how those lessons apply to any business transition plan.

This is one of my favorite pictures, taken with my phone. It doesn't do it justice.

Prepare before you go!

  • You can’t take a normal rental car - so you’ll have to rent a special one.

  • The road has some pavement - but it’s mostly a gravel highway

  • Truckers have the right of way - get out of the way fast, or they’ll spray you with rocks!

  • There are NO medical facilities between Fairbanks and Deadhorse - a distance of 500 miles - so try not to get hurt!

  • Food, gas, and vehicle repair are extremely limited - so take some food and plan your gas stops.

  • There is no cell service - so you might want to rent a satellite phone

Business Lesson #1 - Find out as much as you can in advance about where you are headed, and prepare like your life depends on it - because it does. The same lesson applies to business owners who are thinking about transitioning their business. They should learn as much as they can, as far in advance as possible, so they will be ready with the time comes. Besides, most transition plans don’t go exactly as planned so be ready for some twists and turns.

Heed the warnings!

Mosquitoes in Alaska are a lot like due diligence. People who have “been there, done that” will warn you about the mosquitoes. Having lived in Florida (where the state bird is the mosquito) and then Texas, I’ve been around plenty of mosquitoes. They never seem to bother me - we just leave each other alone. Perhaps mosquitoes just don’t like me, or maybe I’m just not sensitive to their bites. Either way, I count myself lucky.

In the visitor guide, they warn you about the mosquitos, but based on my past, I just didn’t take it that seriously. My travel companion reiterated the warning so I picked up some organic repellent - not wanting to get DEET because of the possible side effects. And, boy was I glad we did! After the 6 hour drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, as soon as we got out of the car, the mosquitoes swarmed around us. I’ve never seen anything like it. No matter how quickly we jumped back in the car, at least 20 of the little devils seemed to find their way in with us so we looked like a John Candy movie driving down the road swatting them along the way. After a day in the wilderness, we went searching for some DEET - much preferring the possible side effects of that over enduring the swarms of mosquitoes!

The season for these nasty little bugs is very short in Alaska, but let me tell you, they make up for that with the sheer numbers. Regardless of your tolerance for them, take heed of the warnings!

Business Lesson #2 - Heed the Warnings! Just like the mosquitoes, if you have never been through a business transition or exit - Due Diligence is every bit as bad as the mosquitoes along the Dalton Highway. If you’re prepared in advance, you have a much better chance of survival. Due Diligence, just like mosquitos, won’t last forever. Too many deals fall apart during due diligence, mostly because the seller is not prepared for the rigors of it. Prepare thoroughly to make it through the process.

Learn How to Handle the Threats in Advance

The Dalton Highway cuts through some of the best, most beautiful terrain in North America. But it’s also home to two large and dangerous beasts - moose and grizzly bears. And you don’t defend yourself from them the same way.

According to what I’ve read and learned, if a moose charges you - RUN! If you happen upon a grizzly bear - stand your ground, make noise, and raise your arms to make yourself look bigger than you are.

Make sure you remember which defense to use! If you stand your ground against a moose - you’ll get trampled. If you run from a grizzly, he’ll chase you, and he can run faster than you so it won’t end well.

Business Lesson #3 - Sure it’s rare to be charged by a moose or startle a grizzly bear. But, if you know what to expect in advance, you can prepare for it. Along the path of transitioning a business, there are plenty of dangers that may or may not materialize. However, if you prepare for how to deal with them before they happen, you have a better chance of remaining calm and making it through the transition and avoiding the pitfalls.

Don’t Specialize in “Everything”

This last lesson did not come from the visitor guide - it just happened, and my travel companion made me promise to write about it.

On the second night in Fairbanks, before we ventured to the arctic circle, we both had a good steak in mind. Armed with my cell phone, I googled steak house in Fairbanks. There were darn few choices, and some of them were closed because of COVID. Our only “steakhouse” choice then was the Roundup Steakhouse and Saloon - which sounds perfectly Alaskan to me. So, I punched the “call now” button to see if they were open. I was delighted to hear that they were, so I asked the gal that answered the phone - “what’s your specialty?” And she said, “Everything.” I said, “Come on you have to have a specialty steak?” To which she replied, “Cheesesteak...” Really! Now I love a good Philly with whiz, but when you’re in the mood for steak, and the house specialty at a 2 ½ star steakhouse is cheesesteak - you use the same response to the charging moose - RUN!

Business Lesson #4 - You can’t please everyone, so don’t pretend your specialty is “everything.” I’m a fierce niche focus guy. We are constantly molding and refining our niche. Define your niche, and get really good at it. Be able to communicate that niche to everyone. If you do, you’ll attract the right buyers when the time is right. If your specialty is everything, you’ll chase away prospective buyers faster than we ran from the Roundup Steakhouse.

It's best to have a guide.

I had a great trip to Alaska! The scenery, the wilderness, but honestly, what made it so fun was my "guide." As I mentioned earlier in this post, the guide made this risky and challenging trip not just doable but enjoyable. He knew the dangers and the possible pitfalls. I benefitted from his knowledge and experience.

Business Lesson #5 - Have a guide to help you along the path of transitioning your business. Sure, you could handle many of the things that came your way - you got the business this far didn't you? But sometimes there are things you need to hear from someone who has been there before. I was able to check something off my bucket list a week ago. Don't let your overconfidence be your downfall. Get the bug spray with DEET!

Just like going to Alaska for the first time - when it comes to transitioning a business, the more prepared you are, the likely you will have a wonderful and successful experience.

  • Prepare long before you think you need to

  • Understand the dangers and pitfalls

  • Remember Due Diligence is a season - it won’t last forever.

  • Stay focused on your niche

  • Make sure you have a guide

So, stop right now, and think about your transition plan. It does not matter if you plan to transition in a year, 5 years, or even 20 years down the road. The earlier you start preparing, the smoother your transition will be. And, if you don’t where to start, reach out to us and we’ll give you some FREE resources to point you in the right direction.

What are you going to do TODAY to prepare your business for that inevitable future transition? The more you prepare in advance, the more likely you’ll be ready when the time is right. What are you going to do today - to Maximize Business Value?

And remember, we’re here to help. If we can help you in any way don’t hesitate to reach out!

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