Coming up with new ideas is often a long process and can mean going through several rounds of redevelopment before you come up with a final product. Juli Rhett, co-founder of Sierra Madre Research (who Richard Branson invested in on Shark Tank last year), explains how getting out of the office helped them to come up with a brand new product in just a few days…
It's Christmas vacation yet here we are, not caroling, not trimming the tree, not sipping cocoa or sauntering through a winter wonderland. Instead, we're sitting across from each other at a bustling Starbucks. The MacBooks that separate us may as well be shimmering platinum cell blocks keeping us void to the outside world as it goes swirling by on time-lapse. It's called running your own business. And here, in the second year of life for Sierra Madre Research, we don't take breaks. (So says the contract signed in metaphorical blood between my husband, RIchard, and I posted on the wall of the makeshift office in our small Mississippi home.)
This time two years ago we were dangling on ropes, clinging to the arctic blue crevasses of an ice wall on Mt. Lincoln. As we discussed expectations for our future adventure gear start-up, that ice wall crumbled and landed us in two office chairs. Now, here I sit, drifting into my iced coffee, longing for just a taste of the cold chips that sprinkle my face when I slam my ice tool into a frozen waterfall.
My longing gaze is interrupted by a piercing cell phone ring. “Richard Rhett,” my husband answers. He pauses, then laughs his booming belly laugh. “No way. No you're not. You're driving to MEXICO?!” Still on the phone Richard opens his scheduler to reveal a dinosaur-sized helping on his overflowing work plate. He wraps up the call with a “We can't, man. I want to, but we just can’t,” hangs up, then slowly looks over at me with a flicker in his eye and a devilish grin. “Or CAN we?”
There’s the Richard I used to know.
Staring into the clouds my mouth gapes open and my eyes dance from big wall to big wall. Here I stand in the presence of Potrero Chico Mexico, a rock climber’s paradise, where massive rock faces shoot to the stars and the longest route climbs straight into heaven. We set up our Nubé hammock shelters as climbing partners are shouting all around us like an angel’s chorus to my ears. The backdrop is surreal and the contrast of our Nubés lined up nicely against the foliage offers a perfect opportunity to snap a few product photos of this majestic campsite.
The bloody knuckles and dirt-caked smile-wrinkles prove we’re having a blast on this trip! Despite the fact that the rain has been falling for three days now and the temperature continues to drop. The frigid mist covering the land is so thick that the once gloriously jagged terrain now looks like a flat walk in the park in Cleveland. Not deterred by the chill, we continue to get our climb on. Though the curtain of mist is gradually lifting and unveiling absolutely miraculous sights, each belay station on the way up the wall seems to get 10 degrees colder and 10 knots windier. As I wait my turn at each station, all I can do is sink into my clothes shivering, lips a lovely shade of purple. I lust for my cozy comforter at home.
On the third night at our campsite, our buddy who adamantly set up his tent on the ground, found himself treading water in an indoor swimming pool, his sleeping bag now his sopping wet inner tube. Dry as a desert inside our hovering Nubé, Richard and I snuggle together in our Pares Hammock and discuss several problems we seemed to be facing on this trip. With the unexpected chill – we needed a hammock under quilt. With the damp wind blasting our backs while taking breaks on the wall – we needed super light-weight warmth. And now, our buddy needed a new sleeping bag. But with six of us packed into a tiny mom-van already weighed down with climbing gear, minimalistic packing had been a must when we hit the road Mexico bound.
As we dissected the equipment issues we faced, I suddenly heard heavy machinery grinding as the problem solving gears in Richards brain started to churn. By the peak of a climb up a spire the next day, I was clinging to my final few holds when Richard’s head popped over the edge. “I’ve got it!” he exclaimed with mad-hatter eyes and red beard hair all awry like a crazy camping-gear-scientist.
“Jeez!” I screamed losing my grip and scrambling for dear life. Richard, impatient with the exhilaration of a new idea, caught my wrist and catapulted me over the rim.
We perched atop the spire like a couple of bald eagles losing their feathers to the vicious wind. Richard painted his vision for me in the clouds. “Imagine a light-weight adventure blanket like the weather resistant materials of your puffy jacket that could morph into an under quilt, a top quilt, a sleeping bag, or a blanket all in a snap.” he said. “Think about it, if we had it on this trip we could have used it for EVERYTHING without having to pack multiple products. I’m going to make it so small and light that you could have even carried it up this spire with you! We could be cuddled up in it together, warm and enjoying the views RIGHT NOW!”
I was literally burrowing my whole self into his voracious beard seeking any form of warmth available. “Sounds like our next project to me!” I responded. “But wouldn’t it just fly away up here?!”
“Nope,” he said, “you can snap it around you and synch it in place.” In true “Richard-form” the product didn’t even exist yet but he had already imaginatively engineered every detail and function down to the last stitch, and in true “Juli form” I tried to convince him to call it the Warmy-Schwarmy. THAT, to my dismay, was a no-go, but he did agree on Puffle, the 3-in-1 Adventure Blanket!
We spent New Year’s Eve with our newly found climbing friends from all over the world dancing around a blazing fire and singing loud tunes in our best imitation of the Spanish language; stray cats and wild dogs joining in our carols in the distance. This trip was completely carefree and unplanned. Some may even call it frivolous or nonsensical if they had seen the work-load we left in a messy pile on the other side of the border. Either way, it was completely against the rapid, all-engulfing current of what we thought should be our professional norm since starting our own business. But throwing caution to the wind and making the expedited decision to play hard instead of work hard, in turn, produced the next camping birth-child of Sierra Madre: the Puffle, as well as some of the most breathtaking images that we possess, to-date, of our camping equipment being used in the rugged wild.
Today, we are still sledge-hammering our way through pretty solid work-loads, but we refuse to let that weight pin us down in our office chairs. I don’t know what strikes your creative appetite or what ignites a passion in you, but what I’ve learned is this: the human mind comes ALIVE when released in the wild to play. Imaginative juices spout out like a geyser when excitement rallies in your spirit. You want to encourage fresh ideas and new ways of thinking in your business? Try rethinking your board meetings. And hey, if you need recommendations, I happen to know a top-notch conference room on top of a 300ft spire in Mexico.
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