Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bala Gopalan is ready for his second mountain with Refuga
Bala is born in India, but have been living and working in Silicon Valley in California for many years. In 2015 we had the great pleasure of having Bala on our trip to Russia, where we climbed the highest mountain of the european continent, Mount Elbrus. He just signed up for our trip to Kilimanjaro in September 2016 and we thought that we would ask him a few questions his work, his experience with Refuga and how he takes time to travel in a busy life with both a family and a startup.
Tell us a bit about your existing project?
Wiztr (like, Mister) is the name of the project I am currently working on. Wiztr aims to address pain points that exist presently in the way students, parents and private coaches engage for all coaching matters. Matters related to scheduling, booking, tracking sessions, payments, and coaching conversations.
Wiztr is aimed at parents and coaches. I have an 11-year old daughter. I am also the self-appointed IT/business admin to my spouse, who is a coach. I suffer on a day-to-day basis from the pain points of disjointed experiences in the way parents and coaches engage .. both as a parent and as a coach, by association.
Wiztr is my journey to address these pain points. Who better than me to solve my own problems, right?!
What did you do before that?
Before Wiztr, I was at Citrix as Senior Director of Product Management in the Cloud Platforms Group. I had joined Citrix in 2011 following its acquisition of Cloud.com, the start-up I was part of. Before Cloud.com and since 2002, I have been mostly hiking one startup trail after another in Silicon Valley.
How did you find Refuga?
Thanks to the Montserrat mountains, near Barcelona. Well, kind of. You see, I am an Instagram power user (@jambajaar). Not so much from a growth hacking or social perspective .. as to the sheer number of photos I post on Instagram from my travels. I saw some likes and comments from “Workaway Camp” to my Montserrat pictures from 2012. Hiking in Montserrat is not what the average international visitor to Barcelona does. There is so much to do and experience just in Barcelona alone. The combination of someone’s interest in hiking in Montserrat and the name Workaway intrigued me enough to lead me to click on the Instagram profile to find out more.
Why did you decide to do something as crazy as going with us to Russia to climb a mountain?
Climbing a mountain, any mountain, is one of the most humbling and fulfilling experiences one can go through. Personally, I feel the mountain takes out my mental trash completely (it does fill up again, rather quickly too, when I get back to my baseline and the usual routines).
Before one of my previous start-ups, I had climbed Mt.Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. I was ready to climb a new mountain last year. Literally and figuratively. When I had originally reached out to Nikolaj, it was to ask about the next Kilimanjaro trip in 2015. I had seen his Kilimanjaro travelog and was impressed with both the experience I thought people had in that trip, as well as the profiles of the people who made the trip. So I got a sense that it would be like a mini startup journey with kindred spirits, where the zero-to-1 purpose is very clear.
The above aside, I have visited Russia many years back. And, as a solo traveler. I was very curious to return to see how much Russia had changed since when I was there more than 15 years back.
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PS: Last year, Moscow certainly felt livelier (much) and happening than how I remembered it from my first trip. Blame it on summer time? I could. But overall it felt more welcoming and friendlier in 2015 than before, from food to hotel to how safe I felt on the streets.
Climbing Elbrus was tough. I hope we both agree on that. Luckily, climbing Kilimanjaro will be a bit easier and less extreme, but just as big an experience. What was the most challenging during the 10 days in Russia?
The most challenging part was the climbing on snow and ice. I had never done that before. From a little after our lift drop-off at 3700m to our base camp at 4100m to the summit at 5642m, almost the entire path was covered in snow and above the treeline. On summit day, ~5000m and up, we also had to deal with the issue of visibility or the lackthereof beyond 10-15 feet.
On the day of our acclimatization hike up to ~5000m, I got hit with altitude sickness. Instead of bouts of headache and vomiting, it was the more embarrassing “Delhi Belly” at 3-miles height for me! It gets very nerve wrecking when you have to urgently get out of your many layers of clothing and hide in plain daylight to take care of business. Now that I have survived it to tell the tale, it seems hilarious, albeit gross. But when you are packing for such adventures, do not forget toilet paper. Swiss-army knives, battery chargers, and GoPros are of no use if you should, as I did, find yourself in such a situation!
Aside from the above, my cardio-fitness was decent but my next big challenge was still physical, due to niggling injuries I was carrying. The support of my refuga travel companions was such a plus. More than once, I was very impressed with their patience and thankful for it.
On a different vector, a challenge I face (or used to face) in my travels is in getting decent vegetarian food. I have to say I had no problems whatsoever on my trip to Russia last year. It was such a pleasant surprise, starting with some sights of the unexpected, like this Ganesha statue at the Domodedovo airport at Moscow.
Climbing Elbrus last year we had our base in a small mountain village called Terskol. How was it to experience some of the real Russia?
Idyllic, in a word. That pesky thing called Time did not seem to matter, in a welcome sort of way. The sound of flowing streams constantly filled the air, near where we stayed. There were scenes of wooded trails, boys and toys, and the occasional soviet-looking automobile.
I came to know about and eat Khichin (what I can only describe as a cousin of the Indian roti paratha bread) for dinner. This lady – here – at the modest market square was curious to know where I was from. When I nodded yes to “Hindi”, Raj Kapoor is what she immediately blurted. Her visage had a remarkable resemblance to the Bollywood showman. So I thought then. I still do, looking at her picture.
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Terskol and the Baksan Valley region is moslem country. As I write that, I can only hear that in our guide Alex’s voice. Alex is Russian. His comrades, George (Georgii) and Dima (Dmitry) are from Ukraine and Belarus respectively. They had come to the Caucasus for their summer gig. Not as remarkable in itself as when I see it through the lens of the crises in the region (what usually gets reported in international news). Crimea and what not.
There was no check when we drove into Baksan Valley from the Mineralnye Vody airport. On the way back though, like in the USA, we had to get out of our van at a security post on the freeway and show our passport and papers. But unlike the USA, this check was within the sovereign borders of Russia.
“N’ura (name), don’t chop from your shoulder!”. That is what I have understood as what is written on this axe that this lady was using. Apparently, it is a common phrase that means something close to “Don’t shoot from the hip.” (an American idiom, meaning, react suddenly or without careful consideration of one’s words or actions.) How apt, when I think of it now.
My experience was real but still somewhat limited and curated .. to remind me, to not to chop from my shoulder!
You’re signed up for our next trip to Kilimanjaro. What are you’re expectations for the trip?
I do not have specific expectations from this trip. I only recently came across the quote below, attributed to Mary Ritter Beard, a leading American women’s rights activist of the previous century:
Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living
One day, perhaps, I will look at one of my then ideas of living (and working) as having come from my Kilimanjaro trip. For instance, my Elbrus trip did embolden me to reach out and collaborate with people in Ukraine and Belarus for my current product development. Until Wiztr, I had only been working with remote development teams based in India.
Could you say a few words about climbing a mountain with fellow entrepreneurs?
The experience oscillated between Cliffhanger and Swan Lake (click links to see 15s video shorts on Instagram). Somewhere in the middle, there was a Caucasian Footloose too!
Kidding aside, I will literally say a few words, hashtag-style:
#Fun #Curiosity #Opinions #Resilience #Hardwork #Adrenaline #Adventure
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In a busy life with family and being an entrepreneur, how do you take the time to take trips like going to Kilimanjaro?
It is possible only because of my family’s support and understanding. And, luck. Of course, the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get .. in being able to follow my travel dreams.
Is there a place you have traveled to, that you would recommend the Refuga community to go to?
I would recommend the state of Kerala in the south of India. Especially, the hills (western ghats) bordering the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
In the history of the Indian subcontinent, it is the state to which most entrepreneurs from the rest of the world came to first. To trade spices and exchange ideas. Visitors to the subcontinent through other frontiers generally had the intention to conquer the Indian kingdoms .. by force.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not from Kerala. But my spouse is. So you see, my recommendation here helps me with the hard work I am referring to, in answer to the previous question ;=)
With your experience with Refuga so far, how do you see that we could improve the concept?
The Refuga concept could be tried out with pre-existing teams. This is not a suggestion for an improvement per se. But I feel with teams becoming more virtual and distributed, a Refuga-like 10 days together would be very valuable, in nurturing empathy and connectedness within the team. Depending on the team’s culture and preferences, it could be working on the MVP from a villa in Tuscany or renewing vows while climbing Elbrus.
This could also benefit Refuga from a customer acquisition perspective. Each event of this kind is sold to a specific customer, who brings his 5-10 people. The contrarian view here is that these 5-10 individuals only have as much familiarity and comfort with one another as allowed by Skype and Slack and would really benefit from a Refuga-like experience.
You have been living and working in Silicon Valley for a lot of years. What’s so special about that environment and is there something you have learned that there that you would like to share with us?
What is special is simply the people here. According to the chair of the anthropology department at San Jose State University .. this region “has long attracted people who in a way believe that they are doing visionary work, almost God’s work through technology”. I feel that is an accurate answer your first question.
My own 2c is that outsiders not used to Silicon Valley will only see the above as arrogance. But it is what creates the Apples and Googles and, the next big thing .. that does no evil .. to make the world a better place :=)
To your second question, my own biggest learning has been the following:
It is more important that I be in love with the problem I want to solve than the solution I provide for it.
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We can’t wait to see you in September Bala!