‘Trust time’ – What this CEO learned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

CEO, Yuxiang Zhou.

Yuxiang Zhou obtained a fresh viewpoint when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Image: Unsplash/yoadsh

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Simon Torkington
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • CEO Yuxiang Zhou shares the lessons he learned while founding Black Lake Technologies.
  • Climbing Kilimanjaro helped him focus on the right solutions and priorities.
  • Building back slowly from a failed startup was a key learning for the CEO.
  • Hear the Meet the Leader podcast on our website and subscribe on any podcast app.
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“We failed in the first startup. We locked ourselves up in the ivory tower and used our brainpower to imagine what the factories were like.”

One of the big challenges for senior executives as they climb the career ladder is maintaining a close connection with the detail of the business – without getting lost in the weeds.

When Yuxiang Zhou had a vision to digitize Chinese factories he overlooked a crucial step – he didn’t spend time in the factories he was hoping to transform. The business failed and Yuxiang very nearly gave up to return to a salaried corporate job.

A new perspective from a mountain summit

To put some space between the business failure and his decision on what to do next, Yuxiang headed to Africa to take on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The continent’s highest peak towers 4,900 metres above the plains of Tanzania. The arduous ascent taught Yuxiang lessons that transformed his approach to business.

“A friend recommended I go somewhere to figure out the puzzles in my mind,” he told the World Economic Forum’s “Meet the Leader” podcast series, “so I joined the hiking trip to Kilimanjaro.”

Yuxiang was always expecting a challenging climb – but he came away having learned things he never would have expected.

“The journey to the summit was really, really tough. There were snowstorms in the nights with very strong winds and sand mixed with snow. But you know the process, you have trained for it. You just follow your guide one step at a time and ignore everything else. Just watch your step one, two, one, two, and continue to do that for six hours at a time.

“I summited the mountain on Christmas Day 2015. When I reached the top I had tears in my eyes. Then a thought came to me – maybe this is how we should do a startup. Instead of having a big idea and rushing into it, we should take time. Maybe it's just we didn't spend enough time on the last one.”

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Pivots and perseverance

Yuxiang returned to China invigorated and determined to succeed where his first venture had failed. Many of the factories still relied on analogue systems, with middle managers touring the factory floor with pencils and notepads as they tried to improve performance. Yuxiang knew there was a better way but he wasn’t going to take another big bet on a business without immersing himself in the workplaces he was looking to reinvent.

“After the climb, I went back and talked with my previous co-founders. We agreed to take jobs in factories to make sure we learned the lessons we had missed the first time around. We took our time and I guess this more Zen mindset opened our eyes to more opportunities. We had finally learned to be patient.”

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Reaping the rewards of going slower

With a deeper understanding of the challenges China’s factories were facing, Yuxiang found success with the launch of Black Lake Technologies – providing products that are bringing Chinese manufacturing into the digital age.

“We have three product offerings on what is called the Black Lake manufacturing platform. These products are based on mobile phones, IoT devices and wearables. This means we can quickly and affordably digitize shop floor activities with tools on the cloud.

“And the second product we incubated over the years is called a mini worksheet. It's not even an app, it's on the WeChat social media platform. It's a mini program that can be downloaded and up and running within hours. There are around three million small-to-medium-sized factories in China and this is their frictionless entry point into digitized manufacturing.”

This shift away from pencil and paper management of manufacturing is opening up new opportunities across Chinese industry ecosystems, says Yuxiang.

“On the cloud, they are all interconnected – they can do business together. Companies can collaborate with the guidance of real-time data and with that network they can produce their products more easily in an affordable way.”

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