51: Unpacking Fear | World’s Toughest Race – Hal Riley, Team Unbroken

by | Jun 22, 2021

Succession
Stories
Podcast

Listen in to this special “What’s Next” Succession Stories Podcast episode as Laurie Barkman talks with Hal Riley, team captain for the World’s Toughest Race Eco Challenge in Fiji 2020.

Hal led a team of disabled veterans and civilians who competed against 65 other teams to go across 400 miles of dense jungles, steep mountains, winding rivers, oceans and dangerous swamps. An incredible experience full of extra challenges.

Hal shares many life, business and leadership lessons from the journey:

– looking for moments to take chances even if you won’t win

– how not to pack your fears

– decision making under stress and ambiguity

Show links:

Eco Challenge Website

View Hal Riley’s LinkedIn page

Succession Stories Podcast is hosted by Laurie Barkman, CEO of SmallDotBig. Bringing entrepreneurs and business owners insights to grow your company and develop exit transition strategies.

Learn how we can help you maximize enterprise value, create succession plans, and identify M&A strategies, visit: https://smalldotbig.com

Follow Succession Stories on social media:

View Succession Stories LinkedIn page

View Succession Stories Channel on YouTube

Transcript

Welcome to the Succession Stories podcast. I’m Laurie Barkman. I work with business owners to maximize value, create options for the future and be happy in your next. I’m excited to share the What’s Next series as part of Succession Stories. These conversations spotlight the theme of transitions. Changes can come at you unexpectedly or be planned. Are you ready? After all, in business and life, succession is about transitions and how you embrace what’s next matters. When you face your biggest ownership and leadership transition decisions, will you be ready?

Most owners feel as if they are pushed out of their business. But the happiest exits occur when there are more factors pulling you towards your next. That’s why I’m offering a way for you to evaluate your readiness on a personal level. Go to getmyprescore.com. Take our online survey; it just takes eight minutes to complete and you’ll receive a custom report of your personal readiness to exit your business, including a summary of unseen factors that could lead to regret. In addition, you’ll receive a free ebook The Exit Checklist. A 5-Step Personal Action Plan for a Happy (And Lucrative) Exit From Your Business. Your score means getting closer to your next chapter. Whatever, wherever that may be. Visit get my getmyprescore.com.

This week on Succession Stories, it was a special conversation I had with a friend of mine Hal Riley. Hal was the team captain for the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji 2020. You might have seen it on Amazon Prime. Hal led a team of disabled veterans and civilians who competed against 65 other teams to go across 400 miles of dense jungles, steep mountains, winding rivers, oceans and dangerous swamps. It was an incredible, incredible experience, and as Hal shared, his team had some extra challenges. We shine a new light on the term disabled as one of the things that he talks about, is really passionate about, and how you shouldn’t pack your fears when you go into something that’s so unknown. He looks for the moments to take the chance even if you don’t win. There are so many life lessons, business lessons, leadership lessons in what Hal and I talked about. I really encourage you to listen to the whole episode. It is a little longer than normal. I will give you that. It’s over an hour, but I guarantee you will listen and be inspired by Hal Riley.

Laurie Barkman:

Hal Riley It is amazing to see you. Thank you so much for coming on Succession Stories. This What’s Next episode is going to be really special. We’re going to talk first about how we know each other but first, let me welcome you. Thank you for coming on the show.

Hal Riley:

Thanks. I’m excited about this. Laurie, this will be fun. 

Laurie Barkman:

It’s gonna be a lot of fun. You and I reconnected recently and I was thinking about the calendar and by golly, we met 10 years ago. Can you believe it? Well, I should say we last really spoke 10 years ago. We worked together because I was your client. I was your client at a pretty big company here and we worked together for probably almost two years. As life goes with transitions, we had kind of lost track of each other and social media, I think, in its brightest days is wonderful – example is it brought us back together even most recently. I wanted to share with the audience a little bit about connectivity and you might recognize this or anyone watching on video is gonna read what I’m holding up. I’ll tell everyone what I’m holding. I’m holding a Russian nesting doll set of Jerome Bettis, who is a Hall of Famer, Pittsburgh Steeler running back. Of course, I lived in Pittsburgh, and I’m a fan of the Steelers. You at the time, you were in Dallas, and how you had these Russian nesting dolls I don’t know but you mailed them to me. Do you remember that?

Hal Riley:

Yeah, of course.

Laurie Barkman:

Somehow these Russian nesting dolls, I’d look at them every once in a while, again, this was like 10 years ago, and I think, “Oh, Hal Riley. I wonder what he’s up to,” and then what happened in August of 2020? I happened to be looking at my Instagram and I saw these amazing posts from you about this Eco-Challenge race in the middle of who knows where in Fiji and I was like, “Is this for real?” I started following you and it was for real. That’s a big part of what I want to talk about today – your experience with that race. It was quite an amazing experience for you. Also want to rewind on other aspects of your life but I think you and I talked ahead of time, a big part of what I want to learn from you is your experiences with fear and how you learn to overcome fear not only through your experience with the Eco-Challenge but also with other things in your life.

Hal Riley:

Sure.

Laurie Barkman:

I know that’s a lot. That’s a heavy lift. We’re gonna dive into all of that.

Hal Riley:

Can we edit out the 10 year part because, maybe that ages us.

Laurie Barkman:

It doesn’t age us. We’re still in our 30s.

Hal Riley:

Right.

Laurie Barkman:

We got started early in life. Why don’t you talk about your experience a little bit with Eco-Challenge? What was it? What was the race? If people didn’t watch it on Amazon Prime – hopefully they did – but in case they didn’t just talk a little bit about the race. What was that for you?

Hal Riley:

The Eco-Challenge is Amazon Prime’s series for the world’s toughest race and they were not lying when they named it that.

Laurie Barkman:

It was real. 

Hal Riley:

Yeah. Eco-Challenge, a few people may remember, was on Discovery Channel and a couple of other networks way back in the day. There was a 17-year gap between when we did the race, and the last one, which was also in Fiji so it was good to have the race come back. It was really fun to be a part of. I got to be the captain of Team Unbroken, which I’m really proud of, and really was really excited about on that race team was two wounded combat veterans and two civilians, one being myself.

There are these long expedition length races which I’ll explain in a moment. There are four race members and one support person. Our support person was a friend of mine who was also a civilian, and he was super stoked and excited to be on the team. Our team was put together by my older sister Gretchen and Gretchen started the team really with this mission of having some wounded veterans and civilians working together. That is a big challenge for just a lot of ordinary regular veterans when they come back home. The world is very different. They are now in a civilian world, the rules are different and so that’s a challenge that we wanted to highlight, and be able to work together on this platform for the race and as a team. 

Then there was also the element of just disabilities on the team. Gretchen is deaf and has some traumatic brain injuries from being blown up in combat. Keith has several metal joints from also being blown up in his Humvee while he was serving in combat. Anne was also on the team. Anne is a civilian, she works for the VA and has diabetes and then I am a civilian, but I was in a boating accident years ago when I was younger, and ruptured several disc in my back. We all brought a bit of challenge to the table and yeah, it was really fun. 

Just briefly, adventure racing, as a broad statement, for those that aren’t familiar or haven’t seen the show, adventure racing is essentially an off-road triathlon on steroids. The fundamental sport beneath the racing is orienteering, which means you have to navigate the entire course by map and compass. You never have a course to look at. You’re given a set of maps. You never look at, “Oh, here’s the racecourse.” Unlike a traditional triathlon, where you can really hone in on microseconds or micro minutes to kind of work on your placement and perform better, with adventure racing you never know what the course is, you don’t know what the disciplines are going to be. In short, most races are eight to 24 hours, meaning there are a set of checkpoints that you have to find along this given section of these maps and you have eight or 24 hours to find as many of those checkpoints as possible, you get points and then you’re scored on time. For the races that are really longer, either in time or in distance. There may be a three-day race or a five-day race or in the case of Eco-Challenge an 11-day race. That’s considered an expedition length race and you have team members that support you along the way and provide all the food and the water and the gear as you change between biking or rafting or paddling or swimming or kayaking or building a bamboo raft or rock climbing.

Laurie Barkman:

And fighting the elements. Sleep was a kind of a luxury, you basically got to rest when you could when it was super dark or you were super tired or you just couldn’t go any more.

Hal Riley:

Unlike every other sport I know of there are a couple of phrases that go around in the adventure racing world. One of them is that sleep is a strategy. Which means it may not even be a luxury. 

Laurie Barkman:

It’s a strategy. 

Hal Riley:

Yeah, it’s a strategy and anything less than probably 30 hours, a 30 hour race would be what most people would just do straight through without sleeping. Certainly for Eco-Challenge you have to sleep along the course for that many days. But I think the top teams that finished that course slept a total of 20 hours.

Laurie Barkman:

Wow. Let’s jump back in time. You mentioned that you had broken your back. What happened? Tell me about that.

Hal Riley:

I was a high school student. I’d spent a lot of time on the lake. My brother and my dad and I used to run slalom courses for fun. One weekend, we were riding the inner tube and for those lake enthusiasts out there who like to ride tubes, my dad and my brother and I are all quite competitive, and we would just beat the dog out of each other. It was something. That was an adventure race in itself. 

Laurie Barkman:

Is that where it all began? 

Hal Riley:

It’s like a rodeo on water.

Laurie Barkman:

This is in Texas? 

Hal Riley:

Yes. This is in Texas. Out in West Texas where I grew up. One weekend I was on the lake, some friends, neighbors were driving the boat, and I was riding with my cousin. We went up into a cove and turned in the shallow part of the cove, the narrower part of the cove. As the tube slung out around the boat while it turned we slammed into a dock. The doctors in the emergency room that evening estimated that to do the damage that did for both of us, we probably hit that dock at about 60 miles an hour. 

Laurie Barkman:

Were you conscious? Do you remember it all?

Hal Riley:

I remember a lot of it. I remember seeing the dock and then hitting it. We were just traveling that fast across the water. We both hit the dock sideways across our glutes, and had a lot of bruising and fractures in our elbows or wrists. At the time, I don’t remember the impact but I remember floating in the water, watching my legs float up because I just couldn’t feel them.

Laurie Barkman:

Did you think that you would lose the ability to walk?

Hal Riley:

Oh, I thought immediately I was paralyzed. I immediately knew this is bad news. Thank heavens. It turned out that was like a form of spinal trauma and everything reset and I walked out of the hospital that night.

Laurie Barkman:

Wow. But that ended. You had told me earlier, I think, you were intending to go to college and waterski.

Hal Riley:

Yeah. I mean, it did a number of things. You reach a point where you think – probably all of us have something that is a barrier, something that holds us back. That for me was just one of those elements that I thought “I’m going to do whatever I want to do physically as much as I can.”

I played club soccer. I even played football on a team that called itself Semi Pro back in the Dallas days and I’ve done a lot of pro-end volleyball, beach volleyball, and I’ve done every sport that I want to do. About every three, four, or five years that back injury gets a hold of me. I feel it every day I wake up. It’s something that is always with you that you deal with. Every now and then it shuts you down. I met with a neurologist one time, during one of these really bad episodes where I was considering whether or not I was going to have to have surgery. I’ve intentionally chosen not to have surgery all these years and I encourage people, “If you have any option don’t have back surgery. You’ll have it again. If you have one, you’ll have a second.” This neurologist told me one time he said, “You have the spine of a 47-year-old hockey player.” I was like, “I don’t play hockey and I’m not 47.”

Laurie Barkman:

It led you to make different choices in college which then led you to a creative career, which is how we met because you were a creative director. An amazing creative director; you did such great work in Dallas and talk about that a little bit. Why did you make that choice to transition into the arts? Was that something you always knew you wanted to do?

Hal Riley:

I think so but without consciously knowing it, I knew I was very interested in doing art as a career, as a job when I was a high school student, but I also really struggled with the idea of trying to sell artwork on the street. I couldn’t visualize what that looked like. When I was younger. I felt like maybe I should be an architect. It’s funny in the design industry, a lot of designers all started off as architects because it’s the thing that you can visualize, and your parents and mentors can see and point you toward. It’s hard to point people toward like, “You can be a graphic creative visualizer of stories and problem solving.” It’s more of a popular career now but at the time, it wasn’t something that a lot of people just raise their hand and say “I’m going to go off to art school and be a visual communications manager.”

Laurie Barkman:

Yeah, parents are usually like, “What’s that?”

Hal Riley:

Exactly.

Laurie Barkman:

You pursued that for years, and I guess if we flash forward on that transition, where you said, “Okay, I’m ready for something different,” which probably was around the time, I guess when we had last spoken because I think you were leading some design teams in Dallas, and you had made a couple of transitions so talk about that. What led you to choosing different paths in your career?

Hal Riley:

I’m still a creative director, I love the craft of design. That’s the thing that has held me in that current, if you will, this thing that’s moving, always in my life. When I look back at the pictures and the things that I drew, my artwork from high school, they were ads, even though I didn’t know it. There was a picture of a cool car on a beach with a volleyball net and then a headline. I didn’t know that. I was just drawing cool letters. I didn’t put together that this is what an ad is; it’s an interesting image with a headline that draws you and tries to create some sort of actionable behavior from it. 

Over the years, I have always been that young designer that asked too many questions. I just have such a thirst for knowledge. I love to learn. I love to see the layers and the connections between things. I’m constantly finding metaphors and lessons learned from this aspect of life to that aspect of life. Sometimes I feel like they’re panes of glass that from one layer, you can look at them and see that they’re separate. Adventure racing is separate from design, is separate from a business career, is separate from personal life. But in other layers, those things all overlap and the colors change, depending on the way you look through these different experiences. 

So I’ve gone from being a young designer early in my career that asked too many questions because I want to know what was on the other side of that creative brief. What’s the business need behind this? Why are they asking us to create these postcards or this website? When they say they want a logo why do they want a logo? Why do they want it this color or that shape? And why is a serif font the right font, or sans serif font right there? I just was always into these questions, because I was really trying to use my design skills to solve the problem at hand. Over the course of my career, I just learned, wow, there’s a lot of young designers as I got older and took on more management roles. Management for the team or management for a studio or a group or management for large clients. Even agencies themselves. I just learned that a lot of times creatives are a bit of an anomaly. Sometimes they’re hard people to manage, creative people, because they’re pretty independent-minded. 

Laurie Barkman:

They have something they want to go do and yet there’s no clear direction of how to get there. How do you bring that all together?

Hal Riley:

Creative people are also very intuitive people, which is, they often know, they often feel the answer before they can tell you what it is. Or they can feel that this direction or this solution is the right solution, but they may not have learned the communication skills to articulate that direction. I think that’s where I just found a passion. Personally, I love teams, and I love people and I love design, and I love racing and I love all of these things, and just the root of really is people. I think that’s where I just found a place to say “Okay, yeah, I’m like you 20 years ago in my career, but because I’m like you and I’ve learned these other things, I know how to be a better ambassador, both for the work and for the client, and customer who’s looking for this piece.” But I also know how to be an ambassador for the designers themselves, and help them get to the right solution and help this “But I want the logo bigger,” the angel joke, “I want the logo bigger.” But why? I’ve just learned to find value in both points of view and learn to speak both languages if you will.

Laurie Barkman:

At this point in your career, you’re navigating different opportunities. When did you start racing? Was that when you moved out of Texas or was it before that?

Hal Riley:

This is crazy to say, but the world’s toughest race was my first one. That was our very first. None of us on Team Unbroken had ever done an adventure race before. We didn’t even know it existed. We were just like, “Look at this cool thing. Let’s sign up for the world’s toughest race. This will be fun.”

Laurie Barkman:

Okay, so you’ve got to level set me here. How did you go from “Hey, I’m in Texas, I’ve never done this before,” to, “Hey, let’s sign up for this race,” and “here’s how we even get approved for it.” How did that even come together?

Hal Riley:

I was in Texas. I had moved from Dallas where we met and we worked together at a couple of places. I had already moved to be freelance and I was running my own freelance design business. I moved down to Austin to be the chief design officer of a mobile tech company down there. I loved that, that was fun. I moved from there to go run a studio called Design and Manufacturing, it was very much about experiential design so it was a lot of custom fabrication, welding and carpentry, and projection mapping, and a lot of low and dirty stuff that I could use my hands. I really got into that company. About a year into that we just finished this huge project for Game of Thrones down at South by and Gretchen calls me and says, “Hey, I’m thinking about this race,” and I said, “That looks awesome. We should get a team together and go do that. I’ll do that with you.” She said, “Well, we already have a team. Here. You’re on it,” and I was like, “Oh, okay.” At the time, I went out to dinner at the beginning. I was the crew assistant for the team, and so I went out to go to Asheville, North Carolina, where we did a lot of our training. I went out there to do some training and just realized this is one of those opportunities in life.

Laurie Barkman:

You called Gretchen your sister earlier, but you don’t literally mean your sister, do you?

Hal Riley:

We grew up together. She used to babysit me when I was little. We’re family. We’re family, but we have different parents.

Laurie Barkman:

Gotcha. Okay, so it wasn’t like a random phone call. This was somebody you knew, trusted, and loved, and she said, “Hey, there’s this really interesting opportunity.” Now, had she ever done adventure racing before?

Hal Riley:

No.

Laurie Barkman:

Just to remind everyone she had lost her hearing at this point, right?

Hal Riley:

Absolutely.

Laurie Barkman:

Is there a tryout of some sort?

Hal Riley:

Because the race was going to be on Amazon, there’s an interesting overlap between it being a reality show of a race. There have been a few questions. I’ve been asked a number of questions about the race, “How much of it was a TV show, or how much of it was a race?” It was 100% a race. There’s no point where the show ever influenced what the race was. There were just camera people who ran alongside and were staged and posed in different locations. They basically documented the race and they followed a few of the teams along the way. No one knew whether you’re going to be a feature team or not until the show came out, really. We felt like we were because we were asked a lot of questions for interviews and a lot of pictures of us as kids and all that kind of stuff but you submit a video as a team. Here’s who we are, here’s our racing experience. Here’s what we want to go and do and here’s why the World Service race is the next race for us. We submitted all of that and for us, it was really the story for us. It was about just because someone is labeled as disabled, doesn’t mean they’re incapable. 

This is something that’s very dear to Gretchen. She’s very passionate about it and Keith as well, both as combat veterans and Gretchen coming back from combat being deaf. That’s what ended her decorated military career. She’s in the veterans’ Hall of Fame. She’s a badass and I’m really proud of her. She came back and felt like, “Wow, you people are saying no to career opportunities or job opportunities or speaking opportunities,” or people close the door of opportunity for her just because they couldn’t understand how she was able to navigate the world. I think that’s one of the lessons learned from adventuring. From the adventure races, you can always find a way forward. We really wanted to just put that story out there that just because someone comes back as a combat veteran or someone who has some type of disability, doesn’t mean they are incapable, it just means they’re what we call creatively abled.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s right, creatively abled. The show did an amazing job of spotlighting your team and we’ll get to that in a second. How did you become the team leader? A process of elimination? Short straw?

Hal Riley:

Short straw, and I love the team. I just jumped in from that moment where I was running the studio in Austin to that first training, and I just said, “Man I’m in a transition moment for myself, where I’m looking for what is the next thing, and this race is the thing I’m going to do now. What’s on the other side of that? I don’t know.” I couldn’t see that at the time but I could see that this is what I should do. It’s what I should take. This is why I put that money in savings. This is why you take those moments to get out and run and train, and people and relationships and family and these things suddenly became really important. It’s odd to say this now post-pandemic, but those things in 2019 when we were really training, we spent nine months together. I left Austin, packed up and moved and put a bunch of stuff in storage and put a bunch of stuff in my Jeep and I drove out to Asheville, North Carolina, and lived with Gretchen and her husband, Robert. Lived in the guest room, and we all had our gear packed up at a garage, and we just trained full time. That was all we did. We would get up and train. I learned more about productivity, we have more accomplished before 9 am than most people do in an entire day.

Laurie Barkman:

What about the other teammates? Were they with you too?

Hal Riley:

Keith lived in Nebraska, and Anne lived in Nashville as well. So there were three of us in Asheville and Cale lived in Texas at the time.

Laurie Barkman:

So they were training separately. Were you directing at that point? To say, “Okay, everyone, here’s the regimen for this week, here’s what we need to be doing.”

Hal Riley:

Somewhat, but not really. Everyone trained individually on their own personal fitness. Can I run X number of miles? Can I ride a bike for a certain number of miles? Can I swim? Can I paddle? Everyone was already an athlete, and they were already in shape enough. We felt like we were in shape enough to be able to do a race like this, or at least give it a good go. What we really spent a lot of our time training on was doing it together. Because we realized pretty early on that this is going to take all of us, trying to climb up, use a cinder, which is a tool that none of us had used before in climbing, or trying to repel down a cliff with a deaf person on your team. That’s a different type of challenge. You’re learning how to tie knots and you look over the person next to you and they’re doing it right or wrong, or they’re having some trouble. We had to learn our own ways to communicate and we learned a lot of that by doing it when we were mountain biking, and we were out on the trails, and we were learning different techniques and technical techniques for mountain biking, and some local guy was just buzzing on the trail. That’s fine. If I can hear him coming so I can move out of the way, Gretchen couldn’t hear him coming so we had to learn how to communicate with her about like, “Hey, watch out for that because he’s going too fast. He doesn’t stop.” What we really trained on was how do we communicate as a team? Who’s the strongest person at rafting? Who’s the strongest person at navigation? Who’s the strongest runner? We had different things that we tried and then picked the strongest person, the person who had the most experience, the person that the team was kind of most comfortable with. Then we just said, “You’re the leader of that discipline,” and it was really good. I think one of your questions was about me; how did I get to be the captain?  Gretchen asked me to be the captain and I was – I’m getting emotional thinking about it – I was really honored. I was really honored to be the captain of that team.

Laurie Barkman:

For anyone that hasn’t watched this on Amazon Prime, it is still available.  You can watch the race, and so not a spoiler alert in the sense that we want to reveal everything if you’re going to watch it, but we have to talk about this. Your team was spotlighted. You were one of the teams from the very beginning. I think in the very opening scene, it was your team because I said to my husband, “Hey, my friend Hal is on this team,” and there were like, 60 teams. 

Hal Riley:

66.

Laurie Barkman:

66! I was telling my son, “Oh, we gotta watch this. We’ve got a friend, my friend Hal,” and then in the opening scene, I’m like, “That’s him. Right there. Oh, there he is. There he is. Right there.” What did that feel like? You didn’t know at the time they were going to be spotlighting you that way.

Hal Riley:

No. Like I said, we got clues and figured out that we were when they asked us to interview the day before we left for the race. We’re like, “Oh, boy, okay, yeah, we should pay attention.” It was fun. I loved it. I’d love to be out there that we had a cameraman and he ran along with us. Sometimes he would have his camera on and Gretchen would say to us, “No, you can’t cuss when we’re on camera.” We’d have to pay attention. I believe his name is Jeff, our camera guide, we’d have to be running along with Jeff’s recording. 

Laurie Barkman:

Well, Jeff had to be an athlete himself to be able to hold that camera and be doing what you were doing.

Hal Riley:

Yeah, all of those guys were great athletes for a number of the teams.

Laurie Barkman:

Let’s talk about the emotional side of this. What were you feeling? I guess, when the first thing you have to do is paddle, you’re in this makeshift kind of boat, and people were flipping over and you have to get to your first destination and it’s 66 boats taking off at the same time. It was kind of crazy to watch and you’re in beautiful Fiji, beautiful sunny day, beautiful blue water. What was going through your mind in those moments?

Hal Riley:

Oh, man. fear. I’ve had an interesting relationship with fear, I think. I have said to a number of people, “What’s your greatest fear? What’s your thing?” in casual conversations at the pub, and I’ve really, sincerely honestly said a number of times, “I don’t know, I don’t really have a thing that I’m afraid of.” Fear to me is like, you open the door to a room that doesn’t have the light on. Because it’s dark, you’re afraid of what might be in there, and you fill your mind with the things that might be in there. So fear really is a reflection of what is in you, not necessarily what is in front of you. 

If anybody’s familiar with the Enneagram, I’m a classic eight. I’m just charging ahead. So I had two experiences at the beginning of the race. One, I never slowed down enough to feel fear. I never had a moment where I thought, “We can’t do this,” and that’s probably true for everybody on the team. I think that’s probably true for Anne and Gretchen and Keith and Cale. We all were ready to go. We felt well prepared. We have done a lot of work. We had done a bunch of training so we felt like we had what we needed to do to thrive. However, none of us had ever paddled a traditional Fijian camakau. They made these boats for the race in the traditional design. It is an outrigger canoe that has the ama with the mother that holds the outrigger itself and there’s a name for that, but I can’t remember the Fijian name for that. It has a sail but it’s not a traditional sail on it where you can kind of tack the boat back and forth. There was a very different type of sailing craft and we had gone out and found the one guy on the island who – we had experience sailing, we had experienced paddling, but we didn’t have experience on one of these things. We had done some research and people had told us these things tip over really easy and you don’t want to lose your stuff. The first thing you do when you get in the boat is tie it all down and all of these things so we had all this in mind to pay attention. We had found the one guy on the island that had one of these boats that was close with similar to what we had and we begged that guy to take us out and to give us some training on this thing and we had gone out in the day. We went out – it was probably three and a half foot seas which is this height of these boats,  so it was a rough day, it was a very rough day. Not all of us went out, in fact, the captain that day said, “Not all of you can go. Only two can go on the boat because it’s very rough and if it goes well, we’ll come back and pick up the rest of you.” That was our plan. We went out and the wind took us and we had a miserable time trying to get that thing, even with the captain on the boat trying to help us get back. We ended up flipping the boat, they get out of the middle of the ocean so we hit the beginning of the race, we don’t know how you’re going to start the race. They give you the maps, they take you to the starting line and they say, “Go, your thing is right down there, your starting line is down there.” We all took off running and we ran up on the boats. That’s how we found out that we started the race on the camakaus and so we had maybe not fear going into the beginning, but we had definitely had a sense of caution, deep caution.

I did not want to dump my team in the middle of the ocean at the very beginning of the race, we knew that would be rough to recover from. Let’s just get going. We know we’re not an elite team so we don’t need to race everybody off the starting line. Let’s just get going. That part turned out to be fairly wise, I thought, because the teams that did turn flip their boats over in the beginning, because they couldn’t navigate this thing. They were just overly aggressively driving this traditional ancient craft, and vessel that’s where the flips came from a number of teams ran into each other and punctured the boats, and they took on water. So it was a rough start to the race. What we could not plan for is that there would be no wind. So it was all arms. I think we paddled for 14 hours; brute force.

Laurie Barkman:

Let me ask a question about goal setting. I know you’re a thinker. I know you’re a planner. Did you at any point with the team and advance set goals for the race and what were they?

Hal Riley:

We did. Our goal was to finish the race. We knew we weren’t an elite team. We knew we were newbies. We knew we were maybe in over our heads. I don’t know that we would ever think it or say it that way. But we knew we had, maybe I would say, we had a big task in front of us. So we were realistic about the challenges and our goals were, “Finish the course. Stay together as a team and come home as a team.”

Laurie Barkman:

14 hours to get to land in a fire and if I remember, it was dark, is that right? 

Hal Riley:

Oh yeah.

Laurie Barkman:

What time of night was it?

Hal Riley:

When we got to that island? I think it was about nine 9:30 or so.

Laurie Barkman:

And were you just exhausted?

Hal Riley:

We were absolutely exhausted. We had energy but your body is exhausted emotionally and spiritually. We had energy, we were singing a little, cadence army songs along Bobby Powell. We were just pooped by the time we got there and I think that was certainly not unexpected. When we got to that island, we weren’t as far up into the middle of the pack where we wanted to be, and I think that was the first moment of, “Okay, now the race is on.”

Laurie Barkman:

How did you know where you were? Did they tell you, “Hey, of the 66 teams, you’re number whatever”?

Hal Riley:

No, we were just judging by the yellow sails we could see on that perfectly flat ocean. We could see a bunch in front of us and we didn’t see a whole lot behind us so the teams that were strong paddling teams, the New Zealanders and the Australians, the Pacific northwesterners, the elite teams because they knew enough to know this is going to be in the ocean, there’s going to be a lot of outriggers and they owned these boats and they did a lot of training so as soon as they hit the water and there was no wind, they never put their sails up. They just crushed it. 

Laurie Barkman:

What happened when you got to land and it’s 14 hours later? It’s dark. It’s 9:30 at night. What did you guys do? Did you say, “Hey, we’re gonna rest or we’re gonna keep going”?

Hal Riley:

No, we kept going. We knew, “This is the plan. This is the way,” as they say. We refilled our water bottles, we dragged our boat up to shore, changed our shoes, and took off. No sleeping mat of course and took off. 

Laurie Barkman:

So this was the hiking part, and you’re in the dark and you have to navigate. If I recall, it was a pretty steep kind of jungle environment. Would you describe it that way? Muddy jungle?

Hal Riley:

Oh, yeah.

Laurie Barkman:

On a good day, this would be a hard hike so you had little headlights, I think, you were wearing on your foreheads.

Hal Riley:

Yeah.

Laurie Barkman:

And that’s all you could do to see.

Hal Riley:

Yeah. Which was another fun challenge that we learned. When you have a person who primarily communicates by reading lips and anyone who’s ever been camping does that, like, “Oh, your headlights shining me in the face?” That was certainly another element that we learned. A lot of times, in these adventure races there’s no defined race course. It’s not like there’s cones or signs that you’re following up, you don’t get a chance to turn your mind off and then just body along. A lot of times you’re trying to find the fastest route between two points and sometimes there will be a path there. Sometimes it’ll be a road, sometimes you’re cycling on the road. Sometimes it’ll be a dirt road. Sometimes it’ll be a cattle trail, or a river or a creek, sometimes you have a thing you can follow, you’re looking at the map and you’re following a terrain feature. Other times you don’t at all, and so that little volcanic island that we were going around a section of it had a path, a section of it even had a road and a section of it had nothing and that was the bushwhacking, jungled section. 

Laurie Barkman:

Were you navigating or was someone on your team navigating or all of you? 

Hal Riley:

I was navigating.

Laurie Barkman:

There was a critical decision that needed to be made. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hal Riley:

This is the moment that we’ve become good friends with a number of the elite teams even prior to the race because we asked them a lot of questions. We’re newbies, we need help, we ask a bunch of questions, and we follow it and we stayed in touch. I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of those teams, and they have since said, “Oh, man, we were watching this show, we thought to ourselves, ‘No, Team Unbroken, no,” and they’ve all said, “You just didn’t know better. Had you done more adventure races then you would have known to make a different decision.” But in that moment in time, the decision we made was, “Well, let’s see, we can go one of two. We’re at this point and we’ve got to get to this point. This point is really dense, steep jungle.” We’d already talked as a team about how that’s something we were worried about. We wanted to stay together and that was going to be difficult to navigate and we had planned all these little techniques and tricks and ropes and things that we could use to navigate through this jungle. 

But here it was at midnight, 1am, 1:30 in the morning, somewhere in there, when we first come across this difficult navigation challenge. Do we want to try to take that on in the middle of the night? Or is there a smarter route? Is there a smarter way to go about this challenge? In retrospect, of course, you just head on, you just go for it. But at the time, what we discussed as a team, and it’s in the show, you see this discussion happening live as we’re having a discussion. We have two routes, we can go this way, which is through the jungle and then on out of the jungle continue on that difficult path and come back to the checkpoint, back to our boat where we were going to paddle some more. Or we can go the other way around, which is maybe two kilometers longer, it wasn’t a significantly longer distance around and if we go that route, we’re on a known path for three-fourths of the way so we’re on a road or on a clearly defined path so we could move quicker if we go this way. 

As the navigator, what I was saying to the team is, “We can go this way in bushwhack follow this route, or how is everyone feeling? Do you feel like maybe that’s a bad idea or a bad decision and we’re worried about any of us getting injured? Or should we take this known path where we can move more quickly and make up the distance, those two kilometers or nothing in a race that is hundreds of kilometers long?” At the time, this is the tough one where I just fully own it. I just fully own the decision that ultimately may have taken us – there were a number of things that – spoiler alert, we didn’t win the World. This is one of those moments, though it is definitely a defining moment. 

Laurie Barkman:

It really is, isn’t it? To watch it unfold, I could feel the decision was a big one and you really, as the team leader, and this is a business show, so why are we talking about this World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji on Succession Stories? There are so many lessons learned here. In our lives, day to day, or even our business lives, we have to make tough decisions. What factors into those decisions, sometimes we have incomplete information. Sometimes we have analysis paralysis, we have so much information, but ultimately, it ends up being a head and a heart. I think for you and the team, that’s where you were. You didn’t want to put anyone at risk and your goal was, as you said earlier, to finish the race. But at the same time, your goal was to make sure you came home with everybody, so is that what was weighing on you at this moment?

Hal Riley:

For sure. I didn’t feel like – and this is probably an experience – talking at the time. I didn’t feel like going this extra two kilometers was going to be a deal-breaker. I was worried about the team, I was worried about how at the pace that we were moving, I was worried about everyone being exhausted and being dehydrated, and I was worried about our nutrition. It’s hard to read that in your teammates in the dark. When we chose to go the other way, we never chose to run and so that was the moment where I realized, for me, that was the moment where I felt confirmed in my choice. Okay, we’re on a road. But we as a team are not in a place that we could run and make up that distance and so that’s when I chose for us to sleep, “Hey, how’s everyone doing? Do we need to take a power nap?” which is the famous meme of me saying power nap.

Laurie Barkman:

What does power nap mean in that context, like an hour?

Hal Riley:

I was thinking 20 minutes, two hours, somewhere in there. We ended up doing two hours. Keith and Gretchen are soldiers. To go days without sleep for them was never considered a challenge for them. “Oh, you want me to sleep for 20 minutes, and then get up and be ready to go another 100 miles? Fine, no problem. I’ve done that dozens of times.” So we chose to sleep for two hours and then get up and continue our path knowing that by the time we got to that rough part of the jungle, the sun would just be starting to come up and we could travel that section through the daylight. In retrospect, having a debrief with the team, this is one of the hard lessons that I learned as a leader.

I think I can look back in my own life and I can see how this overlaps with being an entrepreneur. I can see how this overlaps with being a creative director, I can see how this overlaps with running a business, with being a husband, with being a father. There are so many moments where I hear this same voice come to me and I just had this very visceral vivid moment that’s on public television for everyone else to experience with m. I think if we were to have the entire team on and it would have to be a bit of a therapy session, I think what the team would say is, “Hey, man, we chose to do the world’s toughest race too. Trust us to take on the difficult part of this and don’t worry about if we get hurt, we are also capable.” 

It’s my nature to take on the intuitive heart role and forge it with my fortitude to move ahead. I think that’s a lesson that I had certainly learned from the team, I was worried about them. I think in retrospect, they would have said, “Hey, if that’s gonna slow us down for the race, then let’s forge ahead, trust us to know what we signed up for.” I can again, see that as an entrepreneur. I have felt that with conversations from business partners, I’ve felt that from designers who are like, “Man, I got this. This is what I do, trust me to be good at this thing.” Even as a father, I can see these moments where I really worry about it. My son or my daughter taking on this challenge, and then I realize, my son’s 14 years old and he’s six foot one, he’s fine, he’s not a little boy anymore. 

Laurie Barkman:

If you were going to replay that decision-making, as leaders, I remember times when I was a CEO, we had to make some really tough decisions; go/no-go decisions and I was in a situation once where I literally said to the room, I designated someone as the 10th. I had heard about that technique from Israeli Mossad that they designate someone to take the different opinion on purpose whether they really truly believe it or not but that’s their job in that meeting, or that at that moment. Some people say the devil’s advocate, that’s another way to think about it; differing opinion. Why? Because you want to really make sure you’re hearing all the different points of view. Now, I may not know all the conversations, because television wasn’t showing everything now, and I know you personally, and so I know the kind of leader you are, and what a big decision this was, but was it all on your shoulders? Or were people weighing in to say, “No, we want to keep going,”? How was that dynamic? Did you have a 10th man in the room?

Hal Riley:

There was not a 10th man. It may have been because there were only four of us. I also think this is just a part of the challenge of these races, you’re sleep-deprived, you’re exhausted, you’re beyond your wits already. Everyone is on the team. What you see is what happened on the show. Where I am looking at the map, and I explain these two options, and everyone on the team looks at me, and so there’s that moment of, “Well, okay, that’s my answer, as a leader, as an eight, forge ahead person,” and maybe I didn’t pause long enough for everyone to go like, “Well, wait, what are you talking about going backwards?” Maybe I can second guess those conversations that never happened. I think that’s also one of the things that we’ve talked about that sometimes when you’re not the person who’s who’s quote, in charge, it is your role to be this 10th man, it is your role to raise your hand and say, “I have a strong opinion about this direction, or this decision that needs to be made.” Even when it’s not your decision to make, I think that’s one of the business lessons that I see as a parallel here. As leaders, we often don’t know you’re sinking, because you’re so focused on the future, that you don’t realize the water is slowly creeping up and that you really do need your teammates around. You need your partners to say, “Hey, hold on a minute, we need to solve this problem and then we’ll get to that big problem.” It takes both of you to be in connection with one another.

Laurie Barkman:

It really is true. The next part of the show got even harder because now at this point, you guys, you’ve slept a little bit and now you wake up, and you’re realizing it, because – we should explain probably – there’s a time clock, where you have to make it to the checkpoint by a certain time. That’s how the race works and so if you don’t make it to the checkpoint, you’re out. Where were you guys in relation to that next checkpoint?

Hal Riley:

We were still on the island, and not the main island, where most of the race was on the main island. They started by sailing, paddling goes out to the small island and then back to the mainland. We collected the ocean medallion. We paddled that that morning, we can be paddled to the ocean medallion. The overnight was a tropical storm that came through and just flooded the mainland, put some other teams in actual life risk danger. They shut the racecourse down on the mainland that was eventually communicated to us out on the island that the racecourse is shut down for safety, and that it’ll resume the race. Everyone can continue to move at a certain time and that chain that changed a couple of times, trying to read the weather and keep teams as safe as possible and I commend the Beco team for doing that. It must have been an impossibly difficult decision for them to stop the race but it was the right decision to make. They definitely took care of the racers in that moment, so we got up. Once the race started, we got on our boat for the ocean medallion, we paddled our hearts out to get back to the mainland, we looked at the clock for ourselves and we calculated, “Okay, we’ve got 14 hours.” When we first started the conversation, we have 15 hours to get to the checkpoint and again, you don’t know what’s next. Our maps only got us back to the mainland. You never get a set of maps that cover the entire thing. If you add a map to get to cover the whole thing, it would be a whole lot easier. So you get a set of maps to get you through for the first stage, the first round and then you end up on the mainland and we had calculated, “Okay, we have 15 hours,” and we felt okay about that. We felt, “It’s gonna be tough, but we got this.” 

The wind picked back up that next morning, it was a beautiful blue sky, we got to use our sail, we were just buzzing across there. We got to the mainland to get pick up our next set of maps and the race director flew in on a chopper to tell us, “Your race is over,” and I said to Kevin, “But we still have 14 hours or whatever is left at that time,” and he said, “You won’t make it,” and I was like, “But we could try,” and he just put his arm around me and said, “You will make it.” We learned later that the next leg was a paddleboarding leg, up a river so against the current and that would have taken – there were teams that did that section of the race in 11 hours, just that paddleboarding section up-river, and then after that was a mountain bike leg that took you to the first transition area where the time cut off was. Kevin himself told us it took him nearly seven hours to do that mountain bike section so mathematically speaking, we didn’t know it but we were out of the race long before we hit that point.

Laurie Barkman:

What did the team say? When Kevin came and said that news, what did everybody feel at that time?

Hal Riley:

Devastated. We had a lot of fight left in us. To go through challenges like that are hard. They are hard. But from my point of view, that’s nothing compared to the challenges that Gretchen and Keith had been through in their lives before. So we all knew how to draw more energy from ourselves and move forward. That’s what we had done and that’s how we were ready to move on and then to have it removed from you, it’s devastating. We certainly felt a lot of family and camaraderie as a team but you go through all the stages of grief.

Laurie Barkman:

Were people angry at you? Did you feel that they were blaming you for anything?

Hal Riley:

I don’t think people at the time – nobody was angry at me. I think, later on, it’s only natural that I was angry. I was angry and frustrated and I think it’s natural that people on the team kind of struggled and were angry that we didn’t get as far as we did. Maybe they’re frustrated that I didn’t make the right decision here or that we as a team didn’t make the right decision there. Or you can go back and second guess all the things and that’s part of the fun of it. In my opinion, that’s a part of it. Now I’m hooked on adventure racing and I’ve done four or five races since then. I’ve placed in one, a few trophies on a couple of them. I’m hooked on adventure racing now.

Laurie Barkman:

At the time, it was so many unknowns and first time, an incredible way that the team had come together. Then here you are, and you didn’t get to accomplish it. But yet it gave you so much more. It gave you some different perspectives you never would have had otherwise that you’ve taken with you obviously, in racing and how you call it back to the civilian life. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. But, you know, after the race after this kind of, I don’t know if it’s fame or people recognize you from the show, and here you are back in your everyday world, back in the business, being creative. What do you take with you from the race in your everyday life?

Hal Riley:

A whole lot of things. We might have to do a whole second episode. I’ll give you a couple. One of the things that I have worked on and had some professional help along the way, is learning how to debrief my own choices, and look back at my own actions and to be – I’m good at being really critical of myself, I’m naturally good at that. But to be honest about that critique, self-critique, with the intention of applying it as sort of a sharpening stone for the future. That’s where you start to see all of these things that overlap. Adventure racing becomes a crucible, if you will, a defining moment, where you just are provided with such clarity about who you are as an individual because you’re forced to. Any race, any challenge like that is beyond your wits. it’s beyond your natural abilities and so you have to draw from your deeper self if you will. There are a lot of lessons that come out of that experience, that apply to things and I think there are other experiences like this. Adventure racing is one of them, there are lots of experiences that give us this effect. 

The number one thing I would say is that I encourage everybody to be looking for those moments and when they come to you, take them. Take them, because it might seem a little crazy, and you might not know how to explain it to your business partners but you know, in your depth, this is the right thing to do. Do it, you’ll always be grateful that you took it even if you didn’t win. I think another one is that this idea of a disability was brought into a new light. My mom was a speech pathologist and director of special education. So I’ve spent a lot of my life around people with disabilities. Being a creative person, I probably have a number of my own disabilities. But I think this experience with Gretchen, and Keith certainly brought a new light to it for me. One of the things it brought to me was even the term disability is a term made up by the angels. Someone else made that term up, and put that label on people that were different from themselves and it’s unfortunate because it’s not a disability. It just means that person has the opportunity to have this creative ability to do a thing. When you’re able to see it in a new light like that, then, at least for myself I thrive, going to those people who have different perspectives and different opportunities. As a designer, I want to be around people who see the world totally different than I do, because that helps me make the connections that I may not have had otherwise. As a business person, it makes me want to embrace others and makes me want to specifically go – diversity, sure it’s one way to say it – but really, it’s about someone other than yourself. Of course, that has to do with race. Of course, that has to do with gender. Of course, that has to do with a number of labels. But the point is, go find someone other than yourself and empower them because you’ll always be surprised at how capable they are, and how their point of view brings so much light to what the two of you could accomplish together. That sometimes makes it so much more fun. Gretchen and the team and I laughed so many times over silly stuff that we had to figure out. Gretchen’s up on the go, climbing a cliff, and she’s kind of in between Keith and I on the right. Keith’s at the top and I’m at the bottom and Gretchen’s in the middle just laughing herself silly because she’s stuck and we were yelling at her and she doesn’t even know it. We’ve had so many moments like that where life is so much more full because we have these other experiences. There’s lessons in navigation, there’s lessons in roadmapping.

Laurie Barkman:

You’ve got a TED talk in your future. You really have learned so many things, I can just tell in how you prepared for today and really were very thoughtful about what we were going to talk about. I know that there’s still so much to learn from going through these experiences. You shared that you now race with your son.

Hal Riley:

Yeah. I took my son on his first race. We did a 24-hour race together. He was 13 at the time that we did it and six feet tall. He wasn’t a tiny little guy. He was the youngest person at that race to complete all the 24 hours and often in the adventure racing you sometimes find yourself on the course alongside another team or two in adventure racing, adventure racers know unless you’re elite, you’re at the top, you’re the first second or third team, you’re not racing another team. You’re racing the clock, you’re racing yourself, you’re racing the course, you’re racing your decision-making ability. You’re racing other things, not other people. So you often find yourself alongside other teams and it’s fun sometimes to be able to chat and have conversation. 

Well, I’m racing along, my son’s named Colt and we’re racing along together and all the adults from three separate teams are just exhausted in the middle of the night. We’re off our bikes, and we’re just pushing our bikes up this long, steep gravel climb, and here comes Colt riding down riding down the road on his bike, and he pulls up next to me, and he quietly says, “Dad,” I’m like, “How are you doing?” He was like, “I’m good,” and I was like, “You don’t have to stay with us. You can just stay with the group,” he said, “Okay,” and he pops a wheelie and just rides off.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s a 13-16 year-old body with no back injury.

Hal Riley:

That’s right. He loves it. He’s really excited about learning all the different pieces of it. The different skills from navigating and stuff. What a cool experience to be able to give that deeper gift of self reflection and confidence, that I can do this beyond crazy difficult thing that I can’t even really define at the beginning. Because there’s no definition of being able to give that gift to your kids.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s amazing. That’s amazing and I am super impressed with that challenge that you took on to say, “Hey, I’m going to do this, I’m going to train for it, I’m going to dedicate nine plus months train, work with a team, go to Fiji and try to figure this out.” Even just the takeaways and the lessons learned, I can tell it’ll always be with you. You’ll always keep learning from it and now you’re applying it to what’s next in your life and the fear that we talked about early on, I’m kind of a wimp. I can’t say I’m afraid of heights, but it’s not like I’m gonna go jump out of an airplane, and just take on all this physical risk. So when I see people doing it that are kind of like me, like you are just like any one of us, you weren’t this elite athlete, you learned how to do it. My husband has some tendencies where he’ll do some crazy sports thing, and he’s like, “Let’s just do it.” Some people have that go just do it mentality. How you apply that in life and business, in your physical challenges, I think is a good message and a good takeaway. I love to ask everyone who comes on the show, if they have a favorite quote to share, and it’s typically about entrepreneurship or leadership, and I have a suspicion that you have a few up your sleeve. Am I right?

Hal Riley:

Yeah, and they’re about all the things. I’m gonna give you two favorite quotes that overlap all of these things. We’ve talked about family and business and design and of course, they’re rooted in adventure racing. The first one is, ‘the clock is the only thing you’re really up against.’ Everything else is navigable. Lesson learned from life. You  get older, you look back, “Boy, where did the time go? Where did this white beard come from? Man, the kids are so tall,” and you look back in business sometimes and think, “Oh, my gosh, boy, it’s been how many quarters,” and you chart things and growth or challenges or opportunities. Sometimes – adventure racing is a great example. Eco-Challenge was the perfect example. The clock is really what you’re up against. All the other things, how you paddle, when you paddle, who you paddle with, what training you do, how prepared you are, all that, the choices you make, do you go, do you not go? Do you eat? Do you donate to invest here, do you invest over there? The navigation of all that stuff is really the fun of life. That’s where the smiles and the stories and the heartache and that’s the joy all comes from. The clock is the thing out there. That’s the one uncontrollable thing that you’re up against. 

Laurie Barkman:

What’s the second one?

Hal Riley:

The second one is, this is just a hard lesson learned right here. ‘Don’t pack your fears.’ You tend to in anything really, but the example in adventure racing is, you think to yourself, “When I get out, of course, I might come across the stream and my shoes might get wet. So maybe I should pack an extra pair of shoes, or I should pack an extra pair of socks or someone might get injured. So I might want to pack an extra first aid kit, or, “If it’s really dark, I don’t like the dark so I don’t want my headlight to go out. So I’m gonna pack extra batteries. And I don’t know if my headlights are waterproof. So I’ll pack an extra headlight just in case that one goes out.” You go on and on and on and on and before you know it, you’ve got a pack of 70 pounds full of stuff that you will never use and totally don’t need and the first time you cross that stream, you think to yourself, “Well, that stinks. I’m just gonna go on with wet feet.” You just learn to keep going. You can’t plan for every situation out there.

Laurie Barkman:

No, you can’t, so don’t pack your fears. We’ve talked about so much today, HaI. Really appreciate you coming on the show and it’s been so great to reunite with you and I’m so appreciative of you being so authentic and sharing your story. So thank you so much. 

Hal Riley:

Thank you, Laurie. It’s been awesome to catch up again. After all the time. I’m so stoked that you still have old Jerome Bettis and the nesting dolls over there. This has been fun. This has been good.

Laurie Barkman:

All right, well, thanks again.

Innovation, transition, growth. Easy to say but hard to do. 

If you’re an entrepreneur facing these challenges. I get it. I work with businesses from small to big for strategic planning with your team to achieve your vision. 

Visit smalldotbig.com to schedule a call with me. I’d love to connect with you. Be sure to catch the next Succession Stories episode with more insights for next generation entrepreneurs.

Subscribe to Succession Stories and if you enjoy the show, please share a rating and review. 

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Ready To Take the Next Step?

We'll guide you through the process. Schedule an initial call today.