Cliff Hodges: Forging his own path

Cliff bow hunting

Cliff Hodges is a Wilderness Survival Instructor, Outdoor Adventure Guide, and Environmental Advocate. He is the Founder & CEO of Adventure Out, California’s largest outdoor school and guide service, and former host of the hit TV show from the National Geographic Channel, Remote Survival. Cliff holds Bachelors and Masters Degrees from MIT; he is an accomplished entrepreneur and outdoor guide; traveling the world to climb mountains, surf big waves, study with indigenous tribes, and lead groups of clients ranging from school groups to corporate executives to tap in to their true potential through wilderness adventures. Hodges also sits on the board for several nonprofit organizations and is the founder and former owner of CrossFit West and CrossFit Watsonville. Hodges has been featured in international publications such as Outside Magazine and Popular Mechanics, and also starred as a survival instructor on MTV’s television show MADE in 2010.

What drove you to become an outdoor entrepreneur?

More than anything, I wanted to do something I was passionate about. I wanted to wake up and go to work each day and be utterly excited about what I do, as well as feel like it was meaningful. I help people fall back in love with nature – what could be cooler than that?

Was it difficult leaving your corporate job? I imagine it was a very posh gig.

To be perfectly honest, no, it wasn’t. I was either lucky enough, or smart enough (maybe both) to make the decision to become self-employed at a young age (24 to be exact). I didn’t have a family, mortgage, or anything like that to worry about. I started with nothing, so I figured the worst-case-scenario would be to end up right back there in the same place, with nothing.

Can you tell us about the first 12 months of your entrepreneurship? What was the most unexpected and difficult challenge? How did you get going?

That’s a tough one – it was over 12 years ago now! …sometimes I can’t even believe I’ve been an adult for 12 years… But I would say the most difficult part in the beginning was to learn good work habits. With no office to go to, no co-workers, no boss, there were really none of those external forces to make me sit down and do work. I think it’s extremely important for young entrepreneurs to figure out how to create time and space in their daily routine for good solid work output.

What part of your business are you most proud of?

In addition to just the fact that we’ve made it this far, worked with tens-of-thousands of people, and grown so much, I am actually most proud of our Guide Training & Affiliation program. I started this about 1.5-2 years ago – with the day-to-day operation of Adventure Out being well handled by my employees, I launched this program to help other people that are interested in going down a similar path that I did. In short: I’ve taken our inner workings open-source. I offer a 2-day workshop for people to come spend the weekend with me, at my property in the Santa Cruz Mountains and learn about the nuts and bolts of how to start and operate your own outdoor business. Many of the attendees choose to then affiliate with us and license the Adventure Out brand to run their own program elsewhere. I get to share my experience, and through all of these young entrepreneurs, I get to experience the start-up phase all over again (without the stress! Haha).

Cliff Hodges

As a survival instructor, you must see a lot of people encountering completely foreign challenges. What do you think is the standout character that allows some people to excel while others don't?

I would say people that are “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. In the realm of survival/outdoor education, it’s the people that can stick to an activity or project even though it’s 100 degrees out and they’re sweating, or it’s snowing and the sun is going down. People that can control that inner voice that might be saying “this is uncomfortable, lets quit” and can push that physical discomfort out of their mind are always so successful. And I think it really applies to so many other parts of life – at the core, it is the ability to push through adversity.

Do you think your engineering background helps you excel in your current profession? If so, how?

Absolutely. A degree in engineering is a degree in problem solving, it’s as simple as that. I still don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as graduating from MIT. Without intending to sound cavalier about it: life has just been easier after that. My engineering degree taught me how to look at entire systems, how to troubleshoot, and how to break things down in to smaller pieces. It’s an invaluable skillset in any realm – business, technology, and even in the outdoors.

How do you manage stress?

I go surfing. There’s nothing in my life that forces me to be more present than the ocean. The rhythm and flow of it, the peace and solitude, and when it’s big, even the thrill/adrenaline part of it. It all helps me remove myself from daily stresses of work, employees, running a business, etc and just be there in the moment with the ocean.

What is one trait that you most respect in people and why?

Generosity. I admit this is one that took me a while to get. When I was younger I don’t think I was great at giving. Now it’s my favorite thing to do. Whether it’s are large corporate donations we do every year to environmental nonprofits, or something as simple as buying dinner for a friend. Life got a lot more fun when I realized that money and “things” are a lot more fun to share and give-away than to just keep for yourself.

What are you most afraid of?

Long interviews.

Got ya. I'll wrap it up with just one more question. What is one thing you will not compromise on?

My time. When I was 18, a good family friend told me “time is our only true asset”. If I ever feel like I’m just trading my time for money, it’s time to find a new career.


Cliff Hodges