The toughest fire to start

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Fire in the fireplace

The toughest fire I ever remember having to start was when I was on a Boy Scout campout in February. One of the challenges issued to scouts during that campout was the one-match fire: you’re given exactly one match to start a fire, and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t earn whatever merit badge that you were competing for. On top of that, if you don’t get the fire started, you don’t get to cook dinner, either. Picture this: it’s February. There are 7 inches of snow on the ground, and anything flammable is covered and imbued with frost. It’s also 15 degrees out, and you’re 11 years old trying to start a fire to cook on and stay warm by in two hours before it gets dark.

Starting a fire requires three things: heat, air, and fuel. Air was no problem, even if it was frost-laden. Heat was a single match, and all the fuel was wet. Oh, and we couldn’t cheat, or I would have just poured a gallon of gasoline on the wood and called it a day (and a fireball).

The trick with starting a fire under those conditions is careful preparation. You have to find some dry tinder and kindling (deadwood still on trees), break it off, and then shave it with your pocketknife until you have what looks like a loofah made of wood shavings. Around that you put twigs and smaller branches in a sort of tent shape, then larger branches around that. When you’re done, you have what looks almost like an American Indian lodge. It’s okay for the outer layers of the wood tent to be wet – as long as the first few layers are dry wood, the rest will dry over time from the heat.

I made my pile of shavings eventually. Did I mention it was 15 degrees out? Shaving wood with a small penknife when it’s cold enough to numb your fingers in minutes is painful, but the alternative is worse: if you don’t make enough shavings, the twigs and kindling won’t warm up enough to catch. I couldn’t make a big pile either, because I was running out of time and the sun was setting.

Finally, I had my wood tent set up. I checked the time – about 15 minutes to sunset. It was now or never – and if my preparation wasn’t sufficient, I was going to be very cold and very hungry that night. I grabbed the one match I was allowed from the scout master and lit it as close to the wood shavings as possible. Smoke, some initial sparks, and then finally a flame. The wood caught fire, and I could have a warm dinner that night.

There’s a fine balance between rushing to get the job done before the deadline and doing it well enough that your single match will catch fire. Likewise, in digital marketing, there’s a fine balance between building your base (audience) and making your offer, lighting the match. Like the campfire, for any given campaign, you get only one match, one shot to start a fire or go hungry. Most marketers these days err on the side of rushing to light the match with too little preparation, and it’s no wonder that they and their sales teams are going to bed with empty stomachs and cold feet.

Do your preparation work as best as you can given your time constraints, and you’ll go hungry a lot less often.

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3 responses to “The toughest fire to start”

  1. Chris, just wanted to say I love the in-depth storytelling approach… Look forward to more!  

  2. Glad “story” is one of your 2012 words. Your posts are going to get a lot more meaningful to even more people very soon.

  3. Hi Chris! I would like to read your stories regularly as there are lot of points involved. So, it would be more effective if explained in some more brief manner.

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