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Learning From Weeds: Part 5 [Entrepreneurship
Posted on October 1, 2014 @ 05:24:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In todays blog on Learning From Weeds (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) I want to examine a mimicry strategy that is common among weeds that compete with grain crops. The mimicry strategy has been used successfully in business and is facilitated by the internet and globalization.

When talking about the mimicry strategy there are three agents involved - the mimic, the model, and the dupe. The mimic attempts to confuse the dupe into believing that it is the model. In the case of weeds, a weed might mimic the appearance of a desired crop plant and thereby dupe the weeder into not weeding it out. Another common way a weed dupes the weeder is mechanically by producing seeds that are similar in size and shape to the seeds that the crop plant produces. This makes it difficult to separate the crop seeds from the weed seeds and chaff during the winnowing process resulting in a situation where the weed seeds are mixed in with crop seeds which get planted out again in the field.

Mimicry is a common strategy for weeds appearing in grain crops (wheat, rye, corn, rice, barely, oats, sorghum) which are all domesticated grasses of one type or another. Often a grain crop achieved that status of being cultivated as a result of mimicry. Rye, for example, became difficult to distinguish by eye and by winnow from wheat and eventually became a cultivated crop in its own right. Cheat grass is a mimic of rye and perhaps with further evolution will become a cultivated crop as well. A similar story can be told for oats which was a mimic of barley and which eventually became a crop in its own right.

It is important to note that the mimic does not completely mimic the model and it is often these small differences that lead to its cultivation as a crop. Rye and oats, for example, can survive in conditions that wheat and barley find challenging so offer good substitutions for these crops under these conditions.

So another lesson that weeds can teach us is the importance of mimicry as a strategy for starting, growing, and maintaining a business. This is an important lesson because often when we discuss entrepreneurship we equate it with pioneering innovation. It is true that innovation can be a very profitable strategy, but it can also be a very risky strategy and oftentimes it is those who copy the product or service, with some new twist, that end up dominating in the marketplace or at least making a home for themselves alongside the pioneer in the marketplace.

Isaac Wanasika and Suzanne L. Conner have written an interesting and useful article called When is Imitation the Best Strategy? (2011) that delves into some of the nuances of mimicry as a business strategy. The importance of mimicry as a strategy in biological contexts can be appreciated by reading about all the different forms of mimicry in the Wikipedia page on Mimicry (see Vavilovian mimicry in particular). Finally, to learn more about mimicry in grain crops, you can read chapter 2 of My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany (1988) by Sara Stein. Chapter 2 is called "Wheat and Tares Sown Together". This is a biblical reference and refers to ryegrass, aka Tares, being planted alongside Wheat because Tares was a good mimic of Wheat in its early growth habit.

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