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Learning From Weeds: Part 1 [Entrepreneurship
Posted on September 12, 2014 @ 06:36:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a previous video blog series on the Joys of Hand Weeding (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) I enumerated the various joys that might be experienced while hand weeding. The video blog series arose because I had a 5 day hand weeding job to do in my startup vineyard and reflecting on the process made it more physically and intellectually enjoyable.

Since then I have become fascinated with learning more about weeds - their names, their life cycles, their reproductive strategies, their uses, and so on. I find myself more interested in what is growing in a ditch than in people's carefully manicured gardens and lawns; more interested in what grows wild along the fence lines, the river banks, the edges of hay fields, lawns, and gardens.

Lately I've been trying to make some of this observation, research, and thinking relevant to the concept of entrepreneurship and that will be the point of this series of blogs on learning from weeds.

Perhaps the most popular metaphor that is used for thinking about entrepreneurship is war. Many people use The Art of War as a bible for thinking about how entrepreneurs and startups should conduct themselves in the arena of business. No doubt there are many insights that can be learned by thinking about business in terms of a war metaphor, but it should be recognized that it is a metaphor and that there might be other metaphors that can offer us different insights into how to start, grow, and sustain a business.

I am generally of the view that "nature" is also a rich source of metaphors we might use to guide our thinking about how to design a business or a product and what strategies we might use to start, grow, and sustain a business. I am not the first to realize this. Indeed, the the field of biomimicry is premised on the idea that we can apply our learning about nature to the design of new and innovate products. The Wikipedia page on Biomimetics provides a sample of some new products that have been inspired by a careful study of nature:

  • Aircraft wing design and flight techniques inspired by birds and bats
  • Climbing robots, boots and tape mimicking geckos feet and their ability for adhesive reversal
  • Nanotechnology surfaces that recreate properties of shark skin
  • Treads on tires inspired by the toe pads of tree frogs
  • Self-sharpening teeth found on many animals, copied to make better cutting tools
  • Protein folding used to control material formation for self-assembled functional nanostructures
  • The light refracting properties of butterfly wings are harnessed to provide improved digital displays and everlasting colour
  • Better ceramics by copying the properties of seashells
  • Polar bear fur inspired thermal collectors and clothing
  • Mimicking the arrangement of leaves on a plant for better solar power collection
  • Studying the light refractive properties of the moth's eye to produce less reflective solar panels
  • Self-healing materials, polymers and composite materials capable of mending cracks

In Denton Ford's book, Darwinian Agriculture (2012), he asks the innocent question "Where does nature's wisdom lie?". So if we want to use nature to learn about, or provide some new insights into, entrepreneurship then what part of nature should we be looking at? Denton argues that evolution does not optimize at the ecosystem level but rather at the species level (nature "selects" at the species level) so the lessons are more likely to be found by studying individual species rather than complete ecologies. I confess to looking for possible business insights at the ecosystem level and probably will continue to do so, but agree that nature's wisdom might be located more at the species level, the level of particular types of animals and plants, like weeds.

So as entrepreneurs wanting to use nature to learn more about starting, growing, and sustaining a business, where does nature's wisdom lie? The answer that I aim to explore is that the study of weeds might provide some insights into how to start, grow, and sustain a business. I have performed some basic searching on the topic of "startups as weeds" and came up with very few results. The main result is Tim MacDougall's blog Startups ARE like weeds. Weeds are good. Here he cites a passage from The Lean Enterprise:

Fred Wilson, founder of Union Square Ventures, says he likes to invest in startups that ‘grow like weeds.’ Why? A weed doesn’t need carefully prepared soil, regular watering, or full sunlight. It busts open its seed, sends down roots, and pushes upward without the need for a controlled environment. Likewise, ventures built according to lean startup principles don’t require the certainty of ideal conditions to thrive. They thrive in conditions of extreme uncertainty – the very conditions that bring the highest returns on investment

I encourage you to read the full blog for a few other observations about how startups are like weeds.

While I think these are some interesting observations, the blog uses a fairly superficial understanding of weeds to generate some insights into entrepreneurship. If we really want to use weeds as a starting point for where nature's wisdom lies vis a vis startups, then I think we should get into the nuts and bolts of how weeds actually work to see if there is more insight to be had by having a more sophisticated knowledge of what a weed is and how it works.

Towards that end I have done a literature search on some of the best books that examine weeds in more detail. I'll be sharing some of these references and ideas with you in the coming blogs. I'll finish this blog by citing one of the books that I'm currently reading called, appropriately enough, Weeds (2010), by Richard Mabey.

The very concept of what a weed is is deeply problematic. It is probably impossible to define what they are using a botanical or ecological definition. We might have more success if we look at a behavioral quality that they have in common:

Weeds thrive in the company of humans. They aren't parasites, because they can exist without us, but we are their natural ecological partners, the species alongside which they do best. They relish the things we do to the soil: clearing forests, digging, farming, dumping nutrient-rich rubbish. They flourish in arable fields, battlefields, parking lots, herbaceous borders. They exploit our transport systems, our cooking adventures, our obsession with packaging. Above all they use us when we stir the world up, disrupt its settled patterns. (Weeds, p. 12)

So just as Pogo famously said "We have met the enemy and he is us", we can also say "We have met the weed and he is us". The existence and concept of a weed does not exist without us. To drive this point home, here is one more delightful passage from Maybe's book:

The development of cultivation was perhaps the single most crucial event in forming our modern notions of nature. From that point on the natural world could be divided into two conceptually different camps: those organisms contained, managed and bred for the benefit of humans, and those which are 'wild', continuing to live in their own territories on, more or less, their own terms. Weeds occur when this tidy compartmentalization breaks down. The wild gatecrashes our civilized domains, and the domesticated escapes and runs riot. Weeds vividly demonstrate that natural life - the course of evolution itself - refuses to be constrained by our cultural concepts. In so doing they make us look closely at the very idea of a divided creation. (Weeds, p. 21)

So where does nature's wisdom lie for the entrepreneur? If the answer is "weeds" then the "divided creation" that is assumed in the question needs to be examined. The wisdom of weeds is a story that is as much about us as it is about nature per se. That weeds thrive in the company of humans is perhaps more reason to regard them as capable of telling us something useful about starting, growing, and sustaining a business.

Until next week, have fun observing and pondering what entrepreneurial wisdom lies in weeds around you.

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