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Learning From Weeds: Part 2 [Entrepreneurship
Posted on September 15, 2014 @ 05:41:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog on Learning From Weeds: Part 1, I announced my intention to explore whether the study of weeds might be useful in providing insights into how to start, grow, and sustain a business. I also began examining how we might go about defining what a weed is and suggested that any attempt at a scientific defination would have to take into account our own biases and interests in categorizing one type of vegations as good, and another type as bad, or a weed.

One appoach to defining what a weed is involves enumerating the properties that the "ideal" weed exhibits. The ideal weed is a super weed that has all of the invasive powers that a weed might possess. If an actual weed possessed all these powers, then that would be a very difficult weed to compete against or get rid off. So weeds can be judged as more or less weedy in proportion to how many of these weedy properties they possess.

So what are the properties of an "ideal" weed. This is the point at which I need to introduce another reference I am using to understand weed dynamics. One of the best academic treatments on weeds is The Ecology of Weeds and InvasivePlants (2007, 3rd Edition) by Steven Radosovish, Jodie Holt, and Claudio Ghersa.

I'm making my way slowly through this academic text. It is a slow process to read for awhile and then stop and think about how thes ideas might relate to starting, growing, and sustaining a business. Sometimes the connections are easy to come up with, sometimes it is frustrating and the connections seem a bit forced. Luckily, what I am learning about weeds from this book is very interesting and agronomically useful to know so that is helping to keep this project moving ahead.

I digress.

An important paper cited in this book is by H.G Baker who wrote an academic article in 1974 called "The evolution of weeds". Here he came up list called the Ideal Characteristics of Weeds. It is reproduced below:

  • Germination requirments fulfilled in many environments.
  • Discontinuous germination (internally controlled) and great longevity of seed.
  • Rapid growth through vegetative phase to flowering.
  • Continuous seed production for as long as growing conditions permit.
  • Self-compatibility but not complete autogamy or opomixis.
  • Cross-pollination, when it comes, by unspecialized visitors or wind.
  • Very high seed output in favorable environmental circumstances.
  • Production fo some seed in a wide range of environmental conditions; tolerance and plasticity.
  • Adaptations for short-distance dispersal and long-distance dispersal.
  • If perrenial, vigorous vegetative reproduction or regeneration from fragments.
  • If perrenial, brittleness, so as not to be drown from the ground easily.
  • Ability to complete interspecifically by special means (rosettes, choking growth, allelochemicals).

So the game here is to look for business analogues for each of the terms used here.

For example, "Germination requirements fullfilled in many environments" might mean that the establishment and growth of a business depends upon how many niches the business can sell their product or service into. If the product or service only has a small market that it can serve, then that business can only get so big. So when examining the growth potential of a business, you might judge that potential by how big a market the product or service and appeal to (germination requirements fullfilled in many environments). This may not be an earth shattering insight, but it might suggest that weeds and businesses are sufficiently similiar in their dynamics that one model system (Model 1 = Weeds) might be mapped onto another model system (Model 2 = Business). This facilitates inductive reasoning about the mapped to system (Model 2 = Business).

The second characteristic of an Ideal weed is "Discontinuous germination (internally controlled) and great longevity of seed". This refers to the concept of a "seed bank" that weeds produce around themselves and further afield by wind or pollination. The seedbank allows a field to be plowed year after year with no evidence of the weed, only to have it appear on the n+1 year when you did not plow. The seed lays dormant in the seedbank until conditions are right for it to emerge again. So what is the analogue of a seedbank in business? Perhaps it is the idea that, if you want to grow like a weed, you always have deals in the pipeline, some of which are for todays needs and requirements, and some of which are for the future growth of the company. These seeds of future growth might serve to sustain your business in the future, or, if you maintain a constant number of deals over time the future deals should overlap with current deals and lead to company growth during that time period when your future deals mature.

Would you agree that these weeds are starting to look pretty clever? It is not just a fluke that they appear on your lawn. Behind the curtain there are clever strategies and adaptations that are causing them to appear on your lawn. Likewise, to start, grow, and sustain a business we need to have some clever strategies and adaptations similiar to those that a weed posesses.

The third characteristic of an ideal weed is "Rapid growth, through vegetative phase to flowering". So a weed progresses through several stages as it emerges from the dirt as a small green plant to the stage when it is, say, 4 feet tall and putting out large clusters of seed and pollen bearing inflorescences (in late summer). The "vegetative" stage consists of the period when the green plant does not have colorful flowers on it. It can also include the stages when the flowers are developing but the seed is not mature so the full inflorescence is not in display. So a business that is experiencing rapid vegetative growth is experiencing rapid development prior to the point at which they announce their intentions to launch; in other words, they put on their full inflorescence display. If you don't have rapid development during this period you often fail because your burn rate can only sustain a short period of time. So, to achieve maximal growth potential you need to go from startup to finished product in a short period of time and then have a nice showy display that attracts alot of pollinators or interest more generally.

I could go down this list of ideal characteristics of weeds and make up more stories about how the strategies that weeds use might be interpreted in a business context, but this blog is too long already so I will leave that as an exercise for you to think about and for me to potentially address in a future blog.

In conclusion, weeds are complex and sophisticated in how they operate. If we show some respect for their complexity and sophistication then we might open ourselves up to learning from weeds. One concrete way to learn from weeds it to take the list of ideal weed characteristics provided and, once you understand how these claims work in the weed world, ask yourself how that understanding might translate into how to start, grow, or sustain a business. The ideal characteristics of weeds, though not referring to any specific weed, are neverthess useful when it comes to thinking about weed dynamics, and, by extension, how successful businesses might work.

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