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Nature’s lessons

Even for small businesses, nature already has most of the answers we need, if you know where to look. Millions—billions—of years of continuous improvement and survival of the fittest offer a pretty solid baseline.

In fact, the twelve fundamental principles which have been something of a cornerstone for me over the last seven or eight years are entirely based on aspects of the natural world.

This article covers some of the patterns we see in nature: waves, spirals, branches, cells and webs / nets, and how they apply to you and your business.

Wave

In nature: tides, seasons, moon phases, heartbeats, day & night.

Few businesses have consistent sales throughout the course of a year.

Some obviously so: campsites tend to do better in July than March. B2B markets often slow in August as people go on holiday (sometimes to campsites…) and December as the focus switches to Christmas. November and January are bad for bars and restaurants, as people save for December or suffer the post-festive hangover. And so on.

(November 2020 is of course catastrophic for bars and restaurants and many other businesses, but I’m trying to operate on a pretence of normality. I think we’re all becoming tired of banks and supermarkets running adverts to remind us it’s been an ‘unusual year’.)

There are other influences too, not always related to the calendar. Fashions change, as do governments, policies and laws; your personal enthusiasm and motivation for your business may wax and wane; even simple luck—good or bad—can play a part.

Many people find they work better in the early morning, afternoon or at night. Understanding the pattern of these waves is vital if you want to harness them.

Spiral

In nature: seed heads, pinecones, galaxies, tornados.

Spirals start small and grow outwards. Nothing happens overnight: if you want a thousand customers you still have to start with one, then two, five, ten and upwards.

Take the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

If you want to build something from scratch this is a reasonable growth strategy. Use each number as a milestone to fine-tune your technique, then plan a strategy to reach your next stage. Optimise and eventually automate to move through each level.

You can (and perhaps should) be relatively inefficient at first. You’ll learn faster doing thing manually instead of trying to second-guess everything from day one.

It’s fine to spend a whole day or week to get your first customer in, or your first genuinely useful subscriber to your mailing list, but by the time you add higher numbers you will need to be more efficient.

Positive growth spirals come in the form of retained (and repeat) customers. Monthly fees, annual subscriptions and repeat purchases all build over time. As well as income, word of mouth grows exponentially. 144 people telling 10 friends introduces your business to 1,440 new potential customers; higher income lets you invest in better systems; the more satisfied customers you have, the more positive online reviews you’re receive, and so it grows.

Branches

In nature: trees, rivers, evolution, even blood vessels.

One person running one business selling one product to one market in one way is a risky route to take. There are too many points of failure.

A literal example: if a tree loses a branch it survives; but a sapling has a single point of failure. Trees, businesses and even ideas are at their most vulnerable during their early stages, and if they fail to create branches as they grow.

A diverse, flexible business gives you more strength. There are many options, not all applicable to everyone:

  • Adapt what you sell to different markets or payment terms
  • Create multiple products or services which will sell to different people
  • Expand geographically: sell across your region, country or worldwide
  • Don’t rely entirely on a single supplier or member of staff
  • Gather contacts and generate customers from more than one source
  • Don’t be platform-dependent: if you’re not in control of the platform, you’re not in control of your business. For example, if you run your business through Facebook, or generate leads only from SEO, you are putting your entire business in the hands of someone else.

Branches like this allow you to sacrifice poor-performing areas, or to recover from unpredicted changes.

Cells

In nature: berries, scales, feathers, bees

There is strength in numbers: multiple small groups of contacts and customers will help you build a stronger business. And like with branches, if you lose one group it has a lower impact on the rest.

Technology makes customising experiences easy. A bookshop can send relevant suggestions to their customers, and even bring them together in reading / book groups.

Each cell in a honeycomb creates edges to connect it to multiple others: customers, businesses and suppliers. And don’t forget all those edges are where the exciting things happen. Think of the fragility of a single roof slate, but the strength and protection given by the entire roof. How can you apply that principle to your business?

Web / Net

In nature: Spiders’ webs, coral, birds’ nests, leaf veins

More connections help us increase our return, but also spread the load. People working well together can be stronger, and more flexible, than a straight hierarchy. The bigger and stronger the web, the more likely we are to catch what we need.

Webs and nets are also repairable: if something goes wrong in one part of your business it can be fixed before it damages the rest.

Perhaps the most obvious example is a network of connections you can turn to for help, even if you work alone. People to ask for advice, or support, or who might buy from you. Distribution networks also tend to be more efficient, and I suppose we shouldn’t forget the web/internet itself. Without that, you wouldn’t still be reading this.

Thanks for getting this far. Do let me know what you think, and if you want any help applying any of this to your business.

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