This year I cultivated a community garden plot in Boulder, CO, for the first time. I had previously never gardened before, and this experience has been an immensely rewarding one due to both the bounty of fresh homegrown veggies that have come from it as well as other less-tangible rewards reaped. I made a lot of mistakes and have learned a lot from this process and those who have helped me through it. As the summer growing season winds down, I have noticed striking parallels between gardening and startup life. Many garden-variety lessons are very applicable to working at startup. Here are a few of them.
Lesson: You may be unwittingly cultivating a weed.
There were two big plants growing in the east side of my plot I convinced myself were eggplants. I tenderly watered them, weeded around them, and ensured they got plenty of light. Once the “other” eggplants in the west side of my plot starting bearing real eggplants, while the east side eggplants still remained barren, I asked a knowledgeable fellow gardener about the situation. My fellow gardener politely informed me that I had been spending significant time and resources on…weeds! I felt very silly. I didn’t know these were weeds when I so gingerly cared for them. And once I learned the truth, I had no choice but to pull them. Startup leaders: recognize that you may be putting a ton of energy towards a project, campaign or other resource you think is going to yield a return, only to realize down the line you have been growing a weed (or, in my case, two of them). The key is to remove that weed as soon as you find it; don’t let sunk costs of the various investments you have made in keeping this weed-in-disguise alive hold you back from removing it quickly once you see it for what it really is.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
I don’t think any of my plants would have grown without the help of incredibly knowledgeable and generous gardener friends. The same is true for startups: finding mentors (board members, dedicated accelerator mentors, industry peers, and other entrepreneurs) along the journey is crucial for success. Asking for help all the time is key–and ideally, you’ll help others with what you’ve learned, too.
Lesson: Unfortunately, many weeds are hard to identify until they are big.
Many weeds, when small, look just like the things you are consciously trying to grow. Or, they are just too small to notice. Is that a kale sprout or a vine weed that’s going to one day grow to suck the life out of your melon plant? Is that actually an insidious pocket of “bro” culture happening in your engineering department masquerading as playfulness? Is it going to grow into a full-blown problem? Pay close attention to things that may or may not be weeds, and then address them out at the root as soon as you realize what they are.
Lesson: Weeds are much harder to pull once they are mature.
Another reason to address potential problems at your company as soon as possible: once weeds have grown, they’ve got much deeper roots and are that much harder to remove. Suddenly, what would have been an easy fix two quarters ago now becomes a much bigger (and usually more expensive) problem. Fix problems early to save a lot of pain.
Lesson: Place many bets, then ramp on what is working and jettison what is not.
I planted a lot of vegetables that did great this season—and a few that did not do so well. The melon plant only made one tiny, tasteless melon and then shriveled into a brown heap. But the cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, and squash have done brilliantly. So I focused on those and tried not to worry about what did not work. I made sure to pull out the melon plant when it turned brown and clearly wasn’t working rather than let it take any more nutrients from the garden.
Startup growth is all about experimentation. You are placing many bets across many channels, and then need to ramp on what works well, and then cut the resources from what is not working.
Lesson: Recognize when something isn’t working anymore—and be willing to move on.
Related to the previous lesson, sometimes something is working well for a while, and then one day no longer does. I harvested lettuce from the same plants for much of the season. I cut back the lettuce leaves, and then, miraculously, they would grow back where the stumps were. Then one day, a fellow gardener came over to my plot and said, “did you know your lettuce has bolted? You won’t get any leaves from it at this point.” I had not realized this, but once I discovered it, I felt a little hesitant; was it really time to let these go? A flood of memories of the bounty from the summer came back. I had to face a fundamental truth about gardening and startups: sometimes things work amazingly and then, when the season or other conditions change, no longer do. So I pulled out those bolted lettuce plants and composted them. Lesson learned. What at your startup once was working but now longer is? Be willing to do what Ben Horowitz calls “the hard thing about hard things” and move on.
Lesson: Planning ahead is everything.
The importance of this cannot be overstated: you really need to plan ahead for a garden or a startup to function properly. On a startup marketing team, for instance, annual planning ensures the maximum number of sales-qualified leads are created by budgeting and allocating the right amount of resources. By planning what goes where in your garden, you can ensure the right plants work together, and know ahead of time when things will grow.
Lesson: Control what you can and let go of what you cannot.
You can put a fence up for deer. You can cover the leaves of your tomato plants with diatomaceous earth to prevent aphid attack. You can water and weed diligently and properly cage your tomatoes. And sometimes, though you’re certain you’ve done everything you can to create the right conditions for growth—you still lose. It happens. Control what you can, move on from what you can’t.
Lesson: Assemble a great team and embrace community.
It may come as no surprise that community is the key to a community garden. I travel for work sometimes, and throughout the growing season have gone away for multi-week stretches, leaving my sweet garden behind. Luckily, I have great relationships with fellow gardeners—in particular, my amazing neighbor Rachel, whose plot is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Rachel helps keep my garden alive (and thriving) when I’m not there. And the times when Rachel has been out of town, I have been honored to help care for her beautiful plants, too. Our community garden team has taught me so much about how to care for the plants I’m growing. We share our knowledge and produce with each other, and help weed and water each other’s plots.
Startup leaders need to know that their team can back them up in case of absence or absence of attention. They also need to develop superb relationships with other companies, including their partners and customers, but also other companies within the ecosystem. Cultivate startup community and adopt what Brad Feld calls a “give first” mentality. That means watering other people’s plants without expecting them to do the same for you–knowing full well one day it all comes back around.
Lesson: Take pleasure in the process.
Many mundane garden activities have become a pleasure. I now look forward to removing weeds (obstacles), spending time watering (investing energy and resources), and deciding which squash blossoms to harvest when in order to maximize a few mature squash returns from the plant (analyzing the landscape and taking appropriate action). These basic tasks all bring me a lot of satisfaction. As startup leaders, we participate in and also get to watch our proverbial gardens grow—with pride. It is not always a joyful experience to be “in the weeds” of a startup, but there can be a lot of satisfaction gleaned from the effort. Where can you take pleasure in the process of running a startup?
Lesson: Share the glory
Arguably the best part about gardening is getting to share the bounty with those around you. Great leaders acknowledge how the efforts of their teams contribute to the wins. What are some fruits of your startup labor that you can share with your team, your customers, your partners, and your community?
It is important to note that I have been growing the garden for fun and supplemental food rather than for subsistence. Things may have been different if I had been counting on the veggies to feed me and/or my family and it hadn’t worked out. Many founders put everything into their companies, and it’s hard to cut losses when everything is riding on your company succeeding. I’d be really curious to hear if this metaphor resonates with others in the startup world. Thank you for reading! Sarah