"Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms made up from members of as many as three kingdoms. The dominant partner is a fungus. Fungi are incapable of making their own food. They usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers." (source: lichen.com.)
I was struck by the topic of lichen as a business strategy as I was sitting in a packed International House of Pancakes (IHOP) this past Sunday morning. I was there with my own family and some friends, and between us there were 4 small children.
I saw a jovial man at the next table with large suspenders who was making balloon creatures for the kids at the table. He would walk around from packed table to packed table, making a sale at virtually every stop that had children. Watching him effortlessly market his services, it struck me:
This man has chosen a lichen business model! He has selected the perfect environment to symbiotically sell his services. The restaurant was so full that waiters took awhile to get to each table. It took some time to get food. Given unstructured time to wait, what do most small children do? Either terrorize their parents, try to run screaming through the room, eat catsup, take the top off the salt shaker, or a thousand other disruptive things. (Those were just what my 20-month old son did in 15 minutes.) What is the perfect antidote? Colorful, fancy balloon creatures!
Just imagine how much work he would have to do to sell his balloon creatures in a busy mall or park. If he was lucky, he would get one out of 20 people interested in what he was selling. That would waste his time, money and effort.
So how can you learn from wise IHOP balloon man and find your own lichen business model?
- Look for businesses that are serving your target market with everything but what YOU offer. If you are a prosperity coach, look for a multi-faceted financial planning company that could offer your coaching services to its clients. If you are a massage therapist, look for places where people have to sit down and wait a long time. (If the government would participate, we could have a whole host of businesses just to support the Department of Motor Vehicles! Stress and anger management consultants, therapists and psychologists. And that is just for the employees!)
- Make sure that you are enhancing the experience of your "host" business, not competing with it. If you are looking to sell your homemade jewelry in a crafts store, you may be seen as competition, not a friendly entrepreneurial parasite (if that is not an oxymoron).
- Check out the viability of the business you want to partner with. Do they only have seasonal crowds? How is their market changing? If it is an online environment, do they have a steady base of users and a good plan to continue growing? If you are going to put effort into developing the partnership, you should make sure it has a chance of surviving more than a few months.
- Aim for exclusivity through a good agreement. If all of a sudden IHOP allowed jugglers, clowns and magicians into their restaurants, the balloon man would see his business rapidly decline. See if you can negotiate a business agreement that ensures you are one of the only, or few, lichen partners.
- Subvert pure biology and make sure you offer something to your host in return. In the scientific world of lichen, "parasites" can suck life from the hosts without giving anything tangible in return. This will most likely not fly in the human business world. Make sure you clearly articulate how your making money from your host’s vast and eager market of customers will benefit them as well.
If you begin to really analyze lichen behavior, there are some less than glamourous attributes. Then again, is there a better description of an entrepreneur?
"Lichens grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They are pioneers on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil , dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought." (source: lichen.com)
How could you use the lichen business model to your advantage?