Lichen as a business strategy

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There are few things that I remember well from high school biology.  For some  reason, I have always remembered the lesson covering lichen:

"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:

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?

  1. 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!)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

How could you use the lichen business model to your advantage?

9 Responses to “Lichen as a business strategy”

  1. […] post in this series, I’ll talk about how to find your allies. In the meantime, I recommend Pam Slim’s wise words on lichen. And: you should definitely sign up for my newsletter – the next issue will be all about […]

  2. Interesting article. Nice blog, by the way.

  3. Ram's says:

    This is a good article the business strategy is more useful to people a business strategy as I was sitting in a packed International House of Pancakes. Who are interesting visit the site business strategy

  4. This week we launched what we think is a fresh example of your well-described Lichen Theory )thanks Lisa Solomon for the SmartPartnering reference in the earlier comment).

    At SavvyHer people get rewarded with gifts each month when members voted their tip among the ten most popular.

  5. Lisa Solomon says:

    Your lichen theory sounds a lot like what Kare Anderson calls SmartPartnering. Kare takes an in-depth look at this concept in her excellent book “SmartPartnering: How to Attract and Delight More Consumers While Spending Less.” I think it’s a must-read for entrepreneurs. You can find the book, as well as other helpful information, at

  6. Anonymous says:

    The word you’re after is “symbiote” – like a parasite, only mututally beneficial and generally non-destructive.

    I’m sure a biologist could give plenty of examples. 😉

    Also for the “find a host offering everything but your own speciality” plan, you need to make sure that the host is better off partnering with you instead of just adding that thing to their own offerings. Otherwise you’ll lose you business they day they realise they can offer the same thing themselves and make more money.

  7. I just barely commented on your networking post Pam, but this article was relevant to the small business I work for as well. I work at a 6 person PR firm in Provo Utah. We specialize in small to medium sized development, and I recently was assigned the NBD job. Doing PR for a PR firm is pretty interesting. I believe that PR people are entrepreneurs every day, even if they have had the same job for 20 years. We are always being required to prove our ROI with numbers, and facts. I am not complaining about that though, I have a Business minor, I realize the importance. In this fast paced world of social networking and social media, each profession is becoming more and more unstable, as the entrepreneurs take over. I enjoy it. It’s like being skizophrenic every day and being paid for it.

  8. John Dodds says:

    Cast where the fish are – not where the baitshop is.

  9. Pete Aldin says:

    What a wonderful combo of right- & left-brain thinking. This is an incredibly helpful post for me at the beginning of my 2nd year in business. And this is a refreshingly different approach from the people who sell photos and roses in restaurants.

    Thanks Pamela.