my hero (contd…) business secrets

A couple of days ago I wrote about my hero, Luther Burbank. Burbank had some techniques in running is business. He apparently was a rather modest person, which is incongruent with another claim I read somewhere that he was the most photographed man of his age. Here’s a list of the nine steps he took for producing new kinds of plants. The astute might pick up some business secrets there as well:

First, Burbank carried the pollen from one flower to another. There weren’t just two flowers involved. He crossed many, many blossoms, and as a result he ended up with thousands of seeds. The plants which were crossed in this way were carefully marked and documented. Here’s a business hint: create openings for as many opportunities as possible. Think fertility.

Second, he harvested the seeds and carefully cleaned the dross away. What he ended up with was clean seeds capable of producing new varieties. The business message: obvious – clean away the unwanted clutter so you can see what you’re doing. My old workmate, Les, used to say, “Let the dog see the rabbit”. It’s the same sort of message. Clarify, simplify – but keep as many good options open as you can.

Third. He planted the seeds in shallow boxes called ‘flats’. Burbank used a common horticultural technique – you get seeds of a species (the same type) and plant them en masse. Not every seed you plant will germinate. They often germinate unevenly. Business ideas are the same. Some never germinate, some germinate slowly. Some rush into life and die that same afternoon. Key point: they have to be planted in order to grow. Not many seeds sprout in the packet. Not many good ideas turn into business once the hot air and alcohol evaporate… take some action.

Fourth, Burbank would carefully watch the flats, and as each seed sprouted he’d examine it closely. Some plants grow fast and strong, others are not as vigorous. The smart message is to recognise the best plants early. It takes the same amount of water and fertiliser to raise a second class plant as it does to raise a superb specimen.

Fifth. You’ve probably figured it out already. Burbank would immediately destroy plants that showed anything undesirable. Many plants were destroyed before they were transplanted from the flats. There’s a big message would business here – having potted up thousands of plants from flats myself, I can assure you it is work, and uses up potting mix, fertiliser, pots – but more importantly, uses up time. Everything else can be recycled, but time cannot be recovered. Burbank would only invest time and effort into plants that had the best looking potential.

Many people hang on to businesses and ideas long after it’s clear they should be recycled. Not the people, tempting thought that might be, the businesses and ideas. The reason is the same as if Burbank had only one plant. He would’ve made every possible effort to keep it going – of course. But, his approach was to generate thousands of plants, and then pick the best. In an abundant environment there’s no point in having a scarcity mind set.

Sixth, once the flawed plants were eliminated, Burbank would plant the the seedlings into test beds. They were given more space, the best care and … daily scrutiny. Paying attention to business is a daily activity. Find the best ways of doing business and eliminate methods that don’t produce the best results. I’ve worked in places where the chief designer was the boss’s wife, no matter what investment had been made in design. This is not in itself a bad thing, if the husband or wife (as in this case) has a gift or talent for design. But there’s nothing more stupid than using friends and family because there’s a sense of obligation rather than getting the best skills available.

Seventh, if Burbank discovered some flaw in the developing plant they were culled. Culled. This means destroyed. It doesn’t mean sell at a discount, and flood the market with your substandard service or product. It means holding off releasing your software until you’ve nailed those undocumented features. I know there are vast numbers of people having made galactic numbers of money producing shite software (and other products) but this doesn’t make it right. Making it right is right.

So, Burbank started with hundreds of thousands of seeds, tens of thousands of seedlings, thousands of plants, and so on, but he wasted no space or time growing on those plants which promised to be worthless. The other subtle message here is, Burbank started with an ideal in mind – bigger, bolder, brighter, better, more vigorous, more transportable, more suitable for the customer. He didn’t create unnecessary clip on crap – like your cellphone that you only use five or six features on…

Eight. The best plants were crossed again, and the best seeds from the best plants were saved again, and the process started again. Thousands of seeds were generated and eventually, millions of plants were germinated, evaluated, and discarded until the ultimate was achieved. Your very best business idea is going out of date right now. In 24 hours time the weather has changed and so has the business climate. This is why it is hard for businesses to be handed down from generation to generation. Burbank’s own business did not survive him. You have to continue to develop your business every moment of every day.

Ninth. This kind of process outlined so far works for producing ornamentals, houseplants, vegetables and the like. In the case of fruit trees a further process was required. When a new fruit tree had grown from a seed and reached a large enough size, a bud, or twig was removed and grafted on to an older tree. Usually this means the new variety will bear fruit in following or second year following. In the case of avocados, as an example, you can allow seven to ten years for a seedling to mature sufficiently to bear fruit – if they do at all. A grafted tree will produce in two to five years. From a business perspective this suggests that to get your business producing faster having a good investor(s), a good mentor and a selection of good fertilisers (see also accountants and lawyers) – (just kidding, guys, I love you, you know I do) will make all the difference.

The nine steps above have been reflected from ‘Luther Burbank: Plant Magician’ by John Y Beaty (1954) Julian Messner Inc, New York. The business ideas are my own. Chauncey Gardiner calls me for advice. I give it to him for free. For all others, rates are available.

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