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People As Plants: How To Cultivate Your Startup Garden

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What can entrepreneurs learn from gardening?

Entrepreneurs often refer to their companies as their “babies”, which effectively captures the founders’ level of devotion to the health of their businesses; however it isn’t that helpful when it comes to making decisions, especially the risky ones associated with startups. I prefer to think of a startup as a garden that needs to be properly cultivated to achieve success. While everyone’s garden (and by extension, startup) is different, a few rules of green thumb apply to all of them.

Prepare the soil

Every good gardener knows that the secret to a healthy garden is its soil. Even the best seeds yield mediocre results if they’re planted in an infertile plot. Your startup’s culture/organizational structure is the soil in which employees grow. A dysfunctional culture or oppressive hierarchy undermines employee motivation, discourages entrepreneurial spirit, and stifles professional development. A founder must work to create an environment where employees have the necessary resources for their jobs and the encouragement to aim high.

 

Sow the seeds

Hire people who’ll grow with the company and give them the room to do so. A serious gardener has a plan and doesn’t plant a garden only to uproot it a few months later; she cultivates her existing plants, helping them to grow into centerpieces of her ever-expanding garden rather than temporary window-dressings.

Hiring and firing is expensive and emotionally difficult, especially at startups where cash is often tight and employees (hopefully) work closely with one another. Think of hiring as investing in a person rather than purchasing their time. Seek to foster an employee’s development so that when they outgrow their current position they’ll have the skills, knowledge, and drive to move up in the organization rather than transition out of it.

It is easy to fall into the trap of hiring someone just to fill a static role that’s needed right now but likely won’t be in a year. Employee churn (while often unavoidable) sends a powerful signal that an employee’s usefulness/potential is limited and that leaving is the way to advance professionally. Focus on picking the best people for the long-term, not the short-term.


Water regularly

Plants won’t grow without the appropriate watering. It’s not enough to simply hire someone and walk away. Commit to monitoring and encouraging your employees to maintain their motivation and sense of belonging. A neglected plant will wither and die; a neglected employee will wither and leave. All the effort that went into hiring someone who’ll grow with the organization is wasted if that happens.

 

Add complements

A garden grows beautiful when it has a variety of flowers, so avoid a homogeneous workforce. Diversity breds innovation, and innovation drives growth. Complement your existing employees with new hires that offer novel insights and add to the fertile, healthy culture you’ve worked hard to create.

 

 

Eliminate weeds

Inevitably there will be some weeds in the garden that need to be rooted out. Weeds offer little value and sap nutrients from more productive plants. Some employees do the same. If an employee clearly is not aligned with the company’s overall mission, she needs to go, and the sooner the better as it’s hard to remove a well-entrenched weed. Allowing ‘weedy’ employees to hang around only wastes precious resources and hampers the development of your more productive workers. Uproot them before they do too much damage to your garden.

Reap what you sow

If all goes well, at the end of it all you’ll have a healthy, flourishing garden from which to harvest. A startup with a supportive culture and empowered employees runs more efficiently and achieves more than a glorified sweatshop. People always say that fresh, home-grown produce tastes better, and the same is true for startups. You can’t force good results, you have to grow them.

3 thoughts on “People As Plants: How To Cultivate Your Startup Garden

  1. I love this gardening analogy. It made me think of repotting plants as they grow. If you don’t move the plant to a bigger pot, it will stop growing and become limp. But sizing up too fast will also slow growth. Experts advise moving from a four-inch to a six-inch pot, but not a four-inch to an eight-inch pot.

    This feels a lot like startups and why scaling is so hard to get right. We need to match the culture, processes, organization design, team members, etc. to that particular stage of growth. We can’t treat a series B startup like a fully grown plant, hoping it will grow into its oversized pot. We need to keep gently repotting each time our company reaches that limit. Great post!

    1. Thanks!

  2. Love this post! It is important to support the growth and development of employees, like plants.
    I agree that the soil is the culture/organizational structure. Employees will not flourish or remain in a company with a toxic company culture. The company culture also needs to fit the needs of employees, just like different types of plants need different types of soil.
    I asked the following question in another post:
    Should we change the team to fit the culture or change the culture with input from the team?
    Your analogy proposes that both approaches would work.

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