Security lessons from Nature – Lichens and Cooperation
OK, I’ll admit it. I like lichens. I have for years. One summer I even cultivated a pretty orange one that grew in a railroad tie where I parked, which is not the sort of thing that wins you friends in high school. Even in the rural Midwest, lichen cultivation just doesn’t count as “farming”. I find them neat, both to look at and to consider scientifically.
According to Wikipedia (at least, as I write this), a lichen is a “composite organism consisting of a symbiotic association of a fungus (the mycobiont) with a photosynthetic partner (the photobiont or phycobiont), usually either a green alga (commonly Trebouxia) or cyanobacterium (commonly Nostoc).” Isn’t that fascinating?
You see, the fungus and the algae work together and even though they are separate, they function as one organism. The algae (or cyanobacterium, which is a different essay altogether) provides energy from the sun, as it can photosynthesize and the fungus cannot. The two lifeforms then exchange nutrients and grow together. (This is really glossing some things over. If you’re truly interested, get the book Lichens of North America, it goes into much more detail.)
The thing is, each party provides something that the other one needs, and as a unit, they are successful in ways that they would not be separate. You’ve all heard this analogy before, so I won’t bore you with it. Instead, I’ll go one level deeper.
Did you know that the fungus eats the algae? That’s how this “nutrient exchange” thing works. As a team, the composite organism succeeds because, even though the dominant partner (the fungus) literally consumes the subservient partner (the algae), it works because the algae grows faster than the fungus can eat it. It works for the algae because it can compete in places it otherwise wouldn’t have. The fungus provides a level of protection.
Which gets to the point. There are a lot of uneven partnerships in the business world. There are a lot of small companies, especially in the VAR space, that enter into partnerships with the big players. There’s a lot of talk about how the small companies don’t really gain much from it, but they have to keep paying these “partnership fees” in order to compete against the other small companies. However, that’s not exactly it. The “partnership fees” keep the even smaller companies and startups from directly competing against you. The partnership may provide a lot of resources that you don’t really need… but so does the fungus in a lichen.
See, the algae grows faster than the fungus. The small company is more agile than the big one. Profit margins can be higher, the work can be more flexible. However, it is very difficult to grow beyond the partnership, as the very things that make the partnership successful also constrain the growth of the small business outside of the brand of the large company. In short, so long as the large company can consume your output (clients), it can continue to protect you and provide you with room to grow.
So, just like in the wild, success has to be measured in terms of the joint organism, not as one alone.