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Weeds and Trees

Yesterday, at lunch with Natasha Thomson, we were talking about some differences between attitudes and abilities at start-up companies versus established giants. That brought me back to another lunchtime conversation I had with Marilyn Pratt two years ago, during a financials conference. Marilyn and I spoke about the difference between big companies and small companies and I made the analogy of weeds and trees.

Start-ups and small companies are like weeds; they grow very fast, pop up from out of nowhere, and can move quickly. Weeds also don’t last very long, drying up and dying as quick as they grow.

A large company is like an oak tree; huge, with very deep roots that provide strength and stability. Although the branches can sway in the breeze, an oak tree doesn’t move.

As generalizations go, this is a good way to describe big and small companies. It should be noted that a large company can be innovative, just as a small company can have roots.

The previous company I worked for was just like that; the company itself was very young, though the technology had been around for 20 years. Many of the customers had ancient versions of the software because it fit their needs. They were unhappy about the bugs and lack of functionality, but wouldn’t upgrade to the newer versions that did fix the bugs and address issues of functionality.

On the other hand, our prospects and new customers EXPECTED the latest and the greatest. As a small company, we needed those legacy customers to keep the boat afloat, but we weren’t going to grow without new products and innovative approaches.

It’s a delicate balance between strengthening your base while expanding your markets. That’s why it’s so important for everyone in the company to understand the strategy. Even though it’s very important to focus on the tasks at hand, everyone has to keep an eye on the horizon, even if it’s just in your peripheral vision. How can you know, otherwise, how what you are doing is helping your company now and helping move toward the future? Know that let’s you make better choices about the what and the how of your current activities.

Companies can be compared to weeds and trees but unlike nature, there is no guarantee that once a tree, always a tree. The only constant is change. Someone I know just had his big company acquired. Fortunately for him, he is on the team that will be combining the new, bigger company’s technology platform. Sometimes even from the branches of the big tree, you find yourself back in the weeds. Understanding the strategy, or changes in strategy, will benefit you and your company.

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  • Weeds and trees is a good analogy but of course weeds are not necessarily bad things and trees not necessarily good or better things. While weeds sprout and grow quickly and die back the implication is that they can never become trees which is of course not true. Many startups become trees vis. Microsoft, Google etc

    Trees of course suffer different problems, they become too big for their environment and deplete their surroundings or kill off neighbouring vegetation, become candidates for the logger, suffer from intractable diseases etc

    I think a better analogy is perhaps saplings and old growth or even softwoods vs. hardwoods if we stay in the tree domain. Old growth often spawns saplings; some survive and become great oaks, some die prematurely; characteristic is the fact that the sapling tends to grow very quickly, often takes root in the most unlikely of places and sometimes displaces or hinders the continued growth of existing old growth.

    The great thing about business is that it has so many parallels with life in general!

    • I was thinking along your lines, Clinton; probably because I was seeing trees this week in a very topical and personal environmental context.
      My town, is referred to as a “Tree Town, USA” and it just suffered a horrific storm this past weekend  Over 200 century-old trees were downed by winds, torrential rains, melted snow and weakened roots.  So my metaphor was more akin to the storm being the present economic business “climate” and my neighborhood trees, the stable, dependable businesses I had always known and relied on for shade and beauty. I finally stepped out into the sun today and surveyed the devastation wrought by the weather, and saw how environmental impact brings down established and seemingly solid growths, which in turn wreaked havoc on property, houses and disrupted peoples’ lives.  On the other hand, I noted that my garden’s weeds, were hardly affected.   My husband’s first question was why the meteorologists didn’t see it coming.  But I was more puzzled by why all of our electric wires remain strewn through the branches.  (much of the town lost power).  So I find myself questioning business models in light of very volatile climate.  How’s that for a metaphor/analogy?
      To Bob I would say, thanks for triggering lively conversation.  I always enjoy your posts.  To Julius I would say: beware the agricultural analogy.  As a former farm resident I always smelled the fertilizer and that colored (scented) my thinking.  And Julius I always enjoy your comments.
    • Clinton,
      I can agree with your ideas. I picked weeds, because after working for a couple of start-ups that only lasted a couple of years, there seems like something almost seasonal about their lifecycle. Saplings at least can last a decade 🙂


  • I think the IT industry can learn a lot from agriculture, in the same way that banking has.

    Farmers were the forerunners of options, foreward investments and swaps, were they make sense and agreements are stuck to transactionally.

    Java programmers can probably not relate to that easily as the “mother earth” is missing.. 🙂