How do you grow a successful organization? Just think about farmers.

You might have heard the story about the farmer who grew award-winning corn. Here it is:

There once was a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won a blue ribbon. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.

“How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

“Why sir,” said the farmer, “didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

You see where I’m going here, right?
You’ve probably heard about working on the business instead of in the business, and spending more time on growing and shaping your vision. That’s great and if you’ve actually made it that far, congratulations. But now I have a new job for you: You have to work on the ecosystem your business lives in. It’s even more important. I spend about ⅓-½ of my time working on my ecosystem. If you think about it as a living, breathing entity, your organization needs resources around it to thrive. You need legal and financial advice. You need mentors, you need clients, you need employees, you need publications, you need journalists, you need representation in government, you need users, you need a range of other promoters and gate-openers. And every successful business or organization needs the same things.

When people take care of the ecosystem, everyone succeeds because there is more support and resources — people are actively looking out for each other. Rolling this up to the national level: think about what America would look like if every country around it was struggling in war, disease, inequality, health, and poverty? We couldn’t succeed. We couldn’t survive.

Sitting in an office by yourself and focusing only on your own needs is like cultivating your own slow demise. Take a look at our current isolationist, secretive administration and how they are operating: America First. Secrecy and slander. Insulation from opposition and facts. That is the old way.

This is the new way.

Here are five ways I’ve been building my ecosystem.

Build peer groups

Get a room full of like-minded organizations in a room and find out how you can help each other. Some of these groups have focused on marketing, some sales, and some have been more of a therapy group. When I was in Croatia in April, one thing that was glaringly obvious was that everyone was working in a vacuum, and they needed to talk to each other to move their businesses. So we started one small business group and one women-focused group. Being a business owner or an executive director can be a lonely experience and you need people with the same drivers and issues as you.

Show up

Get out of your office and go to things. Practice your elevator pitch — or don’t, whatever — the point is to get out of your work space and talk to other humans. We all get stuck in ruts or routines and breaking them by looking at something other than your to-do list or your laptop screen is generally a good idea. Some of my best thoughts come from just simply walking from one meeting to another instead of driving. Just being a physical presence somewhere is great for building your brand and your network. People might not remember what you said or wore, but they will remember that you were there.

Invest in others

There are basic ingredients that all organizations need to have to succeed: Great talent, great professional advice, a pool of users/donors/clients, and channels to promote your stuff. One mantra I have here is: I never say no to students. Demetrio and I are both adjunct professors and I regularly do mentoring and workshops for students and others seeking to learn. We are also both mentors at local incubators 1871 and 2112. We want to see people entering our industry and also running successful businesses, so we mentor both the talent and the leaders wherever we can. Sometimes, our mentees turn into clients or employees, but more likely is that they get hired somewhere else or don’t ever hire us. That’s great. Not only does that position us as the people to go to when they do have a question later, but it creates more talent and businesses in Chicago and surrounding areas. If that extended ecosystem is healthy, more entrepreneurs and talent will want to come here and our talent and client pool grows. This is why are are active in city government, mentoring, training, speaking, and volunteering. Plus we love it!

Seed the market

In our markets: entrepreneurs and social changers, there are a lot of organizations supporting and advocating for them. In a short, not comprehensive list, we have:

liftUPlift

Rebellious Magazine

Women Tech Founders

Founding Moms

Mom+Baby

1871

2112

Conscious Capitalism

Illinois B Corps

Ellevate

Greater Ravenswood Chamber

These are all relatively small organizations, and there are also huge ones in Chicago like the ACLU and the Chicagoland Chamber. I’m asked all the time to sponsor big conferences, or buy a booth at a trade event for one of the big guys, but I’m just not interested in that. Their memberships are too wide and one event sponsorship of say $25,000 will eat up my whole annual advertising budget. I’d rather spent $500-$2000 on all of the smaller events and capitalize on the smaller, focused market, and repetition. I know that these smaller groups have memberships that 1) are in my target market and 2) overlap, so a dollar spent there not only feels good, it goes farther.

Give away your seeds

Finally, and this might sound crazy, you have to give away the things you know. I used to keep our tools and methods secret, but now we give them all away in our blog, in workshops, and and in speaking engagements. In the long term, if more people understand the value and potential of what we do, society as a whole will flourish. We regularly do free trainings on pitching, design methods, user testing and research methods, messaging, positioning, business strategy, and more. This not only helps other companies grow, it’s a place where we can test new ideas and methods with people.

 

All of these tactics have turned into better talent, more resources, and more revenue. We’re able to invest in ourselves and in our ecosystem with these additional resources, so everyone wins. It works. You can do it too. We can help you.

Do you have a method that’s working for you? We’d love to hear about it.