Using biological strategies

by Peter Small

If you look around this Web site, you'll be forgiven for thinking it has been put together by an academic with esoteric ideas that are far removed from commercial reality. Nothing can be further from the truth. I've been using these biological strategies in the real world for years now and have achieved some very credible successes.

They didn't start out as biological strategies though. Originally I was a systems design engineer. A change in career saw me writing about investment and finance for a year in the City of London. I then opened a gaming club and spent two years playing poker. This gave me an interest in game theory (spurred on by an effort to pit wits against the many professional players who toured the gaming clubs preying upon the novices).

From the various bits of knowledge I'd gained from this bizarre mix of experiences, I cobbled together an unconventional business strategy that enabled me to create a business that went from a small experimental unit in a hippie market in London's Kensington High Street to where I owned several stores in London's West end.

Thinking I had the business game licked, I then took a big gamble to create a large shopping mall in Spain. This went disastrously wrong when, in 1974, the Arab-Israeli war and the oil crisis sent the world economies into a spin. Everything I had was wiped out and it was back to square-one. No business. No money.

In preparing to come back to England, to start again from scratch, I came across O. E. Wilson's book Sociobiology. It contained much of what was then known about evolution. Not just Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the many different contributions that had been made to the theory since.

What struck me immediately, was the very many parallels there were between evolutionary strategies and business strategies. Biological organisms can create complex architectural structures and sophisticated communication systems. They can cooperate and collaborate. They are experts at game theory. They are incredibly efficient and come up with solutions to problems that are both ingenious and simple.

It made sense. Biological organisms live in a fiercely competitive world and those that don't learn how to compete successfully get knocked out of the game. Only the winners survive and they pass on their techniques and strategies to their descendants. I then got the message. Evolution wasn't so much about survival of the fittest - it was more about who was using the best strategies for competition and survival. These strategies were evolving and becoming more and more sophisticated and efficient as they passed through the generations.

This is the main message I gleaned from Wilson's book. His book didn't contain the conventional descriptions of evolution - describing the way physical form evolves. Instead, it was mostly about the evolution of biological strategies.

I then started to read other books on evolution, to find out how biological organisms coped with situations similar to those encountered in business. The more I read, the more similarites I encountered and the more highly sophisticated solutions I found.

Once I'd grasped the essence of these biological strategies, I decided to try them out in the commercial world and started with something that seemed quite trivial: button lapel badges.

I thought about the way biological organisms multiply and the way they use an evolutionary strategy to become more efficient. I then applied this thinking to the manufacture and marketing of the badges. It was a spectacular success. Within a year I'd sold millions of button badges and almost every teenager in the U.K. was wearing them. Not only in the UK, the craze spread to most of Europe as well.

The next success came with T-Shirts. Again taking clues from the biological World, I soon had the most famous T-shirt store in London (The Rock Art Shop in Old Compton Street). It led me into the world of fashion. This was a real challenge because it is a huge, highly competive industry where everyone is fighting for influence and attention.

I knew absolutely nothing about fashion, but I was using a biologically inspired strategy. Within two years, I had one of the trendiest boutiques in London (Street Theatre). It was attracting large numbers of customers, even though it was situated in the backstreets of Soho (Newburgh Street). Fashion magazines editors clamoured around the store to photograph our designs and borrow items of clothing for fashion shoots.

The established fashion manufacturers were astounded. How was I able to get this attention and publicity when they couldn't get as much by spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on designers, PR and advertising?

To prove these weren't lucky flukes. I went into the costume jewellery business. Again the biological approach worked and from a small experimental unit in a fashion market in Kensington High Street (Hyper-Hyper) a highly successful business emerged with the customers including pop stars, film and television personalities and most of the people frequenting the fashionable London clubs. As with the clothes, our jewellery was constantly being featured in all the top fashion magazines.

Success ushers in the more onerous side of business - staffing, accounts, tax returns, cash-flows and forward planning - areas of business I positively hate. To make life easier I'd bought a computer and automated all this boring stuff on a spreadsheet. Through this exercise I was turned on to the power of the spreadsheet as a system modeling tool. Not only could it model a business, it could also model the effects of all the factors that affected the business. In other words it could model a complete eco-system. This added a completely new dimension to the evolutionary strategies I was using because I could experiment with them in the environment of a computer.

My interest then turned exclusively to computers and I left the hectic life of London, moving to a place in the Berkshire countryside where my further studies of evolution and computing led to the creation of the CD-ROM "How God Makes God". This wasn't just a commercial exercise. It was a means of putting all my thoughts on evolutionary strategies together and creating numerous computer models to check them out. I spent over three years on this project, explaining all I had learned over the years - about systems, finance and investment strategies, game theory, probability and evolution - and how I'd put them to use. By using cartoon illustrations and animations, I managed to do this in a way that made these esoteric concepts easy to understand. It was acclaimed by the critics, and is still selling today because the content has never become outdated.

The links on the left describe some of the real life businesses enterprises the explanations are based upon. This way of creating businesses is not contained in any business text book. After all, where would you find a strategy that enables you compete successfully in a business area without any planning or previous knowledge? As Captain Kirk of the SS Enterprise might have put it, "It is a way of doing business, Jim. But not how we know it".