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How to build an ecosystem

I went mushroom foraging on the weekend. They're amazing little organisms fungi. Delicious and lethal. And your ability to tell the difference requires an ability to not just observe the small spongy thing sticking out above the ground, but to understand the broader environment that is surrounding you in the very spot you're standing.

The spore bearing fruit we see is a tiny fraction of a potentially gigantic living organism that lives below the ground. Where it decides to grow isn't sheer luck and accident, because the spores for a particular variety are likely strewn for kilometers by the wind and have covered almost every piece of dirt and grass over that distance at some point. And yet here I stood, in one particular place, where this one particular variety of mushroom has decided to sprout.

It's because I'm surrounded by a mixed wood of eucalypt and pine trees. The spores lay themselves down and start to produce a root system below the surface that intermingles with all of the surrounding trees. The thing is the trees need the mushrooms to survive. The fungi produce minerals and essential elements the trees need because the soil has become deficient in them. But the mushrooms lack the green chlorophyll we're familiar with in most other plants, and they're unable to produce any energy of their own. And so the trees in-turn provide the sugars the mushroom needs to grow. It's a symbiotic relationship, where all the participants thrive by supporting each other.

Filling the tank

When I was younger we had an aquarium. Even now I enjoy the peaceful solitude that comes with staring at a tank full of beautiful sea life swimming around, just doing their thing. Anybody who's tried to create their own one at home knows first hand the effort required.

The constant cleaning. The balancing of the pH levels. The feeding. The sourcing of fish. You'll add some living plant life to try help with the oxygenation of the water, but now the tank seems to get dirty quicker. You get some sea snails to try and keep the scum on the glass at bay, but it turns out one of your fish find snails quite delicious.

You add some new fish and discover some expensive lessons on the circle of life. Not all fish live happily with each other. Some live at the expense of others. If you want more fish you'll have to get ones that can't be eaten by the predator in the water. You've ended up with a shark tank.

Business & product ecosystems

I had the fortune to be part of a team that built an amazing ecosystem of services for app developers. It's success wasn't just sheer luck either, it was launched with a clear understanding of what was needed.

The Wayback Machine doesn't do the site justice, but if you can read through the broken formatting you'll see a list of companies and products. None of them adversarial towards each other. All of them complimentary. And all of them made stronger by each other. Once you entered the ecosystem as a consumer, it's unlikely you'd use just one thing. You'd use multiple. You'd become dependent on them. And they in turn on you. Everyone succeeded together. And we were all better for it.

And yet I'm surrounded by talk of people wanting to build ecosystems. Usually in the form of geographically defined hubs of economic activity. But the only thing any of the participants share is geography. There's no common interest. No shared wealth. No common purpose.

It's just money being throw into the top of the tank to feed a bunch of little fish. And the only ones getting fat are the sharks.

If you want to build a successful and self-sustaining ecosystem it needs to start with deliberate and intentional seeding. Of participants that are able to not just co-exist, but who can develop a symbiotic and profitable relationship with each other.

Glenn Gillen

I'm an advisor to, and investor in, early-stage tech startups. Beyond that I'm an incredibly fortunate husband and father. Working on a developer-facing tool or service? Thinking about starting one? Email me and let me know or come to one of our days to help make it a reality.