We recently went to a local event called Bugfest, which hopefully tells you everything you need to know about how nerdy of a family we are and how nerdy of a university town we live in.
(cw: poop, poop consumption)
One of the last tables we visited was about the humble dung beetle, which…you guessed it, subsists on the feces of other animals (usually ruminants like cows, sheep, and deer).
And because I can only be me and cannot be stopped, I saw two important business lessons in the habits of dung beetles.
The first is about niching.
We asked the extremely enthusiastic graduate student why dung beetles don’t just eat grass directly, considering they eat poop of other animals that eat grass.
The answer: too much competition for grass, very little competition for cow patties.
Rather than go out and fight all the other bugs that eat grass, or evolve an extremely complex ruminant digestive system to eat grass themselves, they let the cows do the hard work and mop up the leftovers. (They have evolved a symbiotic relationship with specialized gut bacteria to help them out!)
Now, I am absolutely not telling you to take on shitty projects that no one else wants.
Is your industry or local market too crowded? Find an underserved audience with a simple but unmet need, set yourself as the expert for meeting that need, and you may never need to worry seriously about competition.
Don’t have time to wrangle clients and actually do the work? Subcontract for another business owner and let them bring the work to you. (There are freelancers whose entire business model is subcontracting!
Now that’s a niche.
(Nature loves a niche, by the way, and after years of flailing as a generalist, I am very pro-niche myself. But, again, I am not saying your niche needs to be actual shit, please do not misunderstand.)
The second lesson is about…uh, let’s call it shooting your shot. (Not to be confused with…shitting your sh–eh, never mind.)
(cw: anatomical descriptions of animal reproduction)
So dung beetles vary widely in size even within the same species. Individual adult size is determined by nutrient availability in the larval stage, which is a function of the particular cow patty under which your parents built your brood ball. Maybe you were born under a grassfed free range cow patty, maybe you were born under a sad factory-farmed cow patty.
(Somewhere in there is a metaphor about privilege, but I will not be investigating that today.)
The three smaller males on the left hatched under lower-nutrient conditions, while the three larger males in the center right hatched under higher-nutrient conditions. (The one in the lower right is a female.)
The smaller males have proportionally smaller horns because during development, their genes said, “Nah, we’re never going to be able to compete with the big bois. Divert all energy toward testes development.”
The smaller males end up about the size of a female dung beetle, but with a tank of super sperm ready to go. And while the big males are duking it out with their maybe overcompensatory horns, the little guys sneak right past them down to the waiting females and, uh, pass on their genes.
(I do not know the role of female choice in this scenario, but it can be quite powerful in the animal kingdom!)
Reproduction is the ultimate evolutionary goal of any organism. The big males are pursuing this goal too by fending off competitors, but the smaller males have figured out a way to play by their own rules.
If you’ve got a small business, there’s no point trying to compete with the giants. You don’t have enough resources to play their game.
Need a project tomorrow? Send a targeted pitch to a qualified lead instead of trying to rank first on Google.
Want to increase your revenue without working more hours? Sell fewer projects at higher prices instead of trying to beat Walmart’s high-volume model.
You can write your own rules to win by instead.
(If you have read this far, thank you, and I think we might be best friends. Wanna join my newsletter for more nonsense like this?)