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November 06, 2007

Conquering the Un-Bearable: What Grizzlies Can Teach You About Business

Innocently hiking in Yellowstone, you see ahead of you a grizzly bear on a rise, towering over the landscape on his hind legs. Terrified, you think, obviously he is a blood-thirsty beast, searching for a human morsel such as myself for a light snack.

With an animal as steeped in myth and legend as the grizzly bear, there are many misconceptions and a lot of downright incorrect information out there. This misinformation may account in part for the grizzlies' presently threatened status.

For example, the imposing standing posture often shown in photos, paintings, and film of grizzlies is not an aggressive, threatening pose. Rather, it's a way for a bear to fully view the surrounding area and see if any potential threats loom.

In fact, grizzlies will, for the most part, bolt when they sense that a human - their only natural enemy - is near. Enormous as they can be - females weigh up to 770 pounds and males can weigh up to 1150 pounds - they can run 35 - 40 miles an hour, about as fast as greyhounds and almost as fast as horses.

It is a fact that you want to avoid grizzlies, especially females defending their cubs. The only thing scarier than a protective grizzly mama may well be a human Soccer Mom, verbally swatting at a coach who never seems to let her kid off the bench!

But grizzlies are not man-eaters, living for an unsuspecting hiker to wander into their territory. They are omnivorous, including, in the summer months in Yellowstone, chowing down on army cutworm moths at the rate of 10,000 - 20,000 moths a day! Their distinctive massive shoulder muscles enable these bears to dig for insects and also to add force to their strikes at prey. All that eating of moths, berries, carrion and, yes, occasional animals, in the late summer and early fall will help them to put on up to 400 pounds of fat before hibernation.

Bear depopulation and conservation

Grizzlies were once found in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, but now are extinct or their numbers greatly reduced. In the early 19th century, approximately 50,000 grizzly bears roamed the U.S. But as pioneers moved in, overhunting bears was common, and human building rapidly ate up bear habitat. As habitat shrank, grizzly numbers shrank, drastically. Today, only a few small pockets of grizzly territory survive in the American West. Current estimates are that as few as 1,200 - 1,400 wild grizzly bears remain.

There is some good news, though. In January 2006 , the US Fish and Wildlife service proposed removing Yellowstone's grizzlies from the list of threatened and protected species .

What can you do? When bears venture beyond the realm of their established territories and into areas populated by humans, they become acclimated to humans and the easy access of food out of dumpsters. No longer wild, they're ruined and they have to be destroyed because they will always seek out human food and populations.

As tempting as it may be to feed bears, doing so ultimately endangers them long after you've left with your photograph. Help keep bears wild and discourage bear visits by eliminating or minimizing food odor and food rewards. (Dan: Include here other ways readers could support grizzly conservation efforts that you can think of.)

What bears can teach you about your business

You have probably heard the staggering statistics about new business failure: according to the Small Business Administration, 50% of businesses fail within the first year of operation. Think you're in the clear because you've survived that first tough year? Think again. Within 5 years, 95% of all businesses fail.

One of the most common reasons businesses fail is because the owners overextend themselves early on. Just as hunters who are not educated about the impact their over-hunting has on a species - which can lead to its extinction - business owners who don't have a plan for incremental growth can overreach early and inadvertently bring on their business' extinction.

Overextending doesn't only mean spending more than you ought to or running up a lot of debt early on, though those aren't good ideas, either. There's certainly nothing wrong with having confidence in yourself and your abilities. But maybe instead of renting your business' space for a few years, you decided to buy a building right away. Or if you do a lot of work on the road, you bought a brand-new $50,000 truck instead of a gently used one for half the price. One unexpected expense in this scenario can sink you like a bear paw-swatted salmon.

Or maybe you made a plan for incremental growth and didn't overspend on property and assets. Maybe you really did hit on The Next Big Thing; the market demand is there, and your future looks extremely bright. But what if your overnight success becomes an overwhelming success, and with growth unmanaged, it happens too fast? You can't keep up, can't fill all the orders, and don't have enough cash to hire people to help you.

An overabundance of business can be as detrimental to your organization as a scarcity. You may think you can't be too rich or too thin, but your business can definitely be too successful too soon, especially if you marketed your products or service like crazy right from the get-go, seeking to make a big splash in the marketplace, and then found yourself unable to deal with the flood that resulted. It is ultimately taxing on you personally and on the company itself when you are spread too thin and the infrastructure of the business is overburdened and unable to stabilize.

Even if your organization's issues are altogether different - let's just say too much business isn't your problem right now - the "lesson of the bears" still applies to your situation as well. It can be very tempting to dump a lot of money into it in an effort to staunch the flow of money already pouring out. But this tactic rarely works; it's much more likely that you will simply be throwing good money after bad.

Remember: to everything there is a season. Do what the big bears do: Retreat.

Well, to put it more accurately in the natural world: Hibernate. Hibernation for bears is a natural, seasonal withdrawal in response to a scarcity of resources. When bears hibernate, they can sleep for up to 8 months without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating, yet when they awaken, they have lost little bone mass or muscle tone and have no signs of uremia.

This extraordinary physiological adaptation has human scientists working hard to learn how it could be applied to astronauts on extended space flights or to bedridden patients. Hibernation also offers an extremely apt analogy for a business in many forms of crisis. .

So, business conservation, then, is just as important as environmental conservation, and needs to be at the forefront of planning for any organization. Controlled growth is the answer, building the business incrementally instead of trying to immediately be a major player in the marketplace. Of course you don't want to turn down business when you're growing, but you also don't want to be known as someone who doesn't deliver goods and services as you've promised.

Look at your infrastructure first, honestly assessing how much business you can handle. And try not to get caught up in paranoia about customers going elsewhere in droves if you don't take them NOW or someone stealing your idea if you don't Go Big right off the bat. There's room to be able to grow your business incrementally. It's true that slow and steady always ultimately wins the race.

And if you find yourself in a situation of too few resources, but you're not ready to give up, allow yourself to "hibernate," pulling back to reassess what needs to be done.

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