Symbiotic thinking: identifying unconventional opportunities

Posted on 26/02/2015


After hearing about the Longbox and the “Rock the vote” campaign in the 90s, the idea of random partnerships seemed worth exploring. Here’s where I got to.

Doing anything is effort. Creating, or building, or growing; it all takes time and energy. And everyone, from individuals to businesses, wants more rewards for less effort.

This can only happen in a few ways: 1) find several small efficiencies or 2) reinvent how you do things in the first place.

I think there’s a third way that’s less process and more growth-focused: finding symbiosis.

Matching like with like

(Textbook example from nature: the crocodile gets a clean; the bird gets dinner).

Products and services overlap in so many ways. Here’s an old (but solid) example:

You’re running a shop selling daily newspapers. For this to work out you want customers each and every morning. You need to be in the right location, visible, and encourage repeat morning customers.

Many other enterprises require exactly the same conditions: e.g. take away food, coffee shops, bakers. The overlap between early morning traders itself presents an opportunity. Expanding across categories in the right way unlocks a larger market, opportunities for cross and up-selling and reduces the overall effort required to run these separately.

(The contradiction: by putting in more effort and expanding in the right direction, you can get even more for less overall effort)

If you can do one well, how much extra effort is it to do another? Certainly not as much as it would be to do it from scratch. Certainty activities have a natural symbiosis. With the right opportunity, it’s far more rewarding to expand.

Old and emerging activities

With changing reading habits, the future of newspaper shops looks a bit limited. What it does illustrate, however, are several existing products and services that could be aligned.

Symbiosis gets exciting by combining the old with the new (or even the new with the new.) Take Google maps.

Google has grown and evolved it’s navigational data and software for years. First it added power to its search capabilities. Then through Google Places it gave small businesses a chance to plant their flag and an in-road to Google advertising. More recently, through the Android OS, features like navigation, route finding and Google Now were another selling point. This both crushed Apple’s failing maps service and extended Google’s dominance over digitized geography.

Google are now working on a new extension, that will move the company in a completely new direction: driverless cars.

Symbiosis through new technology

As the first to gather the data and develop the infrastructure, Google have strong market advantage, but next to no historical experience in physical logistics or transportation. However, the overlap between the two is clear (are there any taxis these days without a sat nav?). The opportunity just needs to be made real.

Finding new harmonies

Every activity, anywhere in the world has cross-over points with another. Coca Cola have used this to boost their reputation, transporting aid and medicine in the gaps between their bottles.

Not all crossovers are viable – working this out is itself the challenge. But in a system where we need to produce more with less, these are the areas we need to explore. Symbiosis is a way to think differently about what you do and how to grow by adding value instead of infinitely refining away.