Entrepreneurship 101: The Ouroboros

February 20, 2018

 

 

There is a proverb which advises that a wise woman can learn from a fool but a fool can't learn from anyone. Admittedly it is hard to go through life without committing a few foolish acts but a wise woman learns from her mistakes. Indeed there are many who share the opinion that you can learn much more from a mistake than a correct action. If we take the lesson at face value we will at least benefit in terms of how to handle similar situations in the future but if we seek the transcendent virtues, recognizing that everything is connected, then we begin to experience the universal. So it it is that I have come to relay this story of how a herd of black belly sheep taught me a valuable lesson which all entrepreneurs should keep in mind: protect yourself at all times (from everyone and everything).

Black Belly Sheep are a notoriously nomadic species indigenous to Barbados. Derived from the cross between African hair sheep and European wooly stock, they wander for miles grazing at their favorite spots for a few minutes at a time. It is common for a herd of thirty or forty sheep, led by a ewe, to hold up traffic during early morning rush hour while lambs prance and jump from sidewalk to greenbelt and among the two opposing lines of vehicles. It is always a sight to behold, no one ever blows their horns, as drivers and passengers are entertained while being reminded that the freedom they crave still exists. Every community in Barbados has a wandering herd including the community of Holetown in which I live. The Black Belly also provides a very lean meat and a high quality hide so about a decade ago a number of them were exported to Texas to a farmer who saw an opportunity. Not long after they had arrived in the Lone Star State there appeared on the front page of one of their newspapers a photo of a highway patrolman on a freeway in Texas trying to coral the same herd of Black Belly Sheep, nearly a hundred strong, as they went on a walkabout in the middle of morning traffic. You understand that you can take the sheep out of Barbados but you can't take Barbados out of the sheep.

My mum is renowned for her green thumb. Paradoxically my thumb is a rusty shade of brown. It has always bothered me that I couldn't grow anything when it always seemed so simple. Plant it, water it and nature does the rest. A few months ago, tired of hearing myself talk about food security and wasted agricultural land, I decided to ignore what the past had proven. I built up enough courage, and I decided to start a vegetable garden. There was a book covering the topic on the shelf, I googled a bit, read for a few days and when I felt comfortable I went to the hardware store to buy potting soil, a seed tray, and seeds for okra, cabbage, pak choi, tomato and bell peppers. Just like in primary school I wrapped the seeds in damp paper towel. After a week  I checked them and they had germinated. Seeing those miniature stalks and tiny root systems bursting out of the seeds gave me such a great feeling. A smile burst through my lips. The first stage was successful and I was more than a witness,. I was an agent of the universe, a midwife of sorts. I moved them from the paper towel to the seed trays where I would let them develop for another three weeks before I put them in the ground. In the meantime I began to prepare the beds.

Across the avenue from my house, outside of the gates, there is an open lot adjacent to a dilapidated pair of  tennis courts. On the other side of the old tennis courts is the main road connecting north and south along the west coast. The piece of land in question is almost always overgrown with a variety of grasses. It is a tough strip. When we moved here 30 years ago it was good for sports and recreation but now it's really only good for stubbing your toe or twisting your ankle. It is from this inhospitable acre that I would  adopt 140 square feet to cultivate. Over the course of the next two weeks I wielded a heavy garden fork 30 - 45 minutes a day and in the process gained, besides a few blisters, an even higher level of respect for the great men and women, unsung heroes, who till the soil for a living. It was arduous to say the least, yet I with the help of my brother, formed four beds that would cradle my aspirations.

The various sprouts had grown nicely in the seed trays to between 3 and 4 inches.The sight of them made me proud that I had taken the chance and had shown discipline to get them to this stage; and even though all of the research I had done told me that they were ready to be planted in the prepared beds, I was nervous. I couldn't see how these tiny plants would survive in the comparatively harsh environment to which I was going to transplant them. It was my mother's words of encouragement: "Boy, stop being silly and put them in  the ground." that motivated me. It was exactly what I needed to hear. So I irrigated the beds ( I was going to say wet the beds but it's better to be industry specific), removed each of the young plants from their incubators, and spacing them about 50cm, interred them to the cylindrical mounds of earth where they would mature. The final stage had begun, in 8-10 weeks I would be serving home grown cabbage and pak choi in the vegetable stir fry; I would be supplying fresh okra to my mother for the traditional Friday meal of cou cou; and on Sunday we would incorporate our own bell peppers into the salad. My activities became synchronized with the sun; with its rising and setting I tended to the needs of my young charges. Within days they had doubled in size and just a few weeks later the okra and bell peppers developed blossoms. I was well on my way to being accepted as a member of the Guild of Green Thumbs. I seized every opportunity to tell people of my initiative, when guests came to the house I would take them on a tour of the estate ( it was no longer a kitchen garden) selflessly sharing my expertise. In a little while I would literally be tasting success.

One day in the fifth week, after the morning ritual, I went out to run a few errands. The bell peppers and okra were about a foot in height, the pak choi and cabbage had spread to about 7 inches and I could tell by the way they sprang into an upright stance after each gust of wind that they were healthy.The universe was smiling upon me. Intermittently throughout the day my mind focused on my fledgling crops. It reminded me of the early stages of a romantic relationship when everything about the other person is so fresh and interesting, when laughter is ubiquitous. On my way home I thought of little else besides spending time with my crops, watering them, removing any weeds that might impair their development, observing their fractional growth. I even talked to them. I entered my community with a right turn off of the north south main road  and took another right onto the avenue where my house is located. In my mind I envisioned the crops joyfully waving to me as they saw me for the first time since I left in the morning. Just like our toy poodles would gyrate their bodies uncontrollably in anticipation of being petted, played with and tickled, so would the pak choi, cabbage, bell peppers and okra  wave and  gyrate in anticipation of the love I would pour from my heart and hose. I was now within 30 metres of my house but for some reason I could not see the upright stalks and verdant leaves fluttering with the wind. The next 30 meters were traveled in slow motion with my eyes squinting to see my babies which were obviously camouflaged against the greenery in the background. When I brought the car to a halt I could see that my crops weren't there. My heart sank, there was a burning in my chest and I felt nauseous. The beds were absolutely bare, not a single remnant of okra, bell pepper nor pak choi. I walked toward the scene to find instead several very visible hoof prints riddled about the ground. The neighbor joined me and related how the wandering herd of black belly sheep had descended on my crops like locusts. Using their hoofs for leverage they mercilessly ripped each stalk, and every bulb from the earth. A tender meal easily had. Instantly I knew that I had been careless, caught up in a fantasy, I was blind to the obvious threat. I was disappointed in myself but soon began to laugh at my own lunacy; and to sprout another batch of seeds. The next morning as the guys from the neighborhood were gathering for the 7am soccer scrimmage I relayed the story. We all had a good laugh and someone said quite bluntly, "Cmon Marko, what did you expect, the sheep were hungry, you should have put up a fence".

My mind instantaneously went into a dream state, replaying within the space of a nano second the circumstances of one of the most painful experiences of my career. Up until that moment on the soccer field, it would cause me great pain whenever I recalled it. It occurred in 1996. I was well into my first year as a freelance graphic designer in Barbados. I had not yet registered Markitart. I was using a power Mac 6300; good value for money. Everyone outside of the design world was using a PC. In those days your computer was state of the art if it had a 100 MHz Pentium Pro processor, a 1.44MB floppy drive, a modem connection, and three SCSI ports. IBM, HP and Compaq were the main providers of computers on the shelf and the small independent computer guy building customized computers in his workshop was thriving.  I can't remember how, but on a trip to Miami I met a group of guys who were building some really nice machines. I began telling my friends in Barbados that I could get them top notch PC's at about half the price and sure enough I got my first sale shortly after to an architect and an engineer. I got the connection through a close family friend who I had known since childhood. We frequently spent time at each others' houses and at various places of entertainment together.  I brought in two systems each pushing a blistering 120MHz. The machines exceeded my customer's expectations, at a fantastic price. My friend dropped by the house one afternoon soon  after the delivery as he normally would. He said that he had heard good things about the systems. I was happy to hear that and I shared with him the idea of doing it on a large scale. I asked him if he wanted to go in on it with me. He was a great choice not only because I could trust him as a friend, but because he had established a solid network of suppliers and customers who could be in the market for a great deal on a state of the art computer system. Additionally, his company did a lot of shipping from Miami and we could catch a break on the cost.

He could see the potential but wasn't as enthusiastic as I was. He asked about the profit margin and could he see the invoice. I showed the documents relating to the first sale. The margins convinced him that it was an opportunity worth pursuing. We would start to drum up sales from the next day. I began to make calls during breaks from designing. In the next few weeks there were some expressions of interest but nothing confirmed. That was expected; my friend would be the main generator of sales since he was already very well known in business circles. About a month later I went on a lime (to a hang out spot) with my friend who was now my partner. During the course of the evening, after a few drinks, he changed the course of the conversation. He suddenly remembered to thank me for giving him such a solid contact. He revealed how he had just concluded a sale of 25 systems to the Barbados Customs department which he interacted with on a daily basis. The smile on his face and the joy of his laugh were like falling into a hedge of white roses. As the scent of the petals intoxicates so too the thorns rip and tear. I was hurt; I felt betrayed and belittled but somehow managed to console my self that  I had indeed made the world a better place, by at least one person, in spite of the pain that it caused me. Then I heard the words "Cmon Marko, what did you expect, the sheep were hungry, you should have put up a fence" In that nanosecond I understood that the universe, including my friend, is just like the sheep: driven by instinctual desires, surviving, following that basic urge to be fruitful and multiply, to feed. He was a willing and eager component of this hungry and pregnant universe that consumes itself, like Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its tail. The universe in all its fearsome majesty is full of opportunity as well as threats. While availing yourself of one you must protect yourself from the other. My friend saw opportunity sitting there in the open, like the wandering herd of sheep saw my crops, and thinking of his own needs; his need to grow, his need to provide for his family, his need to put fuel in his car and pay the rent he, like the sheep, ate my crop because it was available and unprotected. It wasn't personal, it wasn't abnormal, and it wasn't malicious. I should have put up a fence to protect my ideas and my investment . So should you.

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