Riblet#28: Be Niche

“The species that survives is the one that is able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself” said Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Business at Louisiana State University, paraphrasing Darwin and applying his conclusion to businesses.

Charles Darwin was originally only invited aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle as intellectual company for the Captain, Robert Fitzroy (the man who later invented the weather forecast).  The Beagle was heading off on a two-year mapping voyage of South America in 1831.  In the end it took five years, and it turned into an epic voyage of discovery, ultimately resulting in the understanding of evolution.

On the voyage, Darwin collected huge numbers of fossils, plants and animals and sent them home as often as he could, one of the first being the skull of an extinct giant sloth from Patagonia.  He would make meticulous notes as he collected, however he was less interested in birds and in recording their details.  But it was birds which became one of the key areas of discovery.  In the Galápagos Islands he collected a wide variety of birds which turned out to be finches and mocking birds that had evolved differently in each of the islands.  

Fortunately, Darwin’s servant on the voyage, Syms Covington, made detailed notes of where the birds came from.  Thirteen species of finch were found there, finches that were found nowhere else in the world. They had evolved from birds from the mainland that had ended up on Galápagos, and they had developed separate features to occupy niches in the habitat on different islands. Three of the new species of finch were ground-living, two became cactus-eaters, three were tree-dwelling, one large beaked finch lived off leaves and buds, one used cactus thorns as tools, another lived in the mangrove swamps, and two more were warbler-sized finches with very small beaks. Their beaks had all adapted differently over time to each of their specialisms. The process would have been iterative over many generations. For example, the finches living off leaves and buds would have been more successful if they had larger beaks: those with larger beaks would eat better and were therefore more likely to survive and more likely to breed, and consequently that characteristic was reinforced and enhanced over time.

Evolutionary change is not necessarily slow.  The London Underground first opened in 1863, and sometime since then populations of a type of mosquito, culex pipiens, have moved into the Underground and evolved into a separate species. Culex molestus isfound only in the London Underground where it lives on human blood.  The Underground is an ideal habitat for mosquitos with a fairly constant temperature and humidity, no risk of snow or frost, and few predators. Indeed, genetic differences have already developed between the populations of culex molestus on the Victoria, Bakerloo and Central lines.

This adaptation process is mirrored in business in the philosophy of the Lean Startup movement.  Followers of the Lean Startup approach the development of products or services through many iterations, testing assumptions as they go, and each iteration is termed a “minimum viable product”.  By this process, they get to a version that can be launched formally, a version that successfully exploits the right niche. It is really only by this iterative testing that the niche is identified, verified and exploited. Similarly, A/B testing comprises variations of a product (version B) that can be tested on specific populations or niches and compared to an existing product (version A) that acts as a control. This can result in an adaptation that is more specifically targeted for niches of customers. The minimum viable product process and A/B testing both reduce the risks of a failed product (or service) and therefore ensure successful adaptation, in a way that is not so different from Darwin’s finches.

Data Source: A Modest Genius, the story of Darwin’s life and how his ideas changed everything – Hanne Strager (Amazon)

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