Corn plants
  1. Plant
  2. Cultivate
  3. Harvest

Plant, cultivate, harvest. I must train and condition myself to think in these term for success. In spite of the instant gratification society we live in today, there are no shortcuts to lasting success, to lasting relationships, whether with family or customers.

I am currently reading The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. Olson hits this plant, cultivate, harvest idea in the book, making the point that our culture has largely lost its appetite for cultivating anything. We want the diet that promises we’ll lose 10 pounds the first week, and the secret way to make $200,000 your first year in business while working only 5 hours each week.

As I read this portion of the book, my mind went back to something I’d read decades ago. Stephen R. Covey, in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, contrasts what he calls the Personality Ethic with the Law of the Harvest:

Did you ever consider how ridiculous it would be to try to cram on a farm—to forget to plant in the spring, play all summer and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest? The farm is a natural system. The price must be paid and the process followed. You always reap what you sow; there is no shortcut.
This principle is also true, ultimately, in human behavior, in human relationships. They, too, are natural systems based on the law of the harvest. In the short run, in an artificial social system such as school, you may be able to get by if you learn how to manipulate the man-made rules, to “play the game.” In most one-shot or short-lived human interactions, you can use the Personality Ethic to get by and to make favorable impressions through charm and skill and pretending to be interested in other people’s hobbies. You can pick up quick, easy techniques that may work in short-term situations. But secondary traits alone have no permanent worth in long-term relationships. Eventually, if there isn’t deep integrity and fundamental character strength, the challenges of life will cause true motives to surface and human relationship failure will replace short-term success.

In business terms, planting could be related to idea generation and committing to a venture. Once you have an idea and you’re committed to it, you still have a mountain to climb – you have yet to execute. Execution, or cultivation for the current discussion, is where the hard work is, the boring, draining, monotonous, often thankless work. You may need to line up necessary outside funding. Your product must be designed, then tested, and redesigned. Marketing strategy and plans have to be readied. Any needed staff have to be recruited and onboarded. None of these steps are trivial for a new product launch.

The start-ups that have become media darlings so often in recent years are those that quickly burst upon the scene, built large customer or user bases, and then were acquired by more established companies at eye-popping valuations – think Instagram or WhatsApp. For each story like those, there are more where a new player invested great financial and intellectual capital to better the state of the art in a very specific niche. There are frequently firms purchased by Intel, Apple, or Qualcomm, for instance, that have developed a better design for a single type of chip that’s used in a smartphone or laptop computer.

In both sorts of cases – social apps with great public mindshare, and technical innovators whose work is noticed only by a very small, specific community of engineers – we don’t see the years of toil that founders invested in those companies, with no guarantee of financial reward, years before the splash of acquisition. We only see the apparent overnight success story.

In my next post, we’ll spin this idea to another perspective, but for today, here’s your takeaway:

Don’t let the brief public arc of mega acquisition stories fool you into believing you can circumvent the law of the farm. You must plant ideas and vision and cultivate products, and often this time will be spent in almost complete obscurity. This is when you must have sufficient belief in your ideas and vision to stay engaged in the long work of nurturing the product to fruitful maturity. Only after cultivation, then, can you enjoy being an “overnight success” and reap the harvest.