Spent the last two weeks in Australia, and perhaps the most fascinating sight during my time away (and this is quite the statement given the tripincluded directing John Cleese at the Sydney Opera House, being moored at a diving deck smack-dab in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef and taking a gondola ride OVER a rainforest) was seen at--of all places!--the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary high atop the tiny town of Kuranda.
It was at that somewhat obtuse spot--ostensibly a "tourist trap," but ultimately way more profound--that I witnessed a butterfly's first-ever flight.
Lemme stop right there.
- Yes, I said butterfly. It's first flight.
- No, I did not consume an abundant amount of reality-altering drugs.
- No, I have not converted to some wacky "alternative" religion, nor am I experiencing a "back to nature" mid-life crisis.
This was actually a) cool and b) very business relevant.
For watching a butterfly take flight can be likened to an entrepreneur launching a new business.
To contextualize this, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary charges you $16 to stand in a greenhouse-like setting where thousands of different species fly around your head with reckless abandon. Many of them are friendly enough to actually land on you.
What appears at first glance to be a dubious, five-minute "attraction" soon grows gossamer wings of respectability with a visit to the Conservatory's scientific breeding lab next door. There
the group harvests thousands of caterpillars, and helps them along the road to maturity until they undergo the transformation into colorfully-winged insects.
I'll spare you the step-by-step metamorphosis details (click here if you want to learn some more), but the finale changeover from creepy crawler to flutterer involves the butterfly stepping onto a precipice, slowly and tentatively opening and closing its wings a few times before jumping off said precipice and taking its premiere leap of faith.
The debut flight I saw was experienced by about 25 other people in the breeding nursery. The butterfly we watched actually approached and backed off from the ledge twice before finally jumping off. When he (she?...hey, I didn't get that close) eventually did, he plummeted about four feet before generating enough wingpower to keep him afloat. The gathered group groaned with each false start, gasped at the initial fall, and broke out into cheer when the butterfly lived up to its destiny.
While most marveled at yet another of mother nature's miracles, I couldn't help thinking about how this is a perfect metaphor for most start-up businesses. (I've been through one myself, and I'm currently watching my elder son Aidan's progress with "Winston," his Next 36-inspired reinvention of the corporate car service.) To wit:
*At first, you have an idea, one that--if lucky--gets off to a slow crawl (I learned that out of 100 butterfly eggs laid naturally, less than 1% survive).
*Then it changes rapidly, eventually emerging--if lucky!--as something that barely resembles what it started off as in the first place.
*But it's that dramatic first step that is so poetically relevant. The final product has been produced, and is ready to go. It then endures the process of testing...cautiously, slowly, a bit of false bravado and some not-so-well-hidden reticence.
*Ultimately though, the showmanship must stop; all the wing-flapping and tip-toeing leads to the eventuality of a sink-or-swim (or, in this case, "fly or die") decision.
Butterflies and birds and other flying creatures go through this millions of times day every day. It may be an inherited action, embedded in their DNA. But it doesn't make it any less fascinating.
So what did I learn this week, other than a little bit of perilous drama will always draw a crowd and that I may have some hippie genes left over from the '60s?
Well, I learned that the start-up process may be evolutionary; way, way older than we think, and shared by our butterfly brethren.
Now if we can only figure out a way to share their jump-off success ratio, well, THEN we'd be in business.
Lots of 'em.