Hunting Bamboo

May 2014

I have a large patch of bamboo in my backyard. It started as a bucketfull of bamboo transplanted from my brother’s yard about ten years ago and today is a 20’x30′ patch about 20′ high. What I didn’t fully understand when I first planted it (despite warnings from my brother) is that bamboo can grow out of control unless you work to direct it.

The rhizomes, essentially the root system of the bamboo, spreads out in various directions as the bamboo stalks feed the system by soaking up sun and rain. The rhizomes spread out, and each spring the new shoots come up from the ground. The bigger the rhizome the bigger the shoot. It’s a great system.

But since everything spreads underground, you really don’t know where’s it’s spreading.  So every spring over the past number of years I’ve spent some time each day working to direct the growth. I call it “hunting bamboo”.

Sometimes I just cut the shoots at the ground with a shovel, especially where it comes up in areas that I don’t need to worry too much about where it grows but where I still want to keep it away from other trees. You’re slowing the growth and being selective about where it grows, but you’re not totally killing the future growth in that area.

Other times I need to get aggressive, especially when it’s spreading towards my property line. I track the rhizomes where new shoots are coming up and I start digging. Fortunately they never seem to be too far underground but it still takes some work to pull up to ten feet of root. Once they are dug up, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll see new shoots in that area again (though it pays to be vigilant each year).

So what does all this have to do with startups and entrepreneurship? For me, this exercise is all about directing the growth. Bamboo is like a startup in that it can start with something very small and can grow into something very big. Yet as it grows, it’s important to direct its growth otherwise it can go wild and it will be very difficult to enjoy its beauty.

Like a startup, sometimes you want it to spread uncontrolled to see where it goes. Let it spread, see how far it goes, and enjoy its growth. Yet you probably don’t want to let it be totally unconstrained, so you may want to pull up some shoots from time to time in order to better manage its growth. 

Other times you want to completely cutoff a direction that is going to be a distraction. In that case you need to kill the root so the rest of the enterprise can thrive. It’s harder work, but ultimately you get the enterprise going in the right directions. 

Hunting bamboo every spring has become a bit of a ritual. I get to spend some time reflecting, directing and even getting some exercise. Probably somethings that every entrepreneur should be doing.