Bootstrapping 101: get your hands dirty and believe in tomorrow.

The ‘Sycamore Gap’ tree of Whin Sill, the ridge which carries Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, had a place in many people’s hearts, but it was felled maliciously in the early morning of September 2023, aged around 300 years old. It was a hardy tree, growing in thin topsoil into the dark, crystalline dolerite, sat in a natural dip in the landscape, a beautiful, rounded dome shape.

It was left alone to the stars and the quietly munching sheep, but became famous when Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was filmed there in 1991. I visited in 2016 when it was voted tree of the year. I recall a good twenty minutes of a challenging walk to get there from the car park. When we got there, a bloke was proposing to his girlfriend. Hikers brought out their sausage rolls and bananas, we all had an impromptu celebratory picnic. The sycamore was a locus for stargazers, a place where people scattered ashes and left painted pebbles inscribed with personal messages.

I added it to my list of ‘special trees’. I have many favourite trees. There is the apple tree in Isaac Newton’s Garden at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. In the late summer of 1666, this tree helped Newton to question the nature of gravitation. I visited it in 2018. Then there is Rebel’s Wood, on the Atlantic-facing coast of the Isle of Skye. On the shores of Loch Bracadale is a woodland, where along with 8,000 others, I planted a Willow sapling in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, who was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees to combat global warming.

But my pride and joy is my own small orchard, which I’ve bootstrapped back to life. We moved house in summer 2022 and the property had an unkept, uncared for orchard, a decade in decline and wildly overgrown.  It’s a three-year labour of love project. I decided I wanted to do this by myself, for myself, without any help – being sheer bloody minded but being able to say I did this: 2022 was just pure graft, clearing, sorting, hiring of skips; 2023 planning, redesigning, moving trees and sorting the site; 2024 will hopefully see some glorious fruit burst forth!

As we approach March, there is something about the skeletal splendour of winter trees holding a silent atmosphere of  bareness. Like ourselves, wintering is about resilience. We are prone to regard our trees as cold, naked, and dreary, as we wait until they are again clothed in verdure. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, the branches and trunk display more individuality in the winter than in the summer.

My plan is to foray back into the orchard the first weekend of March, amongst the maze of twisted branches. I realise I work like a gardener with my startups. Things come slowly, follow their natural course. They grow, I must graft. Ripening goes on in my mind. The lessons of gardening are the opposite of the messages we receive from our technocratic, perfectionist, algorithmic, optimising tech startup world – the garden is an unhappy place for the perfectionist, too much stands beyond our control here, but I realise I can take things from both gardening and venturing, the pure and the natural.

Fundamentally, ideas are things that grow too. A startup founder has the first inkling of an idea, and she plants it in her notebook, and in that notebook she moves it around and sees what it needs, what will help it grow. And she redraws it over time and slowly, some of the ideas will grow, some will die. And then, one idea grows up and gets bigger and bigger, and starts to bear fruit and becomes an opportunity to nurture into a venture.

Like a gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end, an entrepreneur bootstrapping their business lives a day at a time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home, but seeks to improve things.  So, what are the similarities from bootstrapping an orchard and a startup venture?

1. Planning & preparation. Traditionally, orchards are planted in a grid formation, in rows of trees from North to South to maximise how much sun reaches each tree.  I preferred a clusters of trees here and there where suitable ground allowed. I hired a small digger to relocate some of them. That was fun! In the spirit of bootstrapping, I did this myself. I had a design for spacing and layout, but the arrangement of the trees was already partly fixed and determined by the shape and features of the orchard site.

The most important thing is that each tree is positioned in a place that receives sufficient sun and soil depth, which is well drained and is not too close to other trees. Spacing between fruit trees should be generous to allow for competition-free root and canopy growth – we replanted 4m apart. This spacing then allows sufficient light to reach the ground.

Takeaway: you can’t have a great orchard or startup overnight by working indiscriminately. You need a vision, a roadmap, and a plan. The job must be broken down into tasks, and some will need to be completed before you can begin others. And have a back-up plan, it inevitably rains cats and dogs on your scheduled digging days – as in business you need some options in case things change, as they inevitably will.

2. Make sure what you’re planting has a chance of growth. In your business, follow your passion, because that will create a compelling proposition to customers. Trees grow from a single sapling, and businesses grow from a single idea. But not every sapling takes root and grows into a solid tree. Not every great idea becomes a high-growth business. Don’t plant palm trees in Alaska.

Most fruit trees require six to eight hours of sunlight for good growth and fruit ripening, so it’s useful to know how much sun the site receives in the growing season and whether there are any shady spots, and how sunny the site is when the sun is at its highest point. Like a startup understanding its market, the conditions for growth are a key consideration.

Takeaway: Understand the idea, the market, and the customers before attempting to bootstrap your venture. Is the idea right for the season, the climate, the environment? Is the soil rich in nutrients or needs some tendering to make it sustainable for growth? Research ideas before taking action.

3. Dig in to create the conditions. The ideal soil for fruit trees is well-drained, uncompacted, loamy soil with a pH of 6 (slightly acidic). Good soil should be easy to dig once the top layer is removed. The key thing to remember is that most soils can be improved over time, and as the trees will be growing in the same spot for decades to come, we can improve this soil through ongoing additions of organic mulch.

For startups. you can spend forever planning every detail, but it’s time to get out there and put the spade into the ground. My business mantra is 20% thinking, 80% doing, you’ve talked about it for long enough, get started! Perspiration is a sign that I have put some effort into life. It’s the same for business, customers meetings don’t happen by staring at a spreadsheet.

Takeaway:  The strength of any tree comes from its roots. In business, the foundations are vital. Sturdy foundations keep businesses standing in times of turbulence, while weaker companies fall. Once you’ve done that – make a start!

4. Beautiful things grow out of the mud and muck. Beautiful things grow out of nowhere, but nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Mozart had his string quartets completely in his head and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world.

But things do evolve out of nothing. The tiniest sapling with the right care in the right setting turns into a beautiful tree out of the muddy morass. A founder is like a gardener, planting, and nurturing, waiting to see what develops.

Takeaway: What this means for founders is a rethinking of one’s position as a creator.  Stop thinking of yourself as a ‘controller’, there’s something to my orchard that talks about the difference between order and disorder. As a bootstrapper, it’s the difference between understanding of order and how order comes into being. But essentially, they’re all experiments.

5. Chaos theory, complexity theory, catastrophe theory. Things grow from the bottom and turn into things of greater complexity. As a founder, you must understand why this isn’t a surprise. It’s surprising for the same reason that evolution theory is still surprising to most Americans, which is that the concept of something intelligent coming from something simple is hard to understand.  It’s not intuitive at all.  The whole shock about Darwinian evolution is that simplicity turns into complexity.  It’s not obvious that that should happen. 

Instead of trying to organise everything in detail, bootstrapping means you organise to a degree, and you then rely on the dynamics of the market to take you in the direction you want to go. With the odd catastrophe thrown in along the way.

Takeaway: Startup life is not a simple deterministic mathematical game, that you know what all the inputs to the system are, and yet the outcomes are extremely unintuitive. They’re very unpredictable. So your intuition kind of runs out on you there, like the unpredictable processes of nature. 

6. Be alert to threats. Bootstrapping means you’re constantly seeking to forge ahead, but don’t just be blinkered filled with positivity, be balanced about the risks and threats to your new venture.

Frost pockets and standing water. Most fruit trees do not like to be in for standing water, frost pockets are areas where cold air can’t escape, usually at the bottom of a slope where there is a wall or hedge, meaning that they stay frosty long after other areas have thawed. Both of these areas are best avoided.

Takeaway: Gardeners, like entrepreneurs believe in potential and can be known to be pathologically optimistic. We can vividly imagine the branches heavy with fruit in the autumn, even in deepest of winter, and that our new business venture can be a success. Just be mindful to take a balanced view of the downsides and threats you could face.

Summary Bootstrapping my orchard into year three of my endeavour has taught me about patience and persistence, working hard to create something you want, and feeling proud of achievement. The cycle of the seasons is akin to the growth stages of a startup.

Both start with thinking and designing. Once strong roots are established, with careful nurturing, natural growth will bring your trees on leaps and bounds. The same goes for business, set your thinking to fix the foundations, and then with attention, thought and effort, your business will grow. But beware the unpredictable global climate, the weather and the economy throw unexpected challenges just when you think you’re on an even keel.

Rebuilding my orchard via bootstrapping is a way of showing that I believe in tomorrow. To dig a spade into the earth, has life anything better to offer than this? Of course, you can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt too!

Orchards, like a startup, are not made by sitting down and hoping stuff happens, so get up now and go get your hands dirty. I always look forward to seeing the results of my efforts, working harder than I have done before. If you take that attitude into your business, you won’t go far wrong.

We’re ready to talk...

Wherever you are on your startup journey, get in touch and let’s unpack your thinking together and see where we can help turn your idea into a reality.