When the Japanese vine kudzu was introduced to North America, it was an ornamental marvel. With its winding, blooming vines displayed mid-climb at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, the specimen was soon planted in abundance and promoted as a tool for soil erosion. It wouldn’t be until later that kudzu would earn the nickname “the vine that ate the South” for spreading quickly and strangling nearly everything in its path.
Like Burmese pythons, black rats, and even the common rabbit, kudzu is an invasive species — an organism not native to an ecosystem that causes harm when integrated. What may look ordinary on the surface, as many invasive species do, may actually be actively threatening native wildlife.
I mention kudzu because I think it is an apt warning, not just for botanists or zoologists but for business people, entrepreneurs, and leaders of all types. The reality is that businesses can be invasive too, and like foreign flora and fauna can disrupt the ecosystems they drop in on, damaging communities and prompting other negative side effects.
I believe that new or relocating businesses should strive to be as organic as possible to ensure they contribute to the health of a location. Otherwise, they could strangle existing businesses and citizens as they grow, much like the dastardly kudzu vine.
Prevention may not be as easy as it sounds. Founding a new business isn’t like bringing seeds from continent to continent — every business is unique, which means it has the potential to be invasive whether that’s your intention or not. As a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure not just that your business thrives, but unlike the kudzu, it does not thrive at the expense of those with which it shares space.
Here’s how I think entrepreneurs can build businesses that coexist instead of dominate, and how I did it myself.
Don’t Suffocate Your Community
When founding my business The Allure Group, I realized early on that as a group of skilled nursing facilities, we were responsible for representing the people in the communities our homes are located in. This meant prioritizing their comfort and their culture above all else, including mine or my team’s.
The community is a delicate ecosystem, after all. It must be considered at every stage, whether you are looking for office space, designing your business model, or setting prices. At Allure, which is based in Brooklyn, we knew that cultural enclaves have specific needs that carry enormous value in our line of work. So we have bilingual staff members where necessary as well as religious services, authentic cuisine, and other accommodations that reflect the populations we serve, whether they are largely Jewish, Chinese, Latino or any other ethnicity.
This is just one example of considering the community when making business decisions in a specific location with particular demographics. Whatever your course of action, the goal should be to integrate your business into the area smoothly and offer services that will lift its people up.
Consider the Natural Business Landscape
One factor that must be considered when opening a new business is what gap you may be filling if you are filling a gap at all, in the current business landscape. The best way to organically serve a community is to identify an area that is underserved. It is essential to consider this early on — if your business is designed in order to fit into an ecosystem and deliver something specific and purposeful, you may be more likely to help the community flourish instead of the other way around.
Part of this means understanding the natural landscape of similar services and businesses, which in many cases will become direct competitors. Will your business put someone else out of business and hurt the locals as a result? It’s something to think about. It may, indeed, be that the existing competitors are providing inadequate services and that by entering the market you will offer diversity and push existing businesses to compete with better prices and services. But if you simply squash longstanding businesses, that could do more harm than good.
It’s a bit paradoxical because on business we often talk about disruption, but I think the idea of thoughtful integration, or merging, is just as important. Yes, it’s good to disrupt if you are shaking up an inadequate industry with smart innovation. But there is also plenty of room to blend in, so you’ll have to toe the line somehow. When it comes down to it, if you are meeting real needs in a way that is a boon to your community, the road ahead will be much smoother.
Forge a Non-invasive Path
When the kudzu ate the South, those that introduced it made a key mistake: they did not consider the trajectory of the vine. Perhaps they underestimated what it would do, or perhaps they simply did not care. Whatever the case, it led a path of destruction that was good for the vine and not so great for everyone else. To this day, the kudzu acts as “interference competition” which means it outcompetes other species for vital resources like ground and sunlight, wreaking environmental and ecological havoc as a result.
It is important for founders to consider how they will grow and scale at the onset. Good or bad, we all know of massive franchises that put mom and pop stores out of business — some could argue that this is survival of the fittest. And in some cases, I would agree that the business that prevails has met some community need and earned their spot.
That said, knowing how to scale means scaling your consideration of communities and their needs. When Allure acquired our second, third and fourth facilities, we couldn’t just replicate what worked the first time. We had to take what worked well and design the rest for the community. We became very familiar with the community and worked to identify services that addressed an unmet need. This process helped us to develop niche services which were not readily available elsewhere. No two of our facilities are alike, because New York is so geographically and demographically diverse. Ignoring that would make our service worse and make life worse for those we did serve.
To this day, my team and I put a significant amount of energy into our growth plans. We also realize that no community is static — what meets a need now may not meet it five years from now. Like a good plant, we grow our operations with the surrounding life and work to support the ecosystem, forging a non-invasive path as we flourish.
For you, this will mean planning your growth trajectory with the community in mind, and always taking time to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t and make changes as necessary.
An invasive business may or may not thrive in the long run, while invasive species typically will keep at it unless more extreme measures are taken. I think that most community-minded entrepreneurs have good instincts and will avoid the type of disruption apt to do damage. The more normalized this behavior comes, the safer and better-served all communities will be — no pesticide needed.