Mycelium Musings, Part 1

Lessons for Startups from Mushroom Hunting

Matthew Mengerink, CTO/Co-Founder

One of my passions in life is mushroom hunting. It’s a brilliant activity that involves tons of research, knowing a field with certain knowledge, playing in the rain, getting great exercise and, after a wonderful treasure hunt, you get to eat your treasure! Recently, I went on a chanterelle hunt with Josh Walker (a dear friend, prior Happy Home Company employee, and mentor/guide to mushrooms) and realized that the overlaps of mushroom hunting and starting a company are plentiful and useful to examine. This article aims to explore the lessons of mushroom hunting that apply to startups.

You can walk right by success.

Josh and I were on a hunt for Black Trumpets. These are extremely difficult to find if you don’t know how to find the signs. My daughter Sabrine, at the time 14 years old, was with us. As we walked down a path, she was behind both Josh and I. She said, “So, do we not want these mushrooms?” We look down and see a ton of Black Trumpets in the middle of the path. Sabrine then noted we had been passing them for a while. We had a very long distance of backtracking and picking up a ton of mushrooms. I wish I could say this was a one-time event. It’s now a regular joke that comes up on most hunts, “Are we not picking these today?”

MySpace had the largest social graph at one point and missed the newsfeed concept.

Find a great partner.

Going on a hunt alone can be very meditative. However, for me, I find it a lot less fulfilling than the journey with a friend. These are all day events that can span 12+ miles. When the hunting is showing up very little, a friend helps the time go by. A partner suggests locations you wouldn’t try alone. They add to what you know. They see things you don’t. They double-check your assumptions and save you when you’re wrong. They help form theories along the way. You learn more. They drive you to work harder, faster, and smarter.

The Google founders are a well-known team success story.

False pattern matching can lead you astray.

Human beings are phenomenal pattern-matchers. Over the years, we’ve accumulated patterns of what we think are true, like: chanterelles do not grow in redwoods, where ferns grow heavily you won’t find mushrooms, you won’t find lots of chanterelles late in the season, where you find one chanterelles you’ll find a bunch… There are so many patterns and truths that we’ve held for years only to find one mushroom that defies the pattern. Now, what do you do with that information? Do you change your behavior or continue as you were? On the plus side, you can “feel” that a location has the mushrooms you’re looking for and it’s remarkable how many times we stop to look and find mushrooms based on nothing more than a feeling that it’s a good spot. On the other hand, I’m sure we overlook many mushrooms because we believe something that isn’t true.

eBay has long wrestled with being an auctions company or a new and in-season store, and the patterns that go with each choice.

It’s a lot of work.

Did I mention 12 miles? These aren’t 12 miles of flat paths. Often times, we are off trail, scaling ridges, and doing 8,000 feet of up and down in a day. We are going through thick brush. We’re on our hands and knees. We’re getting ticks, poison oak, scraped by logs, falling in water, and having other problems along the way. If you succeed heavily, you’re carrying 40lbs of mushrooms in a backpack out of the woods. Your eyes are constantly strained from the intense looking around. By the end of the day, you’re exhausted.

CosyTech won the “Hardest Working Startup” award; the most interesting thing is that there are such awards given!

Unfortunately, sometimes it can be better to be lucky than to be smart.

You can’t find edible mushrooms without looking at the places where they grow. So, you study habitats, flowers, plants, trees and you come to understand what they grow on and where. You study maps and look for the right places. You walk for hours and explore all of the places that are right, at the right time, and you find nothing. Then, sometimes, you’re walking along a path and aren’t hunting and you find a massive patch of choice edibles. I was at a garden store up in the Santa Cruz mountains and found a huge patch of chanterelles this way. Just the right place at the right time.

Was Rovio lucky or smart with the initial success of Angry Birds?

The results make it look easy to everyone else.

The pictures you see are the ends of successful hunts with mushrooms in abundance. In 5 years of hunting, I have 5 or so days like this. There are a lot of pictures of a lot of great finds, but relative to the number of days, locations, and efforts that result in nothing, it is a false record.

It’s easy to look at all the billionaires from Facebook and conclude it was easy.

It’s easy to lose hope.

As I noted, there is long distance involved in mushroom hunting. If you aren’t finding any mushrooms, it’s easy to convince yourself this is a waste of time. Again, partnerships keep you going. The good parts of just being together keep you involved in the task at hand and often one of you has more optimism than the other. When hope is lost, you give up, you go home. You fail for sure. Fighting the cycles of hope during a hunt is a crucial element to a hunt and a startup.

Yahoo has had many times in which the whole company was in a malaise.

But small success can breath huge life into the hunt.

It’s amazing just what the smallest number of mushrooms will do to revive hope in a day where you’re not finding much. We were out on a hike and found a couple of “candy cap” mushrooms. We otherwise were not finding much. When we found these, we were able to pick up steam and continue for a lot longer with more belief and optimism. Startups are very similar; the team can really get behind and celebrate even small customer wins.

Pebble has a huge road in front of it to compete with Apple and Google, but its fundraising win on Kickstarter was awesome.

What you’re doing might be breaking the law.

It turns out that there’s a pattern in the US: “Forget, Fear, & Forbid.” There are signs all over the trailheads that have “Warning! Picking and eating wild mushrooms can kill you!” We have many laws that forbid people from going off trail and picking fungus. This is mistakenly to protect them, or to protect the environment, or some such. The facts of mushroom hunting are that it’s safe for the environment and picking them actually propagates them. That said, it is illegal none-the less.

“To the brave go the spoils of war.” Many startups are doing something that is illegal or borderline illegal in the beginning. One has to be prepared to deal with litigation and fighting to make the valuable activity that they’re doing to be legal where they operate business. eBay and PayPal are great examples of models that were illegal in many places until the law was worked on to make it fully legal. Also, the consequence of getting caught is often that your mushrooms are confiscated. Nothing feels as bad as losing what you already have, when it was so difficult to acquire!

PayPal has been in disputes with many cities and states over whether or not it was legally operating.

The rewards are huge.

We have had days in which we collect literally thousands of dollars worth of mushrooms in a single day. We have had meals where we have cooked several hundred dollars worth of mushrooms just for a single dish. I can’t tell you how wonderful pasta or a risotto is with 3–4 lbs of chanterelles cooked down and added. Four pounds of chanterelles at WholeFoods is $160.00. That’s an excessive amount of money to spend on a single dish. But… oooh when you’ve collected them yourself, splurging is easy to do and is delightful!

Many people have pondered how great it must feel to be on the WhatsApp team!

Doing it is good for your mind and health.

Being intellectually challenged and having to solve new problems is a great way to learn and develop new neural connections in the mind. We see a new species of mushroom and, at first,finding and identifying it is tremendously difficult. Then, suddenly, you see it everywhere. It becomes easy to find and trivial to identify. Stress, long considered a bad thing, has been determined to be a healthy thing so long as you understand that it is. Similarly, a startup is a non-stop learning experience and every day you feel the pressure and stress of the limits of time, money, and opportunity around you.

Palantir is all about finding the patterns of the bad people in life, a very hard field until you get good at it.

Ignorance is dangerous.

The most common cause of death within mushroom hunting is mistaking a type of mushroom as a safe one when you’re “back home.” People from other countries find a mushroom that is safe to eat at home, looks identical to one here, and they cook it, eat it and die. You cannot hunt mushrooms safely when you don’t know what you are doing. Similarly, when you start a company, you have to have some expertise in something. Without well-developed strengths, you are flying on luck. While being lucky is sometimes better than being smart, it’s not as likely for most of us. Learn fast. Learn deeply. Come to know your field very, very fast.

YCombinator has produced a lot of successful startups, but the majority of their graduates fail.

You’re hunting what you find.

Recently, we went chanterelle hunting. We kept going to oak trees and looking for them. Soon, we stumbled on a tan oak and found a black trumpet. We realized that it was time to hunt black trumpets. On another chanterelle hunt, we found amethyst laccaria. Suddenly, we were hunting those. If you keep hunting what you’re not finding, you will fail.

In the start up land, this is the infamous “pivot.” I’m not advocating that if you don’t find it, it’s not there. But, if you keep looking in the same way you’ve been, if you ignore the opportunity that you do find… then you’re making a huge mistake. Hunt what you find.

Groupon is a great example of a company that pivoted to what people were interested in buying.

It’s possible to be under-prepared for success.

The worst three hunts I’ve ever been on where I did not give up because we were finding so many mushrooms:

1. I did not pack enough water, got dehydrated, and was miserable. I had my daughter and her friend with her, so the guilt was compounded as my lack of preparation and mid-hunt judgment hurt others.

2. I did not pack warm enough clothes nor waterproof ones. It rained. I was cold and miserable the entire hunt.

3. Poor shoes. I kept slipping in the mud and landed painfully on my hip. It hurt beyond words. I came to hate my shoes.

Friendster wasn’t prepared to scale to their demand and being slow put them too far behind.

You need to constantly look in new places.

Mushrooms are pretty cool because they mostly grow back in the same place year after year. So, once you find a spot, you protect it! But, sometimes the nutrients wear out and the mushroom goes away. We have seen oyster logs or comb’s tooth logs give for years only to give out and never produce again. At that point, if you’ve not found a new location, you’re out of mushrooms quickly. This is very much like new marketing channels and new customers segments. If you do not constantly seek new ones, when you run out of growth, you’re in big trouble quickly!

Amazon is constantly looking for new lines of business like Prime, AWS, phones, storage, etc..

Others are hunting too.

Oh, nothing in the world upsets you like finding a big patch of holes in your known mushroom spot and no mushrooms. You know one thing for sure: someone else was here first. You have to be there before others, check frequently, work harder, and be smarter. If you think time or secrets are on your side, you’re wrong.

Apple furiously protects secrets as they know everyone is trying to beat them, but they win because they innovate fastest.

And competition drives you to more success.

It drives you to be better. Josh and I were looking for candy caps one day. Josh was in the give up hope point of the hunt and I found a few caps. He and I began to look for more. I kept finding them. He didn’t. I began to say “Ding!” every time I found a new cap. “Ding Ding Ding!!!” Josh got more and more infuriated. Soon, he screamed out “DING!!!!” Soon thereafter, he was finding as much as I was. We doubled our haul. In one place, he found some that I missed in an area I was searching and he pointed that out too.

Now, we always acknowledge first, biggest, most and “you-missed-them” moments in our hunts. We push each other to find more. Competition isn’t just outside. It’s great to have inside a company as well. At the end of the day, the difference is that you celebrate and honor the internal success. I’m happy when Josh hits and I don’t. It means I get to eat a lot of mushrooms anyway!

Uber consistently keeps its cross-hairs pointed at the taxi cab industry.

Belief is critical to success.

This is one of the most important lessons in mushroom hunting. If you do not believe that the mushrooms are there, you will not find them. One of my favorite days ever was finding my first porcini. I was fundamentally convinced we’d find them on that day. Josh gave up. When I found one, he was bothered. Now, I’d like to say I always believe, but there are many days where I give up and Josh still believes. He then pops up with a smile on his face and says, “Found ‘em!”

If you do not believe, you won’t see the mushrooms, you won’t take that extra look behind a log, you won’t look around the same way, and you aren’t ready to find success. Belief of success is critical to make it 8 miles of hunting and 6 hours just to keep going and find your major haul at the 9th mile and 7th hour. It happens a lot. Belief is critical. Sadly, belief doesn’t mean your beliefs will come true. But they definitely won’t if you don’t have it.

Pinterest is the classic story of grinding out a business until they got it right.

In this first article, we explored the fortitude of the mushroom hunter and the entrepreneur. In the next article, we’ll explore the exciting themes of death, toxicity, and how to survive!

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