One of the most captivating stories in human existence is the origin story. The best origin stories tell how groups of people became successful under challenging circumstances.
Origin stories become more profound the further back you go in time. If you go back to a time before gunpowder and oil were sufficient to tip the survival odds in your favour, human survival always came from a deep understanding of the environment.
All indigenous cultures that still survive today do so because they know how to work the environment around them.
If you travel anywhere in the Peruvian Andes, you’ll notice Inca terracing covering the hillsides. The Inca were masterful manipulators of the difficult terrain around them, but it seems they weren’t the only ones.
These irrigation fields were hand-built by the Tiwanaku people about 1000 years ago, on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The Tiwanaku shared the same environmental challenges as the Inca who would follow, and irrigation innovations were central to their origin story.
Water in between the raised beds both irrigated the crops, and raised the temperature slightly to protect from overnight frosts. This sounds like a simple innovation, but it was all built by hand and had a dramatic impact on food production.
Like civilisations, all companies have origin stories too. The small companies that succeed are the ones that understand their environment better than anyone else, and are innovative in ways of exploiting it.
Take the well-used example of Zappos. Selling shoes online had already been tried by bigger established companies, and mostly dismissed. Surely, it was assumed, people wanted to try the shoes on?
What Zappos understood was that it wasn’t the ability to try on a shoe that concerned people about ordering online. It was the ability to easily send it back for free if they didn’t want it.
Zappos succeeded because they understood this, and they exploited it.
Most of us are living in some kind of origin story, trying to get some kind of business idea or product off the ground. People in this situation spend inordinate time looking around at what the competition are doing.
Try understanding your environment a little better instead. History suggests that is more important.