Much of my knowledge about business comes from a television show. No, it’s not “Mad Men,” nor is it “Entourage.” Rather, it’s Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth,” a series that provides a deep and intimate understanding of animal behaviours.

Animals are governed by survival. From the many wildcat chases to the desperate foraging for food, survival is the common denominator of each episode of “Planet Earth.” Interestingly, survival is also a theme that applies to most early-stage startup companies. It seems that Charles Darwin made more than just a biological discovery.

So what was it that caused the extinction of 99.9% of the Earth’s species? Or better yet, what is the rare magic that keeps an elite few species alive?

Survival at its best – three stories from the animal kingdom

Here are three success stories from the animal kingdom about species that have survived in their ecosystem. They may not be your typical best practice cases, but startups do play the same game of survival and it is essential to learn from those who play it the best.

1. Innovation

The New Caledonian crow is one of the most innovative non-primate species. In a nutshell, these birds build tools out of materials they find in their surroundings. Using twigs and shreds of leaves, for example, they create hooks to be used for extracting insects out of the crevasses in trees. They then demonstrate this novel and more efficient practice for finding breakfast to the other crows in their group.

When competition is life-threatening, as it is for a bird in the forest or a startup entering a new market, continuous innovation separates the survivors from the rest of the pack (to put it lightly). Competition is overcome by generating and capitalizing on new ideas—meaning innovation is the key to driving growth.

2. Teamwork

This may seem obvious, but it is crucial that teamwork be executed from the get-go. Simply put, a group of people can generally come up with a better solution to a problem than one person on his or her own.

Let’s look at ants. As this BBC News segment explains, when an ant colony faces a complex problem, the ants break the problem down into thousands of more simple problems where each individual ant can contribute. Using this strategy, the ants fight battles, build homes and locate food. It is only when the ants work together that they can survive—the purest form of the strength in numbers theory.

In a business, your team can (and should) leverage the skills of each individual to vanquish the obstacles that test your company’s survival. Use your worker ant to build your infrastructure and use your soldier ant to defend your colony. But most importantly, work together and you’ll achieve maximum success.

3. Creating valuable relationships


The great white shark opens its mouth and the cleaner fish (wrasse) swims in. But the shark doesn’t swallow this fish. On the contrary, the fish is allowed to stay in the shark’s mouth, eating the food that is stuck in the shark’s teeth. The shark gets a thorough cleaning and the fish gets a hearty meal—a beautiful symbiotic relationship.

In an ecosystem where resources are limited—especially for startups—creating mutualisms can help a company avoid extinction. This symbiosis may not be necessary, but it is a strategy that has been widely successful given its win-win nature.

Whether it is teaming with a venture capitalist to enable rapid growth or partnering with another firm to enter a foreign market, businesses should consider potential opportunities for symbiosis. Creating valuable relationships can significantly increase the chance of each entity achieving its respective goals.

The above examples are only a small taste of the expertise that animals have to offer us. Although Don Draper and Ari Gold are both very worthy businessmen, the next time you’re looking to develop your business strategy I highly recommend watching “Planet Earth.”

The concept of survival may be applied in business, but it originated from animal strategies and instincts. So if anyone can provide us with a business survival guide, it is surely the animal kingdom.

Jalesh Melwani

Jalesh Melwani is an intern with the Business Services team at MaRS, where he is putting his two passions to work: business and science. In the fall, Jalesh will continue his studies at the University of Western Ontario and Ivey where he is pursuing a dual degree in Environmental Science and Business. See more…