How Does Your Garden Grow?
I owe this book to my friend Gus. Gus Rancatore is the founder,
owner, and operator of Toscaninis Ice Cream & Coffee,
three stores in my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that produce
what is in my biased opinion the best ice cream in the world.
Gus is easy to spot. Most hours of the day or night you can find
him behind the counter of his Main Street store, located across
the street from a fire station and a couple of blocks from the campus
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hes the
large, affable, slightly distracted fellow whos juggling three
things as we speak, whether preparing an egg cream for a customer,
checking the ingredients in the new batch of mango sorbet, or bantering
with the supplier delivering coffee beans. Within his element of
the store, Gus is the center of the universe. Hes as comfortable
talking politics with the local cops as he is managing his employees,
many of whom are MIT students (some of them literally go on to become
rocket scientists). At Toscaninis Gus is the happy genius
propelling the enterprise forward.
Theres a spirit to the stores and the company that extends
beyond Gus, and this force has always fascinated me. Like every
small business, Toscaninis has a heart and soul beyond its
owner's individual personality. And Ive found over the years
that Gus has learned as much from Toscaninis as he has put
into the operation. And it is this link that has led me to write
I met Gus while I was a local reporter for the Cambridge Chronicle
more than fifteen years ago. Since then I have focused my work on
the world of business, particularly small business. I chose to cover
business for a simple reason. In Cambridge, I grew tired of reporting
about what other people had to say, or what they thought; and I
became much more passionate about what people didthe choices
they made, the actions they took, and the consequences of those
actions. The two best areas where these narratives take shape are
crime and business. I chose to cover business.
And as I learned more about business, particularly as a writer
and editor at Inc. Magazine, it became clear to
me that the line between the founder of a small business and his
or her enterprise is a thin if nonexistent one. And that this blurring
of life and commerce is what makes them exciting. Start-ups are
as different and exciting as individual people. Many large companies
are dynamic and fascinating, and have great stories to tellyet
discovering the excitement often requires a journey through the
heart of darkness. For me, the world of start-ups and the folks
who launch them have always held the most allure. For at this stage
the passions and quirks and dreams of the founder or team mesh with
the narrative of their company to create individual stories of growth
Thats why I have chosen The Start-up Garden as the
title of this book. Not to imply that you should go out and found
a seed-and-soil company, as some have suggested. But simply to highlight
the critical and living link between the growth of your company
and your own personal growth. I have learned that growing a company
grows you as an individual, and that this vital link between the
person and the business nourishes the whole enterprise. This book
attempts to articulate how. Wherever you are in the process of starting
a company, I can help you take the next steps, and gain more mastery
in the process. The Start-up Garden is designed to help
you learn the skills necessary to be in control of your enterprise.
Lets explore how.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book contains seven chapters. Each one identifies a particular
skill that growing a business necessarily teaches you. First you
identify what you are good at, what you care about, and what opportunities
are available to you. Then you learn to match these qualities with
the specific needs of others. From there you develop financial literacy
that grows your particular enterprise. You then learn to bootstrap,
to manage others with clarity, and to implement a managerial system
so that your business can (in theory) run without you. Finally,
you learn to use your business as a resource for your continued
Let me draw from the garden metaphor: Chapter 1 teaches you to
identify the seed you wish to grow; Chapter 2 helps determine whether
it is fecund. Chapter 3 plots how it will grow, and Chapter
4 prepares you to nourish and feed the plant as it grows. Chapter
5 examines the human resources youll need as your venture
sprouts, and Chapter 6 identifies how you make the transition from
simply tending a plant to becoming a gardener. Chapter 7 teaches
you how to step back and let your plant tell you what it needsto
understand what to prune, what to leave alone, and what to break
off and plant as a new entity.
The Start-up Garden begins, and ends, with chapters that
explore how you learn and grow as you grow your business. The first
chapter describes simple steps that you can take to identify who
you are, what you care about, and what you are good at; and then
proposes how to analyze your available resources and opportunities,
and then use these energies as an engine to fuel your nascent venture.
The final chapter examines how you learn with more mastery as your
business begins to operate at a more powerful level.
The books chapters are linked to one another naturally and
necessarily. If you attempted to learn each of these practices in
isolation you might find them particularly insurmountable. Yet in
the course of building a business you will find yourself with no
choice but to reach a point of mastery in each of these areas. By
learning financial literacy, for example, or learning to set real
boundaries in your relationships with employees, you will develop
a toolbox of skills that enable you to grow your business in a meaningful
way. You will learn these skills most powerfully when you do so
from your own personal standpoint--when, that is, you understand
them in terms of your own needs, desires, existing skills, and capacities.
There is no one right way to start a company. Successful ventures
are as varied as individual people. Yet learning the skills in this
book gives you more choices, and more control over the fate of your
company. You can approach this daunting process with a greater sense
of expectation and creativity, a better idea of the choices you
have available to you. There will always be elements beyond your
control with a business: acts of God, stubborn customers, natural
catastrophes, the impunity of Alan Greenspan. I cant promise
smooth sailing. Yet by mastering these disciplines you will be better
prepared to address challenges and design the path of your success.
I have tried to distinguish The Start-up Garden from the
bulk of guides to entrepreneurs in one aspect above all. While others
provide lists and recipes that all start-ups must follow, I believe
the key dynamic in every business is the individual or team that
founds the company. All businesses may play by similar rules, yet
they are run by individuals, each with his or her own set of strengths
and passions; and their corresponding closets of liabilities. To
ignore this reality is to invite failure.
And so this book attempts to put all that necessary information
within a personal frameworkto help you learn such essential
data as how to conduct market research, or how to keep the books,
or how to even come up with the right idea for a business from
your own perspective. As companies grow and adopt policies
and procedures, they do become like one another. But small companies,
like Tolstoys unhappy families, are different from one another
in their own way.
This book recognizes and celebrates that difference.
While theres no one right way to start and grow a business,
there are rules to doing business. From customers to employees,
bankers to vendors, the various players in this game operate by
a set of written and unwritten agreements. You must know these to
participate. Moreover, there are principles for helping
you navigate these rules. By learning a core set of principles and
practices, I believe that all individuals can get in the game. I
cant guarantee that everyone will achieve riches beyond their
wildest dreams. But I can promise that mastering these areas of
practice will endow you with more control, and choice, in your enterprise--and
by extension, in your life.
While many successful businesses start with a great idea, they
become healthy, sustainable ventures only after the founder or president
masters sufficient skills to operate and renew the business beyond
one specific product or service. You must master the skills that
are discussed in this book in order to be in control of your business.
I cant say how you will reach your destination nor can I guarantee
that youll get there. But, hopefully, this book will help
you navigate the way.
Becoming an entrepreneur involves a shift in ones thinking.
Working a job often means producing, being efficient, getting things
done, accomplishing things. Acting entrepreneurially means creating
value where it didnt exist before. It means seeing opportunity
and taking the necessary actions to create value as a result. There
are deliberate steps and actions to help make this happen. And while
the process may be intuitive to some, it can be learned by all,
with the right approach. This book attempts to help people master
I believe that in todays economy the heart of successand
your most important source of competitive advantageis how
well you know yourself, and how well that understanding animates
the mission of your business. The degree to which you distinguish
yourself by manifesting yourself in your business will determine
your ventures success.
Heres one key thought driving this whole book. Your business
is the vehicle through which you realize your passion. I choose
each of these words carefully. Vehicle, to imply that the
enterprise exists to take you and your stakeholders to a destination.
No successful company is an end in itself. As we will discuss later,
your business has a mission and a purpose; and the profit your business
makes is a dependent variable tied to how well it consistently achieves
what it sets out to accomplish. Realize, not just as in
to realize a profit, but in the sense of the entire process of bringing
forth an idea into the world as a finished product. And passion?
Well, any successful entrepreneur will experience passion from joy
and delight to rage and despair during the life cycle of a business.
The fact that you are reading this book shows that you have started
your business. You are thinking about a product or service that
will satisfy your needs--and those of more than a handful of customers.
Now we will move forward by mapping out how businessesand
There has been no greater time to launch a small business than in
the past twenty years. Today there are anywhere from 7.5 million
to nearly 25 million small businesses, depending on whose data you
believe. (Ill count the SBA definition, derived from tax returns,
estimating roughly 5.3 million businesses with employees in this
Yet these numbers only tell part of the story. There are not just
more people starting their own businesses; the culture of entrepreneurship
has become ever more embedded in our culture. Business school students
now rank entrepreneurship among their top career choices, while
the number of courses on the subject has exploded in the past decade.
More capital, in the form of venture money, angel investors, and
commercial loans, is available for start-ups. And more resourcesincluding
everything from magazines to books to Web sites to peer groupsare
now available for people with a desire to start their own company.
These macro changes have changed the rules of the game for would-be
entrepreneurs. On the one hand, its never been easier for
an individual to launch a business. Start-ups are more culturally
accepted, resources are increasingly available, while technology,
such as the Internet, and software such as Quicken, give individuals
the ability to gather information and take control of functions
(such as accounting) that large enterprises could handle more effectively
just a decade ago.
Yet all these changes have had one ironic effect. Although it is
easier than ever to launch a business, these same changes make it
harder for individual start-ups to thrive. Big businesses can now
use technology to target smaller niches, whether products or geographic
areas. The growth of massive retailers has laid siege on traditional
mom-and-pop stores. And the general skill set of entrepreneurs today,
many of them trained in business school or tackling their own companies
after years of big company experience, is forcing everyone to become
more proficient in the rules of the game.
Several years ago Inc. Editor George Gendron noted that
its becoming harder for small companies to thrive based on
one single proprietary idea. Today all small companies must become
professional sooner than ever. As he puts it, the age of entrepreneurial
novelty has given way to entrepreneurial execution. Thats
the bad news. Now, heres the good news: You can do it. The
same changes that are making it easier for big companies to act
small are enabling small companies to play big. And those small
companies that have mastered the skills necessary to compete with
larger players can use their size, speed, and self-awareness to
Here are a few final thoughts. I dont promise to cover every
last bit of data you will need to know. If you are looking for a
compendium of tricks and tips and info on every last detail of starting
your business, then I can, and do, recommend several all-purpose
guides in the Resources section at the end of each chapter. Details
like what type of office equipment to buy or how to market to one
particular client are important and, in fact, are often the most
pressing items on entrepreneurs to-do lists. Yet all these
details only matter in context. They become powerful actions
when performed for a greater purpose, within a mission. This book
is meant to help you create that vehicle. Sometimes the simplest
decisions are the hardest to make. Thats what were grappling
I started writing The Start-up Garden during the explosion
of the Internet and the brief bubble of wealth that seemed to promise
fortunes to anyone launching an Internet company in recent years.
Yet this book isnt about hitting the jackpot of huge IPO riches,
nor is it about building a high-growth, venture-backed, high-technology
company. Theres a fundamental distinction between companies
that use the Web in the context of launching a viable business,
and those technology-based, venture capitalbacked vehicles
that are great ideas for companies but may offer little in the way
of real customers or actual products. This book is meant for the
The time when one great idea alone made for a great company is
over. Now, even in the world of the Internet, all start-ups are
being forced to focus on the enduring rules of business success.
So I will certainly talk about the impact of the Web, especially
as it affects how start-ups leverage technology and communicate
with customers and conduct myriad relationships and manage information.
But I think that competence on the Web, like any number of managerial
necessities, is becoming just one of a number of skills that all
entrepreneurs must master to be in control of their future.
The explosion of the Internet economy has left behind one great,
and often overlooked, entrepreneurial legacy. Regardless of those
companies that have tanked, or failed to live up to their promises,
I believe that the excitement surrounding new businesses in the
past five years has exposed more individuals to start-ups, and start-up
culture, than ever before. As a result, more people not only merely
believe they can launch a business but they are taking steps to
do so. Thats a good thing.
One final word. I have spent the past five years running my own
one-man show as a writer and editor. Ive learned how to practice
many of the lessons that I preach in this book. And before that
I spent more than a decade absorbing the lessons of entrepreneurs
who have launched their own successful companies. Many of these
masters have taught me much about start-ups, and to a large extent
I am sharing their wisdom in this book.
Ultimately, however, I cant teach you how to grow your particular
business. You are going to learn on your own. I can help you ask
the right questions and find the right resources. And then the practice
of running your business will teach you the most important lessons.
To quote my friend Gus, Running a business is an existential
processyou learn what you need to know only by doing it.
But dont trust me too much. Go out and do it.
Lets get started.
Read or print the Intro
and Chapter 1.
Read the book reviews at Inc
Read the publisher's press
this book from Amazon.com.
the companies that Tom discusses in the book
Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden
Buy my book and I will send you a worksheet and list of local
and industry resources for your startup. Simply send me an email
with your zip code and type of company and I will email you the free kit. Thanks!
Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some
written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other
Read about other
books and web sites about starting your own business.