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Trial Balloons and the Mothership [Startups
Posted on December 21, 2012 @ 12:39:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Joel Salatin, his extended family, interns, and business associates run Polyface farms. Joel's role in this enterprise is to articulate, in his many books and speaking engagements, the entrepreneurial skills and abilities that successful collaborative and sustainable farming is all about. I enjoy his writings. Something he said in a recent Acres USA article entitled "Keys to Success" has continued to resonate with me and is the inspiration for this blog.

The context is that Joel is listing off the most important determinants of success in farming. Number one on that list was for the farm to distinguish between trial balloons and the mothership and investing your time and resources accordingly. In the context of farming, the idea of trial balloons equates to experimenting with growing new types of produce (e.g., carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, etc...), raising different types of animals (e.g., chickens, beef, sheep, horses, etc...), using different types of growing techniques (e.g., pasture fed versus confinement fed, till or no-till, etc...). The combinations are endless. At some point, however, it is time pick a trial balloon out of the mix that looks the most promising and to invest more of your time and resources into growing it. This is the mothership. Joel advises that a farmer that can't distinguish between the trial balloons and the mothership will have a hard time being successful in farming.

It is one thing for Joel to say this and it is another thing for him to enact it in his own practices. When you look at what Polyface farms does it is all over the map and that is because he runs the farm as hives of independent entrepreneurial activity spear-headed by different members of the extended family, interns, and business associates. Neverthess, Joel claims that it his his pastured poultry products that are his Mothership. He argues that if you can't indentify your mothership then the overall business will not thrive. Pastured poultry play a critical role in his farming methods while also generating significant revenue. Quality in poulty products is also a significant and distguishing part of the Polyface brand. This being said, there are other Polyface enterprises in the mature trial balloon category that might be making more money, but Pastured Poultry products is still Polyface's mothership because it is critical to the sustainable farming he wants his brand to represent.

Entrepreneurs need to be always launching trial balloons in the early stages of their business to see what idea has the most lift off and/or the right fit with your beliefs and motivations. You can't remain, however, in the mode of always launching new trial balloons. At some point, you have to locate the mothership amidst the trial balloons and invest more of your time and resources into guiding and inflating it. If you pick the wrong mothership, the consequences might be devastating; but perhaps less devastating than not picking any mothership at all.

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