Why Business is like... birds and worms

'The early bird catches the worm': a proverb extolling the virtues of getting up and out there promptly in order to claim the prize. It's easy to see how it relates to business, where companies have to exploit any advantage in order to snap up customers.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But there's a problem with the saying: it doesn't mention the fortunes of the later bird. In reality, rival birds can turn up pretty much whenever they want and still get a decent feed - as long as they hit the right spot and employ the right techniques. After all, there are plenty of worms to go round.

As in nature, so in business - being first certainly doesn't guarantee success. For every triumphant early arrival such as Amazon, eBay and Coca-Cola, there's a Yahoo - or an IBM, a company that got its feathers plucked despite taking off ahead of its rivals. Pampers, Google and the iPod, meanwhile, were slower off the perch, but landed on a tastier breed of worm or hit upon a smarter way to grab them.

In fact, there are more than 20,000 different varieties of worm, from hookworms and earthworms to other larvae not technically worms but casually considered such - for example, glowworms and woodworms. With an understanding of these creatures and their habits, any bird will stand a good chance of filling its stomach. Hence the habit of 'worm charming': stamping on the ground, perhaps to simulate rain, to encourage the prey up from the soil. It's the kind of practice that should be familiar to marketers everywhere.

But business should be wary of too many worm analogies. Fall into the trap of seeing your customers as blind beasts with a few bundles of nerves instead of a brain and you may well find your lunch being eaten up by your rivals, no matter how early you are.

Jenny Harris is director of JRBH Strategy & Management, www.jrbh.co.uk.

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