In the local shop, next to major beer brands, you might find microbrews with crazy names
like Wild Skunk Ale, Fiddlehead Fuel, or Mudsucker Stout, although I just made those up. While
the big-brands run TV ads starring sexy skiers or tough guys with trucks, their small competitors
have to scrabble for attention from the store shelf. That’s because, much like a small shrub
or fern beneath the tall trees in a forest, microbreweries live in the shadows of their
larger corporate competitors.
And, surprisingly, many species and businesses that eke out a living in the shadows of giants
employ similar strategies to succeed in their respective dog-eat-dog worlds of intense competition
for limited resources.
The winners of this competition in the forest or beer business, as defined by sheer volume,
are those that capture the most resources – sunlight in one case and consumers’ dollars
in the other. The mechanics differ – big trees capture sunlight by being tall and wide, while
large brewers earn billions of dollars of profits by having a broad reach, attracting
customers with low prices, mild flavor, and large advertising budgets.
The outcome is the same, though – by capturing the most valuable resources before they reach
others, dominant trees and companies exclude weaker competitors who employ the same tactics.
But there are trade-offs to any strategy, and being the best on average rarely works
in all cases and conditions.
That’s how understory ferns and microbreweries can succeed – by specializing in conditions
the "big guys" are not so good at: the so-called empty niches.
In deep shade, a fern can make a healthy, if modest, living by avoiding direct competition
and investing prudently in just enough photosynthetic machinery, to make a profit from the faint
sunlight reaching the forest floor– leftover light not worth the extra effort for the big
trees to capture up above. Ferns can even thrive on a photosynthetic income that’s inadequate
for the small offspring of many tall trees, and thus the humble fern coexists with the
tall timber above by competing on its own terms.
Similarly, microbrews, which invest in being odd, trendy, and strongly flavored, can persevere
by attracting aficionados not swayed by the marketing and lower prices of larger breweries.
Sure, fewer people fall into this category, just as fewer beams of sunlight fall through
the canopy onto the forest floor, but where there are resources, there’s potential to
And survival is the goal of both ferns and firms, so it’s not really that surprising
that both nature and the economy, driven by the same kinds of competition, give rise to
niches and diversification, to canopy and understory in the forest, and in the supermarketaisle!