The American camel idea: 3 lessons for small business owners

What do American camel riders from the 19th century have to do with small business owners? Before answering that unusual question, allow me to tell you a brief story.

In his fascinating e-book, American Hippopotamus, Jon Mooallem tells the story of American camel riders during the 1850s. The US Secretary of War at the time, Jefferson Davis, wanted to move camels from Africa to the American Southwest.

The idea was that, since camels have more endurance in the desert than horses, they should be ridden as pack animals. But ultimately, the idea failed.

Let’s take a look at what this failure can teach us as small business owners. For each point, we’ll look at what occurred with the camel riders before discussing how it can apply to your small business.

1. Anticipate how your team will receive an idea

One thing Davis did not account for was the pride of his soldiers.

According to Mooallem, the soldiers on horseback made fun of the camel riders so much that the men refused to ride the animals altogether. This, among concerns over the looming Civil War and the odor of the camels, ultimately led to the abandonment of the idea in the 1860s.

If we’re looking at this from a small business perspective, think of the camel riders as the team that would implement this idea. I’m not sure how much the lawmakers in DC realized the response they would get from their team.

As a business owner, do you consider how enacting your ideas will affect your team? Are you anticipating any resistance to an idea? If so, do you know how you’re going to respond? Answering these questions prior to pitching an idea may be worth the effort.

2. Just because you like an idea doesn’t mean you should go through with it

It can be difficult to set aside your ego and abandon an idea you like in favor of what’s best for your audience and your company.

The camel idea made sense on paper. They were, after all, more suitable pack animals for the Southwest’s deserts than horses. But in reality, they were a bust.

Similarly, you should be careful of going through with an expensive and time-consuming idea without considering all the variables involved. In addition, if your team is reticent to accept your plan, you may want to reassess it. Perhaps you can tweak it. Or it may be wise to scrap it entirely.

3. No idea is guaranteed to work

Davis and his associates in Washington DC certainly thought using camels would help them win the Southwest.

However, nearly all plans, despite what advocates may think, are not guaranteed to succeed. That’s why we hear of startups who, despite having investors, couldn’t stay in business for a year. Heck, the fact that 20% of businesses fail in their first year likely has something to do with an idea that looked like it would succeed but was ultimately a failure.

That said, having the humility to acknowledge an idea may not work will help you brace for any unfortunate outcomes.

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