How Can You Tend a Business That Will Thrive Under Constraint?

In bonsai, the small, shallow pot is the primary constraint, just as being a solopreneur is the primary constraint in your business.

Although the pot is small, and the constraint of growing a tree in it is daunting, it’s still very possible. The same is true of solopreneurial business.

Bonsai Business


To understand the type of growth the bonsai experiences, we can look to nature. Where else do we see the shallow soil and stunted growth? For one thing we see it on mountain tops, where there is little soil, where the roots grab onto the crevices in the rocks and the fierce winds twist the branches into interesting shapes.

We also see it, sometimes, in desert regions. The soil is poor, the water scarce, the wind, just as fierce.

So you can see that the constraints imposed by the shallow pot are tough, very tough. But you can also see that organisms can grow and thrive under such conditions, and do so every day. The same with solopreneurs.


The Shallow Pot 3

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. – Charles Darwin

I have to admit, this next part depends on how you feel about constraints. If, to you, constraints are like a prison cell depriving you of choice, this is going to feel especially hard. I prefer to think of constraints as a hurdle that once cleared, thins the herd immensely. Or in more Darwin-like terms, the harsher environment my business can survive, the more it can outperform the more tender competition.

The Shallow Pot 2

Like the tree clinging to the mountain peak, a bonsai survives on few resources. Survive is a technical term here. Like any organism, an individual tree can do well or poorly. The shallow pot is just the rules of the game.

Trees stay small in the alpine because it is a poor strategy to get big. There isn’t enough soil, and getting too tall makes it far more likely the wind will blow it over.

While you are constrained to a solopreneur operation, you would do well not to get too big either. Being small doesn’t prevent a bonsai from flowering, from setting seed. You must figure out how to set seed in your business. This will involve adapting to constraints; stop thinking like a hothouse darling. Be hardy. Flower in the snow.

The Shallow Pot 4


If the shallow pot constrains the root development, it is the gardener’s role to prune. Each gardener will have his own aesthetic vision, tempered by the reality of the tree’s own growth. For instance, there is a style in bonsai to mess with the perception of scale, to fool the eye into thinking that the tree is massive and ancient.

Others prefer the romantic character of spiraling branches, which is performed by wiring the branches in the chosen shape when they are young and supple. Still others prefer the windblown look, evoking the sense that the tree was transported only yesterday from a snow blasted mountain crag, complete with age-polished dead snags and contorted shape.

The Shallow Pot 5

This is the art of bonsai.

Every solopreneur could be doing the same, but they tend to get stuck in a single narrative – a tiny David, still surviving in spite of the Goliaths that dot the landscape. Or they don’t have any narrative, any aesthetic vision at all.

Since the aesthetic vision is the ideal vehicle for containing and transporting their marketing message, solopreneur businesses can really suffer the lack.


Bonsai trees are not dwarfs. There is no genetic reason that they are small. It is all because of the shallow pot and the careful pruning. If you move a bonsai from the pot and plant it in the ground, it will grow to its normal stature, although it will likely lose some of its character– constraining it to the particular shape you desire is more difficult when it has the resources to grow aggressively. If at some point you decide to stop being a solopreneur and add people to your team, you are making the pot bigger; you are removing the primary constraint to growth.

The Shallow Pot 6

I don’t say this to warn you off of getting a virtual assistant or to remind you to stay small. On the contrary, I’m saying that you do not doom your business to dwarfism by being a solopreneur when you start. If at any time you want to put down roots in a bigger pot, you can do so and it will grow. In fact, if you can thrive in a shallow pot, almost anything is easier than that.