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In the oil industry, a wildcatter is an oil prospector who drills wildcat wells. These wells are drilled in areas not near other oil fields, and areas that are not known oil producers. The reason for drilling such a well is the hope of discovering a new source of oil to be extracted from the earth. This can be a costly endeavor, especially considering the wells the wildcatter drills are not guaranteed to produce any oil, but drilling companies often hire several wildcatters to find new areas in which to extract valuable crude oil.
The term has evolved to become applicable in the business world as well. A wildcatter may be a person who promotes unsteady or struggling businesses or corporations, particularly by attempting to sell stocks in such companies. Tech wildcatters are companies that help new technology start-ups get on a solid business footing by investing time and money into the venture, or by taking on some of the more complex tasks involved with making a business successful. In both cases, the term goes back to the original application in its implication, since all of these wildcatter types essentially invest time, money, and effort into ventures that may or may not ultimately be profitable.
Originally, the term "wildcatter" only applied to oil ventures, and this professional would very often work independently as a contractor or freelancer for various companies. Others might be employed by one oil company instead, attempting to find new drilling possibilities exclusively for the benefit of that company. The work could be dangerous, as it was and still can be difficult to reach remote areas, transport equipment, set up that equipment, dig a well for exploration, and safely operate the new mine. For oil companies, wildcatting is often an expensive project that may or may not pay off in the end, yet it is vital for finding new opportunities.
In some cases, the wildcatter may even explore new drilling techniques or exploration of new materials. Instead of searching for a new oil source, for example, the wildcatter may explore options in drilling for natural gas, thereby expanding the portfolio of the oil company to include an entirely new fuel source. This can also be costly and dangerous, and oil companies will often limit how much risk they take on concerning wildcatting operations. An overly expensive wildcatting operation that does not ultimately pay off could effectively end the oil company.