In the last post, we talked about how any one person can leverage the knowledge of the past to create new value in the economy.  In this post, I’m going to argue that Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should, or the fallacy of DIY (do it yourself).

As a podcaster, I’ve learned to be self-reliant.  I have learned about everything from audio production to web design to search engine optimization, all in an attempt to get my ideas heard by a wider audience.  This DIY mentality has meant that I understand all aspects of what I do, but it’s not an efficient process by any stretch of the imagination.  I am still doing it by hand- the most inefficient way possible.  It’s a one off, time and time again.  I get more skilled and faster at what I do, but it’s not an assembly line.

Stretch this analogy out to the mass public.  Right now, we’re working with business models that are enabling people to make a la carte choices, rather than buying everything in bundled packages.  We want to select from a list, rather than create from scratch, or take a product as is. Whether it’s my husband ordering his customized Mini Cooper or being able to buy a Flip Video Camera with your own picture or design on the it, we’re getting used to choosing off an offered menu of choices.

iTunes perfected this with music, allowing us to pick only the songs we wanted, not a whole album’s worth of music.  Now, Indigo, the canadian equivalent of Amazon, attached to the Chapters bookstore chain,  has developed a cool iphone app that will allow people to buy books by the chapter, making books and knowledge purchasable a la carte like songs in the iTunes store. This will likely be highly disruptive in the printing industry, more so than the Kindle or wordprocessing or DIY publishing have been by far.  It holds the possibility that like music artists before them,  authors may actually make more money as people can do extended samples of their wares before deciding whether to buy the “dead tree” version (a traditional book), kindle version, audio book, or any other format.

This new way of consuming knowledge in bite-sized chunks without the stress of committing to the whole will allow people to pick and choose what they like (or think they would like or are interested in)- a god-send to people like me who love non-fiction, but a lot more difficult for fiction books, where the whole point is being lead into someone else’s version of reality.  Ever want to skip the boring chapters? Now you can. The pressure will then be on for authors to make each of their chapters both inter-related enough to sell the whole enchilada, and to somehow make each chapter stand on its own like an e-book,  attracting many more purchasers for each chapter.  (For the truly jaded, you could even buy only those critical last chapters of mystery novels, but really- what’s the point? )

Customization and the 80-20 Rule

On Media Hacks #4, Chris Brogan talked about this trend towards customization, like we’re seeing with Indigo, itunes, and even the Flip. And while I agree there’s a push for mass customization, what I call “The Burger King Syndrome” where we can all have it our way, the hard truth is that we still only have 20% of people creating new and novel content on the web. I would argue that the mirrors the overall 80/20 rule in life, where 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, also known as the Pareto Principle.

While 20% of people may want it their way, all the time, sometimes we just want something that is “good enough”. I don’t have time or the interest to customize everything in my life from my pantyhose to my underarm deodorant to my car. Sometimes good enough is good enough, because the time it takes to get something I am perfectly happy with outweighs the ease of getting something good enough. I don’t necessarily need the perfect alarm clock, or perfect computer or perfect dishwasher- I need something that gets the job done in my price range. Period.  Factor in the fact that our tastes change rapidly- what was perfect last year may not be as great this year- and you get to a point where customization and the time involved may outweigh the overall need except for the obsessed few.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we do or should do it ourselves

Here’s an example to bear out what I’m saying, for those who think that mass creativity and customization is the totality of the future and value.  Let’s look at the current number of professional creative people- artists, designers and the like, and compare this to the overall population.  As a proxy for the number of self-identified artists, I am going to use the number of people who attend arts & cultural events- partially because the statistics are better and more reliable, and it will then include all the people identifying themselves as waitresses on their census forms, but who know they are really singers or actors at heart.

There’s a group called the Cultural Policy & the Arts National Data Archive, CPANDA for short, which collects statistics on participation in the arts. If you look at the stats from 2002 in the US, you find that even participation in the arts as a spectator is relatively low:

  • 27% had attended an art museum in the past year
  • 12.4% went to the musical theater; (the stats for plays, jazz concerts, ballet, opera and others were much lower than this- down in the single digits)
  • 32% went to an historic park;
  • but 57.6% had read at least one book in the past year; 46.5% had read a novel or short story.

You can check the raw stats out here:-

Similarly, Forrester Research has done a nifty hierarchy of internet participation, showing in 2007 only 13% of people using the internet were creating content; their nifty “generate your own demographic data tool on particpation” shows about 21% of overall internet users in the US are producing content in 2008. (The younger demographic, ages 18-24, show higher content production rates, 38%, but the question will be how many of them will continue to produce content as regularly once they hit full time employment outside of academia.)

This implies to me that just like in the arts and elsewhere in life, about 20% of the people are producers of a particular content/product, etc. and the other 80% are the consumers.  Most of that 80% do not feel the need to tweek, DIY and otherwise customize everything within their sphere. When they do, they do so on their own, without a greater intent to become an entrepreneur and market their breakthrough to everyone else.

Add an extra set of pockets in your jacket or pants? Terrific! But not everyone else will necessarily decide it’s the bee’s knees.  Bedazzle a jacket or make a bracelet for a friend?  Awesome- but the leap between that hobby and a full-time business making custom items on demand for consumers is huge. You may be able to market your breakthrough to a niche market, and I wish you all the luck- but DIY is limited by the ability to scale production beyond the 1 to 1 input to production I wrote about in the previous post.

Just because you can, does that mean you should?

Not everything we do or enjoy is the seeds of a profitable business plan. There will always be people talented in certain areas, and we are willing to pay them for the value they extend to the rest of us. My husband is a doctor, and he loves all his pro-sumer tools and loves to build furniture, but it is just a hobby for him. He’s not going to quit and become a cabinet maker- it’s not his highest value to him or to others. He uses his skills professionally where he makes the most of his knowledge and leverages his skills the most. And that’s not building cabinets for the neighbors.  Likewise, our carpenter doesn’t go and deliver babies by c-section or do hysterectomies on the side for very good reasons, despite any sophomoric jokes about guys being “amateur” gynecologists.

We make a la carte solutions where the main offering doesn’t get the job done. We want to be able to mix and match rather than just get one uniform meal, but sometimes, take it or leave it is just fine as well.

You can buy socks at Kmart, but they will never be as special as the ones I knit by hand, made solely for the lucky few I’ve made them for.  That’s a labor of love, trust me, and I’ll argue the similarity of a hand-knit sock to one made commercially is the difference between tomatoes in the green tube in the dead of winter and the fresh heirloom tomatoes I get from my local farm in the summer.  We call them the same thing, but they are nothing near identical in taste or quality.  However, sometimes the plastic tomatoes get the job done in a recipe, and I can’t wait until July to make dinner.  The good enough rule works.  (And if your feet are cold, I suggest you buy socks, because my turn around time is not instantaneous- it can be a month or longer, because it is a hobby.)

Customization is one place where we can find stored value.  People will pay more for the custom.  But it is a luxury, and in a tightening economy, “good enough” and “gets the job done” will be ruling the day for the 80%.  Even when we have the ability to mass customize, like lattes at Starbucks, I would bet the greater majority of people are buying drip coffee, simply because it’s easier and gets the job done.

Choice is great, but it is a luxury.  DIY is awesome, but it sucks time, and this is why people pay for things- they don;t have the time, the expertise, or the time to become expert for what they want right now- and that’s what they’ll pay for- within reason.