• Paul W. Smith

Build It and They Will Come

Updated: May 13


If you follow the sport of baseball then you’ve probably heard of Shoeless Joe Jackson. A century’s worth of World Series ago, Shoeless Joe played in his very last game. His White Sox ended their season on October 9, 1919, with a Game 8 loss (they played best of 9 in those days) to the Cincinnati Reds by a score of 10-5. Shoeless Joe went 2-for-5 (a double and a home-run).


Shoeless Joe Jackson was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame except for one thing. Along with seven of his teammates, he was banned from baseball for fixing that last World Series to the benefit of some high-roller gamblers. His legacy begins there and extends through multiple books and articles chronicling his career and imploring the gatekeepers of Cooperstown to give him a second chance. And then there’s that movie...


Of all the major sports, baseball has by far the most mythical, magical quality – it has become quintessentially American. Although it is a team sport, it depends on individual skills; a game can be won by any one player in a heartbeat. The iconic fantasy movie Field of Dreams, based on W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, beautifully captured the enchanting qualities of America’s game.


While wandering in his corn fields, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a voice which implores him “If you build it, he will come.” Convinced that “he” is his hero Shoeless Joe, Ray constructs a baseball diamond which is visited in due course by visions of Joe and his seven banned World Series teammates. Themes of love, family and joy abound, but the parallels to the business world of the entrepreneur are inescapable.


Startup companies are a lot like Ray’s baseball diamond – they begin with an idea to build something, along with a little internal voice that inspires us with visions of success. Build a newer better widget and, the voices say, customers will come. It is as much America’s game as baseball, unless better/newer/faster/cheaper fails catch on. Acceptance of something new is not always assured.


The most straightforward barrier to adoption of new ideas is a lack of economic advantage. Ancient Native Mexican society invented the wheel for use in toys but was slow to adopt it for transportation. Without domesticated animals to pull their carts, human porters were the most direct and cost-effective way to carry things.


Economic benefit is easily overridden by social prestige, which compels us to choose trendy items over cheaper more practical ones. There are plenty of alternatives to brands like Apple, BMW, or Nike but they just don’t offer the same mojo. The cumbersome Japanese writing system known as kanji could clearly be replaced by a more efficient alphabet, but it is anchored in place by a legendary prestige. Envy beats efficiency, human nature being what it is.


It is a fundamental principle of Manufacturing Engineering that you can’t improve something unless you can measure it. It follows that a new technology doesn’t stand a chance unless its benefits are easily observed. The oldest surviving firearm comes from China and is dated 1288. By 1340, such weapons still hadn’t spread to most of Europe. When Arabs used cannons against the Spaniards in the Battle of Tarifa, a couple of English Earls observed the results and quickly introduced the weapons to their own armies. Six years later at the Battle of Crecy, French soldiers made a similar observation, though from the wrong end of the barrel.


Simple physics also plays a role in adoption – in this case, Newton’s First Law. Analogous to a stationary object is the so-called vested interest which often refuses to move without the application of a significant force. The best example begins with the typewriter.


In 1873, when the current keyboard was first designed, mechanical typewriters could easily jam if neighboring keys were pressed in quick succession. The entrepreneurial solution was to scatter the most common letters all over the left side of the keyboard, presumed to be weaker and slower for right-handed people. The goal was to accommodate the clunky machines by slowing down the typists. It worked.


Today, typewriters have largely been replaced by computer keyboards and word processors. Speed is key and many of the short-comings of the original QWERTY design have been exposed by the Dvorak layout, which doubles typing speed and reduces stress on the hands and arms by 95%. Re-mapping a QWERTY computer keyboard to a Dvorak requires no more than a simple software change, and a set of stick-on key labels.


Switching to Dvorak is a no-brainer, and yet it still hasn’t happened. By 1932, when Dr. Dvorak unveiled his invention, the QWERTY keyboard was already solidly entrenched. Over the ensuing 90 years, hundreds of millions of typists along with countless manufacturers have successfully resisted the switch to greater efficiency.


There are countless reasons why new ideas sputter and fail. Farmer Ray was a fictional entrepreneur who risked being labeled a lunatic and put his family’s livelihood on the line to realize his vision. The business world of the entrepreneur is likewise a field of dreams. “If you build it, he will come” is a lovely fantasy for an entertaining, evocative film and a bold yet flimsy assumption for a business.



Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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