There was a chunk of time in my childhood — maybe as long as two years — where every kid at school was completely focused on marbles. Having first persuaded our parents to buy us each a large bag of them, the school yard was daily transformed into a huge marble tournament.
I can't remember all the specifics of the games (dropsies rings a bell), but the overall sense of building a collection is still vivid. Every game in which you bested your opponent, you got to keep his or her marble. You saved your favorites at the bottom of the bag, always being careful not to use the ones where the color combination or swirly bits of glass pleased you the most. But the idea of building up your collection, making your bag bigger forced you to keep playing, even risking the loss of your own marbles.
Then one day, for reasons still unknown to me, I yelled, “Freebie!” and tossed one of my bigger marbles into the crowd. The resulting attention was a huge rush, having all the kids clamoring and fighting for this marble which came at no cost, apart from the potential bloodied nose. So I did it again.
The fever of commanding the crowd took over. I kept the biggest and best marbles for last, throwing the smaller, less attractive ones first. Sometimes I threw a handful all at once. I kept this up until the last marble was gone from my bag, exultant at the process.
Until it was all over.
Suddenly the excitement was completely gone, and a large feeling of deflated emptiness filled the void where the thrill had been. The realization that I had passed up future happiness for a short — extremely short — moment of pleasure was fairly horrifying for this eight year old.
I wish I could say it was a lesson I only had to learn once.
While I was recollecting this experience recently, two aspects resonated with my current occupation and the culture of the web:
We all like to build
Whether it's building a readership via a blog, or building a business as an entrepreneur, there's at the very least a little bit of a creative type in all of us. It's why I like fantasy football — it's the closest I'll ever get to the real thing and building up history is a vast source of enjoyment for me.
I can say the same for building a business with a brand. Thankfully, we live in a time where it's never been more possible than now.
Attention does not equate to success
Sadly, this lesson is one I still have to review from time to time. Apparently, so too does the entire tech industry. So many startups focus on the thrill of the buzz, but the buzz doesn't last long, does it? If you give your product away for free or treat readers as a commodity rather than a community, the end result is a lot like the kid going home with an empty bag of marbles.
And if your company has taken investment, your investors are going to be a lot like the mom and dad asking where all the marbles they paid for have gone. Like them or leave them, the crew at 37 Signals has one thing right — charging for a product is a much more satisfactory strategy than getting the attention and then trying to figure out how to profit from it.