I'm doing a talk for Podcamp Halifax about "Micro-Fame" and funnily enough while I was working on it a tweet I posted went viral:
Hey remember that "build it and they will come" is not from a business guru, but a guy who is hallucinating ghost baseball players.— Andrew Burke (@ajlburke) January 5, 2015
I don't want to talk about Micro-Fame here - I want to talk about the subject of this tweet, something that has bugged me for a long time, and has clearly hit a nerve.
"If You Build It, They Will Come" is an adaptation of a line from the early-90s Kevin Costner movie "Field of Dreams". Costner's character Ray Kinsella follows a ghostly voice telling him "if you build it, he will come" and turns his corn field into a baseball diamond, summoning Shoeless Joe, the 1919 White Sox, and the ghost of his father.
I recently re-watched the movie, and I can see why the phrase became popular: it makes dream sense. Ray is following a dream which is wrapped up in his midlife crisis, his relationship to his father, and his love of baseball. He is driven to an end he can't see by forces he cannot understand - in many ways, it's a happier, baseball-themed version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Many people who follow their dreams to build and sell something of their own have that same sense of mission, and just like in the movie a lot of their friends and family think they're crazy.
The last shot of the film is of a huge lineup of cars outside the haunted field a horde of public visitors attracted by the Magic of Baseball. I think it's this final image that got stock in peoples' minds: A lone slightly crazed maverick builds something awesome and - boom - there's a traffic jam of people trying to get in.
When the first dot com boom hit in the mid 1990s this movie was still in recent memory, and for a brief moment in the early land-grab phase, when simply having a web page was a big deal, the idea of "build it and they will come" seemed like it might be true.
But while that moment passed quickly, the phrase has continued to be a motto for business and technology gurus, even twenty years on.
The thing is, the phrase is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it's dangerous.
James' Earl Jones' character fleshes out the idea in his stirring final speech: "People will come ... not even sure why they're doing it. ... As innocent as children. ... They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it.".
That's magical thinking - and it's not how the real world works.
The problem is, "if you build it, they will come" has a seductive appeal: work hard to build something cool, and it will get an audience simply by virtue of its existence. Building things is tough - building awesome things is really tough. "If you build it, they will come" is a solace for makers during endless design reviews and late-night debugging sessions. "If you build it, they will come" tells owners that all of their resources and energy should go towards building their product to the exclusion of everything else.
The truth is that, while building something and launching it into the world is a great achievement, it's only the first step. Great, now the product / website / app is out in the world - nobody will come because nobody knows that it exists. Now you have to market and promote and hustle your product. You have to refine it and release updates and new editions. You have to write blog posts, do talks, give interviews about it. You need to provide support for the people who have come - support that's good enough to make them tell all their friends about your product. You need to make other related products that tie in to the first one and enhance it.
All of this takes at least as much work as building the product in the first place, often much more. Finally, after all of that extra work and hustle, they might come. There are no guarantees, but the odds are much better when you add the hustle.
Elsewhere in the movie, the voice whispers to Ray, "go the distance" - now that is a great message for makers and hustlers. Keep going, no matter how far you have to go.
So, "go the distance" but remember, this isn't Heaven - it's Iowa.