A Start-Up Trek – An Artist’s Palette

Geek Culture

I am starting a new prototyping lab in Huntsville, Alabama, based on the fab lab model. I’ve dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur and have done a fair amount of research on the topic. But this is my first attempt at starting a business. Here is where I document weekly my mistakes and successes in creating a business from scratch.

Last week I took my family on vacation. We sailed on a Disney Cruise and stopped by LegoLand on the way home. While we were on the cruise I tried very hard not to think about my day job or starting this new enterprise. Instead I took a few books. One was Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. I thought it was appropriate given where I was, and I enjoy reading biographies. I like to learn what is was that made these people so successful, what it was that drove them, and what pitfalls they were able to avoid, and which ones tripped them up.

I was struck by the amount of adversity Disney had to overcome. You’d expect the most famous American entertainer to have a charmed life, but you’d be wrong. A childhood of near poverty and hard work led to a couple failed business ventures in Kansas City before Walt left for California to join his brother Roy and start the mega corporation we know today. Even then he was routinely panned by movie critics, competitors and even his own employees. And yet he persevered.

Every man has faults, and Disney is no exception. Some of his mistakes are cringe-worthy and even today, 45 1/2 years after his death, he has his critics. But rehashing those failures is less interesting to me than analyzing what it was about him that made him successful. Gabler’s book makes it clear that Disney was not interested in making money so much as achieving perfection. Disney repeatedly blew through budgets for movies and his theme park trying to get every detail perfect. His first animated full length movie, Snow White, was years overdue as he worked and reworked the script, animation sequences, and even added and subtracted characters. Gabler hypothesizes that Disney was so driven to build his personal reputation that he could not bear to release any of his projects until he had made them as perfect as possible. Even after his movies were released when he watched them he could only see their flaws.

To me that is one of the defining attributes of an artist. We’ve seen this before. Bill Watterson struggling to put more fidelity and detail into his comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson refused to allow Calvin and Hobbes to be merchandised because he could not control how that merchandise would be artistically represented. George Lucas ‘tweaking’ Star Wars and inadvertently dismissing a generation’s worth of childhood memories. In every case the artist cares more about perfecting the art he shows the world than maximizing revenue. Perhaps the best long term strategy is to achieve perfection. After all people still watch Snow White, 75 years after it was made. Pinocchio and Fantasia also have been extremely profitable over the years, even though they showed significant losses at the box office on their first theatrical run. My son recently found my old Calvin and Hobbes collections and he has been reading through the entire 10-year anthology. I’m sure tinkering with the Star Wars anthology has been profitable too, given that I gripe loudly when each new edition comes out, and then buy it anyways.

On the cruise I had the feeling that the quest for excellence is still there, but tempered by the profit mindset. Parts of the ship definitely needed touching up, which isn’t surprising given that it’s 13 years old. Nicks and scratches in the kids’ areas, dresser drawers in the cabin that would stick, and the dining areas could not produce a single soda that wasn’t flat all cruise. But these were minor issues that really didn’t diminish my enjoyment. And I frequently saw crew making significant effort to keep up the ship’s appearance, like sanding the varnish completely off a wooden doorframe so it could be retreated.

I can’t help but contrast that with my visit to LegoLand. I love Lego. I have a closetful at home, and keep buying MindStorm systems all under the hope that someday they’ll expand the line again. And I had a good time at LegoLand. The people there were cheerful and friendly, the rides didn’t take too long, there was so much to do that I couldn’t quite squeeze it all into one day, and the price was (almost) reasonable. But I probably won’t be back anytime soon. The park lacks a quality that makes me want to come again and again. When I try to think of what that quality is, I think of this one ride. From a distance it looked very cool. It was a rotating building with blinking red lights. Fire ladders rotated around the building as well, and extended and retracted. Riders stand on a platform connected to the ladder and spray the building with water. It’s definitely designed to attract the little kid in all of us.

But then I started noticing all the blemishes. The attendant, who was polite and friendly, but harried, took a lot of time to get the ride loaded. I noticed that she did not ask riders to load the other side of the platform first, so with every run she had to walk around the ride to see if it was full. She also didn’t count how many riders she let into the gate so every run required several minutes of herding riders to empty places. While waiting I realized the ladders rotated at the same velocity as the building. That is of course easier to build, but not very much fun for the rider. Staring at the same wall for the entire ride eliminates any sense of motion. The lights on the building were just circular lights, instead of being something that looked like a flame. And the lights did not respond to the water hitting them. And the end of the day my son and I were just standing on a merry go round, spraying water on a sheet of metal with a few cutouts for red lights. Whee. And the system was not able to operate continuously. It apparently ran on an internal tank that had to be recharged periodically by stopping the ride and connecting a hose. There was some effort to catch some of the water used by the riders, but the tank still took over 10 minutes to fill, while I and other folks were waiting in line.

I think that is my complaint with LegoLand. The rides there aren’t designed with the level of care that I’ve experienced at Disney parks. (I’ve never been to the Universal parks so I can’t comment to them.) I find myself thinking about this attention to detail for my own venture. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if I will be able to attract a strong customer base. And as I’ve built out my business plan I’ve made a number of trades on the level of quality I can offer vs. my expected budget. But after my vacation experience I find myself wanting to go over my plan with a fine toothed comb, to flesh out all details that I may have glossed over, and to work the alternatives that I dismissed in my rush to get my plan finalized to go in front of the bank. I may not be an artist, but I can learn from them.

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