A story about prisoners and a guard

Imagine a prison with a hundred inmates and one guard.

All the inmates want to escape. Of course the guard does not. He stands up on a wall with a rifle and fires at anyone trying to climb it to take him down. If one prisoner tries it, he fails and dies. If they all do, they win.

This is the essence of web businesses. Low startup costs increase reduce the cost of failure, break down barriers to entry and provide opportunity to many more people than previously possible. This reduction in friction leaves you more of a chance, with your stronger opponent being taken from all sides.

So, all that is required to destroy monopolies and hierarchy is for more people to allowed to try. That’s because it doesn’t matter if YOU succeed, as long as they do not.

You can apply this to any circumstance: social coercion, politics, writing, or art. In all cases low cost of failure reduces risk and makes trying plausible. This distributes success more widely across the population (though outliers will still exist).

Here’s what I’m thinking: the society (or individual) who makes the cost of failure the lowest, while retaining the ability to reap rewards, gets the greatest increase in productivity and living quality. In a sense, this increases the biodiversity of a society and therefore, its ability to survive disasters.

This quality could be defined, by your society or yourself, as a right to play, and it’s probably the most important thing you can allow yourself, as a creative person in the web age. Google does this with their 20% time, paying employees for what may result in nothing but could also result in huge hits. They make this viable by defending their cash cow (defense, or the game of the old) while embracing innovation (offense, or the game of the young).

Strategically, I think this means you’re supposed to look for a big hit, then move it into your portfolio when it’s maxed out and look for another blue ocean.

This is turning into one of those posts where I just seem to be rambling, so I’m just going to stop here. Hope this makes sense to you.






5 responses to “A story about prisoners and a guard”

  1. Martyn Chamberlin Avatar

    If you had left off the last paragraph, we would have never arrived at that conclusion. 🙂 Great post with a very clear, powerful message.

  2. Duff Avatar

    “If one prisoner tries it, he fails and dies. If they all do, they win.”

    Those who don’t get riddled with holes at least.

    I don’t get the metaphor though. Seems to me that if you are first and only to market (i.e. sneaking out of the prison with nobody looking), you win. If everyone joins your market at the same time, you lose.

    “So, all that is required to destroy monopolies and hierarchy is for more people to allowed to try.”

    Sure, more competition in the marketplace takes out monopolies. But then you give Google as an example–a company fast on its way to becoming a monopoly, or at least a scary large company. Google wins marketshare by changing the rules, outpricing all competition by charging nothing for services–except there is no get out of jail free card, since the services just become ad-supported and data mined once Google owns the market.

  3. Eric Pratum Avatar

    A friend of mine has some great ideas for products for his industry, things that really only exist because practitioners of his craft make their own. The nice thing is that these practitioners always recommend that their clients use them and don’t really have the ability to sell them. He was all gun ho about setting up a business, a supply chain, a website, etc. He was ready to start big and fail big. I think I successfully talked him into starting small, failing small…testing, tweaking, etc and then going big.

    Sometimes, prisoners get the motivation to just jump out there and go for it on there own, and now and then, the guard is looking the other way, but mostly, he catches them. Whether someone is going with them or not, it’s best they do their research first (much like Google ‘spending’ by having employees work on research on this project or that) and only get ready to move when they’ve acted reasonably within their current constraints.

    Nice post, Julien.

  4. Ron De Giusti Avatar

    The companies that I like to see win (overthrow the big bad monopolies) are those companies that, they themselves, try to democratize a situation for all the other players with their products/services.

    When we see a company overthrow another company and they themselves are nothing more than just the same evil, it does not inspire the rest of the population to play the game.

  5. Ryan G Avatar

    No Martyn I disagree. Julien was really walking out on a limb with this one, especially towards the end. However, in typical Julien fashion, he gets his point across a generally deep philosophical idea with a metaphor rather than facts.

    I can say this…being first to market is in no way shape or form a ticket to success. Quite the contrary. First to market is often the first out b\c those that follow suit can avoid most of the obstacles that first to market hits.

    Take Google for instance. They were not first to market in Search, but they sure beat out those that were.

    Prodigy was essentially first to market for providing Internet access, but AOL destroyed them in no time.

    Netscape was the first browser, but where is Netscape today.

    I am with you Julien on big hits and blue oceans. You have to think BIG BIG BIG BIG BIG if you want to be big. You can’t be BIG BIG BIG if you are thinking small.

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