We are constantly assured by our media that the USA is a land of endless opportunity: all anyone needs is a good idea and the willingness to work hard in pursuit of a dream. But such shiny, happy bullshit is really pretty naive. Good ideas— meaning, the kind that have serious money-making potential— are damn rare. Few people possess the presence of mind to recognize one when it presents itself. And there are always less-creative, less-visionary types lurking in the backfield, eager to hijack a good idea and steal someone else’s success if they can.
Sometimes they get away with it. “Behind every great fortune,” Balzac cautions us, “there is a great crime.”1 Still worse is when NO ONE wins, and all the idea-thieves manage to do is poison the well for everyone.
Here’s a true story to illustrate my point:
Once upon a time, back in the 1990’s, there lived an enterprising businessman who had always wanted to try his hand in the restaurant business. He saw his chance when he recognized a need for a clean, affordable, well-managed Tex-Mex restaurant in his home town. Anxious to keep costs low, he purchased a business lot just off the highway near the edge of town, surrounded by empty fields and farm land. There he built a modest but well-equipped eatery, staffed with a skilled local chef anxious to dazzle customers with his epicurean skills. It turned out the entrepreneur was right; there was indeed a market for his new restaurant, and it soon became a raging success. The place was constantly packed with satisfied diners, reservations grew harder to come by, lines stretched out the door, and before long, the owner was making money hand over fist.
A success story? Not for long. Here’s why:
It so happened that our restaurateur’s home town was also home to some OTHER wannabe entrepreneurs, who, it turned out, were all equally gung-ho to invest small sums of their own money into a successful business endeavor… EXCEPT they were too lame and uncreative to dream up workable business schemes of their own. But they couldn’t help but notice their neighbor’s new Tex-Mex restaurant was making lots of money, so they all took turns approaching the new restaurant owner, offering to buy shares in his expanding business and come on board as new contributing partners.
The successful restaurant owner refused every offer. He had built his business up all by himself; his idea had finally paid itself off and was turning a profit; why should he give away the rewards of his own hard labor to greedy newcomers who hadn’t contributed anything at all?
Did his refusal stop those wannabe entrepreneurs? No way. Within a year, no less than THREE other Tex-Mex restaurants— all cheaply-built, shoddily-equipped, and poorly staffed— suddenly popped up out of nowhere like little pastel-colored faux-adobe mushrooms in fields and lots surrounding the original restaurant. Not only were they selling the SAME food items— blatantly copied from the first guy’s menu— but this new rash of entrepreneurial get-rich-quick Tex-Mex claim-jumpers DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO SET UP SOMEWHERE ELSE. They just bought or leased lots on either side of the original restaurant… presumedly because their owners stupidly believed that culinary success must have something to do with “which side of the highway” from which one dispenses one’s burritos.
The results were disastrous. The original restaurateur had proven there were enough hungry diners to keep his restaurant in business; but that same population couldn’t begin to sustain four near-identical eateries within a stone’s throw of one another. It didn’t matter that the three new competitors were sad excuses for restaurants, served lousy food, and were staffed by half-trained dolts being paid minimum wage… that only made things worse. The three knock-off restaurants cashed in on the recent local popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine, barely eking out enough money to remain open while serving such horrid gastronomical atrocities they wound up putting the whole community off Tex-Mex food for the foreseeable future.
It shouldn’t be too hard to predict how this story ends. All three knock-off restaurants eventually went out of business one at a time, leaving behind a patch of abandoned terra-cotta roofed ruins with boarded-up windows and broken, grass-strewn parking lots. The original restaurateur struggled along for a few months after the others failed, hoping to regain some of his former trade, but the party was over. Thousands of platters of bad Tex-Mex, sloppily served up by his competitors, had poisoned the local palette against that brand of cuisine, turning any attempt to run that type of restaurant into a bad joke in that town.
End result? The original entrepreneur, who correctly saw the need for a service and successfully provided that service, eventually went bankrupt and had to close. Not a single one of the other three wannabe food sellers ever realized any profit from the poorly-run restaurants they opened (and ran into the ground), and in the end everybody lost their collective shirt.
And to this very day, you can’t get a decent chimichanga in that town.
1(And he’s a famous French dude whose last name sounds like the slang term for a scrotum, so he KNOWS his stuff.)