By Meredith Lynch
If there’s one attitude that can bring down any good business, most would guess that it’s negativity. I would like to argue the opposite.
The 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, is an inspiration-heavy story of Ray, an Iowa corn farmer. He starts hearing voices telling him “If you build it, he will come.” His farm is on the brink of financial ruin so when he decides to mow down part of it to build a baseball field, everyone understandably believes him to be nuts. In the movie, deceased, legendary baseball players start showing up to play on his field. At the eleventh hour, just as bankruptcy calls to finalize, a massive caravan of people shows up to pay to watch baseball and it saves the farm. Yaaay…
Now, I love this movie, as everyone should. This is not a criticism of what is truly a great movie, but more of the people who model themselves after Ray in business. What they take from him is true in business to some extent. Business people do need to have a dream. That dream really does need to challenge how things are currently done, to the point people might think them nuts. Leaders also need to believe so much in their venture that they’d be willing to fight to the end for it in order to make it succeed. Those points on their own, devoid of other insight, knowledge, or experience, however, are extremely dangerous and make up what I call Field of Dreams Syndrome.
What is FoDS?
Field of Dreams Syndrome (FoDS), is the idea that in business “If you build it, they will come.” In other words, a dewy-eyed dreamer rushes into business after an idea pops into their head that will change the world. All they have to do is set up shop and the orders will come rushing in. They never stop to question things or listen to advice. In fact, if you tell them that they may be headed toward failure, they are likely to dig in their heels in an act of defiant “positivity.” Alternatively called “The Secret Syndrome,” after the book/movie about manifesting your future. It is in every industry, at every level, and every size of company. Here I’ll try to break down why it is poisonous, what is actually involved in getting “them” to show up, and why this thought is so pervasive in today’s culture.
- Misunderstood Genius
Ray follows the same path of a misunderstood visionary, just without the knowledge, insight, or even purpose. His vision was seemingly beamed down from on high and carried out for him except for the mowing. FoDS people generally see this as their path. They had an idea and must follow the clues to get to their destiny, and everything else will fall into place naturally (i.e. no thinking/planning). Anyone standing in the way clearly just doesn’t get their “vision” or “genius.”
There are examples of true, misunderstood genius — innovators who see a vision of a future so clearly that the rest of the world struggles to comprehend it. Most instinctively think of Steve Jobs and he really is a great example. People in his field and company had been trying things that were similar to his vision, but just a bit off, and they never experienced the success he eventually found with the iMac. He went through several failures, was blasted in the press, called nuts, and nearly lost his career several times. He went on to revolutionize the industry, making billions and cementing Apple as the technology company of our time.
It is important to note, however, that Steve Jobs wasn’t following a voice’s vague instructions, though. His genius was misunderstood by other people. He understood it clearly. He had a reason for every single task and item he worked for, even if no one else did. Ray, on the other hand, never fully understood the voice or what the result was going to be. He followed the voice blindly and never did detail work.
Most importantly, Job’s “vision” was based on insight into people and markets. He didn’t just think up something crazy and it happened to work, he had real observations that were just too complex to articulate to his peers. If you misunderstand your idea by not researching it well or not fleshing out its cash flow, that doesn’t make you a misunderstood genius. That makes you an unprepared business person. Ray wasn’t even a business person. He was really just a lucky schizophrenic.
2. Marketing is a Thing
To those of us not gifted with voices, ghosts, and customers arriving by the hundreds, we need to address the largest aspect of business left out: Marketing. Ray’s magical caravan doesn’t happen in real life but FoDs people believe it will. They open up shop, maybe flick the sign on, and wait. When things get tough, they re-up on “positivity” and believe without evidence or reason that they will be saved. When their business fails, they don’t assume they did anything wrong, they assume they didn’t believe hard enough. If I hear the word “manifest” one more time, I’m gonna hurl.
Occasionally, a business will have the right location and a niche in the market to not really do much marketing, but that’s an oddity and it generally is limited to small-town shops and restaurants. For the majority of us, we may as well be cornfields in Iowa. No one knows we exist and we have to go out and tell consumers, pretty constantly, why they should come patronize us. There are a million resources on the types and importance of marketing, so I won’t go too deeply here, but people with FoDS generally put the work into improving their business or product, but don’t get why things fail when they don’t market. “I built it, why didn’t they come?” kind of thought.
“Doing business in blind positivity is death by a thousand line items.”
3. You Have to Have a Sustainable Business Model
Unless you plan to have ghosts work for you, you’ll probably need to make sure your profit model accounts for expenses such as employees, electricity, equipment, etc. FoDS is not thinking about what something is going to cost you logistically, only believing that it will work out because you know it will. When the electricity shuts off, it’s ok because the caravan will show up any second to save your dream. Again, that’s not how this works.
Making sure that your entire profit isn’t eaten up by missed expenses is more common than you’d think. People forget to factor in gas and insurance, budget for marketing, make time for exactly how long that task will take, etc. Most people have a general idea of how things will work, but it takes careful thought to plan out what exactly will. Will you have your uniforms cleaned by staff or have them sent out? Do you have to offer healthcare, what about taxes, how will that work? How many years will this van last me? Doing business in blind positivity is death by a thousand line items.
I’ve also seen people price themselves out of a market in the same vein of thinking. I had a printer give me a quote once for $40 for a standard sheet of paper slipped into a plastic frame that I could buy at Office Depot for a dollar. I can’t imagine what kind of business model he had except that he was being “positive” and set his mind to be a printer. Thinking through costs, pricing, checking out competition… you know, the basics of business, don’t seem to get through to FoDS people. Ray didn’t do market research to see if there was interest in ghost-baseball, he knew instinctively it would solve all his money troubles, and via Hollywood magic he was saved.
Ray in the Real World
Let’s try Field of Dreams in reality in 1989… a few things would change.
First, of course, there would not be ghosts to man shortstop. Especially not legendary-level ghost players. In rural Iowa, Ray would be lucky to get some volunteers from maybe the local high school or a league or something. Since he can’t pay, some of them would be bound to no-show, and all of the play would be substantially sub-par. He could run it as a community fundraiser and charge a few dollars per head, but after his farm was saved, he’d be socially obligated to run fundraisers for other farmers in the area as well (we see several go under in the course of the movie.)
Then there’s the massive amount of marketing it would take to get the word out about this fundraiser. The flyers (a 1989 marketing staple) would cost money to print, and Ray would have to take time away from corn farming (which is a full-time job) or hire someone with money he doesn’t have to spread the flyers out to the parts of Iowa that have people instead of corn. The sales pitch to go with the flyer would have to be supreme to get people to drive to the middle of nowhere to pay money to watch baseball played by nobodies.
They’d also have to watch this nobody baseball without food or drink unless Ray would like to now open a refreshment stand on top of that. If so, he’ll need the proper licenses and equipment, as well as actually food and drink to serve. That, coupled with baseball equipment, electricity, etc. all cost money that Ray spends the entire movie telling us he doesn’t have.
In short, Ray the farmer in 1989 was going bankrupt unless he completely changed careers, used the land for other purposes, was secretly a whiz at marketing and sales, had access to a secret stash of money (that he couldn’t put towards the mortgage for whatever reason), and had an exit strategy to get back to corn farming or continue the upkeep on the baseball business. That is an awful lot for a person whose initial problem was an inability to run a profit in the first place.
“Improvement can’t happen if you only focus on the positive. “
Why it’s Pervasive = Social Media Quotes
Instagram is full of quotes espousing the virtues of positivity, but nowhere do you see its balance. No one dares to counter these posts, either, as “negativity” is the new leprosy. The problem is, all unpleasant things seem to get labeled as “negative” and reality is full of unpleasantness. Should you focus on these aspects? Of course not. Should you completely ignore them “believing” it will all work out? Of course not. There is a happy medium (or at least not miserable medium) somewhere in there where you are aware of reality but don’t let it bring you down.
It is imperative that an owner be able to find and strategize for the weaknesses in their business as well as the strengths. That can be difficult when everyone now expects pep talks and inspiration 24/7, but if you don’t confront problems in business, the problems will confront you (a la Yakov Smirnoff.) Taking time periodically in your business to look at what you need to do better (aka what you’re failing at) is one of the most important tasks of a business owner. Improvement can’t happen if you only focus on the positive.
How to Avoid FoDS
I cannot emphasize how important it is to have someone to discuss your business strategy with before you start and as you go along. I hired a business consultant at the beginning of my entrepreneurial life, and it was well worth the high price tag to make sure I wasn’t out of touch with reality. I didn’t personally know any business owners, but once I began some relationships, I had access to a more varied source of business knowledge.
If, after in-depth analysis and discussion, your consultants express doubt in your idea or your ability to see it through, consider the possibility that your idea isn’t viable or at least needs polishing. If you think about it further, you should generally be able to find a better way to explain it or ways to tweak it. If you are still adamant that the idea is fine on its own, know that no business or dream is guaranteed, there is a massive amount of work to make it happen, your eleventh hour may be followed by a twelfth, and that Steve Jobs and similar are anomalies. Don’t let good storytelling put you in the poor house, and know that if you build it, they may not come.