Sunday, November 18, 2012

Game Theory as Laughing Matter?

I met up with a buddy named Justin on Saturday who has been pursuing a career in stand-up comedy for the past ten years.  He truly started from the bottom -- amateur nights with homeless comedians in San Francisco, and performances everywhere from laundromats to frat houses to hole-in-the-wall coffee shops.  Now, he "gives them a stand-up routine in LA" (h/t to Billy Joel) but also spends much of the year on the road, traveling around the nation's college campuses to tell jokes, and earning a comfortable living in the process.

I asked him a few general questions about "the industry," and he shared a few observations.  One that he hit on right away is that many young, upwardly-ambitious comedians maintain an obsession with creating "something that will go viral."  They might not be sure what it is, whether it would fit their style, or whether it would even be funny, but they know they want to become a big name -- quickly -- and see some kind of viral video as the way to do it.  Oftentimes, that comes with an obsession of knocking some other comedian off of his or her perch in order to snag more popularity, or perceived zero-sum market share.

Instead of holding a single-minded focus on instant popularity, or on going after the competition, he has carved out a niche that lets him pay all his bills while doing something he loves.  And as to that last combination, how many people in ANY job can say that?

In Microeconomics, we've started to hit on Game Theory in the last couple weeks.  Throughout the Game Theory classes, our Professor has emphasized and re-emphasized a central point:  It's a junior varsity-level error in game theory, or in business, to obsessively focus on the competition.  When companies build pricing decisions solely on *getting one over* on the other guy, they get into self-destructive pricing wars that may bring about their own downfall.

What people forget is that the central purpose of a business is to make a profit.  If your business makes $5 million in annual profits, and another firm in your industry makes $10 million in annual profits, you're still making a profit.  By most people's definitions, you're still successful.

The parallel between pricing strategies and publicity strategies isn't really perfect, but I would say my buddy is a major success with a sound overall strategy.  As a one-man "business," he turns a tidy profit, even if he's not someone you've ever heard of [that could change, though...he's pitching a special on a major network].

I'm not saying competition doesn't matter.  It does.  It really matters when you consider over-saturated markets (i.e. freelance photography).  But it's a JV move to focus more on undercutting or destroying someone else than on building the basic fundamentals that will make you profitable.  Going off on a slight tangent, I would also posit that it's a JV move to respond to an entrepreneurial pitch with "But doesn't somebody already do this?"  Ceteris paribus, I'd be more worried about a start-up in a totally unpopulated industry than one in an existing field with a real live customer base [insert cliche about mousetrap quality].

In other words, if a beauty salon or Irish bar opened in downtown Lowell next to an underwater juggling studio, the latter concept would certainly be more original.  However, I would never bet on it against the salon or the bar, no matter what odds you gave me.  

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