In the past 50 years, golf equipment has improved tremendously. Yet despite clubs that hit the ball farther and straighter, despite the explosion of swing coaches, videos, and better training methods, the average score for a round of golf remains at around 100, where it has sat for decades.
The average player’s driver is capable of hitting the ball 60-70 yards farther today. Irons are more forgiving, no matter where impact is made on the clubface. Golf balls go farther with no loss of feel or spin.
My favorite advance is GPS. From this, you get the exact distance to the hole, and to the hazards. How has it helped us? Well, it helps some players remember which hole they’re playing after the beer cart has made one too many visits.
Some pros do very well by pushing the equipment rules to their limits. Unknown Matt Every began this year with a putter that resembled a black metal railway tie. Turns out the “Black Swan” putter has some pretty advanced engineering built in: the highest “putter momentum of inertia in putter history,” and a “sweet spot three balls wide”! Every led the Sony Open going into the final round, but fell back a bit, settling for a tie for sixth, and $178,062.50. A bit better than my $62.50 in lifetime golf earnings.
Why, with all the hardware in the bag, don’t amateurs’ average scores improve? A few reasons:
- Practice and technique mean a lot more to scoring performance than equipment.
- Commitment and passion feed into practice and technique.
- The 10,000 hours rule: You’re not going to get there playing 10 rounds a year (that would take you 200 years — and arthritis poses a real problem at this point.)
- Strategy: Top pros “think their way around the course.” Golf presents a series of puzzles with each hole. Not attempting to solve them eats away at your score, bit by bit.
- Games often get harder when everyone has access to the same improved tools. For example, to compensate for the added length of players’ drives, course were lengthened, and given more “teeth”.
- Feel: You have to swing the club, which means a connection between mind, body, ball, situation, and space. Having scientists improve “velocity and power” without adjusting other variables might make you a worse player overall.
- Forgiving clubs keep more hopeless players keep coming out. Such players don’t even learn the basics like a correct grip. The average score suffers.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Flying Machine
When you hand over a miracle tool to the general population, the wide divergence in responses to them is amazing.Casual golfers always used to make the excuse that unlike the pros, they didn’t have a caddie who carried around a “yardage book” for every nook and cranny on the course. With the advent of GPS, that excuse was gone.
So what does the average player do when given the information that on a 370-yard hole, the water hazard begins 230 yards from the tee, and ends 260 yards from the tee? Pulls out his “big stick,” and tries to clear the water, or thinks/hopes “I rarely hit that far, so at worst I’ll cozy up 227 yards down the fairway”. And… whack! 252 yards, a beautiful looking shot… if only… that hazard wasn’t there. Plop! Yet all along, there was a much higher probability of scoring par by starting with a shot of roughly 205 yards, using a 205-yard club (most players will score no differently from 95 yards out and 165 yards out).
In other words, you give an amateur a powerful tool, and he doesn’t use it for any consistent, directed purpose. The player invests virtually no strategic effort in order to capitalize on new information he has at his disposal. The question to be asked there was “what should be done about the hazard”? The answer was, by default: nothing. Keep playing the way you always do.
Moore’s Law and the Cloud-Based Bubble Economy/Bubble
In every field – perhaps more so in computing than others – we’ve seen stunning increases in raw power and performance over the past fifty and even ten years. Moore’s Law (not strictly a scientific ‘law’), the feverish push for increases in computing speed (which drove Intel to great performance over the years), has translated into outcomes and economic transformations that couldn’t have happened without them.
Yet as a society we still face many challenges. We don’t face bandwidth scarcity or content distribution costs like we did twenty years ago, yet we still live with many zero-sum games, including those involving precious commodities like water, breathable air, and yes, even food.
Before the mania for “computing in the cloud” really began to take off, but long after pioneers had already pieced together low-cost business tools to launch their unique dreams and schemes, I was struck to hear Google CEO Eric Schmidt reflecting on the remarkable business climate we live in today.
The “cost of launching a startup” was near zero, went the line. And on paper I know this to be true.
The Eric Schmidt Perspective
The cost of running some kinds of tech startups plunged – 90 to 98 percent, perhaps – between 1996 and 2006. So you can pretty much do anything you set your mind to (assuming you have a computer science degree or two, a one-bedroom apartment, and an Internet connection.) This became a popular line at Google, delivered by other popular Google keynote speakers. It was as if they and others in Silicon Valley were part of a liberating army, removing costs from the climate of opportunity, to allow the best and brightest sparks to ignite without the burden of debt or massive VC fundraising efforts.
It’s only been about fours years since those comments, but on reflection, they clearly paint a very partial picture of the reality.
An “unprecedented great climate for business” turned into a credit squeeze, a deep recession, and a recognition that much of the wider economic bubble that had been fueling so much risk-taking was sustained by unsustainable economic demand and record levels of household debt.
So that’s one thing. Rent and food will still cost you. And to earn those, you generally need a job, not a cool startup plan and free software.
And funny thing: the biggest news to come was not about all the shoestring startups somehow hitting it big, but rather, how much more investor money was starting to pile into young companies to help them at the seed rounds right through to A, B, and C rounds of venture financing and beyond. That doesn’t count all the big media companies divesting (or simply losing) old assets and putting whatever capital they have left or can raise into a variety of digital enterprises.
Web 2.0 Propaganda
Web 2.0 VC “bubble” money (after briefly drying up in the crunch) fed smoothly into the next phase: a doubling-down into a massive tech IPO bubble that rewarded the boldest and biggest players (and their investment bankers). Pandora, Groupon, LinkedIn, Zillow, Angie’s List, Zynga, TripAdvisor, (and, coming soon, Yelp and Facebook) raised huge amounts of capital in their attempts to go for broke and become “category killers” — much as Amazon had done (as it turned out, successfully) all those years ago.
Facebook, Zillow, and Twitter combined raised in the vicinity of one billion dollars prior to going public.
So much for the idea that starting a company is cheap, and that virtually anyone can do it without the aid of the financial markets. Remarkable founders, remarkable teams, remarkable investors, remarkable network effects with users, remarkable media stories, etc. created a “spiky” world of new tech giants with massive consumer followings, not a flat, fun world where everyone got to work on their pet projects.
So the availability of cheap bandwidth, remote teamwork, and useful SaaS tools – even ones that cost 90-98% less than they did a decade ago – gets a lot more people to the first tee now, but few hit it well enough to be able to quit their day job.
True pioneers and visionaries may not be so different from regular people – or so some business books now tell us. Well, they’re certainly human. And they’re not reckless, necessarily. But they’re generally massive outliers in some way. You give them the tools, and they are in a tiny minority of individuals who can ignite those sparks into a bonfire of growth. [For more on this, see the section on Bill Gates’ remarkable success in Jim Collins, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperBusiness, 2011, pp. 162-166).]
Limitations: Moore’s Law & Economies of Scale
Moore’s Law has certainly made a wide variety of technological innovations possible, and this has an impact not only on your lifestyle, but on all fields.
But such ‘laws’ don’t always seem to change our fortunes. Some environments aren’t even compatible with such laws.
Golf comes with a built-in social and physical environment that dictates a tempering of raw “power.” We may not quite have Moore’s Law in golf clubs – among other things, courses would eventually reach the size of our solar system. A “club” has to do its thing within certain limitations. Players can’t propel the ball into orbit with rocket launchers. Perhaps that’s just common sense. And then there is etiquette to think about.
Moore’s Law doesn’t, by itself, make great companies. Nor do cheaper, faster tools generally.
If barriers to entry on (for example) computing and storage were lowered to zero, it would might create a whole new set of challenges in any industry.
We can’t all be cover girls…
Moore’s Law doesn’t mean you can become Tiger Woods.
Moore’s Law can’t even exist in social environments that restrict pure advances in speed, power, or output. Playing “better,” or more “favorably,” not “bigger, faster, and dirtier” is often truly the game you’re playing… something that gets lost in breathless media and coverage of the “pure advances” in things like chip technology. [For a thoughtful counterpoint to breathless technology and business media, see Umair Haque’s views on value cycles, renewable resources, and the tech industry’s penchant for creating ‘thin value’. Umair Haque, The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business (Harvard Business Press, 2011).]
Cloud computing won’t turn all garage hackers into Mark Zuckerberg.
Plus, you wouldn’t want it to.
These are tools, plain and simple.
The tools are incredibly powerful in the right hands. And nearly useless in the wrong ones.
Making them cheaper, or free, doesn’t always spur a sudden uptake of grateful users.
Most middle-class families today can afford gym memberships, Nordic skating skis, and even personal trainers.
All families can afford running shoes.
And yet the obesity epidemic shows no signs of abating.
Why Cost is Good
Where am I headed with all this? I should be here to talk about marketing automation tools, which is mainly the subject of the Acquisio blog, right?
I’ll talk about all of that quite a bit in the coming year. But I just had to get that off my chest.
I like that so many of these tools are affordable to so many of us, that’s for sure. I once wrote an article that lauded then-new Google Analytics for “democratizing” actionable analytics, to put it within reach of the average business.
GA’s free power is a great example of today’s awesome and more level playing field for the smaller business, certainly. No one would want this game to be playable only by a cartel of companies who can afford six figures a year for Web Analytics, for example.
But some cost is good. Some cost (whether it’s in time, hustle, or cash) helps the more passionate and committed among us get a bit of an advantage over those who won’t invest.
Back to the wide world of sports: in my brief, inauspicious career in high school cross-country skiing, those of us who lived in warmish climates spent quite a bit of time in the offseason doing what was called “dryland training”: running up and down ravines in sweltering temperatures, and strapping on early “roller skis” to pole around on dead-end streets.
The investment in strange (and somewhat expensive) equipment paid off in performance. And wouldn’t you know, dryland training turns out to be another spectacular example of how methods that give you an edge in one era become mere “tablestakes” in another.
All professional hockey players, for example, train throughout the summer. Being “in shape” isn’t much of an advantage in pro hockey today.
Despite the fact that others will eventually catch up to your entrepreneurial use of new tools and methods, maybe that’s just it.
An “edge” is never forever. But those that seek an edge are often rewarded.
The tools will never literally be your edge, but if you find yourself leveraging their power when others are busy with something else, chances are your passion to discover powerful new tools is a symptom of your personal commitment to superior performance.
How committed can you be? To be truly great at anything, you need a level of commitment that is – to put it mildly – unbalanced. As the great David Feherty put it: “If you’re good at this game, there’s something seriously wrong with you. […] If you have dinner with Vijay Singh and a pea rolls into his mashed potatoes, he’s got a fork in his hand, but he’s looking at a bunker shot.”