Just-enough, a new trend in the works (or, why Paul Allen’s Octopus is really an Albatross)

They should draw an equation: What level of fame do you need to achieve to keep doing what you want?  Because you don’t want any more than that.  (Tina Fey)

We are hearing a "just enough" sentiment more and more.  It’s as if we are as a culture working on a new definition of what’s enough.  And this marks a change.  After World War II, big was it.  In those days, nobody wanted to have "some fame."  Celebrities like Fey wanted to be the biggest star ever.  Winner take all.  Frank Sinatra size.  Jumbo big. 

As I was saying in my PSFK talk, the old model was America the bountiful, land of plenty.  In the 1950s, it was one size fit all: gigantic or nothing at all.  We wanted groaning buffet tables.  We celebrated the "good life:" by consuming heroic quantities of sugar, salt, fat, nicotine, alcohol and sun (and as much carbon as possible).  We wanted cars the size of a 1958 Cadillac, block long conveyances, fins and all.  We wanted more shoes the Imelda Marcos.  We wanted homes the size of a small town.  Small town?  Dayton, we wanted homes the size of Dayton.

The world used a Denny’s model: all-you-eat plus 3000 calories more.  "No one leaves this place with an empty plate."  A Martian would wonder at this.  Denny’s had given us more food than we could possibly eat.  Food was being wasted.  There was irrationality here, no?  What the Martian did not see was that there was a greater ritual objective to be satisfied.  America is about plenty, plenty of plenty and more to come.  America was limitless in its ability to inspire needs and satisfy them. 

This is still the logic of luxury markets.  That car by Maybach, that Birkin bag, that hotel suit by the Four Seasons, the jewelry by [insert name of incredibly high end jeweler here, all I can think of is Tiffany’s].  The idea here is not to meet a minimum standard.  The idea is to  violate our scale of things and achieve the sublime.  The idea of luxury, even quiet luxury, is ever so briefly to take the breath away.

This idea will hold.  The rich will be with us always. But there is a new consumer aesthetic struggling to be born.  Some consumers, even very rich ones, now want just enough. 

When Yale economist Barry Nalebuff invented Honest Tea, he used this approach. 

Sugar, like most goods, has a declining marginal utility. One teaspoon takes away tea’s bitterness. Another adds a nice sweetness. That’s where we stop.

Newman’s Own now makes a line of cereal called "sweet enough." 

Just enough is audible even in the start-up world of small business.  Old entrepreneurs used to talk about scaling up till they could sell out.  We wanted to get as big as possible to sell for as much as possible.  New entrepreneurs talk about getting big enough to "get comfortable."  And the idea is not to sell out but to sit tight.  A small winery, small software company, small consultancy, that’s fine.  That’s just enough.  In the case of Hollywood, everyone used to want to be Steven Spielberg.  Now some of them, Fey included, what to be Christopher Guest.  "Just live your life, make hilarious movies with your friends, and then go home."

What are the motives and motors of "just enough?"

Fey has a practical reason.  Fame comes with a price tag.  If you get too famous, you lose your privacy or as she puts it, you have people wanting to take "a picture of your butt on the beach."

Speaking of butts, there is a second motive for just-enough and it’s the one that inspires us to shift from Coca-Cola as a sugary trophy of the consumer society to Barry’s Honest Tea exercise in marginal utility and diminishing returns.  We want as much satisfaction as we can get without having to pay for it with calories and an expanding butt. 

In the case of an entrepreneur, "just enough" is about control.  Staying small(ish), staying private, supplying your own capital, all these mean calling your own shots.  Venture capitalists and Wall Street can drive someone else crazy.  The just enough entrepreneur can take his or her own chances.  When it comes time to choose between interesting and profitable, you can go with interesting.  Just enough in this case is about control. 

I wonder if one of the motives is also about freedom and mobility.  Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder, has a yacht that is 416 feet long.  It cost something like a quarter of a billion dollars.  It carries two helicopters.  It’s so large it cannot dock anywhere on the French Riviera.  (That’s why it needs those helicopters.  They are the only way to get to port.)  The "Octopus" seems to be a perfect example of way-too-much.  Possessions of this kind act like barnacles that slow movement and limit freedom.  "Going for a sail" must seem to Allen like something that requires him to mobilize a third-world country, an event so wearying that it must seem better, most of the time, just to leave the thing be.  Allen’s Octopus is really an Albatross. 

But the biggest motive of just enough is the environmental one, clearly.  Now that we can see that reckless quantities actually have a cost beyond our own little domestic world, now we have a motive both personal and public.  I saw a man get out of his Hummer on St. Laurent in Montreal.  He was strutting a little as if to say, "check out my wheels."  In a way I have never seen before, passers by gave off an unmistakable feeling of contempt as it to say, "get the fuck out of here, you self congratulatory prick."  And he did.  He slunk back to his car and drove ever so meekly away.

This is the week in Connecticut when those little yellow "pesticide applied" rectangles bloomed on my neighbors lawns.  I may once have admired their perfect lawns.  Now, I could hear myself thinking, "Surely, a "just enough" lawn would be good enough, especially if it protected the Long Island sound from yet another infusion of poison.  Or is your lawn more important?"

All the really big trends have carried by lots of little trends in that "perfect storm" construction needs to drive competing trends (and all the noise) in our culture out of the way.  There is privacy, control, choice, freedom, mobility, and the environment.  And what happens when that happens.  Does America become more European, more Japanese.  It certainly, in some fundamental way, becomes less American.  We are reworking the fundamental terms of the consumer contract, and from this difference many more differences must flow. 

References

Anonymous.  2006.  It’s hull to be famous.  The Sydney Morning Herald.  August 9, 2006.
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2006/08/09/1154802947123.html

Baldwin, Kristen.  2008.  The Accidental Movie Star.  Entertainment Weekly.  Issue. 987, April 18, 2008.  pp. 20-26, p. 24.

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  PSFK talk. 

12 thoughts on “Just-enough, a new trend in the works (or, why Paul Allen’s Octopus is really an Albatross)”

  1. Oh, thankyou thankyou thankyou, Grant, for writing this! I’d finally caught up with my important (i.e., Entertainment Weekly) reading and devoured the article on Tina Fey. Not that I need worry about the price of fame/recognition, but long ago, I decided that all I wanted was the admiration of my peers, and to be able to walk into any 7-11 in the country unmolested. Fey can probably still get away with it most places–I have a feeling she’s down-low kinda gal–but I understand her frustration. It’s about doing your work, and having a blast doing it.

  2. So people are starting to include direct psychological costs and benefits into their economic calculations? Good. There’s hope for us yet.

  3. This trend, which I’ve been calling JGE (Just Good Enough) has been emerging for some time outside the US, in more resource-strapped and/or emerging economies, where JGE is better than the VLIA (Very Little If Anything) that was on offer before. As hundreds of millions of consumers create a broad base of demand for JGE elsewhere in the world, supply chains, designers, tastemakers etc will begin to adjust to it and bring it more strongly into the US. Look at cars, furniture, clothing today in the US and West vs even five years ago – more mid-to-low end, not very durable but aesthetically sufficient products are out there for consumption.

    See more: http://www.changeist.com/changeism/2008/1/10/race-to-the-bottom-of-the-pyramid.html
    http://www.changeist.com/changeism/2008/1/8/do-consumers-care-about-operating-systems-and-applications.html
    http://www.changeist.com/changeism/2008/1/7/china-india-and-pragmatic-technology-design.html

  4. This is an interesting idea. In recently reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of food, I was struck by the idea that big companies (with distribution beyond local or regional) are anathema to sustainability, and wise environmental policies. Admittedly, that’s a little overly-simplistic, but Just-Enough seems to fit there…

    Thanks.

  5. Nice post, Grant–

    I’ve been thinking along complementary lines with regard to the media business: at what point is it “enough” when it comes to being a media creator? Can you create media, sent your kids to private school, but not be a bazillionarie? A while back I hoped for the birth and growth of an artistic middle class:
    http://mediavorous.com/archives/yes-box-office-is-up-this-summer-but-dont-get-comfy

    Realize that we’re talking about nothing less than the reformulation of the American dream…

    Relatedly: there’s a new book by Jeffrey D. Sachs called “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet” that hits on similar themes and might be worth reading. I just ordered it. There’s a nice interview with him from yesterday’s Marketplace:
    http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/04/21/common_wealth_q/

    All best,

    Brad Berens

  6. Long ago, Tibor Scitovsky wrote about this stuff in The Joyless Economy. One of his points was that rational entrepreneurs should be utility maximizers, which means they should balance profit and leisure (or other non-pecuniary items) rather than maximize profits.

    I don’t think it’s quite right to assimilate a desire for limited fame with a desire for limited material consumption. Fame always had its costs; but the spread of cheap cameras, the Internet, and the culture of mass-participation mudslinging have raised those costs.

    On the other hand, material consumption may run into pure satiation effects. After someone has a great house, great car, eats wherever they want, and can travel for pleasure, a desire for additional stuff has to be cultivated deliberately (getting into wine collecting, say, or taking up expensive sailing pursuits). Now that serious and frivolous intellectual and artistic content are cheap and widely available, another reason to worry about having an enormous income stream has been cut down to size.

    I’m deeply skeptical of the environmental motivation being more than skin-deep, an ephemeral status signal. Most people don’t care if they’re hurting the environment, but some of them want to look like they’re not. None of them have much of a clue about how their actions really affect nature or their fellow man.

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  8. I normally don’t drink any sugar in my tea.

    But Honest Tea is gross, nasty stuff. You couldn’t sweeten that with five gallons of sugar. The high price is just an added insult.

  9. Great stuff. It’s in sync with the Taoist concept of eating till ‘almost full’ or the questions raised by autistic economics. Having lived all my life on the east coast, and moving at that extreme speed, lately I’ve been wondering if I need to step off and spend time in a slower place to rejig my values. Till then, I’ll be tilling my Brooklyn backyard, sans cellphone.

  10. I think this also has to do with the world is flat theory. In a day, we can be anywhere in the world. The Internet gives us the prism with which to connect everywhere and anywhere. Our ambitions are smaller because our limits grow smaller. Money does not equate to true power as much as it used to, and as time goes by that principle will become more and more evident.

  11. “Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder, has a yacht that is 416 feet long. It cost something like a quarter of a billion dollars. It carries two helicopters. It’s so large it cannot dock anywhere on the French Riviera. (That’s why it needs those helicopters. They are the only way to get to port.)”

    Grant – you’re saying the guy who founded Microsoft has built something expensive and cumbersome that isn’t compatible with the pre-existing public interface standards so requires an expensive work-around to use? Good lord! How out of character for him.

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