The “build it” myth

I’ve spent a lot of hours in my life watching the movie Field of Dreams. It’s one of a handful that I own. It’s one of a very few that I’ve seen over and over again. Suffice to say, I know the movie, the characters, the themes pretty well.

Which is why I find it pretty funny these days when I hear anyone quote what they might feel is the signature line from the movie. Particularly when they start chatting up a group of people about some kind of software project, usually some kind of web site. I hear this way more often that you would think.

“If you build it, they will come”

And when people quote this, they’ll do it in that chuckled, sort of “nyuck, nyuck, nyuck” kind of way – where it’s a shared joke with all the room, but they are completely serious about applying it back to whatever project they are talking about. Like they want to be the second coming of James Earl Jones themselves, with deeply sonorous voices, dripping with gravitas, replicating his pitch with some amalgamated combination with his CNN tag line “This is… my web site” “If I [if you give me the money to] build it, they will come”.

See, the funny thing is, the people quoting the movie like this? With “if you build it, they will come”?

They completely and totally get it wrong.

See, here’s the plot synopsis. This guy, 36, gets the crazy idea to buy a farm. So he does, fixes up the house – plants some corn. Lives the farm-livin’ life in Iowa. Then he hears this disembodied whisper.

“If you build it, he will come”

The man sees visions to mow down some corn, build a baseball field with all his available savings. Watches a bunch of past (passed) ballplayers come and play ball that only he and his wife and daughter can see. Can’t make the mortgage. Hears the disembodied voice again:

“Ease his pain”

Travels across the country, kidnaps a famous author, who can see dead people too – wait, wrong movie – er, who hears voices too. Goes and does some research on another past ballplayer that only got one at-bat. Picks up a ghost on the side of the road, goes back to Iowa. Won’t sell the farm to developers to pay the mortgage. Watches more games. Daughter chokes on a hot dog. Ghost saves kid. Everyone can see dead people now. Man plays catch with ghost dad. Eases his own pain. Long line of people come to see dead people play baseball on a field in Iowa, and bring money. The end.

Really, it’s a great movie. But is there anything, anything at all in the movie about “if you build it, they will come”?

No, there’s not. Sure, there’s that great, sonorous, soliloquy:

Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

And there’s sure as heck not one thing in there about somebody giving Ray a bunch of money to build a web si…, er, a baseball field because Ray’s promising that a bunch of people are coming.

Am I playing semantics? No. But I’ll give you for a moment the flawed premise that you take the sonorous soliloquy on the road with you and quote the famous line that doesn’t exist. I’ll give you the flawed logical progression, free of charge, that you can reduce “If you keep this field that you already built Ray, people will come” into “if you build it, they will come”

What I’m not going to give you is that you can somehow twist the sonorous soliloquy into your sales pitch that “if you just fund me to build this thing, people will pass money to us without even thinking about it”.

Because, get this straight, it is not about the baseball field. And at no point in the movie was it ever about the baseball field. And just about everyone that watches the movie will tell you that. “Of course, Jay, we know it’s not about the baseball field” But, see, when they pull out those nyuck, nyuck, nyucks, and they pull out that quote, they’ll be obsessing over whatever the “thing” is for them. And the context that I usually hear it in, because of the business I’m in, is some kind of “web site”. And if it’s all about the “rockstar web sites” in my industry, it’s about some kind of “monetization”

So, what then, is it about? Well, if you really want to subvert Field of Dreams to describe your tech vision, let’s do that. Because Field of Dreams is just a well told inventive allegory about thing we already know – about why people use Twitter, or Facebook, Second Life, etc. And that even sometimes they feel compelled to pass over some printed pieces of fabric, or provide a number in a webform that authorizes some numbers to move around from one financial institution to another in exchange for that use.

It’s about a connection.

In Ray Kinsella’s case, he has a great life, but never quite connected with his dad. In seeking that connection, the problem that he had, a pain that was his, a connection he needed to make.

Ray has a problem. And he goes about solving it in a way that is novel, unique, and everyone thinks is more than a little crazy. He’s solving an age old problem – but doing it completely differently than it’s normally done. At great personal risk. Let me repeat that in a slightly different way: Ray is personally invested in seeing the solution through, in our modern vernacular, Ray owns it.

And no promise other than it’s making a connection for Ray in a way that he feels like he needs. His close associates get it. Or they believe in Ray enough to give a shot.

Then something a little mystically miraculous happens. Shoeless Joe shows up, making a connection to something he hasn’t had since 1919. And other players show up. Making connections. And Ray and his associates (his family) suddenly can see the field for what it really is. But they are having one devil of a time convincing the brother-in-law – and the bank. Why? Because they are too busy focusing on their own “thing” – not the baseball field for them, but the value of the land underneath it for development. (We get all smug because of course we don’t do that – we some have a higher noble purpose by focusing on the place, and not the value of the dirt underneath it, it’s just edges of the same coin)

Terrence Mann? Connections. Archibald Graham? Connections. And after witnessing Archie show up out of nowhere to dislodge some hot dog? The brother-in-law gets it then too. And takes some personal investment into (after all, he now owns the note on the farm).

I keep harping on that word, but it’s really what it’s about.

For anyone that follows baseball, you know there are 30 ballparks in the top league in the U.S. That space is owned (and if you think about our metaphor here, so is that web space, unless you are prepared to spend millions upon millions to crack it – And even then, you probably can forget about it – Microsoft has tried and basically failed, Yahoo has faltered. Google doesn’t really bother, they focus mainly on getting people into the ballpark Because again, it’s not about the ball park). There are some foreign opportunities here, it’s a bit different market – and usually far different games.

But really, domestically you have two choices. Make a connection. Learn to sell beer and peanuts. (and that’s not trivial, those people doing it in the park, particularly the people in the stands at those 30 major parks they are pros at what they do, but even they went to the ball park themselves) Or think differently about the ballpark. Again, if you follow baseball, you know the best games are in the minor leagues. There’s still a personal touch. The prices are cheaper. The promotions and personalities are better.

Even better, the connections you make while your kids are playing at the little league parks? Even deeper, even better. Or those of us without kids? There’s nothing better than being personally invested yourself. The smell of dirt and grass in spring on a softball field, honeysuckle growing out beyond the left field fence? Very little in this life tops that.

When I was a kid, the best games happened in the backyard. In the street. Anywhere was our field. Sometimes some friends and I will make our own field and toss the whiffle ball around, even today. And those mean more to me than watching from the stands in Baltimore, Atlanta, New York, etc.

Build the ball park. Create the framework where people can connect. You can engineer the conditions for community. But get it straight, building it isn’t about the ball park. It’s about the relationships.

To summarize 1600 words into the bullet points that are far more succinct and far less Youngian:

  • Find a problem to solve
  • Be personally invested in solving the problem.
  • Think of new and innovative ways of solving the problem.
  • Get others personally invested

In other words, _If you build the relationships, people will come. _