‘Good enough’ is no longer good enough

Digital map

Now – amazingly – the things we make no longer have to exist in a physical form. For example, recorded music had to exist in a physical form. It made no sense for listeners to consider the recording as distinct and separate to the physical container or carrier (the record, the tape, or the CD). Now, however, it is common for recorded music to ephemerally exist in a computer’s memory, on USB flash drives or on hard drives. The recording is not inextricably connected with the physical medium.

In these radically different circumstances, we no longer have the high costs of physical production and distribution. The barriers to starting up a new business are now lower than ever. Today, almost anyone can have a go. On the flip side, that means more competition.

The dramatically lower cost of making things means that it’s now feasible (and even attractive) to make many varieties of things in small quantities. A high level of competition also increases the pressure to increase quality standards. And of course there are many different opinions about what defines ‘quality’, and what is the ‘best’. This in turn drives diversification – making things that are tailored to specific niches. A ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t good enough any more. We can make nice things for everybody!

For example, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can record a song and upload it for the world to hear. We’re witnessing an explosion of music niches because artists no longer need to sell pop-music quantities to justify the record label’s production costs. In the pre-internet era, an album that sold 10,000 copies was considered a commercial flop and a financial loss to the record label. Nowadays, an album that sells 10,000 copies via the internet can allow an artist to quit their day job.

Interestingly, the internet places enormous downward pressure on prices. Since duplication and distribution is almost free, there’s no practical lower limit to what a thing can cost. Thus, we’ve witnessed the explosion of free things – free music, free software, free advice, free communications and more.

This puts new businesses in a fascinating position. They face competition from above: where the established players still enjoy the advantages of established success and brand recognition. Competition on all sides: from businesses using low costs to make nice things for weird people (in newly-sustainable low quantities). And also competition from below: where anything you can make is already available for free in abundance.

‘Good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore.