Little Ben squawked in shock as his arm went numb from the shoulder down. His school bag hit the ground with a sharp crack, suggesting yet another cheap plastic lunchbox had met an untimely end.
He gingerly lifted his sleeve to reveal an angry red mark, that promised to become a nasty bruise in the days to come.
We exchanged puzzled glances. How had Little Ben injured himself while walking home from school? He hadn’t stumbled. Bumped into anything. Nobody had touched him.
He was clumsy, but not that clumsy!
As I bent down to rescue Little Ben’s bag, something ricocheted off the footpath. Gouging the pavement. Peppering my leg with shards of cement. What the hell?
The sound of laughter from across the street drew our attention. Two older boys, bullies from school, were standing on the raised front porch of a house. One of them was pointing a rifle at us, while the other clapped him on the shoulder. Both were laughing so hard they were nearly crying.
The crack we had heard had been a gunshot. The sound of the second shot drowned out by a passing car, which the boys had fired over, as the blissfully unaware driver did the school run.
Little Ben and I glanced at each other once more.
“They’re shooting at us?” Little Ben exclaimed in disbelief. “With a real gun!”
“Well, that sucks” I responded. “Run!”
We must have nearly broken the Olympic 100 metre sprint record that day. Fear motivating our eight-year-old legs such that Carl Lewis and Linford Christie would have been left trailing in our wake.
We arrived at Little Ben’s house, sweaty and shaken. It would be hours before his parents or elder siblings returned home, and he wasn’t trusted with a key.
His elder brother’s key had once been stolen. A few days later a disgruntled classmate used it to steal a jerrycan of mower fuel from the garage. They proceeded to burn down the school playground equipment, in protest against an afternoon detention they felt was unjustified. The following night, they torched the teacher’s car in the carport next to the house where she and her young family slept. It would be fair to say the boy had issues.
Little Ben’s arm still wasn’t working properly, so I boosted him up onto the roof, then clambered up the drainpipe to join him. We lifted a few roof tiles, shuffled through the crawl space, and entered via the manhole. Little Ben’s usual route inside. It would be another few months before he belatedly realised, with some embarrassment, that the bathroom window was unlocked and the fall into the tub was much shorter than the jump from the ceiling!
After wrapping a bag of frozen peas in a hand towel, I left Little Ben icing his arm in front of the television and headed home.
Stags and Lions
A few hours later, Little Ben was trying to use his now spectacular bruise to get out of playing “Stags and Lions” at our weekly cub scout meeting.
The rules of the game were simple.
The scoutmaster divided the troop up into two groups.
Each group lined up in height order along opposite sides of the scout hall. The tallest kid on each team was numbered 1, the second tallest 2, and so on.
In the centre of the hall was a large rectangular rug. Mottled. Stained. Nasty smelling.
On the rug was a wooden broom handle. Chipped. Battle-scarred. Like a medieval quarterstaff.
The scoutmaster would turn out the lights and call a number.
If the number was yours, you advanced in the dark towards the rug. So too did your opponent.
“Stags and Lions” was a game of submission. To win, you had to pin your opponent to the floor with the broom handle. Face up or face down, it didn’t matter.
The game ended with a triumphant shout of “pinned” or a plaintive cry of “yield”. Only then would the lights be switched back on.
There were no other rules.
The victor received praise from his teammates and bragging rights over the vanquished.
The loser was punished by the scoutmaster, should he feel they hadn’t given it their best shot.
It was rough game.
Played in pairs, or small teams when multiple numbers were called out.
Cheating in the dark was rife.
Friendly fire was a real risk.
Bloody noses and knocked out teeth were common.
Little Ben was easily the smallest kid in the troop, and his arm still wasn’t working properly.
The scoutmaster was unsympathetic by nature. An angry Scotsman, with a big ginger moustache, a bigger temper, and a mostly bald head. He demanded to know how Little Ben had earned the bruise.
Little Ben swallowed hard.
Shuffled his feet.
Teared up as he desperately looked anywhere but at the two gun-toting bullies, now standing in their cub scout uniforms glaring at him from across the hall.
Radiating menace, the scoutmaster leaned over the terrified boy. In his best drill instructor voice, he demanded at great volume to know exactly what had happened to Little Ben’s arm.
All the boys flinched at the force of the sound. An involuntary lizard brain response.
A little bit of wee ran down Little Ben’s leg.
He was scared of the bullies.
He was more scared of their retribution.
But most of all, he was terrified of the scoutmaster. We all were. With good reason.
In a halting voice, Little Ben briefly described our eventful walk home from school earlier that day.
Yet the scoutmaster knew. He may have been a psychopath and was certainly a sadist, but he wasn’t stupid. Part of his reason for having us play the game was to teach confidence, self-reliance, and survival skills. Running to the teacher isn’t an option when someone is punching you in the dark.
“Shot huh? That sucks. Let’s see if we can’t do something about it, shall we?” mused the scoutmaster.
We didn’t play “Stags and Lions” that evening. Instead, a very scary Scotsman taught a troop of eight to eleven-year-old boys some home truths about the strengths and weaknesses of human anatomy.
Fractures, and how to cause them. Greenstick. Spiral. Transverse. Collect the full set.
Recovery times: 3 weeks for a nose. 4 weeks for a finger or toe. 6 to 8 weeks for an arm or leg.
Ankles or elbows, for when you want to leave a permanent impression. They never quite heal up the same.
Angles and force required to tear an anterior cruciate ligament or a rotator cuff. Elapsed recovery and rehabilitation time going on for six months. At best, miss an entire sporting season. At worst, end a career.
The physics of concussion, delivered with a theory ahead of its time about cumulative brain damage and how that may explain why so many bouncers, boxers, and footballers tend to be boofheads.
Spinal injury implications by vertebra, ranging from an uncomfortable bruised tailbone to quadriplegia.
Those fragile places, for when you may only get one chance. Larynx. Solar plexus. Testes.
Each explanation was followed by a practical demonstration on one of the gun-toting bullies.
The scoutmaster sported an evil grin. The bullies wore matching cartoonish expressions of horror. It might have been comical, had we been at all confident that the scoutmaster would stop short of maiming them.
At the end of the demonstration, the scoutmaster told us that he had just equipped us to find opportunity in Little Ben’s adversity. Then he admonished that we now knew enough to hurt someone. With that knowledge came a responsibility: that we only use it to defend ourselves.
If he heard of anyone misusing that knowledge, he promised to visit them in hospital. After he put them there!
I was reminded of that day long ago, while I was reading an interview with the venture capitalist Josh Wolfe. He was describing his firm’s opportunity identification framework, which begins with asking the question “what sucks?”.
Where are the pain points?
What would people pay good money to not have to do?
What are the underlying root causes?
What would it take to eliminate, minimise, or mitigate that suckiness?
What profitable opportunities might exist for a business that could make the problem go away?
The example given in the interview was nuclear power. While everything is going right, a cleaner source of electricity than burning fossil fuels. Yet one that produces the byproduct of radioactive waste, something nobody wants buried in their own backyard out of fear that their children will start glowing in the dark or become Marvel superheroes.
Wolfe’s firm took a deep dive into the problem.
They determined that disposing of radioactive waste was a niche worth USD$6 billion per year.
Then they designed a business to profit from the opportunity found in helping those facing the “that sucks” issue.
I was intrigued by the opportunity identification framework approach. It was a new spin on the business model long employed by the pharmaceutical and management consultancy industries: find a malady, then find a way to profit from the ongoing treatment or persistence of that malady.
I decided to invest a few minutes noting down a list of everyday things that have made me go “that sucks”. Then I triaged the list in search of solutions potentially worth multiple millions.
- Lost golf balls – Every week my mother complains about losing golf balls to long grass, magpies, and water traps. Fitting balls with cheap RFID tags, linked to a phone/watch tracker app, would help her figure out which balls were worth searching for. If they can track bees, they can track balls!
Potential market size: Annual golf ball sales total ~USD$966 million
- Education arms race – The pandemic homeschooling experience exposed many parents to how meagre the curriculum offerings being taught to their offspring in class often are. Many parents choose to supplement in-class teaching with private tutoring and coaching, a disorganised and unregulated market ripe for a reliable matchmaking service.
Potential market size: Annual spending on private tutoring ~USD$173 billion.
- Room with a (disappointing) view – Younger me lived in some bleak places, with windows that looked out over train tracks or the ankles of passers-by. Returning home to these places was disheartening. Wall-mounted flat-screen televisions live-streaming the view from someplace more inspiring will be a big business.
Potential market size: Annual spending on wall décor ~USD$51 billion.
What things are on your “that sucks” list?
What opportunities can be found in addressing the underlying issue?
- Earthcam (2020), ‘Webcam network‘
- Matuszewski, E. (2017), ‘Forget A Smart Golf Ball You Can’t Lose; OnCore Has ‘Genius Ball’ That Runs $50 Per Sleeve’, Forbes
- National Golf Federation (2020), ‘Sizing Up Golf’s $2.9 Billion Club and Ball Market‘
- Nunes-Silva, P., Costa, L., Campbell, A.J., et al. (2020), ‘Radiofrequency identification (RFID) reveals long-distance flight and homing abilities of the stingless bee Melipona fasciculata’, Apidologie
- The Knowledge Project (2019), ‘Josh Wolfe: Inventing the Future [The Knowledge Project Ep. #50]’, Farnam Street
- Report Linker (2020), ‘Global Private Tutoring Industry‘
- Research and Markets (2019), ‘Global Wall Decor Market Size, Market Share, Application Analysis, Regional Outlook, Growth Trends, Key Players, Competitive Strategies and Forecasts, 2019-2027‘
- Wolfe, J. (2016), ‘From Wasteland to Fund-Maker’, Lux Capital