Inconvenience Economics

There is something kinda shitty about building a business off of an inconvenient part of life. Yes, you're helping other people overcome that inconvenience. But insofar as your business depends on there being an inconvenience in the first place, you're partly betting on that inconvenience's continued existence. Wouldn't you rather have a business that does well when the world does well?

There's an example of this in tax accounting firms. Companies like Intuit and H&R Block make software that help people file their taxes. But since their business models depend on an inconvenience—the Borgesian complexity of the tax code—they lobby the U.S. government not to make filing taxes easier. They want to preserve a negative part of life so that they can continue to remediate it for us. In overly simple terms: they start out helping but they end up hurting because their business depends on a problem.

Of course, all businesses set out to solve a problem in some sense. But it feels like there's a difference between products and services that add value to life and those that merely fix a crappy state of affairs. Would people want the thing you do or make even if everything were great? If no, are you hoping that the world stays worse than it could be so your business can stick around? Are you actively working to keep it worse, the way Intuit, H&R Block, and countless other companies do?

I think it's possible to build a business off of an inconvenience without perpetuating that inconvenience. Coudal Partners did this when internet distribution made their DVD and CD jewelbox case company, Jewelboxing, obsolete. Instead of lobbying the government, the industry, or consumers to hang on to disc media, they shut it down and looked for new stuff to do. It wasn't a defeat. They helped people overcome the inconvenience of DVD and CD packaging when the inconvenience existed. Then they moved on when it didn't.

It's also possible that some inconveniences are more permanent than others, and that it's better to build businesses off of those than on the more ephemeral ones. Not only because it means the problem your business solves will be around longer (a selfish reason), but also because you won't find yourself in the position of hoping or actively lobbying for that problem to persist.

For example, we'll probably always need products and services that help us find good, nutritious food. That's a relatively permanent problem (in the broadest sense; the need to eat can obviously be much greater than a nuisance!) that people are right to try to solve. But food deserts are a relatively impermanent, artificial problem. If you're a convenient store owner—literally a convenient store—you might count on there being few affordable, healthy food options near your store because your business depends on it. You might reject or never feel the selfish impulse to hope that no other food suppliers move into the neighborhood, solving the inconvenience on which your business is based. But it remains that there's a conflict between your interests and the good of your community even while you're working to solve a problem for it. I think that if you're interested in doing what you do for a long time, and on betting for positive change in the world instead of the status quo (or worse), you might be better off selling food that people would love even if they had lots of other options.

The same goes for other stuff. I want to do things and make things that would be worthwhile even if the world were perfect. But insofar as the world isn't perfect, we're right to try to create structures that help with some of its problems. It just takes grace to accept when they're solved. And willingness to work on new ones.