When They’ve Bought All Your Donuts
I met my very good friend, Bill Kast, at Martin Marietta. The company was exasperating: bureaucratic, rigid and dull. Dr. Kast worked on mechanical design. I worked primarily on electronics. We worked together on a few projects but our relationship was primarily maintained over lunch. Bill’s quick wit and quirky approach to life was a foundation for lasting friendship.
We both understood that there was something very wrong in this occupation. It was hard to innovate; it was hard to fully understand the problem to be solved based upon the rigidly structured requirements document; and, responsibility was distributed in such a way as to assure that no one was actually responsible for anything.
The frustration built. We all expressed our stress with a rebellious gesture we all understood. It was a sweeping motion from clenched hand at upper left collar down to open hand at waist-level. It represented the process of grasping the Martin Marietta badge hanging from the left collar or pocket and throwing it on the desk of the supervisor. Very few people did it but everyone dreamed of it. I escaped when I was hired by Sun Microsystems. My good friend remained with Martin Marietta until his welcome retirement.
During our time at that company, Dr. Kast had a revelation. It explained with unfathomable clarity a wide range of problems. Those problems were just becoming clear back then in the 1980s; but, they are even more prevalent now. He said, “Here’s my problem. Martin’s bought all my donuts.”
“What?” I responded.
“They bought all my donuts”
He fully explained it with this story.
A baker opened a donut shop. He awakened every morning at 3:00 and went to the shop. He heated the ovens and the oil baths to exactly the right temperature. He prepared four distinctly different doughs and measured out the toppings and fillings. He formed all of the day’s donuts and baked and deep fried each to perfection. At 6:30, all of the donuts were ready and proudly presented in the display case.
They were glazed with sugar and honey and agave nectar with cinnamon and nutmeg. They were firm whole-wheat and fluffy bleached-flour. They were round and square and folded around creamed jellies of strawberry, jasmine and violet. The shop became very popular. The shopkeeper had hundreds of regular customers who joyously purchased his magnificent offerings. The shop operated for several years building and maintaining a loyal customer base.
One morning at 6:30, the shop opened and an enthusiastic new customer barged through the door. “I’ll buy every donut you have. Every one in the shop!”
“Well, I have regular customers. They’ll be showing up any minute now.”
“No! I must have all of this.”
“Well,” replied the shopkeeper,”That’s probably OK. I have more in the back.”
“There are more in the back?” the customer exclaimed. “I must have that too. I want every goddamn donut in the place and I’ll pay double the price.”
The shopkeeper thought for a bit and reluctantly responded, “Well, if you really need them.”
The shopkeeper filled bag after bag with donuts and loaded them into the customer’s truck. As the first regular customer arrived, the shopkeeper was hanging his closed sign.
The next morning the shopkeeper awoke at 3:00 and went to the shop to make donuts. The beautiful panoply of delicious baked goods were proudly displayed when the doors were opened. The man from before burst in and demanded all of the donuts in the shop at double the price. The shopkeeper argued but the customer was adamant. In the end, he packed the customer’s truck and closed.
This continued for four weeks. Over time, the quality of the donuts declined. The customer bought all of the donuts whether they were interesting or not. The baker started arriving around 5:00, throwing together lots of basic baked donuts and then selling them to his customer. Day after day the routine, while profitable, was draining. The baker considered himself an artist but now he was just an employee of this persistent customer.
One day, after the baker had assembled and bagged the standard delivery, the customer arrived and surveyed the bags. “This is crap!” he said. “These donuts used to be cool but now they’re crap. I’m going to Angelo’s from now on.” The customer left and the baker was shocked. He stood staring as the familiar truck drove away.
“Well,” the baker thought, “I have regular customers.”
He unbagged the donuts and displayed them in the case. They weren’t as cool as they used to be but they were entirely acceptable. He waited behind the counter. It was 7:00 then 8:00. No one showed up. 9:00 then 10:00 then 12:00. No one. All of his regulars were gone. They had apparently found other options. Could he win them back or, when he abandoned them, did they feel betrayed? Week after week, he made his panoply of beautiful donuts but no reliable customer base returned. The shop failed and the baker abandoned his craft and became a professional dog walker.
This is what my friend meant when he said that Martin had bought all of his donuts. It is a story of trust and hope tinged with a pinch of greed and sympathy for a person in need. It is a story about how people may become distracted from their original goal when a more immediate attraction steals their attention, and how routine may lure one away from the stress of innovation. It is a good story about familiar human foibles. Anyone may play the baker and everyone has encountered that adamant customer. It is a universal story.
We all understood the trap. People came to Martin Marietta from all manner of other industries. Many were skilled in their various arts. Once at Martin, though, those skills became irrelevant. The rules for military and NASA development were entirely different and the processes were tedious. It drained all creativity as innovative concept after innovative concept was compared unfavorably to the tried and true Apollo program. All software was written in the obscure, government-only language called Ada. The microprocessors were to be of 1980s vintage. The favorite drive mechanism was the sloppy but reliable dual spur gear.
Once at Martin, there were no other options. I once tested this theory. I had been distributing résumés for months, receiving no responses whatever. I had a brainstorm and decided to release a series of résumés with only one alteration. The name Martin Marietta was replaced with Oximandius, Inc. I had a 90% response rate. They had bought all of my donuts. They had offered me good money to dumb down my skills and become uninteresting to all other potential employers.
The universality of the story was not obvious to me at first but now I see it reflected everywhere. Amazon has persuaded you that they are the only source of value. They’ve bought all your donuts. Maybe they’ll be there in ten years or maybe they’ll go the way of MySpace. Maybe they’ll over-play their monopoly and be broken up. Maybe they’ll find that controlling the world requires more resources than they have available. By dedicating yourself to Amazon, you’d better hope they show up tomorrow, because your choices have forced your previous options to find other options.
You’ve happily selected Android as your favorite smartphone. Everything runs on it. Your car detects your approach and unlocks. Your Google Maps tells you how to get to your destination. Your Google search engine tells you the facts of the world. You have other choices, of course, well, one — Apple but hey, that’s competition, right? If you don’t like Android or Apple, well, you’ll need to design your own smartphone and convince everyone to write entirely new software for it just like Google and Apple did. It’s free enterprise and so you have all the power you need to just, you know, do it! The two semi-monopolies that had the money and power to establish themselves as the only sources of smartphones have bought all your donuts. You thought you had options but you really have to comply with the demands of your special device and when they clog up your system or discontinue your hardware, you’ll need to buy a new one — not because it wore out but simply because your semi-monopolist decided it was time for you to pay them more money. Without that phone how do you get into your car, pay your bills or manage your calendar?
You bought a Tesla and for free you get unlimited Internet, unlimited trip planning, unlimited voice activated behaviors. There’s just one thing. The reason you have all of this is because your car is sending info about everything you do in that car back to Tesla so they can construct a massive AI system in support of totally autonomous driving (Full Self-Driving in Tesla-speak). At some point they will either conclude that they have fully trained their auto-pilot (not likely) or they will give up on the fantasy of machine-driven driving. When that happens, you will have no value to Tesla. At that point, you will lose those features. Tesla will insist that you pay for your unlimited Internet and use of the Tesla speech recognition software. Tesla bought all your donuts. They put you into a very nice car but they own the most interesting features, you do not. When they tire of providing those services, those services will become scarce.
The Creeping Delusion
You started as a young individual. You opened a Facebook account and Facebook started providing you with the data you were wanting to see. You are now in a bubble. Your smartphone feeds you the info that is consistent with your established beliefs. Amazon suggests the products you are most likely to buy. Emails arrive suggesting that you buy the things you were recently searching for on eBay. If you are not paying for the product, you are the product. You are being sold to marketers all over the world. Those marketers see you as a simple mark.
You know that your donuts were all bought when your reading club is fed up with the ever-changing rules imposed by Facebook and you realize that there is no other option. You are in the trap when you realize that the music you’ve “purchased” from Apple becomes unavailable if you eschew Apple products. You are in the trap when you find out that your local newspaper went out of business because you and your friends were getting your “news” from the Internet. Then when you actually need to know what happened locally, you have lost your resource.
Take this as a wise warning from my good friend: Never let anyone buy all of your donuts. Temptations may arise but we must make our decisions with an eye on the long-term future. We may not need local news today but we must contribute to those who gather local news for our potential needs next week. We may enjoy the convenience of Alexa but at some point a long-term view will understand the need for competitors in order to keep the monopolist-to-be honest. Convenience is not a measure of merit. Nor is ease contiguous to value. Living life is a constant challenge to make choices that serve the immediate needs and also preserve those resources that will be needed in the future. To settle for what is easy is likely to deplete your future options.
This work represents the opinion of the author only.