09 Nov

Danger: Are you Fungible?

You are unique - James Altucher quote

You are unique - James Altucher quoteFungible is a wonderful word. It means that something is able to be replaced by something else with no loss of function or value. A bag of flour is fungible. It is fundamentally the same in function and value as any other bag of flour. If you’ve got a bag of flour you can exchange it for another bag with an equal amount of the same type of flour and still be able to bake the same cake.

Wheat is fungible. Oil is fungible. Money is fungible.

Art should never ever, Ever, EVER be fungible.

Imagine that you’re doing a game, or writing a book, or painting a mural. You’ve finished. You exhibit your work. Ten thousand other people exhibit their work next to yours. And all of your works are fungible.

Suddenly it doesn’t matter what you’ve put in your game. It doesn’t matter if your book is great. It doesn’t matter if your mural is amazing. If it’s fungible it is exchangeable with every other mural.

When that happens you’ve got a single point to compete on: price. That’s where the race to the bottom comes from: all those freelancers are fungible. Joe Blow and Jane Maine are interchangeable to the client. No one will care to chose one above the other. And that leads to them comparing the single thing that is easy to compare in fungible resources: what they cost. And they’ll chose the cheaper one. The race to the bottom is on.

So what can you do to avoid being fungible?

Create a Flappy Bird clone.

Ok, sorry, I couldn’t resist. What you need to do is to add your unique touch to whatever it is you offer. Yeah, that’s about as valuable as advising you to breathe. But bear with me.

Let’s say that you know that painting pictures is different from painting walls. Slobbering color on a wall is fungible, any idiot with a toothbrush can do it. Painting a mural shouldn’t be fungible – but it can be if you either lack the skill or if you’re trying to imitate a popular style.

Note that sometimes it can pay to be fungible, like in the creation of Flappy Bird clones. I’m sure that whomever created the first one after Flappy Birds was pulled managed to earn some money. But I doubt that it would be a viable long-term strategy.

So you’re aware that you need to stand out somehow. But how?

There are three ways that you can stand out: on your self, on your work and on your delivery. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Standing out based on your self is the archetype of having a winning personality. Some people are just so darn nice, or fun, or charming that we want to be around them. Constantly. Like, “hey, can I lick your boots?”. Ok, let’s get back from stalker land. The point is that when you have a very strong personal presence some of it will rub of on your work. In other words, your work can be trivial, but your self will make it non-fungible.

Over deliver - Tom Peters quoteYou don’t have to be nice to leave a personal stain on your work. You could just as easily be notorious: Hitler’s water paintings are pretty amateur but people still pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to own them because, you know, the Führer made them do it, errr, did it. With Eva Braun.

Sorry, let’s rescue this post, shall we?

Let’s assume that you don’t have a winning personality. Now your work has to be the thing that isn’t fungible. The common way is to make it uniquely yours in some way, and that’s why we’ve got IP laws to protect writers because while their words are unique the books themselves aren’t: you can print any number of different copies of a book and unless they’ve got some special collector’s value they’ll be fungible.

The key here is to be unique or superior in some way. You don’t need to be unique in every way, in fact that can be hard or impossible, but be unique in one way. If everyone is doing Flappy Bird clones with birds, do one with dog shit (that has been done, BTW). If everyone is painting with oils, paint with watercolors. If everyone is doing red, do green. Everything else can be the same but if you stretch yourself on one detail your work will still be unique.

I’m not going to go into how to be unique in your art. Your style, your voice, well, you’ll grow into them if you haven’t already (chances are you have but haven’t realized it). Instead lets look at the last type of fungibility avoidance: your delivery.

If you aren’t memorable, and your work isn’t memorable, what can you do? You can make the way you deliver your work memorable. I don’t mean strip and swing your banana, I’m mean to give your buyers and fans above and beyond what they expect.

This is the whole “under-promise and over-deliver” thing. Promise to deliver on Friday and give it to them on Tuesday. Promise to deliver ten and give them eleven. Promise a rough sketch and deliver a polished one. No matter what you do, make them feel that they’re getting something special. That will make an impression.

This is where a lot of writers fail when they become big and suddenly don’t deliver the next sequel. How long do we wait for George R.R. Martin to write the next Game of Thrones novel before we tire of waiting? (For me it was three years, and I haven’t picked them up since, but I digress.) That’s a failure of delivery. Failing to deliver is quite fungible, if you’re going to do it, make sure that your work is very unique in other aspects.

Leave a Reply