Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Fail Faster and Cheaper
(April 10, 2009)

"The main problem, as I see it, is that over seven years of development, there was a whole lot of money spent. I’d guess somewhere around half a million. In the end, there is just one eleven-minute pilot that is not aired. Consequently, the network is very, very cautious and slow with the production of each pilot. Also, the eleven minute pilot doesn’t really tell much more about the show than, say, an eleven minute animatic with one minute of animation that could be completed for one-tenth the cost." -Fran Krause

Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew has an interview with Will and Fran Krause about their experiences pitching and producing a pilot for the Cartoon Network. As you can see from the above quote, the process went on for a very long time and cost a lot of money. In the end, the pilot didn't become a series.

While everyone wants success, whether it's defined as money, popularity or quality, the hard truth is that most things fail. So long as the audience has choices, it will migrate to what it enjoys, and abandon everything else. While no one courts failure intentionally, it does have one undeniable benefit: it proves that something doesn't work.

Both the Krause brothers and Cartoon Network learned this but at much too high a cost. The resources spent on the pilot could have used to make several pilots or a couple of half hour specials. The Krause brothers retain the rights to the characters, but there's a lien against them. Anyone interested in picking up these characters has to reimburse Cartoon Network for the money it has already spent. Therefore, the odds of this happening are low.

This gets back to the idea of efficiency that I talked about here. In industry, where time is money, there is a benefit to rapid prototyping -- taking an idea and putting it into tangible form as quickly as possible. The next step is to test the prototype and see if it is viable. In other words, you want to fail quickly and cheaply. If the only benefit of a failure is to discover that an idea doesn't work, the less time and money you spend on a failure, the smaller your loss. Furthermore, the less you spend on one idea, the more money you have left to spend on another. Success is often a question of percentages. The more ideas you can afford to test, the more you learn and the more likely you are to finally succeed. Too many enterprises fail because they run out of money before they find an audience.

The answer to all this is to fail faster and cheaper. Why do an 11 minute pilot? While that's the format that Cartoon Network ultimately wanted, why not do 30 second pilots and put them on the web? Far more ideas could be tested for the money spent on an 11 minute pilot and the network could have tangible feedback in terms of hits and comments from a real audience, not executives or focus groups. Once an idea showed promise, then money could be spent to expand it to an 11 minute pilot and the odds of success would be much greater.

That wouldn't eliminate the network bureaucracy, though, which is why I still think that artists shouldn't bother pitching at all, unless it's directly to the audience. Costs for 30 second pilots can be low enough that they can be supported independently, though an individual can't afford as many as a larger business can. However, if the idea clicks, everything changes. Paul Graham, a software engineer and venture capitalist has written:

"Someone running a startup is always calculating in the back of their mind how much "runway" they have—how long they have till the money in the bank runs out and they either have to be profitable, raise more money, or go out of business. Once you cross the threshold of profitability, however low, your runway becomes infinite. It's a qualitative change, like the stars turning into lines and disappearing when the Enterprise accelerates to warp speed. Once you're profitable you don't need investors' money. And because Internet startups have become so cheap to run, the threshold of profitability can be trivially low. Which means many Internet startups don't need VC-scale investments anymore. For many startups, VC funding has, in the language of VCs, gone from a must-have to a nice-to-have."

What Cartoon Network, and other big media companies, bring to the table is money. It used to be money and distribution, but now distribution is free thanks to the web. If artists can keep their costs low enough, they no longer need Cartoon Network for money plus they get to own their creations. Artists will still fail, but if they can fail faster and cheaper than media companies, they have better odds for success.