The make vs. consume ratio

Years ago I realized the pleasure of spending a few bucks to see something that cost $100 million or more to make. It’s a special bargain when you realize hundreds of people spent years making something you can watch in just over an hour. A novel which takes a few hours to read, might have taken years or a lifetime to write, and that compression of effort, when you stop to think about it, adds meaning to all created things. Even if ordinarily you might not like result of that work.

As a maker (e.g. writer) I’ve learned there’s an available mindset when watching, reading or using something: I can think not only as a consumer but also as creator. Why did they design it this way? What were they thinking here? How many meetings did it take to decide that shot? Or that plot twist? What were they trying to do, and how do I imagine they considered the result? Even for a bad film, this framing can make the experience quite different and often much better. Even for a bad experience, given the amount of effort that went into it, I can find it interesting or educational for reasons other than the consumer experience alone.

Matt Mullenweg (who is currently was my boss), wrote this a few months ago:

I wonder if there could be some sort of metric for writing that told you the ratio of time-to-create versus time-to-consume. On Twitter it’s basically 1:1, you can craft and consume a tweet in a time measured in seconds. For this blog post, it may take me an hour to write it and 5 minutes to read (not skim) it. You can work your way all the way up through 8-10,000 word essays, and books that may take years and years (or a lifetime) to create.

I’ve thought about this in various forms over the years.  Sometimes it’s hard to guess at the true ratio: I do know writers who agonize over tweets, in the same way poets suffered offer their short poems. Some great works were easy to do (if you don’t include the time required to learn the trade), and some awful works took years of hard work.

Regarding the ratio: It seems the greatest relationship is likely in old cathedrals, which took hundreds of people dozens of years to make. Films, in terms of expense, are hard to beat: years of effort at (often) hundreds of millions per year.

Any thoughts on other ratios, or better ways to formulate the ratio?

18 Responses to “The make vs. consume ratio”

  1. Rich S

    No thoughts on other ratios, but this was exactly the reason why I donated to the Paint.NET project the other day. It’s got to have a crazy ratio in terms of how much time it took to make versus how much time I spend using it.

    It certainly is worth it to take a step back to appreciate something great.

  2. Drew Kime

    Of course you know the Picasso story. Five minutes of my time and five minutes of Picasso’s time are not the same. Hell, five minutes of my time today aren’t the same as five minutes of my time 20 years ago.

  3. Peter Edstrom

    I like the metric. If we could have an honest number for everything created out there, it would be a good start to determining the value. Like products you buy at the store, a $15 item is not always, but is generally, worth more than a $10 item.

    That being said, I don’t think we can get a fair and accurate number today (at least not on the breadth of things that would make it useful).

    The star ratings you see on Amazon, various blogs, or just the simple thumbs-up/down like Digg are a good metric to rate things in the mean time.

  4. Martin Unsal

    I face this dilemma all the time as a sole proprietor with a business in finance, coming from a programming background. I always see ways to automate my business, but the calculation is very different for a sole proprietorship than it would be for a larger business. Does it make sense to write a script to automate such-and-such task? Only if the time taken to develop, test and debug the script is less than the time it would take me to do the same task by hand. I have a 1:1 make to consume ratio because I am the sole maker and sole consumer.

    It’s a very interesting distinction from most programming jobs. It also goes against the instincts of a programmer, since, intellectually, I’d rather spend 3 days programming than 3 hours doing tedious accounting work. So there’s a constant battle between me wearing my programmer hat (please let me write a script to do that!) and me wearing my boss hat (no dude it’s a waste of time).

  5. Sebi

    Interesting thought. But I wonder does it really matter. You’ve said it yourself – Some awful work took years to do. The quality of a piece of work is independent from the time it took to do it. It may appear to be directly proportional but that’s only because adding quality takes time and effort. But you can’t assume that something will come out great just because you’ve spent n hours on it. Its not about the time, its about the quality.

  6. Thorsten

    When readng this blogpost, I was thinking not in terms of money, but in terms of time – like a bridge, a skyline or even things in nature like the Grand Canyon. Took millions of years to make, yet you can take a lot of it in within a few seconds. The nice thing about these is that there a so many layers that you can spend your whole life exploring it and still continue to find new and exciting aspects of it.

  7. Josh Maher

    The twitter ratio is only 1:1 if the tweeter or the reader is not interesting.

  8. Gregor McKelvie

    This has got me thinking! It can be applied to so many things e.g. a bit of fruit takes a long time to produce, but is eaten in a few minutes. Or you can spend weeks preparing a speech or a talk for it to be over in 30 minutes. You can also turn it on its head i.e. it takes 9 months to make a baby, but you have the relationship for life (although that’s not consume, but you know what I mean!).

    I think if people thought more about the making part whilst consuming, there may be less waste and more things reused either as products or byproducts.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Gregor: Love the ratio for fruit, or any natural thing. You have my mind spinning on that one.

      Another interesting ratio: Price per minute of usage. Some people complain about how much their car costs. But based on how many hours they spend using it it’s a way better use of $$$ than other things they buy, but don’t use often, if even every day. The cliche is you should spend $$$ on a great bed, since you will spend 1/3rd of your entire life in them (while you sleep).

  9. Lucretia Pruitt

    A very interesting concept!
    But there’s a vector missing: would the time to create be the same if any two people created it?

    In some industries, there’s a thing called ‘billable hours’ – the premise being akin to “it should take the average person who does this say, 15 minutes to do this part of it, so whether it takes 5 minutes or 1 hour, it is reasonable to bill the client for 15 minutes.” Thus, if you take longer to do something it is not at the penalty of buyer. Likewise, if you happen to be particularly skilled, you might be faster at it than most people and be able to bill 3x as much work.

    But then there’s the value aspect, too. Just because it takes me a long time to write this comment doesn’t make it worth reading. I could spend my lifetime ‘building a cathedral’ as it were, and it might take someone equally as long to ‘consume’ it – but is the ratio meaningful without factoring in value?

    I love your post. It’s making me think. Which adds another factor – does consumption stop at the end of the post/movie/poem? Or can it continue afterwards? Because I’ll be thinking about this far longer than it took me to read it.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Lucretia: great comment. thanks.

      > Because I’ll be thinking about this far longer
      > than it took me to read it.

      I think you’ve just created another ratio: the time to consume vs. how much time afterwards the consumer thinks about what they consumed.

      Example: Fight Club is one of my favorite movies. Most days I think about some aspect of philosophy offered in the movie. I imagine that even though I’ve seen the movie 10 or 12 times (total of about 20 hours) I’ve spent well move that that thinking or talking about the movie.

  10. Christopher Fahey

    Video games have long been appreciated for their hours-of-experience-per-dollar ratio, when compared to other media — this is basically another flavor of your time-based thinking when you consider that man-hours are a primary driver of cost.

    Getting away from media experiences, *tools* have the very inverse proportion: a hand tool or desktop application that took only hours or days for a small team or even a single person to conceive, test, build, and sell may be experienced for many thousands of hours *per user*.

    This creation/consumption time disparity concept has some shocking variants, too: Weapons, and the atomic bomb most of all, have to be the ultimate version it: Tens of millions of man-hours resulting in an instantaneous “experience”.

  11. Jason Bailey

    I think some things can never be considered complete. I am a web designer, and I remember my hesitation to enter the web design world when I was primarily focused on print work. Print work was great. You put time into it, and in short order you have a finished piece still smelling of fresh ink. Web work is different. It is alive and ever changing. I suppose the ratio can be applied on a task level to anything, but I’ve noted over the years that the amount of ongoing morphing things seems to be blurring the line between when something is complete and ready to be consumed.

  12. Michael H.

    It is also about the sum of all consumer time spend. Let’s say 100.000 people buy your book each spending 10 hours in average with it. That adds up to one million hours of consumption while it only took a few 1000 to write. Doesn’t it make sense to get it right and not waste the users time. How about software? Where some products have hundreds of millions of users. How much time could be spend more efficient? Wouldn’t it be better to release software “bug free” and useable instead of shipping it prematurely. E.g Google instant saves 350M hours user time a year! Which brings me to the next question: Is a consumers life quantifiable? How much effort do you have to put into your products to ensure no one get’s killed due to some mistake you made? Also to be taken into account: Is it all about optimizing everything to death? What a wordplay ;-)



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