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Summary:

The viral video of a nine-year-old boy who built a magical arcade out of cardboard at his father’s auto-parts business in Los Angeles has a lot to say about the spirit of entrepreneurship and creativity that fuels much of what we write about at GigaOM.

Caine-arcade-snapshot

By now, many of you have probably seen the video clip of a nine-year-old boy who built his own elaborate boardwalk-style arcade out of cardboard and other scavenged material at his father’s auto-parts business in Los Angeles. The story of Caine Monroy and his wonderful creation has “gone viral,” as marketers like to say about Internet memes, and donations have been pouring in from around the world to pay for the young boy’s college education. To me at least, this inspiring story says a lot about the spirit of entrepreneurship and creativity that fuels much of what we write about at GigaOM and how the power of imagination is something that still resonates with so many people, regardless of how old they are.

Just to recap for those who may not have seen it (the video is embedded below), Caine’s cardboard arcade was discovered by filmmaker Nirvan Mullick when he went into Smart Parts Auto in East L.A. looking for a handle for his ’96 Corolla. While he was waiting, he saw the amazing series of Midway-style cardboard games and challenges that young Caine had created — each with its own series of prizes tacked on a board. The young boy even had a business model built into his imaginary arcade: Visitors could buy either a four-game pass or the 500-game “fun pass” for a slightly higher price.

Lessons for entrepreneurs of all ages

Mullick bought the fun pass, and then in his video he showed how Caine would climb into each box to pay out the tickets, select prizes and so on. He also explained how the calculators hanging on each box provided a kind of security system to check the legitimacy of a user’s pass. This latter element was one of the things that caught the eye of the Hacker News forum at Y Combinator, where an admiring commenter compared young Caine’s approach to that of any successful startup, with features like:

  • Build something you want
  • Build something other people would want
  • Turn your passion into a business
  • If you need it, build it
  • Tiered pricing
  • Turn customers into raving evangelists
  • Leverage others’ technology
  • Bootstrapped with friends and family

And Caine’s startup, if we can call it that, has certainly achieved success. It may not have been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion like Instagram was a few days ago, but it accomplished the next best thing for a nine-year-old: After it was posted to Reddit, the community there took up the challenge to make Caine’s day by showing up to play his arcade, and that set off a chain reaction that reverberated through the traditional media as well. Within 24 hours a website had been set up to collect donations for Caine’s college fund, and in less than a day the total had hit $100,000.

It’s easy to see why Caine captured the hearts of so many. He is a cute boy, and he is so passionate and heartfelt about his games and his love for them that anyone who has been a child can’t help but be inspired and moved. But the Hacker News discussion also made me think about what Caine’s story says about the spirit of entrepreneurship, since many entrepreneurs persevere with their crazy schemes and ideas, even though their chances of success are as remote as a young boy’s chances of getting people to visit a cardboard arcade.

Is the growth of something like Twitter any less improbable?

Is it any less improbable that a simple text-messaging-style service developed by a creative dreamer like Jack Dorsey could catch the imagination of the world and become a $10 billion company the way Twitter has? Is the success of something like Tumblr — which was created by 21-year-old David Karp and now has more than 15 billion page views per month — any more unlikely than a cardboard arcade? What about Facebook, which started as a university student’s plaything and now has almost a billion users? Caine’s arcade is a little less real than any of these, but not that much.

The other thing that struck me about the video was just how unlikely it was that Caine’s arcade would be discovered by a filmmaker, who would then alert Reddit and the rest of the world to it, and that $100,000 or more would be raised in a single day for the boy’s benefit. It’s a powerful statement about what the Web and social tools can do — just as powerful as the stories that come out of Kickstarter about businesses being funded or any of the other success stories from Etsy or Quirky that are part of the rise of the “creative economy.” I think we are only beginning to see the potential of that ecosystem.

And most of all, Caine’s story proves that sometimes if you build it — no matter how improbable or crazy or unrealistic it might seem — people actually do come. And that is something worth celebrating.

  1. Sebastien Barre Thursday, April 12, 2012

    How does a parent even deal with that? Random people just gave them almost $120k for their kid’s college tuition.. The world is amazing sometimes..

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    1. I know — it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Amazing. Perhaps they will use some to set up a fund of some kind for others as well or donate some to charity.

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  2. It seems the #1 lesson here is be lucky. Without Mullick, it’s likely no one would know about the boy’s creations. He played the role of a Scoble or a Gruber.

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    1. It’s true that luck plays a role — but if Mullick and those who watched the video hadn’t been inspired by the energy and imagination in the arcade, nothing would have come of it.

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    2. they say better to be lucky then good
      i say, better to be lucky AND good

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    3. I’d say Caine improved his odds of attracting a Mullick by all the time he invested there. So it’s more than luck.

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      1. Totally agree — thanks for making that point.

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  3. Renee Marie Jones Thursday, April 12, 2012

    I think it is terrible … a kick in the face of all the other deserving children who didn’t happen to get noticed. You don’t win in this country by hard work or intelligence … it’s just advertising and random chance that matter. How sad.

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    1. Caine looks to have worked quite hard on his arcade and due to that, happened to get noticed by the right person at the right time. I wouldn’t consider that to be a kick in the teeth to the other children that didn’t get noticed.

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    2. Getting noticed is absolutely a key to success and the way to be noticed is to be exceptional. Ordinary is…ordinary, and hard work is just hard. It saddens me to think that anyone believes that it’s possible to win with brains and hard work alone.

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  4. Philip Quintas Friday, April 13, 2012

    Here’s what struck me about this story: Caine built this cardboard arcade and no one came, he went back to school and told people about it and no one believed him, but he kept on showing up and then someone else (Nirvan) caught his vision. It’s the power of collaboration that enables success.

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  5. Terry Heaton Friday, April 13, 2012

    Geez, Renee, “terrible?” The lesson here for all those “other deserving children” is to blossom where you’re planted so that Life can fill in the blanks. Caine had no belief whatsoever that he would be discovered in this fashion when he began his arcade, and that’s what we should be celebrating. Time and chance occurs to everyone, so hard work and intelligence – the supreme values of the left brainers – can never be in charge, thank God. Passion, joy and living in the moment are what this film teaches. Fame and raising money for college are just added value.

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  6. There’s something in my eyes. That’s all. Just some dust. Or something.

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