What we can learn from a young boy’s cardboard arcade

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.