Profits As Marshmallows

June 25, 2012 — 1 Comment

Let’s continue the thought from our last post regarding the profitability bias

Over the longer term a business must be profitable. Of course. But if it has the chance to be wildly profitable in the future with little chance of the bigger-smarter-richer company being able to steal its customers, perhaps those profits could be deferred for a time.

This is the business version of the marshmallow test, that Stanford University experiment from the 1960s popularized by Jonah Lehrer’s 2009 article Don’t from The New Yorker.  By way of brief recap, forty years ago Professor Walter Mischel brought four-year-old kids into a room for observation, offering each a simple choice: you could have one marshmallow now, a tasty-looking morsel set in tempting reach of your chubby fingers, or you could wait a few minutes and have two.

This was the ultimate test of the ability to delay gratification, foregoing the instant benefit to get an even better benefit in the future. If you’ve spent much time around young children, you’ll know that putting off pleasure does not come naturally to the vast, vast majority of them. This was Professor Mischel’s experience, too. Most kids gobbled down the tempting treat within seconds of the proposition being made. For those who held out, not only did they double their marshmallow bounty, but Mischel discovered their ability to delay gratification correlated even more closely with high achievement later in life than other more obvious factors like, say, raw intelligence.

Sometimes profits are marshmallows. We want that instant gratification of stuffing them in our mouths – getting that immediate surge of sugar energy – even though they could lead to even more profits in the future, profits that would be protected from bigger-smarter-richer companies trying to compete with us. If only we delayed our profitability bias for a time. If only we invested those profits into building and maintaining defenses for our business.

Next, let’s talk about what those competitive advantages are…

Paul Dryden


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  1. The Exceptional Business, An Introduction | Paul Dryden - September 13, 2012

    […] companies managed by entrepreneurs who fancy themselves hard-charging business people. They have a profitability bias, a heuristic that says a company not earning profits immediately has less value than one which […]

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