Friday, December 10, 2010

Blockbuster Syndrome

You may remember shopping here:

Do you notice anything odd about this picture?

Look closely.  Through the window.  What do you see?

If you said, "there are people inside that store!" then drive down to the local Sonic and purchase yourself a sundae in celebration, because you are right!

I'm waiting for the day these people finally teeter into bankruptcy and never emerge. 

And it will happen. 

Yeah, I know that almost all businesses will one day cease to be due to the passage of time, but Blockbuster will cease to exist long before the demand for movie rentals ceases to exist.

I think of Blockbuster the same way I think of AT&T and Dell.  Blockbuster had a product everybody wanted, and grew to need.  But they didn't win by being the first to rent videos.  They did it by seeing what local video stores were doing, and created a monstrosity that was guaranteed to kill off the existing competition.

And how could the local stores compete?  Why, Blockbuster had 50 copies of "Drop Dead Fred" on the shelves!  You were practically guaranteed that you would find the movie you wanted, because, if they didn't have "Drop Dead Fred," then they had "Ishtar" and "Soap Dish" that you had thought about watching, but now had an excuse to pick up a copy because you were already in the store. 
However, as the patrons began to use Blockbuster, they began to discover a few annoying things about it. 

"Ted promised to drop off the movie last night, but left it in his car and Blockbuster is charging me an arm and a leg in late fees."

"I swear I dropped this movie off, but Blockbuster says that it is missing and now they're charging me a lost tape fee."

On top of that, they had the disappearing deals.

"If you come to the store and we don't have 'Three Kings,' we will give you a free rental of that movie!"

"No more late fees!"

They made these deals sound permanent, but it wasn't long until they quietly disappeared and left perplexed renters standing at the counters wondering "what happened?"

Maybe it was legitimate protectionism that Blockbuster was engaged in, but it became a bit of a hydra.  It wasn't quite as bad as AT&T, who would suddenly do away with a long distance plan that you signed up for 3 months ago, notify you of this on page 7 of your bill, and start charging you the flat 10 cent per minute rate so that you would be surprised with a large bill the following month.  Nevertheless, Blockbuster started to amass the bad will of the public in the same way that school yard bullies can beat you up for your lunch money:  you were forced by law to attend school, and so it meant your choices at recess were to either hide in the bathroom the entire period and have no friends and be laughed at as the weirdo who hid in the bathroom the entire recess period, or you can take your chances in trying to use the playground equipment. 

Blockbuster knew how to seclude themselves off in the Ivory Tower and beat back the barbarian hordes.

Then, one magical day, Netflix arrived.

There were no late fees!  The prices were reasonable!  I can ask for a movie and actually get it instead of playing roulette with what is on the shelves!


They aren't complete bastards!

Netflix, combined with Redbox, were like the barbarian tribes who steamrolled over Rome in its last days.  Blockbuster was worried about combining forces with those up and comers called Radio Shack because they got it in their head that their customers actually want to shop for a $300-$1,000 piece of technology while picking up a copy of "In Her Shoes" for date night, and have only the teeny tiny selection buried in the back of a video store to choose from.

Sadly, there were not enough hoarders and bipolar impulse buyers to keep that venture going, so it folded.  Netflix pushed forward and looked ahead to what people would be doing within a few years, and their business grew.  Soon, people were freed of the schoolyard and finally had somewhere else to go.

And why do I mention that?

It's because its what happened to the legal profession.

Legalzoom and form books helped kill off a lot of our business because it was a monopoly.  Even if people don't understand where the money is going, they see that they're written a check with money that could have paid bills or bought a car and watched as some burnout who hadn't returned their calls over the last month, roll into court and put on a half-assed display.

And maybe its the system in general that wears the attorney down.  Day after day of craziness.  Sometimes, the legal system can be a bit Dickensian in how it dispenses justice.  So, even if the attorney had the best intentions and things still turned out shitty just because of other factors, it still plants the seed in people's minds as to why they are paying us to do anything.


  1. Legal Zoom and similar services aren't going to eviscerate the legal sector. People don't use Legal Zoom as a cheaper alternative to hiring a lawyer; they use Legal Zoom as an affordable alternative to not getting any help at all.

    The guy who only has $10,000 to leave in his will wasn't going to spend $1000 on a lawyer, with or without Legal Zoom, and the guy with $1 million is definitely hiring a lawyer either way.

    It's a very narrow range of people who would have otherwise hired a lawyer, but are now going with DIY options instead.

    Where the revolution actually will be is in a rise in boutique and niche practices.

    Kids today are growing up with the internet and social media. They socialize, and even form tight, complex communities with people living thousands of miles away they've never met. When they become business managers and general counsels later in life, they won't be too shy about hiring an attorney who lives on the other side of the country.

    Why hire a big or midsized firm in a major city to research an obscure labor law question for tens of thousands of dollars, when there's a labor wonk in Toledo who deals with this stuff all the time and will give you an answer for a thousand bucks?

    Blogs and other cheap and easy media will make it possible for mom and pop law firms to establish a reputation as experts in their field, and they'll start grabbing up all the work from tech savvy business owners. (Ordinary Joes will still go to the local lawyer for their personal stuff, and giant corps will keep using their giant law firms; it's the businesses in the middle that will change the model, the ones big enough to have money to spend, but small enough to not have a bureaucracy impair adaptation.)

  2. Bl1Y, I agree with you. When you want to file a civil suit or someone has filed one against you, you will hire a lawyer unless you're judgement-proof. Legalzoom hasn't made a dent in the 70% rate of people who die intestate, no more than the $10 will you could buy off the rack at Office Depot. I hired a lawyer to represent me in an adoption because I didn't want any delays or defects in the adoption process. I wasn't going to trust that to Legalzoom.

  3. The change is in the middle-class. Thier experience with the 'family lawyer' was always limited, but affordable. The experience they have is primariy matrimonial and the level of poor lawyering and judges left the middle-class cynical. Today law is no longer affordable (for many reasons)so they will go legally bare-back and hopefully pull out in time.