The $13 ramen experience


Today I had the 極新味 (Kiwami Shin Aji) Ramen (pictured above) at 一風堂 (Ippudo) which cost 1300 yen (roughly US$13).

If that doesn't sound expensive for ramen, it is. A $13 ramen is similar to a $13 burger, except ramen is never sold in hotel restaurants or boutique-y cafes. Ramen is almost exclusively sold in ramen restaurants, and the normal cost is between $5 and $7.

If that sounds too expensive for ramen, it isn't, and you might be eating too much instant noodles.

When I got to the restaurant, as is always the case during lunch time, there was a line. No problem; there was ample seating outside and electric heaters to keep customers warm. As soon as I arrived, a waitress came outside, greeted me, and asked me how many in my party. This made me comfortable in knowing that I'm not being forgotten and my place in line was set. The wait was short, about ten minutes (ramen in Japan is a fast, high turnaround food like sandwiches in the US).

The decor of the restaurant was tastefully done in warm wood and bamboo, modern but not over the top. Jazz was the BGM, slightly better than the normal elevator music and much better than the slightly out of tune TV blaring in the corner. There was a place where you can put your coat and bags, rare for a ramen restaurant in Japan (where space is a premium).

The Kiwami Shin Aji Ramen is their flagship ramen, and only 50 are available everyday. The more common red and white ramen cost around $8, which is still pricey for ramen. When I ordered the ramen, they brought out the place setting with the oversized spoon and an information pamphlet. The pamphlet had instructions on how to eat the ramen deliciously, where they got all the ingredients, and why they made some of the design choices. As I was combing through the pamphlet, the ramen arrived.

Couple minutes later, as I was sipping the noodles and broth, they brought out the rice and nube, which is a gelatinous cube of flavor that can be added to the broth. The delay felt peculiar at first, but in retrospect it makes sense. No one starts with the rice first, and if they brought it out with the ramen, it will go cold before most people touch it. As for the nube, they state explicitly in the pamphlet that they want you to try the ramen with and without the nube.

So how did it taste? Different. It was definitely unlike most other ramen I've had in Japan. It tasted good, but it wasn't spectacular. Is it worth trying? Yes. Is it worth $13? Probably not.

But one thing Ippudo did have down was the ramen experience. From the moment I stepped in the restaurant to the moment I stepped out, everything was well designed. They grok that they aren't just selling ramen, they're selling the ramen experience. You eat with your mouth, your eyes, and your mind. That's why your grandma's apple pie tastes better than the one you can get at IHOP. How good food tastes is not only a function of the food itself, but the atmosphere and the service.

Apple understands that they are selling a personal computer experience. That's why their computer doesn't come bundled with crapware and in fourteen separate hard to open boxes. They don't over segment the market and offer eighteen different products confusing potential customers.

Companies that can design experiences will survive over the companies that design products. That's why Ippudo can charge $13 for a bowl of ramen and Apple can make a profit in a slim margin consumer electronics industry.

User experience design, it's the hot topic now. What's next?

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Inferior Industry

I'm coining a new term: Inferior Industry.

The New York Times ran an article today describing the booming debt collection industry:
So many people are in so much debt that the government says bill collecting is one of the fastest-growing businesses. By 2016, employment in it is projected to exceed half a million workers, up 23 percent in a decade.
As the economy slips into recession and unemployment rises, more people default on their loans and create new jobs for debt collectors. If you're looking for a career change or new opportunities, this might be a good industry, at least in the near future.

Inferior goods are goods that decrease in demand when consumer income increases. The text book example is long range bus travel (i.e. Greyhound): as people's income increases, they choose to fly (quicker and costlier), hence decreasing the demand for bus travel. Other examples are fast food, frozen dinners, and instant ramen (when did you eat the most instant ramen? college? case in point).

Inferior industries, as I define it, are industries that hire more people when the economy as a whole is declining. The debt collecting industry is a perfect example of this. In Japan, during the late 90s recession, the Pachinko (legalized form of gambling) industry soared, opening parlors everywhere.

I wonder if economists have studied employment across different industries during various economic climates. This would be nice information for those sick and tired of getting fired at every economic downturn. The best bet, however, might be to get a job that is completely independent of the economy, like a university professor.

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1,000 True Fans - Not impossible, but very very difficult (still)

Kevin Kelly from Wired Magazine wrote an interesting post on how 1,000 True Fans, willing to spend $100, can support a musician.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans...

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day's wages per year in support of what you do. That "one-day-wage" is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let's peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable.
It's a great story: with the internet, musicians can support themselves by finding a small handful of True Fans. 1,000 sure sounds like a realistic goal, something most musicians should be able to achieve. But is it? Let's look at the numbers.

First, how many True Fanisms are out there? Someone may be a True Fan of five bands, which makes up for those people who aren't True Fans at all, so True Fanism is the more applicable metric in this case. How many True Fans do you know (fits the description above)? I'm not a True Fan of any band, and I know very few people who display that behavior. I'm going to make a very liberal assumption and say that there is one True Fanisms per person in the developed world. If every person in the developed world spent their "one-day-wage" on music, the industry would be much bigger than what it is today, but I'll stick to the assumption for now.

The total population of the OECD countries in 2000 was 1.1 billion people, and that included Turkey whose GDP per capital is one seventh that of the US. If we take that 1.1 billion True Fanisms and split them equally in 1,000 True Fanism chunks, the developed world would be able to support 1.1 million musicians, but you know the world doesn't work like that. The most popular bands (U2, Amy Winehouse, Jay-Z) with major record labels grabs most of the True Fanisms in the world, and the lesser known artists have to fight it out for the small left overs. If 50% of the True Fanisms are available to the musicians you and I haven't heard of, that's a maximum of 550,000 musicians that could make a living. In reality, I'm guessing there are millions of bands that have one or two True Fans, not enough to earn a living, and couple thousand that have captured enough True Fanisms to "make it."

Is 550,000 musicians a lot? MySpace has more than 8 million bands, which I presume is only a handful of all the bands in the world. If there are 16 million musicians, and only 550,000 could possibly make a living, that's a survivability ratio of 3.4%, a dismal figure (It's easier to get into Harvard). In reality, I expect less than .1% of all musicians to be making a living off music, and most of us only see the handful that succeed.

What if those 8 millions bands listed on MySpace actually captured 1,000 True Fanisms and made a living on $100,000 a year? That's 8 billion True Fanisms (more than the population of the world, developed and developing) and $800 billion spent on those musicians, slightly under 2% of the world GDP in 2006.

I agree that now more than ever are the tools in place for creative people to survive off a handful of dedicated fans, but it's far from easy. Sure musicians and artists will be discovered through MySpace and become icons of the post-broadcast era, but for every artist that gets noticed, there are thousands that will never see the light of day (Journalism is riddled with survivorship bias). The music industry is still very competitive, and that hasn't changed with the internet or MySpace.

As for 1,000 True Fans, it's a goal, it's reachable, but it's very very tough. If you're thinking of becoming a musician, you better like music a lot because chances are, you won't be making much money; If you are doing it for the money, you're making a horrible life decision. Go apply to Harvard instead.

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ZA is a blog about ideas: cool ideas, existent ideas, pointless ideas, crazy ideas, my ideas, your ideas, interesting ideas, funny ideas, product ideas, meaningless ideas, great ideas, shrimp ideas, etc. It’s here for people to rant, rave, share, and satisfy. Any idea here (if original) is free for you to use (I take no responsibility) as long as you credit the originator of the idea (be honest). Feel free to send me any ideas, but a blog is considered to be public disclosure so you will lose all rights to patent it. Enjoy.

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