The engineer and the balloonist

I always enjoyed the joke about the balloonist who was lost and lowered his balloon to a few feet off of the ground to ask a passer-by where he was. The reply was “Well, you are in a hot air balloon. You are hovering at approximately 30 feet, and you are between 40 – 41 degrees N. latitude, and between 58-59 degrees W. longitude.” “You must be an engineer,” replies the man in the balloon. “Indeed I am,” states the man on the ground. “How did you know?” The balloonist says “Everything you have told me is technically correct, but I am still completely lost.”

I was recently reminded of this when reading an article that was describing the best way to cut slices from a round cake so as to stop it drying out. Of course there is now a YouTube video to go with the explanation that has attracted over 3 million views.

Incidentally, the video appears on a site that specialises in mathematical problems of all types and it outstrips the number of views of other more serious and interesting videos by some considerable margin.

To me, this article raises a number of issues. Apart from the fact that one needs to have an elastic band of sizeable proportions in order to complete the cutting task, it is also disturbing to discover that the original research that came up with the method was documented over one hundred years ago.

So, if this method has been known for over 100 years and it has still not become standard practice to cut a cake in this way, then why could this be? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the major benefit comes from an iced cake? Could it be that when people make a cake it is often shared and demolished in one sitting? Could it be to do with the lack of availability of sizeable elastic bands in most kitchens, or were cake tins and other storage devices deemed to be better or easier?

I dare say, by now you are wondering about this revolution in cake cutting. In which case, five minutes watching:
should satisfy your curiosity.

Why this example resonated with me is that it reminded me of so many potential startup business ideas that start from the wrong end of the problem. This idea assumes that cakes are eaten by a couple of people, over a period of time. It also assumes that there are elastic bands available, that cakes are iced and that someone is going to redesign the cake slice to fit with your research.

How often have people believed themselves to be entrepreneurial because their research has said something was possible without asking whether there was a pressing need, whether it was too small a niche market to be profitable, whether any additional requirements were readily available and whether the idea was dependent on someone else

I suspect that this blog will further increase the number of views of this video, but it may also remind people that entrepreneurship requires not just the possible but also the desirable and the implementable.

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