I knew an old real estate boss in Western North Carolina who once offered me a piece of advice about growing a business. “It ain’t hard to make water come out of a pipe,” he said. “The hard part is sizing the pipe to get pressure.” I’ve had other people offer me unsolicited advice about business too, some of it very practical, normally delivered by successful men intent on making it sound easy and a little bit mysterious.
Like my Uncle David, who used to say, “You know the secret to making money, don’t you? You get out in front of it and let it run you over. Some of it will stick.” The line about the pipe has stuck alright, because it addresses the problem of scale, which is applicable in many fields, from philosophy to news to selling hot dogs. You can make a mountain out of a molehill, but it won’t change the view.
A map without a scale is like a mandala, a representation of the cosmos, a line to infinity. Think of Lewis and Clark pressing west with their parchments and surveying gear, not knowing if the next mountain range identified in bad French was 200 miles away or 2,000; 3,000 or 30,000 feet high. They learned to live with that uneasiness until it turned into a sense of wonder, and then they couldn’t ever learn to live without it, or so the legend goes. A map without a scale can help you make meaning out of chaos, but it can’t help you get from point A to point B.
This week’s feature on Charlottesville Area Transit’s new bus routes is about just that. We are a tweener city with big expectations for our services and grand designs for our ambition, but in the eyes of the state and federal government (or national advertisers, for that matter) we are a flea. The problem of scale affects everything we do, from how we make the buses run on time, to how we pay a living wage, to what we do with our recycling. Sure, the explosion of the Web-based economy has placed our pin prominently on a bigger map, but our physical realities haven’t changed. So what size pipe do you want?