As a youth at the turn of the 19th century, an oyster fisherman worked from sunrise Monday morning to sunset Friday night. Around 3 A.M. on Saturday, he would load his catch onto a large skiff and head to the fish market in town. Although he and his father had a relationship with the owner of the fish market, they always debated the quality and price of the product. With oyster knife in hand, the fish market owner would sample the oysters and state his price. On a good day, a barrel of salty oysters and 15 minutes of haggling fetched 50 cents. On a bad day, the same 15 minutes might yield only 35 cents. Regardless of the transaction details, both the oyster fisherman and the fish market owner parted with the full expectation that they'd be doing business again in one week. They had a relationship that was built on years of short, intense, personal transactions.
From the oyster fisherman's perspective, the time he spent in the actual business transaction was insignificant compared to the time he spent hauling oysters from the brackish waters in southern Louisiana and then transporting them to market. As a producer, he felt that selling was simply the final step in a long, arduous process. He didn't have time to consider his role in the value chain and what might happen if the fish market owner refused to buy his catch in favor of that of another fisherman who might accept a lower price. The oyster fisherman and the fish market owner had an unsigned deala relationshipthat virtually guaranteed security for both of them.
From the fish market owner's perspective, the oyster fisherman was probably a normal, welcome part of his Saturday morning. After 15 minutes of haggling and another 15 minutes of the fish market owner's watching the oyster fisherman unload a dozen barrels of oysters, the oyster fisherman was gone. The time the owner invested in the relationship was the time spent transacting business. It was an efficient use of his time. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that. If the owner didn't at least satisfy the oyster fisherman's need for capital, he might have to invest time finding another reliable source of oysters.
It turns out that their relationship lasted over a decade. The demand for oysters declined and the oyster fisherman shifted to the more lucrative shrimping industry. As captain of a shrimp boat, his main concern was maximizing his weekly catch while managing a crew of six. He no longer dealt with sales; a salesman representing the shrimping cooperative negotiated with the big freezer companies for the best price. After another decade, faced with dwindling profits and fierce competition from shrimp producers in Mexico and Taiwan, the oyster fisherman graduated from hauling ice and shrimp to managing tugboats that transported drilling equipment to offshore platforms for multinational corporations.
Through the course of his work career, the oyster fisherman became involved in longer, more complex value chains.
He advanced from delivering a product with a measurable quality to a service that was difficult to quantify. He moved from dealing one or two levels up from the end-consumer to dozens of levels up from domestic and international consumers. The oyster fisherman never experienced the Web, internet forum, business directory, social media, but his career illustrates a number of points relevant to the Web.