Market Intelligence is Picking a Good Spot (and Books Won’t Find It)

In his excellent book on the birth of the modern prison, Foucault describes a blueprint for a new type of prison– the panopticon.

The design calls for a circular prison built around a guard tower. The prisoner’s cells are arranged in such a way that the guard, positioned in the tower, can see into any of the prisoner’s cells. The guard tower is equipped with 1-way glass so the prisoners have no idea if they are being monitored at any given moment.

We imagine that prisoners must assume their every move is being watched.

Panopticon – Guard stands in a tower in the middle with 1-way glass. Cells are against the wall.

Foucault uses the panopticon in part to develop a metaphor for the modern soul (I’m not sure he was familiar with the IRS). If you are interested in more you can pick up the book here or listen to a podcast on it here.

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This image of the panopticon pops up in my head when I think about starting online businesses (and sometimes in my nightmares!). One of the key elements to entrepreneurial success seems to be understanding valuable information. Great entrepreneurs find themselves in the panopticon of their marketplaces– positioning themselves to consistently be exposed to the best information from their industry. (Of course the metaphor breaks down quick, but it’s so f-ed up I had to share it with you!)

Many people underestimate the pleasure and intrigue of positioning yourself in the center of an industry or a market problem.

9 times out of 10, when I suggest what I see as winning niches to people with the potential to build something meaningful to a hungry marketplace, I’ll get one of the two answers:

“I can’t imagine being passionate about that for more than a few months.”

Somewhere along the line, sell a product you use yourself (good advice) became sell a product you are passionate about (misleading advice). It’s misleading because it often cashes out for people as “do something you want to do.” 

An attitude more likely to create a winner: “What you want to do” is build a business that solves lucrative problems in a responsible way. “What you are passionate about” is building great businesses. Injecting a host of other concerns, in an already difficult situation, hurts your chances of success.

It’s an attitude I have a difficult time relating to. You’re talking with a guy who sells cat furniture! I always saw stuff like writing this “follow my journey” blog as an extreme luxury– one created from doing work elsewhere that people cared about more.

When I got started with my own business it seemed natural to me that building an income for myself meant shouldering burdens for others, doing difficult work, taking hell from your customers, and making the types of decisions others refuse to.

Another response I hear a lot is:

“That sounds like a lot of work to get that moving, I’m not sure how to do it.”

People are looking for answers on blogs, books, and programs. And hey, they are useful for optimizations. But the fundamental answers to how businesses get off the ground are boring. They come from being on the phone with 50 customers, 10 suppliers, and 5 potential partners. From talking about a product they can buy. They emerge after 100 conversations of consequence and years of work thereafter.

Aspiring online entrepreneurs, in particular, can find themselves in situations where they aren’t talking to customers for months– even years. That’s not good enough. If the information you are tracking down is hidden behind a few clicks, or a couple paywals, it’s probably not good enough to get a business off the ground.

Unless of course, that information said something like: “Put a buy now button and a phone number on a website and start talking with real customers.”

So what does all that have to do with the panopticon? Nothing much. It’s just badass, and I wanted to share it.



PS, I’ve delayed the sales message I talked about earlier this week, we’ll still be sending it out shortly. It’s just not ready due to some other stuff that came up.

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