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Marketing, properly understood, is a complex and difficult task. Problems arise when it is seen as a label to slap onto “sales” to increase the prestige of the sales force. The general disrespect for marketing comes from the fact that this happens ‘way too often.

A salesman can sell refrigerators to Eskimos. A marketer examines the various Eskimo tribes in depth, and identifies which ones have needs and/or aspirations that will make them susceptible to the salesman’s blandishments and which of the Company’s products might be most easily represented as useful to the prospective customer(s). The salesman who poses as a marketer ends up selling his preconceptions to management rather than challenging his preconceptions by researching the matter, resulting in difficulties that may approach disaster.

Which is where private space comes in. Pure engineers have a tendency to build cool toys without regard to whether or not anybody would want them (other than themselves; they wouldn’t be building the toys if they didn’t think they were cool). The World is littered with the sad remnants of companies that had a cool idea, but didn’t identify and address a valid market. Simply being cool is sometimes adequate for consumer goods. For big-ticket stuff, marketing needs to find out who needs it and might be willing to write a check if the sales force can convince them that that’s better than either doing without or doing it themselves. This may (and often does) include telling the engineers that their cool toy needs to be modified, which causes resentment because “marketing” is often “sales” with a new label.

It looks as if SpaceX and Bigelow, in particular, have in fact identified markets for their stuff and tailored their products to best penetrate those markets. This stands in contrast to many others, who (at least in retrospect) have been building cool toys and trying to find a use for them — Rotary Rocket comes to mind, as (sadly enough) does Rutan. The company that succeeds will employ really good marketers, not just clever engineers and good salespeople.

It’s a blogosphere truism that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. There is wisdom there, but the aphorism ultimately fails on the matter of terminology rather than substance.

The defining characteristic of a fool is inappropriate and dogged persistence. That’s why it’s impossible to make things foolproof — a fool is somebody who will pick at the scab until he dies of septicæmia, wiggle the loose bit until it breaks, or keep pushing ’til the thing falls over. A child who sticks a hairpin in a light socket is an ignorant person experimenting with the World; an adult who does so is a fool.

Fools can be, and often are, highly intelligent in the sense of problem-solving ability. This just makes them more dangerous, because it means they can do destructive things more capably and with better attention to detail. A stupid fool presses buttons until disaster comes. A bright fool notes the response of the buttons as he presses them, reasons out which button is likely to produce the brightest flash and/or the most smoke, and zeroes in on it like a cat rushing for the food bowl.

Insanity comes closer to being an appropriate characterization, but still doesn’t fit. People who are insane don’t respond properly to stimuli — paranoids may have real enemies they should guard against, but the point of paranoia as insanity is that paranoids don’t take rationally appropriate measures against either their real enemies or their fancied ones. Fools select their methods and goals on an ultimately rational basis — the problem isn’t the reasoning power, it’s the things they reason about.

The people currently running things are neither stupid nor insane. They’re fools; the distinction is important and should be more widely recognized. The fact that fools keep getting into positions of power just further militates against calling them “insane”. One of the important factors in diagnosing insanity is whether or not the individual being judged reacts according to the norm for the population, and the rest of us keep selecting fools for power positions, eh?

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When I Posted

February 2011