Continued: The three mental models you didn't know you needed until you read about them here

Philip Morgan

Quick tophat: I have been suhlackin'on getting you the recording of Ari Zelmanow's excellent presentation on market reserach from last week. That's because I want to write about it more extensively, but for those who've been waiting for the recording, here it is:

(Readin' time: 6m 11s)

Alrighty! Onward to the final two of those three mental models I promised you.

These are going to come across as whimsical, and that's probably because 1) that's totally on-brand for me 2) I've been stressin' lately getting ready for a 3-day road trip with 2 cats in the car to Colorado where my wife and I have rented a house for a month because we're considering a move to Colorado and oh God why haven't they invented cat-sized stasis pods for just this situation yet Elon Musk where are you in my hour of need with the cat-sized submarine filled with magic SpaceX sleeping gas please please please let this GABA work like the vet says it will to keep these cats calm.

<single drop of sweat drips from furrowed brow, slaps self, snaps out of it> Anyway!

Email list as Ponzi scheme

The second mental model I like to use sometimes is to think of my email list as a Ponzi scheme.

No, seriously! Bear with me here.

From Wikipedia:

A Ponzi scheme (/ˈpɒnzi/, Italian: [ˈpontsi]; also a Ponzi game) is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. The scheme leads victims to believe that profits are coming from product sales or other means, and they remain unaware that other investors are the source of funds.

Now obviously I'm being a bit whimsical here because my email list is not a con or fraud.

But! There is a sense in which questions that I got from list members earlier in the life of the email list generated ideas and ways of thinking about things that benefit more recent joiners of the email list. Kind of like how a Ponzi scheme works, but in reverse!

A Ponzi scheme is a sort of closed system. So rather than generating real profit from a good-performing investment or a good-performing business outside the system, it generates fake profit for earlier investors using the investments of later investors, all within the closed systtem.

An email list can also be a sort of closed system, but instead of generating fraudulent fake profits, it generates real insight by exposing you to questions and feedback that you turn into insight for your list. And in many cases, it's those earlier members of your email list that will generate the questions that force you to think the most, and it's those who join your email list later that will get the most well-considered, refined, nuanced answers to those questions.

So that's how an email list is like a Ponzi scheme, but in reverse, and generating real profit/insight rather than fraudulent profit. :)

Email list as soxhlet

OK, this one's going to require some explanation unless you have a background in analyzing soil samples or attempting to extract DMT from solid plant material at home.

This is a soxhlet:

It has 3 parts: the boiling flask at the bottom, the soxhlet extractor in the middle, and the condenser at the top.

So you'd put the solid material in the main body of the extractor. You can't see this easily in the GIF above, but there's a sort of "cup" in the extractor mechanism to hold the material sample and that cup prevents it from dropping down into the boiling flask.

You start boiling whatever's in the flask, which might be a weak solvent (water) or a stronger solvent. The vapor from the solvent rises, as heated vapors are wont to do, and it flows up the right side-arm of the extractor and then rises into the evaporator. That's those orange particles in the GIF above.

The solvent vapor then encounters the condenser, which has (relatively) cold water flowing through it. This causes the solvent vapor to condense, which means it re-forms into liquid and then little droplets of solvent liquid fall onto the cup containing the solid material sample, and the liquid solvent just kind of sits there in the sample for a while. Since it's a solvent, it extracts whatever you want it to from the sample.

Coming out the left side of the sample cup is is reverse u-trap, which means that as more and more solvent accumulates in the cup, the u-trap fills until the liquid level passes the upper part of the trap and then gravity causes it to siphon out back into the boiling flask.

So what's happening is that over the course of many hours, the flask is containing a greater and greater concentration of whatever the solvent is able to extract from the solid sample.

Why is this crazy rig needed to do this extraction? Couldn't you just drop the sample directly in the boiling flask along with the solvent, boil it for a while and extract what you want that way? Kind of like making Turkish coffee?

Well, several reasons:

  • As the solvent becomes more saturated with the thing you're trying to extract, it becomes less able to extract more of the thing you're trying to extract. This limits the efficiency of an extraction. The soxhlet is using basically 100% pure solvent to do the extraction at all times because the evaporation/condensation process leaves previous extracts behind in the boiling flask and exposes the solid sample to solvent that is 100% pure. So the soxhlet is more effective at extraction than just boiling the sample in solvent would be.
  • Some samples could be harmed or destroyed by being exposed to boiling temperatures, and the soxhlet is exposing the sample to less-than-boiling temperatures, which in some cases might matter.

Ok, so how the heck does this relate to an email list?

To me, the soxhlet provides a more healthy mental model for thinking of an email list than the more usual way of thinking about it.

What's the more usual way? I can't speak for everybody, but I think the more usual mental model for an email list is: retirement savings.

With retirement savings, the assumptions tend to be:

  • This pile of money needs to continuously get bigger over time, and if it doesn't, something's wrong
  • Avoid risks that would threaten the ultimate size of the pile of money
  • Short-term activities are measured against how they effect the size of the pile of money, and every dollar in that pile of money is considered equal to every other dollar in the pile (because, well, it is).
  • Reductions in the size of the pile of money are classified as pure losses with no upside.

These assumptions work great for retirement savings, but I think they are not the most healthy way to look at an email list.

In fact, every retirement savings assumption I called out above, when translated to the world of email marketing, creates undesirable outcomes.

Let me translate those retirement savings assumptions into provocative questions framed in terms of email marketing:

  • Might you be doing something right if your email list is getting smaller? What beneficial business outcome might necessarily involve subscribers choosing to leave your email list?
  • What risks could you take with an email list that would be good for your business but might reduce the size of your email list?
  • Is every subscriber on your email list equivalent to every other subscriber? If not, how might you run the email list to cater to your best subscribers? What actually makes one subscriber better than another?
  • What medium or long-term upside might there be to having a temporarily or permanently smaller email list?

So if retirement savings is not the right mental model for an email list, how is the soxhlet better?

When you step back and look at it, what's happening in a soxhlet is the extract from the solid material--which actually accumulates in the boiling flask--is getting progressively more and more concentrated. Stronger and stronger.

I realize it's a position not everybody will agree with, but this is how I see my email list. Lots of people come and go, and not everybody stays.

From the retirement savings perspective, this is a tragedy.

From the soxhlet perspective, this is exactly how it's supposed to work, because those who stay are stronger and stronger... well, they're stronger and stronger:

  • Fans and supporters of my work
  • Advocates for the ideas I advocate for
  • Members of a pseudo-community

If you're trying to sell cheap shit to anybody who will buy it, yeah, the retirement savings model for your email list is probably the right one.

But if you're trying to change how people see the world or how they think about things or how they move the needle for their business, do consider the soxhlet model. I think it's the more relevant tool for the job of changing the world.

Have a great weekend!