About a year ago I started using the term “Online Business Industrial Complex.”
I was newly pregnant, so tired I was falling asleep sitting up (yes, that actually happened at dinner one night), and totally disillusioned with the “I shoulds” for building a business. That first-trimester exhaustion hit me like a freight train, and suddenly I could barely function as a human, let alone run my own business. And in those waking moments all I could feel was the relentless pressure to Write A Blog Post, Do More On Social Media, Revamp My Email Strategy.
On the upside, my exhaustion prevented me from buying a new course on how to implement the latest blah blah blah to reach 6-figures. But I wanted to.
Instead, I started calling that pressure the Online Business Industrial Complex.
It was a cheeky spin on the “Wedding Industrial Complex” (which was, in turn, a spin on the “Military Industrial Complex”) and a way for me to differentiate online business “status quo” business practices from contextual equity-centered business practices.
It was a way to describe the machine that is Online Business Culture – the norms set forth by many many OG online business leaders.
Odds are, if you’re here reading this blog post, you are doing your darndest to operate outside the Online Business Industrial Complex.
You’ve built your business in earnest.
You genuinely want to use your skills and strengths in service of others.
And you may find it challenging to do things differently, without conforming to industry norms that you don’t necessarily agree with but feel compelled to follow.
Defining the OBIC
First, a little history lesson:
The phrase is attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it in his Farewell to the Nation speech in 1961. While detailing the necessity of peace, and the role of the military in maintaining peace, Eisenhower speaks to the unique development of the military playing an economic role. The full quote below offers a little context:
“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”Dwight D Eisenhower, 1961 Farewell to the Nation
In a nutshell: we gotta watch out for the military-industrial complex, and not let folks in power use it as yet another profit machine.
We won’t go into the current situation in the United States (which is poor, to say the least), but the idea of a subculture focused on making profits within an industry remains relevant.
Various industries have had “-industrial complex” added since Eisenhower, the most pervasive in my experience being the Wedding Industrial Complex.
As with all -industrial complexes, the Online Business Industrial Complex (or the OBIC) exists to make money (not to build a small business). It’s the pressure to take on small business debt (via credit card or traditional loan), it’s the fear-based marketing that the only way to succeed is with a certain sales system or marketing framework, it’s the rhetoric of The One Business Hack You Need To Make Millions.
How do we understand the components at play within the Online Business Industrial Complex? An incredibly complex question that could have (and probably has had) entire dissertations written about it. For our purposes, there are two main messaging myths of the OBIC for us to dissect:
- You don’t need to depend on anyone but yourself; you build your destiny (ie American Rugged Individualism)
- You will never get to the 6/7/8-figure mark without ________ framework or strategy. (ie fear-based income-claim marketing)
Myth #1: You don’t need anyone but yourself to make big money.
It’s the American dream after all: start with nothing, rise from the dust of obscurity into fame and fortune all by your lonesome with no help from no one, it’s all you and your genius.
This gospel of self-reliance is a pillar of OBIC messaging; the chorus of independence and resilience resounds time and time again with testimonials that tout building a business in between nursing your newborn, creating designs for your new product line during your lunch break at your 9-5, etc.
The myth here is that you can do it on your own.
First off, no.
Furthermore, within the OBIC, student or client concerns are often dismissed as a mere issue with their mindset. Online courses are served with little to no support from the leaders and frequently depend on the allure and marketing promises of the course, not the actual curriculum within. Because it’s on you to implement, it’s on you to follow through, it’s on you to apply the material and make it work to get the big money results the creator got.
Yet when folks step up to voice a need for support? Or even, god forbid, dissent?
They’re immediately othered for challenging the Incredible Generous Offers Of This “Community”. (hint, it’s not a community)
They’re told they don’t have an entrepreneurial mindset. (hint: it’s not about the mindset)
They’re told that if they would just apply the formula as laid out by the Big Name behind the course, they would be happy with their results. (hint: it’s giving big One Size Fits All energy)
Myth #2: The only way to make 6/7/8 figures is (insert strategy or framework here).
This one’s a little trickier – it’s less singular in practice than rugged individualism and centers around fear-based income claim marketing.
The OBIC exists to make money, and the best way to make money is to show OTHERS how easy it is to make money by paying you money. It’s another version of an MLM: massive amounts of money being circulated in an insular fashion with only a few folks at the top profiting off the work of the majority.
These industry OGs laser in on common money insecurities (I’ll never make enough, I don’t deserve to make more than enough to pay my bills, etc) and exploits them for profit. We are promised relief from financial discomfort “with only 4-easy to implement strategies that grew my IG from 800 followers to 12k in just 30 days”.
The myth here is that there never will be nor can there ever be a singular method for success.
What’s so insidious about this myth is that we logically know this! If you were to poll your audience, asking them if they thought there was a singular tactic that would guarantee financial success, they’d say absolutely not. They’d cite a variety of business models and marketing tactics. Yet when we get down to brass tacks, those fears and insecurities become louder than logic.
Bonus Myth – gross vs net profit
And the bonus sub-myth of these income claims is that we’re always being shown the gross, not the net profit.
We don’t know what folks spent on ads, we don’t know what kind of team they have working for them, and we don’t know what cold hard cash was needed to start the machine and to keep it running. We just know it ended in 6/7/8 figures.
Without this transparency, it’s not actually about building a business or building community wealth.
It’s about making money.
And building a business vs making money can be two very different things.
In a nutshell
No matter how you slice it, the “-industrial complex” comes down to this: an industry that becomes centered on profit over the specific work and unique culture of that industry:
For the Military Industrial Complex, it’s the ways in which military spending and mobilization is necessary for shareholder profits (aka rich white men in power).
For the Wedding Industrial Complex, it’s the pressure built around the kind of wedding you should have and how the size, cost, and spectacle of your wedding is a reflection of your love and commitment (aka you don’t really love your partner if you’re not showing it in your wedding in these specific ways).
For the Online Business Industrial Complex, it’s the illusion of wealth and ease that comes with starting a small business for oneself, and the exploitation of labor.
In order to actually build a business (rather than a money-machine pyramid), we need to find ways to contextualize and personalize our strategies and tactics. It’s the essence of Human First, Biz Second®: centering the human behind the business and the humans in the audience alike.