The 113 miles of Highway 87 between Great Falls and Havre in Montana is desolate. A half-dozen or so tiny towns have cropped up in places. But mostly there’s just the two-lane road, vast expanses of prairie, and the enormous canopy of sky.

Nineteen miles south of Havre – smack in the middle of nowhere – is the Northern Winz Casino. The 20,000-square-foot monstrosity of a building boasts 350 slot machines and a huge parking lot.

Now, I’m not privy to how well the casino is doing. But rarely have I driven past and seen more than 20 cars in the lot. And I’m guessing that, even on Highway 87’s busiest days, no more than a thousand cars pass the Northern Winz. (And how many of those are going to stop their purposeful drive to the airport or Canada to play the slots?)

This casino breaks one of Michael Masterson’s core business principles: Make sure there’s a market for your product or service before you set up shop.

One way to know whether there’s a market? If someone else is there before you. The Northern Winz is operating under the “Build It and They Will Come” theory – establishing itself on an otherwise bare stretch of land and hoping to attract customers. A better plan of action would have been to open up next to an already-successful casino.

This business-building “law” is true whether you’re a brick-and-mortar operation or an information-publishing start-up. Take a look around. If someone else is doing what you want to do… and succeeding… you have a good chance of making it work for you. If all you can see is empty prairie, you need to go back to the drawing board.

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