I follow a bunch of online business and marketing people, which has my algorithms thinking that I am in constant and dire need of more business and marketing training, so chances are, if there’s a new ad for some system, course, training, or webinar, I’ve seen it.
And what I started to notice this last year when the first influx of new people came into the online business world post-Covid was this sudden and massive uptick in “Business in a Box” courses, where you could just follow Suzie Marketing’s system, and you, too, could start a 6-figure business in just one month!
I sort of ignored it, for a bit, because that shit’s always been out there. It is the Sham-Wow of the internet.
But then I started seeing some other eerily familiar things …
The resurgence of pay-to-play, where people kept inviting me to speak at summits, only to try to push me to “upgrade” my speaker slot for $500, and by “upgrade” they meant “be featured at all”. Or where I was invited to write a post in someone’s Facebook group, only to have them come back to me and tell me that I could pay them $50 for the privilege.
This weird in-rush of canned cold emails that all were written according to the same template, where people copy-pasted my name into the intro, made a half-assed attempt at some psychological manipulation in the first paragraph, then went on to talk about how they can help me with problems I don’t have.
(To everyone who keeps emailing me about their drop-shipping companies. I have never in my life needed a drop-shipping company. Copywriting is a digital industry. Please stop pitching me.)
Engagement-bait social media posts dropped into Facebook groups like a turd in a swimming pool, that all looked weirdly the same — you choose one of those backgrounds they have for text posts, then ask some sort of question that’s vaguely related to your industry, like, “What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to outsourcing?” or “How do you feel about content creation?” and then (theoretically) respond to the in-rush of people commenting, which in turn boosts your engagement stats. I’m guessing that’s the theory, anyway.
And I realized what was going on.
We’re partying like it’s 2009.
Dig if you will, the picture:
It’s 12-ish years ago. Kanye was gonna let Taylor finish at the MTV awards. Harem pants were making their brief resurgence. Shimmery vampires were driving teenyboppers and soccer moms alike crazy in movie theaters. Mr. White had yet to truly break bad. And the whole internet entrepreneur thing was still in its relative infancy.
Back then, online entrepreneurship was fairly new, at least in it’s modern form. People had been selling stuff online since there was an online to sell stuff on, but the whole “entrepreneur” thing really took off in the late aughts. Which also happened to be when I graduated from college.
(For anyone who’s ever heard me speak on a podcast, I’m sure you’ve heard the story: journalism school —> recession —> unpacking boxes at Old Navy with a bunch of other liberal arts grads —> moved abroad and needed to make money —> worked for a content mill.)
I wasn’t the only one. The recession had all sorts of people looking for new work, hence the rise of the internet thing. It was the post-pandemic work environment, except back then, it was the post-recession work environment.
And fresh-faced me pops right into the middle of it, courtesy of Ash Ambirge’s blog, The Middle Finger project, which, at the time was super inspiring. I’m working for a content mill at 0.65¢ per assignment, and because I’m stupid fast at this stuff, I’m actually doing OK. I work for the content mill about 2 hours a day, and the rest of the time I’m devouring everything I can learn about online entrepreneurship.
I buy a bunch of Ash’s stuff, I take little bites out of Marie Forleo’s stuff, though I never got on the B-school train, and I read reams of things about branding and business and blogging, I experiment with a bunch of stuff, and then, after a year of hanging out my shingle, through a super random confluence of events, I book my first client. For a five-figure contract.
She was a big deal in the London online entrepreneurship world, which was fantastic for me, because now I’ve got access to all sorts of ins in the industry, and I dive even deeper into it.
I learn about things like marketing funnels, and four-hour work weeks, and the psychology of influence, and audience management. I get experience in working on the backend of a team going through a launch, and see what the inner workings of a multi-7-figure business really look like.
I also learn that there are people out there who will straight up tell you to mortgage your house to afford a day of training with them and think absolutely nothing of it, and forget you the second you walk out of the room.
And that there are people out there who see “serial entrepreneurship” as a really nice way to say “Lol, I fucked over a bunch of people, but I rebranded and I’m like, super sorry, so we’re all good, right?”
And that, to a lot of people, the internet is basically an ATM that prints endless money, and their audience is a bunch of cash piñatas that they beat with marketing copy until the dollars fall out.
And I start to look kind of side eyed at the whole thing. I fire that client, and think I’ll never work again. I get real mouthy about ethics. And, it turns out, that that ends up attracting the attention of some super cool people, and my business grows, and I stop paying attention to the online world for a while because I’m going through a multi-country divorce and a whole host of other crazy things.
Until I started seeing all those ads pop up. And I realized…
The same thing is happening again, just with a slightly different polish on it.
We’ve got a whole bunch of people coming into an industry that is almost completely unregulated, and is populated with a whole bunch of people of varying ethical stances. Many of the newbies are coming in as a result of the pandemic and the resulting economic craziness, which means that a lot of them are already in vulnerable positions.
And, predictably, there are some people who are really excited to welcome these people in, and teach them how to build the lives and businesses they want to build using actual data and reliable information backed up by accountability and follow-through.
Equally predictably, there’s a whole lot of people who look at these newcomers and get so fucking excited, because they’re new meat. They haven’t been around in this space, they don’t know all the ins and outs of this industry, they’ve got a little bit of money to spend, and they don’t know who to trust, so they’re going for whoever gets an Instagram ad in front of them first and promises certainty and profits, because when you’re scared and just lost your income source, that’s what you want.
The worst elements of the internet are coming to prey on these people, and by and large, they’re all banging on the same drum, which I call the Big Lie.
Here is is.
The Big Lie is that you, as a solopreneur, can and should do things that businesses with whole teams behind them struggle to accomplish.
Things like … have an incredibly well-developed website right off the bat.
Putting out a variety of well-thought out, engaging content on multiple channels. Running a podcast and a YouTube channel and blog regularly and have a stellar social media presence.
Running retreats and summits and signing a bunch of clients and be on Clubhouse all the time and oh, oh, write a book! That’s my favorite. You should write a book. In 6 weeks.
Also have work-life balance because that’s what’s all about man! If we wanted to be stressed all the time we would have stayed in the corporate system.
Oh, oh, oh, and be an activist. Because if you’re not then you’re a racist. But only do it in the way that everybody else says is the “right” way, because otherwise it doesn’t count and you’ll get flamed out of a Facebook group.
Do it all. Perfectly. Ideally yesterday.
It’s easy to see the crazy when I lay it out like that. But in the flotsam and jetsam of social media feeds, these things are presented as extremely achievable possibilities, in fact, so easy that if you don’t do them you must be fucking something up.
After all, everybody else is making their 7 figure launch while sipping kombucha in their hot tub and also somehow supporting Black Lives Matter while doing so, what the hell’s wrong with you? Why is it hard for you? Why aren’t you succeeding, they’ve given you their PROVEN SYSTEM for doing so.
It sounds like a you problem.
This. is. not. true.
As a one-person show, and especially as a new small business owner, achieving the laundry list of things the internet says you have to do is unrealistic.
As in, it does not track with the bounds of reality.
I know, because I’ve been a ferociously productive solopreneur who’s not done those things (and felt like total shit about it) AND I’ve worked on teams that do actually create those kinds of online presences, and I see how whole teams of people struggle to accomplish those objectives.
Those fancy-pants businesses I work with? The ones that have the 7 figure launches, the ones who’s email lists you’re totally on? They have teams of 5-20 people doing the work you’re trying to do, and they’re struggling to get that all done.
There is no amount of content, presence, or engagement you can provide that will ever be enough to satisfy the internet.
It is impossible. You cannot do it.
And you sure as hell can’t do it alone. Try, and you will fail. And then, in your post-failure vulnerability, someone will try to sell you their shit.
Because that’s what this system is designed to do.
This is a lie designed to sell “systems” and courses, and it’s destructive as fuck, because it leaves people chasing their tails trying to accomplish the impossible, which distracts them from doing the real work.
And, worst of all, when it doesn’t work, the rhetoric puts the failure on the person, rather than the objective, which is impossible, and the system, which is useless. Which I find particularly shitty, given its targeting and outsized effects on newbies.
As Illana Burk says so eloquently, you have a responsibility not to be an asshole when you’re in the business of selling your expertise.
And, I would add, you have a responsibility to be aware of the systems in which you’re swimming, and consider the consequences of people following your advice.
Approaching business with the adversarial stance of “I’m gonna get mine and if that means you can’t pay your rent because I leveraged your inexperience and my psychological tactics against you, well, that’s your fault” is wrong.
It’s punching down.
And it will destroy the industry, if we let it.
PS – This system didn’t come out of nowhere. The churn and burn method has been taught to the internet world by the dude-bro marketers for the past 15 years or so. It’s now dying off. And what’s coming next is so very much worse.
More on that in part 2.