The Folly of Financial Gurus

Social-media channels are full of business gurus promising that you can make tons of money this year…. but only if you attend their seminar.

Photo of motivational speaker addressing crowd
Photo by Miguel Henriques via Unsplash

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YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and other social-media outlets are teeming with a new breed of financial expert. They tend to offer advice that’s a cross between what you might hear from a financial planner and new-age wellness coach: Wake up daily at 5 a.m., stay away from alcohol, keep a gratitude journal, and it’ll all culminate in your revenue, followers, or profit going through the roof. 

Or if you download their free lesson, which then tries to upsell you into a pricey online course, you can become the best drop-shipper in the neighborhood. 

This new genus represents the evolution of what Tony Robbins and others before him started — not that Robbins isn’t still killing it in the life-coach arena, but his is also mostly a pre-digital legacy. 

Are the online money mavens worth listening to? 

The First of His Kind

In the early 2010s, just about anyone scrolling through YouTube was bombarded with an ad where a man, standing in his garage, touted his new Lamborghini. But it turned out he was even more proud of his seven bookshelves (which were also in his garage, oddly enough), because, as he quotes Warren Buffett, “the more you learn, the more you earn.”

The man was Tai Lopez, one of social media’s first breakout business gurus. He was prone to spinning mantras like “find your purpose” and “get a mentor,” sound if not vague advice aiming to prompt people to click on his website, where he sold his 67 Steps Program, which was intended to make folks better entrepreneurs, salespeople, bosses, parents, spouses, athletes, students — really anything.

It’s still unclear whether his services were about other people’s success or his own:

  • In a video reviewing one of Lopez’s cheaper courses (less than $100), YouTuber Stephen “Coffeezilla” Findeisen said, “If you’ve never read the (Barnes & Noble) self-help section before, and you want a broad swath of it regurgitated through some long-winded rants, and you can’t stand the voice of anyone but Tai Lopez, this might be a good course for you.” For everyone else, Findeisen recommended a library card.

Sales consultant and business adviser Scott Leese said he’s no stranger to finding a ton of extremely unoriginal financial advice all over the web. 

“[With so many people in the space]…one of the things that happens is you can take other people’s ideas, words, and concepts, repost it, and get credit for it, even though it’s not yours,” he told The Daily Upside. “Call it plagiarism, or healthy borrowing of other people’s content. There are people every day posting stuff that’s not their own.” 

Any Takeaways? But even Lopez’s critics admit that his calculated presentation is part of the draw: He walks around a giant mansion in Beverly Hills and claims to read a book a day. “​Foster the illusion of success from day one. If you can manage this, it won’t take long for reality to follow perception,” Microfame Media founder Michael Schein wrote in Forbes about Lopez’s appeal.

Lopez subsequently founded Retail Ecommerce Ventures (REV), a company that bought up failing brands like Modell’s and Pier 1 Imports and tried turning them into online-only successes. However, by March 2023, REV was in danger of going bankrupt itself after pausing payments on its debts, The New York Post reported. 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Lopez’s YouTube ads aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, but he still has millions of followers on social media, and just this week, he hosted a seminar in Dubai where the cheapest ticket was still roughly $300.

Photo of a crowd of people
Photo by Terren Hurst via Unsplash

Always Be Closing

In the most famous scene of Glengarry Glen Ross, a stereotypical shark salesman played by Alec Baldwin is brought in to “motivate” a group of lackluster real estate peddlers. He’s mean, abusive, totally inappropriate… and yet, somehow cool and inspiring in a twisted sort of way.

Motivational car sales guru Andy Elliott (who said you need six-pack abs if you want to work for him) has taken a few of those pages from Baldwin’s book and made them his own in his YouTube videos, ramping up from what used to be a much more reserved performance:

  • Elliott, who claims to have broken the record of the most money made by a US-based car salesman in a single year (how would he know?), says he’s a psycho-competitor ready to rip other businesses’ throats out.
  • He taps into audience members’ emotions with hypotheticals like: If someone threatened to kill their families unless they tripled production or revenue in their company, wouldn’t they do it?

But this style-over-substance manner is, at its essence, merely playing the internet game as it currently stands. “It’s the shock-radio strategy,” Leese said. “People do that to get ratings. They do it to get clicks. And unfortunately, [with] these stupid algorithms, the way that they’re constructed right now, the hook is the most important thing. It’s at least half the battle. You have to say something stupid, or outrageous, or controversial to try to stand out.” 

Like Lopez, a lot of Elliott’s high-powered theatrics is simply marketing for potential customers that will hopefully wind up perusing his playbooks, seminars, and mentorship programs, the most expensive of which, “The Brotherhood option A.K.A. ANDY’S NEW BEST FRIEND,” requires a one-time membership fee of $50,000 followed by a $1,597 charge each month.

Government Teamup

Training programs and seminars like these don’t generally fall under the watchful eyes of government regulators, in part because of the broad advice commonly being handed out — it’s difficult to run somebody up on charges for telling people they might want to consider “finding a purpose.” 

Fortunately, if you’re looking for actual, tangible personal financial advice, there are alternatives to the eccentric characters saying they’ll make your dreams true if you attend their classes. 

And some governments are finding a way to help: the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority recently announced guidelines for financial influencers (or finfluencers) and has partnered with more than a dozen of them in an effort to protect younger audiences from risky investments and scams. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, Kia Commodore — who runs the Pennies to Pounds website — said she stays away from “controversial” advice and instead aims to provide “jargon-free” lessons with “accuracy and value.” Her site features pieces about first-time property buying, understanding crypto, and crafting a monthly budget. 

In the US, both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have rules that require companies and spokespeople to address the potential risk and benefits of whatever financial product they advertise on social media. But the high-octane presentations don’t exactly go hand in hand with consumers finding the fine print.

Simple Skepticism: It’s easy to become enthralled with this new breed of business gurus: they’re often high-energy, they have lots of confidence, they’re often in American Gladiator shape and are usually wearing some really nice clothes. But one of the best pieces of advice may have come from entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who says the reason to avoid gurus is why somebody would share something so valuable in the first place: “When you have a great idea, when you have a way to make lots of money, the number one thing you are not going to do is sell it.”