The story below paves the way for lessons that follow.
Feel free to skip to #1 if you’re in a rush.
A couple of years ago I got an event photography gig in Stockholm through a friend who said “It’s more than a job for you. I’ve got a bigger opportunity waiting that’s gonna turn your life around.” I never had a taste for over-excited expressions, but I’m not a naysayer either — so I decided to keep my enthusiasm alive.
It was a huge auditorium packed with people. The event started off with a modern techno dance performed by three masked men, and fireworks, and high-voltage motivational quotes flashing on the giant set of screens in the background.
When the CEO of the company — a fit, bald, man of average height in a suit — with a confident smile and charismatic presence appeared on stage, the crowd was losing it in cheers, claps and whistles. Not because they knew who this person is (since they had zero clue being there out of curiosity and hope to “make it big”) but because how heavily his arrival on the stage was hyped within the first 20 minutes of the event — as if The God of Financial Freedom has descended.
It was the kick-off event of the biggest network marketing company in Scandinavia, a claim by the CEO that I never bothered to verify. Through an extravagant display of pictures and videos he narrated how he rose to the top and is living the dream. He assured everyone it’s not a pyramid scheme, and that hard work is secondary to persistence — even to believing that it will work — because it has for so many. He guaranteed it’s noble — “You get rich by helping others save money”.
Eyes that ranged from late teens to early thirties glittered and sparkled in a chorus of hope as the promise of freedom from meager means, freedom from bosses, and freedom from “corporate slavery” were starting to almost manifest right before their eyes.
A young man walked into the stage and told a story about how from living in a trailer, getting bullied and suicidal tendencies he rose to magnificent riches and happiness. A woman explained how in four years she went from zero to a million before her 30s, working only half as hard as people in corporate cubicles. Another young man narrated a story of how he fled from war and found not only a new home in Scandinavia, but also a life that rewards hard work and persistence — a life until then he considered unachievable.
As soon as the event ended, the crowd went wild. There was an indomitable tide of confidence in the youth. Teeth were out smiling. People that met two hours ago were high-fiving and huddling. And by simply uttering in ambiguity “This sounds interesting”, I was already welcomed with jubilant enthusiasm to what felt the closest thing to a cult I’ve ever been. I made a couple of new friends and plenty of new acquaintances that day with the lowest effort ever.
I was uncomfortable because I don’t identify as a hustler, a vibe that the event had written all over. I stand for working hard, being and doing one’s best. I stand for lifelong learning, ambition and growth. But I have quite distaste for hustle, grind, and push — because the rhetoric and behavior associated with these words lack introspection, soul and critical analysis.
I was uncomfortable because not one person seemed to question what happens when the market is saturated. What happens when we’ve recruited marketers and they’ve recruited marketers and the lower you go, the more you’re left with scraps, because the early birds took the worms and the demand side isn’t growing as fast as the supply side is.
If something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is .
But that evening, it didn’t seem so.
They were prepared to compete, persevere and give their all. They believed they are months away from financial freedom and a life of great luxury. Sometimes if you are crazy enough, if you believe strongly enough, you can accomplish great things beyond the skepticism of the masses. And for that reason alone, I didn’t kill their spirit that evening.
Thankfully the event found me connections that I got plenty of gigs from. I helped many of them with their personal branding. I watched them hustle to the best of their capacity, in groups and individually. As their photographer, social media contact and/or invitee to several of their physical and online events, I’ve seen the faith they had in the method and the efforts they put into it.
I’ve also seen them fall sick, hit burnouts and dead ends, pick themselves up and try again — over and over again.
By the sixth month, most of the people I came across at the event quit. Within a year — all of them. While I only knew a small sample of the people that attended the kick off and started their marketing journey together, they were such a diverse group of people from different backgrounds and motivations that the fact that 100% of them flunked out was a very loud statement.
They no longer believed they can shortcut their way to yachts and mansions before their 30s. Not in the same way at least.
Not surprisingly, the people I came to know that day who were already at a higher level in the pyramid (well before the kick-off event that introduced the idea to newbies at a mass scale) still continue to keep doing what they were doing , which implied it’s worthwhile for them, probably even more so after thousands of new recruits forming a wider base of the pyramid.
Regardless of whether the hope-mongers I saw on stage that day genuinely meant to help or simply fed off delusions of their audience, I wish the youthful audience took the time to ask the following questions to themselves.
#1 — Am I going to operate in the same market where they found their success?
The early bird gets the worm — it’s a saying that often goes under-recognized. Blogging, affiliate marketing, creating YouTube content, designing merchandise — these platforms have one thing common — generally speaking, it needs a lot more work now than it needed 3–4 years ago to make the same amount of money.
This is not to mean that those streams cannot make great income streams, but when people who have been successful in certain platforms give you a glimpse at their income growth history, it’s important to remember they probably started in a space much less competitive.
A marketplace getting increasingly saturated implies sellers will find it increasingly difficult to draw attention to their work. Of course, in any situation it is the best work (defined by audience taste, not the creator’s subjective value of their own content) is likely to get more attention than relatively inferior work. Still, on a scale of 1–10, even a level-8 writer or designer will find it a lot harder to get noticed in a market of 100,000 writers compared to a market of 5,000 writers.
Even when you introduce the concept of niche, each of them, just like every marketplace as a whole carries similar characteristics. Albeit sometimes platforms or niches are yet to be trending, in which case being early doesn’t pay off well in the beginning. Other things being constant, it still pays off more to have footprints in a platform early on compared to years after when it’s packed with a crowd of competitors.
While this may sound like discouragement, by intent it’s simply a reminder to compare the two markets. The market that the guru operated in and the market that you are about to enter must be compared to more accurately evaluate your chances of succeeding and to revise your plan of action.
#2 — Does it sound just as interesting if I explain the idea to someone without trying to sell it to them?
Very simple. I don’t need to expand on this. If the straightforward description of your business idea doesn’t sound nearly as exciting, safe and realistic when you put it in plain words for a neutral audience — step away from the volcano.
#3 — Did my guides or role models hit rock bottom before they began?
As I mentioned my story before (no worries if you scrolled past it), two of the featured network marketers that appeared on stage had struggling background stories. It was then they hit the absolute worst points in their life, they turned around and put up their best fights possible.
Having “nothing more to lose” can potentially be an incredibly advantageous position. A person in that situation is a lot likelier to take risks, turn anger into unconventional levels of willpower and a have a strong desire to recover lost self-worth — compared to someone who may be quite comfortable where they are.
I recognize that sometimes being in a place of comfort and something to fall back onto provides headspace and safety that may be conducive or even essential for good output. But try to think about the flashiest success stories you hear. How often do they start at how little money they had when they began, or how hard life was, or how much they were ridiculed for their ideas?
It’s not that motivation can only originate from dire situations, but its important to use a role model’s background story to calibrate the level of effort and willpower that played a role in their stories — and therefore, whether it is that level of input will be required from you if you want to achieve considerable success in that path. Then ask yourself, “Do I want this enough?”
If you consider that you don’t need enormous success and hence you won’t have to put great efforts into something, objectively conclude whether any success is possible within the boundary of work you’re willing to put into something.
#4 — Do I have enough information on who tried, failed, and why?
If someone tells you that they have done something to easily reach a high point, and if they can do it you can too — be extremely cautious. It’s time to step back and wonder if it’s this easy to get big in a platform or marketplace, why aren’t more people doing it? Did you just stumble upon some hard-to-find guidance or information? Or may it be they got lucky, for whatever circumstances, in a way that doesn’t pertain to most people?
This is the time to look for failure stories. Suppose you‘re on YouTube watching a guru sell you an idea that has worked for them, and hundreds of thousands of people have watched it too. It should be something that a lot of people have tried without success.
This is when you should put your inspection glasses on and go to different nook and corner of the internet to seek out examples of those attempts. How are people responding? What’s getting a positive response and what’s being ditched?
One way to figure out your niche is to try a lot of things and see what sticks. The other way to understand the market is to check what’s been tried and done with little success. Start with the second method. This helps you flag the options you were considering that deserve some scrutiny.
What if, niches you would be interested in are too saturated to be worth the efforts it will need to reach your target? What if you’re left with topics or audience you don’t identify with at all? Is the payoff you’re looking at worth the inner struggle of doing something outside your area of interest or expertise?
Prepare for the post-pandemic era
The pandemic has been a rude awakening for everyone who lost their jobs or found themselves quite vulnerable to economic shocks. Just go to YouTube and search for “make money online”, “passive income”, “multiple income streams” or “make money from home” and you’ll see videos from 4–5 years ago have received hundreds and thousands of new comments in the last 3–4 months.
Millions of people have started to think differently about how they should plan their work and finances for the coming years. Many are taking brave and sharp turns to radically change how they make their living.
I am all for creative, original work. I have complete support for entrepreneurship and innovation. Honestly I’m very excited to meet the brave new world on the other side of this crisis. Yet I cannot stress enough how easy it is for us to start believing in something that sounds like a promise to change our lives, how prone we are to delusions and exaggerated projections.
True success, in any field, requires talent (intrinsic or acquired), organization, knowledge-seeking, hard work and perseverance. Things done fast are quite often badly done. And something as sensitive and significant as starting a side hustle, main hustle or micro-hustle (which, however small, will take time and attention away from anything else you’re doing) is worth treading lightly for.
So the next time you come across a hope-monger, may they have the best intentions, ask yourself if their context applies to you, if their market was different from yours and whether there may be valuable learning among the ones who failed.