The Pond Scum

When you’re first starting a Banana Stand, you’re hungry for guidance. Tips and tricks. Knowledge to give you a leg up.

And it’s out there. Somewhere. But first you have to get through The Pond Scum.

So, years and years ago one of my first clients as an independent consultant was the nontechnical founder of a service for affiliate marketers.

Quick definition if you’re not familiar: affiliate marketing is a business model where you sell other people’s products and get a cut of each sale. You’ve probably received a referral code for some product, where for every friend you refer you get a discount or some cash. It’s like that, only people build entire businesses on doing nothing but that. It’s a huge sector. There are vast marketplaces of affiliate products to sell. Every time you see a bunch of sketchy-looking ads for penis pills surrounding a news article, it’s probably from some affiliate marketer who has worked hard to make their penis pill ads just a tiny bit more eye-catching than all the other affiliate marketers.

So this guy was an affiliate marketing expert. And he confided a little industry secret to me: The people making the real money in affiliate marketing weren’t selling penis pills. They were selling how-to-succeed-at-affiliate-marketing ebooks and courses to other hopefuls. It was all very meta: hawking other hawkers’ how-to-hawk products, and taking a cut.

This turns out to be a pretty universal pattern. Take Robert Kiyosaki, author of the jaw-droppingly-bad but also wildly successful Rich Dad, Poor Dad line of financial advice books. He’s famously cagey about his own finances. But as near as people who have looked into it can tell, his own wealth didn’t come from running some unrelated business according to his books’ principles. It came from selling the dream of wealth in his books and workshops.

This is the problem you run into when you’re starting out in any kind of digital content business: nearly all of the information, guidance, or training you find is created by people who have a vested interest in selling the dream of success. These people have mastered search-engine optimization (SEO). They know how to get into your top Google results for “how to sell an e-book”. In gaming lingo, they are “spawn campers”: they’ve staked a position where an endless stream of newbies will show up, blinking, dazzled, and naive.

I think of this as the pond scum effect: sure, there’s good clean water in there somewhere. But first you have to get through the thick layer of green sticky algae-scum that’s sitting on the surface, slorping up all that sweet, sweet oxygen and sunlight.

Not all these people are conniving villains, either. The dynamics of this system make it very easy to self-delude. The surface of the pond is a very energy-rich environment. People are desperate for tricks-of-the-trade. Everyone is breathlessly hustling and hyping themselves and others. When you’re selling success, people throw money at you if you give them half a chance.

A budding pond-scumbag might get some moderate success selling their first e-book, pivot to selling how they sold that e-book, and suddenly they are raking it in! Their niche just happens to be the meta-niche of how-to-sell. But they’ll tell you you can enjoy the same kind of niche success selling products about whatever your topic of expertise is… not realizing that success itself sells a whole lot easier than just about anything else.

The highest-echelon success gurus might not even be selling success directly to entry-level consumers anymore. But their cult-of-personality brands rest on the aura and leverage conferred by the tens of thousands of eager fans and acolytes and hype-bots that surround them. Even that doesn’t make them necessarily evil, but it may well make what they have to say irrelevant to your business. Their incentives are simply unrelated to your personal success.

How to get past the pond scum? Well, for the low, low price of just $499, you can take my exclusive masterclass on… I KID, I KID!

I don’t actually have any secrets for getting through the hype. I think the important thing is just knowing that the pond scum is there, and understanding a little of the dynamics that drive this phenomenon. Ask yourself: Are the experiences and numbers this person is talking about from selling a niche product, or from a how-to-succeed product? What are their incentives? What are they selling, directly or indirectly? What are they getting affiliate cuts from? Do they have a vested interest in feeding the hustle-porn hype machine, even if it’s an unconscious one?

I think your best bet is probably to try and find other people who have some experience selling digital products to your audience or an adjacent audience. Pick their brains. Compensate them for their time if you can, because they probably aren’t making pond-scum money.

And then someday pay it forward.

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