How I Made $0 (and So Can You)

Monday, November 6, 2017

Let me know if you've heard this story:

A brilliant inventor comes up with an idea, spends a weekend putting it on the web, and now runs a multi-billion dollar empire.

Ever since the launch of the million dollar homepage, we've witnessed countless reports of college dropouts who have discovered the secret to successful startups, made fortunes online and are now living in Hawaii, surrounded by large collections of yachts, private airplanes, and mansions.

This article does not tell one of those stories. Before you is a tale of woe about how I made absolutely no money while spending countless hours in the pursuit of the secret. I'll give you the tips, tricks, and approaches that I used to achieve the same successes that I have. Just like those guys on late-night infomercials, I promise that I'll show you exactly how I got there, what I'm doing now, and (most importantly) how you can replicate my success - guaranteed or your money back.

The Lie about Honest Abe

It started with my discovery of the Abraham Lincoln Strategy. No one else calls it the Abraham Lincoln Strategy, which is an important fact. This makes me an expert on the methodology and allows me to claim it as my own.

In any case, Abraham Lincoln was a gifted orator, became president of the United States, and steered the country away from the horrors of slavery. All quite amazing accomplishments, but through great effort, marketers have been able to boil down his entire life's work to a single quotation that was first seen ninety years after his death:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Whether or not Mr. Lincoln arose from the dead to become the slowest lumberjack in the history of mankind is immaterial to our discussion. The essential lesson is that anyone wishing to become a dot-com millionaire must learn everything there is to know about online business before dipping his toes in the water.

The more I researched online commerce, the clearer it became that many websites, blogs and books were filled with the same bits of unactionable knowledge surrounded by a plethora of words but little meaning. I suffered through hours of podcasts, pages of blog posts, and dozens of books, assured that if I just consumed a little more information, I would find that one secret, that one little tidbit, that would make the entirety of my search worthwhile. I kept looking for that valuable clue that was always beyond my grasp. Like Patrick Swayze's character in Point Break, I kept searching for that one perfect wave while committing a string of successful bank robberies and being lusted after by beautiful love interests.

After all, it's not like people can create large communities, vast fortunes, and celebrated reputations simply by selling snake oil to the deluded masses, right?

Long story short, yes they can. In fact, if you're willing to throw your morals to the wind, selling snake oil to the desperate is undoubtedly the easiest and most straightforward path to wealth. Unfortunately, it was not a path I could follow.

Lessons from Roddy Piper

Taking a page from eminent economist Roddy Piper's signature film They Live, I put on my metaphorical glasses and took a hard look at the information that I had consumed. Most of it didn't pass the smell test.

It was then that my real research began in earnest. I performed a targeted analysis of third-tier internet gurus and discovered that many were providing testimonials to each other without revealing their secretive associations. I saw that the podcast hosts who had spent ten minutes explaining how valuable their interviews were did, in fact, protest too much. I realized that many celebrities cheated their way to the top, choosing to ignore John Locke's ideas regarding the social contract and instead choosing to follow the other John Locke's morally dubious methodology.

Even successful entrepreneurs who were nothing but honest proved themselves to be of questionable worth. As a consummate networker, I've been in touch with a number of internet celebrities, some of whom, to this day, have no idea how they had become successful. They put something out there, and for whatever reason, it captured the hearts and minds of the populace while their competitors languished in obscurity.

Some did their best to share and a few even put their ideas to paper, though I fear that their pure and selfless acts caused more harm than benefit to their followers. In the continuously evolving internet landscape, what worked before provides little advantage at present. As the common saying goes, "generals always fight the last war." Old officers stick to what worked in the past, unwittingly turning the latest generations of brave soldiers into little more than cannon fodder.

Just Build a Blog

While "build a blog" may have been an instant path to fame in 1997, it's a bit more difficult to do so now, twenty years later. In many cases, asking those known for previous successes for advice is like asking a winner of a lottery for the numbers that he'd played - an interesting, yet wholly unhelpful, piece of information. I knew that I had hit rock bottom when I found myself staying up late and staring bleary-eyed at a blog post written by a man selling unicycles in Paraguay. I was racking my brain, using the remnants of my high school-level Spanish to decipher his writing and attempting to glean whatever wisdom could by applied to my own entrepreneurial endeavors.

It was then that I achieved my enlightenment. It was then that I learned the secret that I had sought for so long.

Despite my best intentions, I hadn't been using my time to sharpen my axe like zombie Abraham Lincoln had suggested. I had done something else. I had hidden. I had delayed. I had procrastinated. I was squandering my time - hours that could have been used having fun, or building a business. Instead, I had wasted it as I sought a cheat code to a game, rather than expended effort to build a real business.

Messiness: Not a Bug but a Feature

Like many things in this world, entrepreneurship is a messy endeavor. There is no clear path, no repeatable process, no rule that will work for every person and every time. Failure is always a possibility that looms just overhead and in full view of a doubting public. Worse yet, one can often only differentiate between the signs of success and failure with the benefit of hindsight.

While I have enjoyed some recent successes, many of my attempts resulted in exactly zero dollars earned - less so once time and expenses were included in my calculations.

Nevertheless, I have discovered one secret to earning nothing that works without fail: avoid taking action. Delay, delay, delay.

Although hard work and sweat equity won't guarantee success, they are often catalysts necessary to achieve it. Few great companies are built in their entirety in a weekend, but many great companies never grew beyond the glimmer in their would-be founder's eyes.

My Advice

If you seek to follow in my illustrious footsteps, if your most ardent wish is to become a notable wantrapreneur rather than a creator of an actual business, keep reading, keep listening, keep learning - and never stop. There's always more information to consume, more lessons to study, more cases to analyze.

The secret is that there is no secret. Success is often a mix of luck, skill, and hard work. Taking action requires one to stand up and make mistakes - often embarrassing, cringe-inducing ones - before a doubting public. Forge your own path, knowing that you'll be wrong more than you'll be right. Know that you'll learn what you must along the way, and you'll grow more quickly than you would from a position of safety, still conducting research and perfecting your tactics.

The secret is merely this: just start. Start small, if you must, but start. Build your future, knowing that it is not your competitors, not your market, not even your idea that is holding you back. It is, quite simply, your willingness to take action.