How The Creator Economy Become The Grifter Economy

I’ve been a content creator for 17 years. Although we didn’t call ourselves content creators back then. We didn’t even have a name for it.

Most of us were coaches and consultants who posted free training on YouTube or wrote old-school newsletters while offering a digital version too.

That’s how this whole content game got started. A bunch of legacy business owners who figured out how to use the internet to sell what they already had.

The Early Days Of Content Creation

One of the earliest content creators to gain notoriety was Gary Vaynerchuk. While working in his father’s wine shop Gary began live-streaming a show for wine enthusiasts. Each week he would test bottles of wine and share his thoughts.

I’m not a fan of Gary’s. Far from it. But it’s important to understand that some of the OG’s in online marketing came directly out of the traditional business world.

As the years went on more people got into the content game. Most of them wrote blogs or posted videos on YouTube.

One of the first people to find success doing it was Lonelygirl15. She recorded her first YouTube video in April of 2006. It appeared to be the confessional of a dramatic and vulnerable girl named Bree.

She quickly became the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube. But it was all fake.

Lonelygirl15 turned out to be the brainchild of two aspiring filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves. Even back then the creator economy was showing just how manipulative and deceitful it could be.

But over all the creator economy in those days was just a handful of creatives looking for an outlet for their art. Filmmakers who couldn’t find work in the film industry, bloggers who couldn’t get a book deal, and anyone else who couldn’t find their way past the gatekeepers in their niche.

Content Creators Today

Today there are at least 450,000 people who make a full-time living as content creators. And over 50 million who are trying to do the same thing.

The big struggle is monetization. A term you’ll hear frequently if you decide to hop into the content game.

Despite what it might look like from the outside, most content creators are living hand to mouth. Desperate to find the next big sponsor who’ll foot the bill for their next video.

It doesn’t matter how big the creator gets. They all have a desperate need to keep the money flowing. Their value is wrapped up in getting their audience to buy whatever product or service will pay them for the exposure.

That’s great, as long as you have quality products willing to pay you for the exposure. But the monthly payment on a Ferrari is expensive.

And you can’t pretend to be a success living in a studio apartment in Connecticut. You need a big house on the beach in Southern California. That’ll run you $20,000 a month.

The result is a steady stream of bad actors using the goodwill they’ve built with their audience to separate them from their money, sometimes by selling questionable or even dangerous products.

Here are just a few of the scams from creators over the last few years.

  • Khloe Kardashian promoted a “Flat Tummy Shake” that helped you lose weight by giving you a massive case of diarrhea.

  • Mona Faiz Montrage is an Instagram influencer with 4.2 million followers. She scammed old, lonely men and women out of more than 2 million dollars leaving many of them financially and emotionally devastated.

  • Logan Paul who got his start recording Vine videos fleeced his audience for millions in an NFT scam he called CryptoZoo. A project that was never completed.

  • Tom Bilyeu, founder of Impact Theory agreed to pay a 6.1 million dollar settlement with the SEC for selling NFT’s as investments.

  • Tylor Welch and Christopher Evans along with their company ‘Traffic & Funnels’ were handed a $16.1 million judgment by the FTC for making false earnings claims to their clients.

  • Famous financial influencers including Kevin Paffrath, Graham Stephan and Jaspreet Singh were all paid large sums of money to personally endorse the now infamous (and bankrupt) crypto exchange FTX.

But those are just the overt scams being exposed. Today there are thousands of creators promoting products that they never use or don’t even like just for the paycheck.

One example of this is the new Elgato Prompter. An ingenious product that puts the power of a teleprompter within reach of a small creator.

I’ve used a teleprompter for years. I know how cumbersome and expensive they can be. So when I saw every big creator I follow on YouTube promoting the prompter I got excited.

I quickly ordered one. It arrived within a few weeks. There was just one problem. The software didn’t work with the latest version of Mac OS. Something conveniently omitted by everyone promoting it.

I did end up solving the issue with a firmware update and several hours of screaming profanity at it. But it’s clear, this product was not ready for prime time.

Yet Elgato paid creators a fortune to make it seem like the greatest product ever invented. And they did.

The unfortunate result of all this is a jaded consumer who feels like anyone offering them help is a scammer looking to fleece them of their hard-earned wealth.

How To Build A Reputable Brand In The Grifter Economy

1. Attack the Grift

The easiest way to start establishing yourself as a reputable player in a disreputable market is to call out the unscrupulous players when you see them.

That’s what I did back in 2009. My first company was a trading education company. I taught currency trading to retail traders and investors.

At the time it was one of the dirtiest markets on earth. There was zero regulation on currency trading. And there were hundreds of internet marketers who hadn’t traded a day in their lives selling software that promised to “make you rich while you sleep” for a few hundred dollars.

The worst one I ever saw was an auto-trading system that promised to turn your $1,000 into $100,000 in just three months. The price? $39.

They had all the “proof” you’d expect. They had bank statements (fake), Trade performance results (fake), client testimonials (all fake). But it all looked legit.

I knew from the start that I didn’t want to run a business like that. I wanted to build a real company people could trust. So I started publicly attacking everyone running a currency trading grift.

I’d record videos explaining how the scam worked. I’d talk about how difficult trading is, and how committed and disciplined you need to be if you want to succeed.

It worked. Over time I developed a reputation for being honest and helpful. It turned my little one-person trading business into a multi-million dollar operation.

2. Always Deliver

It should go without saying, but if you’re going to make a promise you need to be able to deliver on it.

People still talk. If you always deliver on your promises word gets around. It’s better to make a small promise you know you can make good on, than a big promise you know is impossible.

I chastised a couple of ’Twitter bros’ last year for promising to help their clients make $1,000 in 40 days.

Not only are these types of income promises illegal, they’re unethical. I don’t care how good your program is, the majority of your clients are not going to get to $1,000 in 40 days.

Reputation is still the #1 way to overcome the grifter stigma. When you do it right you’ll never have to defend yourself publicly. Your clients will do it for you.

3. Only Promote Products You’ve Used and Believe In.

In 2017 I had the number 1 podcast in my niche. With over 30k listeners a day I was making more than 15,000 a month personally endorsing products on my show.

I never endorsed a product I hadn’t used. Several times I was approached by advertisers asking me to promote investment products but couldn’t explain how they got the returns they were promising. I declined all of them.

On one occasion I promoted a flower company I’d used previously. Then I got two emails on the same day from listeners who had used the service for Valentine’s Day and were very unhappy with the flowers they received.

I called the ad agency immediately and canceled all future ad reads. It cost me a lot of money in future revenue but it saved my reputation.

What I’m saying is, be deliberate about who you get into bed with. When you promote someone else’s product you’re staking your reputation on it. Don’t destroy a brand it’s taken you years to build for a few advertising bucks.

4. Go Slow

That’s something you don’t hear every day. Everyone is promising you the secret to “growing fast”. They all have the magic formula to build your brand and business in record time.

Trust me. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a scam. There’s no quick way to build a brand. No cheat code for jumping to level 5 in business.

If you work hard and stay committed you can expect to spend 18-24 months building your reputation and “brand” before you start making any real money.

There are some things you can do to go faster. You can hire someone to coach you. Someone who’s already done what you’re trying to do. They can be tough to spot but once you understand the grifters game it’s easy to know who NOT to give you money to.

You can join a community or coaching program that has a set curriculum and timeline to help you achieve certain benchmarks.

An example of this is my Solo Business Cohort that kicks off on January 8th.

Over 90 days, I’ll help a small group of entrepreneurs:

  1. Grow an audience.
  2. Build an email list of potential customers.
  3. Create a digital product that their audience will want to buy.

I don’t make any outrageous claims. I don’t promise you’ll be able to quit your job when we’re done. Or that you’ll have thousands of dollars in sales.

Instead, I make a promise I know I can deliver on. At the end of the cohort you’ll have:

  • An online following of people interested in solving a pain or problem you can solve.
  • An email list of people who want to know more about your offer.
  • An understanding of how to build and launch a product to help those people.

That’s how you can tell who’s honest and who’s running a grift. Wild claims will lead to more sales…for a while. But going slow and being deliberate about how you grow your brand will lead to long-term success and a business that will feed you for the rest of your life.

Here’s to the new year. Let’s make it count!

To be continued…


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