The events that happened throughout my life, the paths that got me to where I am today, present an interesting story. I refer back to pieces of this story once in a while here on Consumerism Commentary but I never focus on it, nor do I ever really provide a complete narrative. When I write, I prefer to focus on things external to me. Although this blog started more like a personal journal interspersed with my financial details and interesting bits of information about personal finance, like many other long-lasting websites, it’s evolved over time.
Storytelling fills an important role. A good story triggers powerful emotions in readers or listeners, and these can be emotions of connection (like sympathy or jealousy or inspiration). Humans are emotional, not logical, decision makers, so strong emotions can cause readers or listeners to make decisions they wouldn’t have made without that emotional connection. Emotional triggers are certainly nothing new. Charismatic individuals have been using storytelling for centuries to spread religious beliefs, gain allies, and sell products.
The best salespeople today are keenly aware of this effect and use storytelling to convince people to spend money. A good story can change someone’s mind; a great story can change someone’s financial situation. Sometimes for the better, but often not.
For Consumerism Commentary, I try to think of ways to encourage readers to become better consumers: to make the most of the money they have, to improve their financial situation through building income and reducing expenses, to move towards a better financial situation than in the past even if full financial independence isn’t achievable. And, at least so far, I haven’t used my writing to sell products to readers. Yes, I’ve written or published some product reviews designed to help people make good choices about the financial products they use, including a way for readers to take advantage of those offers, but those have been generally directed at people who had already decided to use those products. I’ve tried hard not to sell someone something that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.
Storytelling has a much bigger benefit than selling products — it can sell ideas. And that starts to get dangerous. An inspiring story about quitting your job to blog full time can easily convince people who would otherwise know better to follow that same path in search of riches. I know for a fact that my personal success has given hope to people, even if their reasoning might have been, “If that fool can quit his job and sell a little blog for an insane amount of money, a smart guy or girl like me can do even better.” This is why I don’t make a big deal out of my story. This is why I take my role as a business coach for select clients very seriously. I don’t want to see people make huge mistakes.
People often ask me if blogging as a business has a future. People every day are quitting their jobs, ready to tell their stories online, ready to find a way to sell things to their readers, and they need to know if there’s a future in blogging. In fact, my girlfriend, who is also a blogger, asked me about this recently, but companies have paid me to hear my thoughts on the future of blogging, even though I’ve often been happy to chat with CEOs about it for free.
They ask me because I’ve been around. I’ve been on the Internet since about 1989. I’ve been building various types of online communities since 1990. I’ve been building websites and teaching people how to build websites since 1994. I know how to manage UNIX servers so I’m familiar with the technical side of the Internet, but I’m also as well as the social side (and that goes far beyond “social media”). And I watch related trends pretty closely, and I see a future that is troublesome for the small-time independent web publisher. Today’s environment is not one in which I’d suggest anyone quit their day job to be the next big blogger. Not without a head start, not without the financial backing that allows you to effectively compete, not without something that makes it clear that success is imminent.
That doesn’t mean bloggers can’t start today and become popular. That happens all the time. But translating that popularity into a sustainable living, or even better a valuable asset with the potential of lasting a long time or being recognized by the market as an acquirable asset, goes from rare to incredibly unlikely. But people beat the odds all the time. In fact, people who are more inclined to ignore the odds have an increased chance of meeting those goals, at least partially. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. The danger is in seeing others who have done something impressive and expecting the same will come with a little hard work. Make a living? Maybe. Make a great living? Well… Make a fortune? Doubtful.
The inspirational entrepreneurial story that spreads the lie that this path is the best way to secure a financial future is often incomplete. And the reason I’m writing this article in the first place is because I recently came across a story from a few years ago that is a perfect example of this. It shows you that a smart consumer will always need to look for the questions that go unanswered in any story.
Someone I follow on Twitter attended her sister’s wedding a few days ago, and posted a photograph of the two of them together, beaming with happiness. The individual I follow on Twitter will become clear in a few moments.
For some reason, I decided to look for more information, to learn more about her sister. One of the first things I found was her “origin story.” The trend with superheroes in movies recently is to present a character’s origin story — well, entrepreneurs have origin stories, too. And her story is about as sweet as it gets.
Mary Riesgraf — that’s her name — started a confectionery shop, Sweet Mary’s, in Los Angeles. The business is registered to a home address, so there’s probably no storefront. These are the words she told AllParenting in an interview:
Sweet Mary’s was started out of pure joy that my sweets brought to my friends and family. I started making homemade sweets for holiday gifts and everyone kept telling me to start a business. I was afraid of making such a big commitment so I didn’t consider starting a business until Fall 2011. My boyfriend Leif and my three daughters (Grace, 11, Sarah, 10, and Emma, 8) were my biggest fans encouraging me to go for it. I am so glad I started. I have had a blast making sweets and I love hearing all of the great feedback from our customers.
It’s such a heartwarming story about success, and inspiring to anyone who is passionate about a skill and contemplating starting a business to focus and perhaps make a living.
AllParenting notes that she and her shop has garnered the attention of celebrities, making the shop an overnight sensation. Mary took an activity she loved and for which she had a talent, opened a store, and suddenly celebrities were talking about it. Not bad! The story refers to mostly actors who quickly jumped on her team and supported her as happy customers, like Jason Lee (“Earl” from My Name is Earl), Timothy Hutton (“Conrad” from Ordinary People), and Jenna Elfman (“Dharma” from Dharma and Greg).
I don’t want to criticize Mary. She’s done a great job — and congratulations to her on her recent wedding! The story is inspiring, but the interview neglects to focus on the huge advantage Mary has over a typical entrepreneur, tired of his or her job, feeling a pull to do something else with life. Mary had quite a few built-in connections. While she’s an actor and producer in her own right, her sister, Beth Riesgraf, is also an actor (and a talented film photographer). And the business was launched at the height of Beth’s popularity, as her show Leverage was coming to a close and fans were imploring the producers to keep the show running.
In the interview, Mary says, “My sister had tweeted about me and a bunch of our friends re-tweeted… It was explosive!” Today, Beth has 438,000 Twitter followers. I’m not sure how many she had in 2012, but I expect it was a similarly high number. If you want to be an entrepreneur, ask yourself how many Twitter followers your siblings have.
Mary also says about her first celebrity order, “Jason Lee ordered 150 of our Signature Caramel Chocolate Apples for his wedding.” The story of her success would have had less of an impact if she had said, “Jason Lee, my sister’s former fiancée and father of her daughter, ordered 150 of my caramel chocolate apples for his wedding a couple years before I launched my actual business.” Timothy Hutton, also mentioned as a celebrity customer, was Mary’s sister’s Leverage co-star. Sales or gifts, readers aren’t really sure what those orders are, but either way, they’re still in the family.
My intention isn’t to dampen the success of one particular sudden-entrepreneur, but just to show there are often a lot of details missing from our favorite inspiring entrepreneurial stories. This is just an example I came across recently, and one where I happened to know some of the missing pieces.
The problem is that a story like this can easily encourage someone to start their own business. Is that really such a bad thing, when the employment environment today is so bad and it seems to make a lot of sense for people looking for a better financial future to take matters into their own hands? Being a business owner does open lots of opportunities for personal, professional, and financial growth. But you have to do some market research and soul searching first. Don’t be swayed by inspirational stories. Ask questions! Get to the bottom of the issue. Find out why and how people succeed — not just how they say they succeed, because the true story is often much different than the marketing (and every story is marketing).
If you make decisions based on inspirational stories, whatever hard time you thought you had working at “just a job” could be much, much worse, when you find yourself struggling as a business owner. And then years later, when you discover you need to go back to the workforce, you’ll be in further trouble because you haven’t maintained your skills and have a gaping, unsuccessful hole in your résumé. Too many people are willing to be inspirational and motivational, and to be inspired and motivated, and too few people are willing to discuss realities. That just doesn’t sell as well.