Inside The Career Guru-Industrial Complex

Magical ever-renewing fountain of inspiration, or intellectual pyramid scheme?

I'm currently enrolled in a six-month online course with women's leadership expert Tara Mohr, who purports to help women find their callings, overcome both external and self-criticism, "take a leap," and "build their success architecture." Mohr, a Stanford MBA and published poet, struck just the right blend of New Age wisdom and hard-nosed career advice, and I happily forked over just under $1,000 for a series of biweekly conference calls and worksheets. It's been a valuable experience, too, even if it pushes my cheese meter at times.

But as I started participating in the classes' Facebook group I noticed something funny. It seemed that a huge percentage of the women in the class actually aspired to do exactly what Mohr herself was doing with her life. They were all wannabe life coaches or creativity therapists or social-media marketers or holistic nutritionists who dreamed of charging hourly for their services and promoting themselves and their ideas through websites, blogs, books, speaking tours, social-media platforms and email lists. I started to wonder if the course didn't resemble something of an intellectual multilevel marketing scheme.

In multilevel marketing, an entrepreneur builds a business, not by creating demand for the product directly, but by creating a sales force who in turn trade on their personal charisma and contacts to move the product. Some salespeople do very well for themselves, but the real cheddar goes to the CEO. (In a pyramid scheme, the criminal form of a multilevel marketing scheme, there is no real market and no real product; the entire business rests on fees that the "sales force" pays.)

The modern mediapreneur, instead of Avon makeup or Cutco knives, is selling inspiration, focus, positive thinking, determination—on some level, success itself. Success is sold under many different brand names, many of which have been found in Fast Company's pages over the years:Tim Ferriss or Gary Vaynerchuk or Seth Godin, a tradition that goes all the way back to Dale Carnegie. (Popular business pundits like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Berger are, arguably, just over the line that separates media from preneur because instead of the majority of their business being direct-to-consumer, they have sidelines in major media and academia respectively.)

Carnegie just had books and speeches. Mediapreneurs's product lines have diversified in the age of the Internet. They have email, Twitter, Facebook, vlogging, Amazon affiliate programs, e-books, paid podcasting, and online live video-course platforms like creativeLIVE, a startup that just closed a round of funding from Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, CrunchFund, Google Ventures, and others. They can charge huge fees to speak at conferences or run their own in-person workshops and training programs. Their audience, aka their sales force, doesn't just invest money. They invest attention—"likes," clicks, and retweets that multiply the power of the mediapreneurs' brand.

If you're considering joining a multilevel marketing scheme, the FTC suggests you ask the person who's recruiting you: "What percentage of your sales were made to distributors?" By the same token, if you're considering investing your time, money, or energy in a self-described thought leader, it's worth asking: What percentage of your audience is actually hoping to "redistribute" your ideas and thereby become exactly like you?

Mohr says about 49% of her audience falls into the loose category of "entrepreneurs," while the other half are employed in organizations. The wannabe mediapreneur contingent, she says, not surprisingly just happens to be much more visible on social media. "A lot of mediapreneurs who start out with another content, mission, or message end up training other entrepreneurs to do what they did. It’s something I've tried really hard to stay away from," she says. It's a catch-22, because she has much more credibility and a larger potential audience as a general expert in women's leadership, yet targeted mediapreneur content, she says, "sells like hotcakes, because it's connected to peoples' livelihoods. But it's not my calling."

To say that multilevel marketing is the name of the game here is not to cast aspersions on the quality of the "product." Mohr, in the mold of Sheryl Sandberg, is part of a cultural wave helping women to reinvent their lives and become leaders. You can learn a lot that's useful from any of the mediapreneurs mentioned here.

But the problem with all multilevel marketing is that it tends to oversaturate the market. It's only a small percentage of people who have the charisma and skills to succeed as a mediapreneur.
The rest of us are just hucksters and wannabes, doomed to a Twitter following in the low four figures, pursuing the dream on nights and weekends for the rest of our lives.

[Image: Flickr user Arne Halvorsen]

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