Transparency, Platform & the Ethics of Online Business

As an author, I like to stay up to date on the discourse, and with some recent drama that’s popped up, I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss some qualms I’ve had about the ethics of building a business online.

We spend a lot of time on the internet after all, so business is going to follow the money. And it’s become so easy to start a business of your own. Which is an amazing thing! It’s great to work for yourself, and know that all your hard work puts the money in your pocket and not someone else’s. It’s exciting to see authors and bloggers and artists making a living off of what they love, and to know that is possible for me and many others.

But there is a downside to all of this, and I’ve noticed it more and more over the past couple of years but it’s got to the point where I feel I have to express my thoughts on the matter. Because let’s be honest, there are some trends and practices out there that can only be called shady, and make me more than a little uncomfortable.

An Industry of Teachers

Selling courses has become the new hotness. It’s what everyone is doing. If you have even a bit of knowledge, you can leverage that and create a course that people will pay you hundreds, or even thousands to join and learn what you know.

Now, I’m not going to come out and say that all those courses are bad. Far from it. But how many of them are actually worth what they’re asking you to shell out? And if there is no system in place to validate someone’s qualifications, how do you know they’re qualified to teach what they claim?

And I love learning. I love that we live in an information age, where there is such an abundance of helpful information at your fingertips. I love that there are so many places where people can learn more, and where people can be paid for their skills.

At the same time, there will be those that try to scam you. It’s inevitable. And it’s become so much easier to do, which is such a terrifying thought. People are eager to learn how to become authors, entrepreneurs, go freelance or start their own business, and are willing to pay a lot of money to find out how.

Transparency and Misdirection

This will always be my biggest problem – the distinct lack of transparency. I see a lot of claims, and not enough evidence to back them up. Instead, I’m shown pictures of people on vacation, claiming that I could have that same life if I invest in their program. It’s a misdirect. They make the money selling you what you think you need. Not from the results they claim they can produce. Otherwise, why not show me the numbers? For some, it’s just taboo to discuss money. And I get that there is a time and place for it, sure, but if you’re trying to sell me a program or workbook or method that will get me the same ‘success’, you better be willing to back that up.

I wish more creators would be transparent on some level, especially if their brand involves paid advice or mentorship. It would go a long way to making them more trustworthy and authentic, and I have seen self-pubbed writers do just that. They share it all, sometimes live, sometimes in a video. They know that what they are doing works, and have the proof to back it up. I recently found out about a calculator on TCK Publishing that gives you an idea of how many books are being sold based on the book’s Amazon Bestseller Rank, and it has been eye-opening to say the least.

You can see the difference between authors who are selling enough to make a living, and those who are not, and supplementing said income with other income streams. And on paper that’s totally fine. It’s smart to do so, but it becomes sketchy when they’re using this ‘success’ as a marketing tool to sell you something else, and never showing the audience the numbers to back it up.

Instead, they use misdirection – instead of showing you the proof – in other words, the numbers, they show you the results – the fancy office, the vacation, escape from the 9 to 5. They can’t be transparent because their business model would crumble.

The Power of Expertise

This is a subjective topic. After all, when can someone be deemed an expert? When do you become ‘qualified’ to teach others?

I remember hearing from somewhere that you didn’t have to be an expert to set up an online course. You only had to know more than the audience you were selling to. Which, while true, can be an especially dangerous mindset to adopt. It can limit the growth of the teacher and those they’re meant to teach. And it can easily become predatory.

I think it’s also important to understand where that knowledge came from. Did they spend years taking courses? Or was this something they spent a weekend googling? I’ve been working towards publishing for years now, and I know a lot. A lot more than most, even friends who I know are in a similar industry. Despite that, I’m not about to leverage that information with a course, because what I know is all theoretical. I don’t have the experience, only the knowledge. And I think that’s the important part here.

Knowledge is everywhere. This is the information age, and everything you could possibly want to learn is on the internet. And probably free. What you need is experience. The more, the better.

Selling the Dream

These days the most powerful marketing tool is social media and the image that people create for themselves, for their brand and for their lifestyles. They’re trying to convince people that you can have the life that they have if you buy into whatever it is they’re trying to sell.

I’ve been to those webinars, where they claim to teach you something that will ‘change your life’, but I end up looking at pictures of this person on a beach, and they spend most of the time trying to promote some course or book or program. All over their social media are pictures of the beautiful places they go, and all the amazing things they can do. And they tell you that you can do it too. All you have to do is buy their course or subscribe to their membership service. What they’re selling you is the idea that you can have that same life.

It’s a classic marketing scheme. It’s why you have slim, beautiful models in carefully selected clothes when you flip through a magazine. A very specific image is trying to be created – the happy, fulfilled life. And they make you think that by purchasing xyz, you can have even a small piece of that. Do you see how happy that woman is with the lipstick? If you buy that lipstick, you can be happy too!

The Investment Placebo

There is something to be said about the power of investing in yourself, whether it’s monetary or otherwise. Whether or not the course you purchased has any real impact, at the end of the day you have spent your hard-earned cash on something to better your life. You have invested in yourself and that is going to change the way you work. You’ve attributed a monetary value to your success and it’s in your best interest to put your best foot forward. Once you’ve put money behind it, you are more serious, and more likely to succeed, regardless of what you may or may not have learned.

Even if what you paid for isn’t as valuable as you thought, you paid for it. Naturally, you’re going to work a little harder. That website you’re designing is going to get more attention because you paid for a course about it. That book you’re publishing is going to get a much more detailed marketing plan because you bought that book on marketing. I think it’s one of the more powerful aspects when it comes to the do-it-yourself products – you put money into it, so you are going to work that much harder to get something out of it.

That’s not a bad thing, but I think it can produce skewed results. Was the investment was worth it, or were they capable of it all along and just needed the extra push?

Imposter Syndrome & Undervaluing Yourself

All that being said, I’m sure there are people out there who deserve to be called experts. Whose knowledge is considerably more valuable than its given price. I know it because I see it all the time. Artists who charge pennies for stunning pieces of work. We live in a time where we expect things for free or for very little money, and it can be tempting to devalue yourself in such a way so you can compete in that market. People can and often do think that despite everything they have done they are still ‘imposters’. And it’s important that we don’t let these sorts of negative business practices convince people they aren’t of value, or that their work isn’t worth it.

And there will undoubtedly be people who know how much they are worth, have the experience to back it up and are still called out as being overpriced or worse. It’s so easy to undervalue the content creator when there is so much content being created. And it’s not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the rise of online business, and it’s not an easy one to combat.

Well, this turned out to be a lot more critical than I meant it to be. But too often now I’m seeing shady business practices that make it easy to take someone’s money and offer them very little in return. Some are flat out pyramid schemes if I’m being honest.

I’ve paid for products that in retrospect, were not worth the money just as I’ve paid for products that are worth so much more. I’ve watched webinars that are 10% rehashing content already on their website and 90% trying to sell a product or service me. But I’ve also been to webinars that were so loaded with valuable information and real-time examples that I’m stunned they were giving it away for free.

Not all online businesses are shady. In fact, I’m willing to bet a fair few are not. You don’t stay in business long if you deliver a subpar product or you can’t deliver on what you claim. But it’s still too easy for people to get suckered in by pretty websites and flashy marketing.

What’s important is that we be realistic, critical and ask questions. Pay for things we actually believe can make a difference in our lives instead of buying into the schemes of charismatic marketing. Ask ourselves if its really worth what it’s being valued at, and at who is giving it that value.

The most powerful thing you can do is be smart with your hard earned dollar.

As I build my own platform and plan ahead to when I eventually publish my first book and become the one selling to others, I want to be as honest and transparent as I can possibly be. You’ll never see me selling a course, but I’m always willing to help, and I hope that everything you find on this website is fun, informative and entertaining. I don’t ever want to compromise my personal values to make a few dollars. That’s not why I wanted to do this in the first place, and it would be incredibly disingenuous if this platform ever degraded into something like that.

If there is anything I want you to take from this post, it’s that you will be more critical of the things you buy and the intentions of those you buy from. Even if it’s not from a place of ill will, they are trying to make money, and they will probably be very good at it. They will know how to manipulate their audience into buying whatever they happen to sell.

There are more and more savvy shoppers out there as we acclimate to the world of online business, and let’s face it, people are not afraid to call others out for their BS these days. So if you are the one doing the selling, I hope that I’ve given you food for thought when it comes to how you market yourself, and the value you attribute to what you create.

I know it’s a bit of a pipe dream to hope that everyone does business fairly and we all get paid what we are worth. But it doesn’t mean we can’t at least set an example.

I admit this was a rambly, all over the place sort of post, but I had many feelings around online business practices that I’ve seen over the past two years, and I felt they needed discussing, especially as someone who wants to become an entrepreneur. I think it’s important that as more people join the business sphere and try to make money off of what they enjoy that we do so in an ethical and transparent way. That we set an example, instead of choosing the quick and dirty scheme.

And I know that not everyone is pushing a scam. I’m sure many have good intentions, and genuinely want to offer advice, even if it does come with a dollar sign. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn a bit of money with what you know. It’s what we all do. It’s just very different when it’s in such a public space like the internet. When everyone can see what you do, the bar is set higher. I think it’s important as buyers and sellers that we respect the audience we have and do our due diligence. And maybe one day it won’t be such a pipe dream

Or maybe I’m just too naive for business.

Have Some Thoughts to Share?

I know this was a long one, but it’s also a pretty important one. Have you had any bad experiences with buying something online? Do you have an online business and do you disagree with anything I’ve said? What are your thoughts on some of these entrepreneurial practices? Let me know in the comments!

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