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The Cost of a Free Lunch

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Last Summer, out of morbid curiosity, my friend Hélène and I attended a motivational seminar at our local convention center. She had obtained free tickets by clicking, against every fibre of her being, on a gaudy Facebook ad.

Hélène is, among other things, a reformed workaholic and rat-race escapee, who now writes about living life strictly on your own terms. With a background in marketing, she was curious where such a smarmy ad might ultimately lead those who click on it—and who those clickers are.

Both of those questions were answered for us, during the terrible and fascinating experience that followed a few weeks later.

There’s something to be said for inserting yourself into an environment that all of your natural impulses would have you avoid. You learn so much when you’re outside your normal channels. The experience was a gold mine of insights for people like Hélène and me, who chronicle the human condition professionally. 

There were six or eight speakers on the ticket, one of which was billed as “The World’s Number One Motivational Speaker, and another who was The World’s Number One Inspirational Speaker”. There was also a financial expert (presumably the world’s #1), a productivity expert, a relationship expert, and a “success expert”. They were all described as “Top” or “#1” of something.

We were there for doors-open at 6:45, and the first thing I noticed is that the woman taking our home-printed tickets didn’t check to see whether they were duplicates, or even tickets at all. She dropped them into a bin and gave us info cards to fill out.

We went into the conference room. There was pounding music of some sort. Calling it techno would be too generous—more like wordless thump-pop. Two big screens flanked the stage, cycling quotations from well-known inspirational speakers who were not present at the event, and also Lou Ferrigno, who I understood was in the building (or was going to be later) for some reason.

We passed on the free breakfast, which was just coffee and a few paper plates piled with limp banana bread, and went to our seats. We had “Gold” seating, which appeared to be the worst seats, way at the back. The front three-quarters of the room was designated “VIP” seating.

While we waited, we checked out the crowd, trying to figure its demographics. It was mostly male, mostly under 50, and going by accents, disproportionately composed of Asian and African immigrants, including many young couples. Most of the lone men seemed to be in their 40s, many of them overdressed for what the event would turn out to be. From the clothing (and some of the reactions to jokes the host would later make) I would guess the crowd skewed conservative.

“I’m just trying to figure out… what’s the sell here?” Hélène said. I was wondering the same thing, since we strongly suspected most of the tickets had been given away. There were a lot of self-conscious and uncertain faces, ours included, and it seemed clear that few or none of the attendees had been to one of these before.

The website said VIP tickets were $149 (“$499 at the door”) but I would guess close to nobody paid more than thirty dollars for their ticket, if anything. The room was full.

How to Get Five Hundred People to Say Yes

After a brief introductory video—an upbeat montage of Olympic athletes, civil rights figures, lunar missions, and helicopter shots of mansions—a goateed host came out, wearing a white suit jacket and jeans.

This was 8am on the dot, and the crowd was already a little hopped up from the coffee and thumping music. “How you doin’ out there!? Feel good!?”

He asked for a louder cheer, then asked again. He really wanted those cheers. In fact, throughout his act he didn’t do much at all except try to get the crowd to make affirmative noises. Almost everything he said was a question the audience had to say yes to. “So… I got a family back at home. Any of you got families?”

By 8:08 the crowd had already answered “Yeah!” to at least twenty questions. It didn’t seem to matter what he asked as long as the only answer was “Yeah!” At one point he told an anecdote involving a snail. “Anybody know what a snail is? Yeah?!” He waited for a few affirmative cheers.

I can’t describe how it felt to watch the room’s attitude shift during this first segment. Nobody was quite liking this guy, but you could see the crowd’s early-morning defensiveness start to give way to a kind of lightheartedness, as though the host’s cheesy, nearly incompetent style assured us that the whole thing was harmless.

It was around this time that I began to realize how shrewd and polished the whole operation was. It wasn’t an earnest but incompetent rendition of a Tony Robbins event, it was bad on purpose. It was so bad it felt safe to play along, to laugh and clap at the host’s jokes.

This simple tactic was working. People were smiling and laughing and nodding, and you could feel their standoffishness dissolving.

My suspicions were confirmed when they elevated the cheesiness to a level that could not be explained by poor taste or incompetence. The host called for a round of applause for a very special guest, and “Hail to the Chief” started playing, to which entered a George W Bush impersonator. He did a bit of stand-up, then produced a guitar and sang a song he wrote, called “Freedom Boogie”. The VIP section, which was most of the room, clapped along, with visibly less embarrassment than earlier.

Back in the “Gold” section, we were a bit less moved. No clapping, but some head bobbing.

The presidential impersonator turned out to be the most likeable part of the show. After him came an evangelical-style inspirational speaker, wearing a three-piece powder blue suit and gold rings large enough to see from our seats. He entered to R&B music, and the first part of his talk was in rhyme. He commanded the crowd to repeat his last line—“I feel good! I’m wide awake!”—several times. They did.

Despite my cynicism, I could feel the infectiousness of the call-and-answer format. The George Bush impersonator had been so patently ridiculous that we as an audience had became virtually unoffendable. I could see the crowd getting excited and ready to act—on something.

After the initial rhyming sermon, Gold Rings Guy proceeded to do what all the speakers would eventually do, which is to tell a story of moving from a destitute existence to an upper-class life. He had been in debt and depressed, then he found some principles that made him believe in himself. Soon he had a nice house and a nice car, pictures of which he showed on the big screens. Today he’s living the dream, which evidently means working on the motivational speaking circuit.

He showed photographic evidence that he had met some famous people, which was another common theme among the speakers. In fact I think all the speakers showed photos of themselves with Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or a former president. (Even the George Bush guy showed himself with the real George Bush).

For the end of his talk, Gold Rings Guy sang “Moment to Moment” to a montage of more presidential speeches, civil rights protests, NASA missions and the Tiannenmen Square tank guy. At this point nothing had been offered for sale.

The next presenter began with his rags to riches story, only this time the thing that got him to the riches part was training his memory. He took the crowd through some contrived but convincing examples of his memory-boosting prowess, and linked these powers to the acquisition of fancy cars and beach houses. By the end of the presentation he was physically selling memory training DVDs for cash from the stage, where a small mob had gathered.

After him came an investment guy. His presentation’s format was almost comically identical to the last few, with the rise-to-success story, family anecdotes, photos of money and cars, and photos of himself with former presidents and famous bodybuilders. He attributed his lavish lifestyle to the use of a computer program that identifies the optimal time to buy and sell stocks. For those interested in learning his secrets, he offered tickets to another seminar the following month—normally more than a thousand dollars, but discounted in our case to $99. This was hugely popular with the crowd.

By 10am the overall business model was painfully clear to us skeptics in the Gold section, and had already been astonishingly effective.

The host is there to make you smile and get you responding, and perhaps lower your standards. The comedian/impersonator is there to make the thing feel silly enough to be harmless.

The first speaker is there to make you feel inspired and instill the vague principles of “taking action” and “saying yes!” The remaining speakers are there to stoke specific desires about money, cars, houses and brushes with celebrity.

At the end of each of these presentations comes the opportunity to finally take some concrete action towards your own betterment—by saying “yes!” to their product, which by that point is a psychological proxy for fancy cars, six-figure incomes and beachside homes.

I left at lunch.

What The Good Life is Made Of

The how-to information—the actual principles the speakers supposedly used to attain the Good Life—was always vapid and trite. “’Repeat after me’, one speaker said: ‘Change is good… when your attitude is great!’” Later, it was “Execute the plan, with excellence!”

Each speaker showed pictures of their spouse and kids, and gave some cute domestic-life anecdotes that got knowing laughs. Each also mentioned, once, the importance of helping the community—the DVD guy even encouraged people to buy his DVDs so that you can “donate them to a school.”

Name dropping was done frequently and shamelessly. Everyone had a picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zig Ziglar or some former president. The investment guy mentioned Warren Buffet about fifty times.

They also made a point of repeatedly distinguishing the action-takers from the rest. When a third of the crowd was mobbing the registration desks to get into the beat-the-stock-market seminar, the speaker said, “Notice that not everybody is acting on this opportunity!”

I found it surprising how well this noxious formula worked, until I remembered the crowd was not a random sample of the population. Through a series of internet ads and opt-in tests, the organizers were able to filter out the skeptics and pessimists, and anybody with any marketing knowledge, in order to assemble a roomful of people who were particularly vulnerable to their tactics.

Hélène and I were probably the opposite of the target audience. We happily wasted two seats, slipping past the filters due to an interesting irony—Hélène clicked on the ad because it was so perfectly unconvincing to her sensibilities.

As Hélène wrote in her own recap, for many attendees, the free breakfast and lunch turned out to be very expensive.

On the walk home, I daydreamed about giving a seminar to the same audience. But instead of selling them things that don’t exist, like stock-market-beating software, I would illustrate what a sales funnel is, and what it feels like to be inside a nasty one.

I would charge $50 for tickets and could almost guarantee, with a clear conscience, at least a five- or ten-fold return on that investment.

Lunch—sandwiches from a beloved deli two blocks from the convention center—wouldn’t be free, but it would be so delicious and substantial that everyone would know exactly where their money went.


Photo by Gage Skidmore

DiscoveredJoys August 7, 2017 at 3:10 am

An excellent example of one of two powerful messages. Ordinary guys can become rich and happy (easily, give us your money) vs rich guys can become spiritual and happy (easily, give us your moral commitment (and sometimes money)) – and the people that get something out of the process, which normally fails, are the gatekeepers to the promised future state.

In the UK you sometimes find ‘bargain shops’ or market stalls which use razzle dazzle and question and response to persuade people to buy cheap tat. I recommend attending one of this type of enterprise to inoculate you against being sucked in to such cons in the future. I’ll cost less than inspirational videos, commercial ‘retreats’ or long term membership of an organisation.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:48 am

I think what was so effective about it was that they didn’t try to market the product itself, they tried to sell each audience member the idea that their lives could be much better and freer of only they exercised courage and confidence, now instead of later. Then the offer a product as just such an opportunity to act in this way. This kind of marketing was pioneered by Edward Bernays, and there’s a great documentary on it called The Century of the Self.

Vilx- August 7, 2017 at 3:28 am

I can smell it! This is just a setup. David’s going to announce his own seminar soon! :D

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:49 am

Only $99, just for you

Vilx- August 7, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Yay! Where do I sign up?

John Norris August 7, 2017 at 3:37 am

Compare and contrast to Mr Money Mustache’s free and life-changing financial advice (also how I found Raptitude). Thank you MMM and David :)

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:50 am

One of the comments Helene made in our post-mortem conversation was that for all the talk of financial abundance, they never once mentioned the most important principle of wealth, which is to live below your means.

Toni McLellan August 7, 2017 at 2:00 pm

They can’t mention living below your means or nobody will buy their programs.

Priscilla August 7, 2017 at 5:51 am

I’m so glad you did this experiment and wrote about it. I’ve always been curious as to what goes on in those seminars, even if I KNEW they were dramatized sales pitches, but I’ve never been brave enough to find out. Now I know. I actually feel sorry for naive attendees . . . and a little creeped out, too. Ew.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:51 am

I never expected it to be this bad. I figured it would be a little less transparent — valuable advice, followed up with an offer for more valuable advice. But it was all hucksterism.

Joy August 7, 2017 at 6:16 am

Fascinating. Unfortunately I have attended something similar, at the invitation of a friend whom I was unable to prevent from taking out a second mortgage to spend 30 grand on whatever they were selling. I should have physically dragged him out of there. Needless to say he is still exactly where he started, 30 grand poorer.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:55 am

Oh man… talk about a perfectly targeted audience member. That reminds me of a This American Life episode about problem gamblers. Vegas casinos so highly value people inclined to bet huge that they will actually track down their contact info and offer them legitimately free flights and hotel stays, because they know they will recover the cost several times over. It’s horrific.

Lola August 7, 2017 at 6:39 am

I’m curious as to how many people Envy purchasing mob we’re actually plants in order to convince others to purchase whatever product they were selling. I also wonder why we as a whole are so naive and give in two such and obviously blatant Act of selling a product that’s not necessary it’s really sad that we can’t be more self-aware and fulfilled

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:56 am

Yeah I wonder… I wouldn’t doubt there were plants in the audience there to stoke a sense of FOMO by rushing up to the registration tables. I’m sure if it works, they would do it.

David August 7, 2017 at 1:07 pm

It’s all based on NLP tactics. Even the great Tony Robbins uses these techniques. It is rather tragic when these techniques are used devoid of ethics. They are literally so powerful it is actually brainwashing. Another great post, mate.

Mark August 7, 2017 at 6:49 am

This was a good read over my morning coffee. Thank you. I could picture it all, and picture myself inside that nasty sales funnel.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 9:57 am

Good morning!

Chris August 7, 2017 at 7:06 am

I can never understand these things, but then again, I feel like I have too many options to make money. It’s always easy to see all of the flaws in these kinds of gimics when you’re looking from the outside in. When you’re struggling in all levels, anything like this can look like a great opportunity. And on top of that, I’m going to bet that a large portion of these people will end up leaving the DVD or courses unopened and untested.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 10:02 am

Totally. I wish I could follow up on the buyers to see what they did with this stuff, or what the DVDs and seminars were actually like.

Dennis August 7, 2017 at 7:21 am

Damn it. I had just finished exercising and showering this morning before reading your post. Your description of the con, er, event, was so real to me that I’m now forced to take another long, cleansing shower.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 10:03 am

I wrote this in the shower

julie August 7, 2017 at 9:38 am

I so loved this, David. Thanks for doing the research and the post.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 10:03 am

Thanks Julie. I’d like to do more “field reporting” like this

Linda August 7, 2017 at 9:54 am

Ugh, this leaves me feeling so angry and disgusted. Preying upon vulnerable people who are desperately looking for a better life – it is everything that is wrong with the world. I can’t understand how the people who perpetrate these disgraceful shams can look into their McMansion mirrors.

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 10:08 am

I think an important part of the explanation is that the people conducting these events are themselves profoundly dissatisfied. I also wonder how much wealth it actually generates for them. It’s hard to imagine that a guy selling DVDs out of a box is a millionaire.

Joseph August 7, 2017 at 10:12 am

That was an amazing write up, well worth the cost of admission. I was delighted reading that, as I have been in similar seminars in my youth, right about the time I learned that “Multi-level” was synonymous with “Pyramid.”

David Cain August 7, 2017 at 10:25 am

Oh man, don’t get me started on MLM. As far as I know this was a different model though — the basic sales funnel, where instead of recruiting people to recruit others, and pay up the line, you assemble a large group of people, and by selling them increasingly expensive crap, you can whittle them down to a smaller group of people who will buy absolutely anything, and you milk the most naive ones as long as you can.

T.M. Rezzek August 7, 2017 at 10:28 am

All these motivational-speaking seminars are such an incredible con–nothing but vague, rah-rah-rah, feel-good bullshit specifically designed to pump you up and take your money. Oliver Burkeman wrote an excellent book titled ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ and he devotes a section to when HE attended some motivational thing to see what was up. But he actually encountered a few other cynics in the crowd, namely people who were forced to attend by their respective companies and hated every second of the event.

And mega-churches do this all the time, except their spiel goes along the lines of “I was poor, homeless, broke, whatever, and then I found Jesus. And after I found Jesus–BOOM–the house, the car, the beautiful partner, and oodles of money just FELL into my lap! So MAKE A DONATION to this church while you worship Jesus, and the riches of the Earth will be YOURS!” Nobody ever stops to think how mega-churches get their money for the fucking mega-church upkeep or the air-conditioned doghouse (remember Jim and Tammy Faye Baker?)

Great article. I’m glad you brought this up.

Hélène Massicotte August 7, 2017 at 12:47 pm

I thought “The Antidote” was right on the money. And I would say that seminar went beyond the bounds of a “feel good” seminar, which one could argue does hold some value, however short lived it might be.

These folks were pulling the desperate in and the content of the presentations had one goal: to create the appetite, the desire that would allow them to close on the upsell. It was hard to watch.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:09 am

I need to read The Antidote. I know Oliver and I often think along the same lines.

Jen August 7, 2017 at 10:33 am

This is how I feel about social media “gurus” like Gary Vaynerchuk and real estate “geniuses” like Tom Ferry. They’re confident, loud, and sometimes crass (the audience thinks, hey, he’s a regular guy just like me!) They speak in generalizations and tell stories about how they’re renegades who did things differently, and if you “hustle” only 18 hours a day and spend your money on their books and coaching programs you’ll learn their secrets and make obscene amounts of money too! Never mind that Vaynerchuk brags about never reading books himself (HIS book is worth the money!) or that Ferry has never sold a shred of real estate himself (that’s ok, he’ll teach YOU how to do it even though he has zero experience!)

I can’t help but roll my eyes at their fanboys and fangirls who worship them and the Cult of Hustle.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:11 am

I’m not a fan of Gary V’s schtick but I wouldn’t lump him in with what I witnessed at the seminar. I definitely wouldn’t buy a book from someone who doesn’t read though, haha.

Joan August 7, 2017 at 11:52 am

I prepare income tax returns and I have done a few returns of people in this “industry.” They make very little money. Some of the women are mainly living on alimony. I have also been in Toastmasters with these sorts of people. They are typically unemployed, divorced and need to make some money. Their talks are full of self-inflating razzle-dazzle with no substance. They also write books and their stellar Amazon reviews are written by other huckster friends. One hand washes the other.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:16 am

This doesn’t surprise me and it really just adds to the tragedy of the whole thing. Principles and ideas really can change our lives, but these people don’t seem to have any good ones, so they sell what they don’t actually have.

Kathy August 7, 2017 at 12:14 pm

I have been the victim of a timeshare pitch which was a hard sell style and a complete turn off and a huge waste of time.
I have also attended a seminar for a MLM scheme for selling essential oils (I went at the behest of a family member who sells them). The people in the room were so desperate to live like the pitch it was uncomfortable.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:19 am

I have endured a few hardball timeshare pitches, and they’re awful. Sometimes they offer free stuff to get you to hear them out, and because of that they really pressure you.

MLM is somehow even worse than timeshares. I think it probably damages a lot of relationships, because members are encouraged to try to sell stuff to their friends and family.

Joan August 7, 2017 at 12:39 pm

To coin a paraphrase: “Those who can’t do, motivate.”

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:20 am

They did motivate me to write this piece

Hélène Massicotte August 7, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane David. As painful as that experience was, it was and is a good reminder of the need to be vigilant because the reason these events/pitches work is that they’re invisible to us or that we’re in a state of scarcity in some part of our lives: lack of money, power, security, love, belonging, health & wellness. When we’re the sucker, we’re the last to see it, despite it being painfully obvious to onlookers.

Two great books on the topic (along with T. M. Rezzek’s suggestion of “The Antidote” above) are “Scarcity” and “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”.

Here’s to keeping our eyes wide open without turning into hopelessly unbalanced cynics.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:22 am

That’s what’s so scary — what was happening was obvious to us because we’ve been exposed to marketing methods and other things that set off red flags repeatedly. But they are trying to fill the room with whoever out there doesn’t see the red flags. I would love to be able to see the actual numbers — sales, costs, and so on.

Meena August 7, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Fascinating. I’ve wanted to go to such a thing. I should keep an eye out.
Interesting education about marketing strategies at the minimum.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:23 am

It was worth the time, at least the first few hours.

Abhijeet Kumar August 7, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Real growth of any kind begins from within. Needless to say, baiting people with promises of a rich lifestyle/success, is a huge red flag. When you are on the path of real personal growth, you see a very different end goal. It starts with getting to what is, separating all the noise from outside, that blurs what is.

I haven’t been to an event like this in a while, but I still work for a big corporation (I am gradually changing myself inside out), and I get the same feeling about every single social event, whether it is meant to be informational or meant to be casual — who are you selling this to?

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:31 am

What struck me was how overt the promises of wealth, cars and cash were. That has always been a dead giveaway for me that I’m not hearing a very wise or helpful perspective. But I’m sure they did their best to test reactions through ads in order to filter out people who sense the same red flags in their pitch.

Abhijeet Kumar August 8, 2017 at 8:22 pm

I immediately lose interest when a motivational pitch uses success stories ending in mansions, expensive cars, celebrities. I have logical reasons, but it is very instinctive. It is not appealing, and obviously doesn’t connect with my taste for real experiences. If my bottomline is happiness, I would focus on more down to earth end goals.

On a lighter note, I enjoyed this post. :) Great satire.

Ravi Raman August 7, 2017 at 3:13 pm

I went to this same event when it was held in Denver, CO 2 years ago. I stayed for the entire thing, for no other reason than 1) I had paid for a full day of parking and 2) the one person I really wanted to hear was coming on stage at the end of the day (his initials are T.R!).

I used the event as a chance to learn how mass-market selling is done. It was sad to experience. So many people who clearly could not afford it; were shelling out thousands for upsells and get-rich-quick schemes.

The good news was that TR delivered…and I came away with a half-dozen insights that made my wasting an entire day being sold to sorta-worth-it.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:39 am

Apparently they do have some big name people sometimes, like Tony Robbins. I didn’t stay to the end of mine but I think Lou Ferrigno was the recognizable name. I guess that keeps people in place until the end. And although I’m not a fan of Tony Robbins, I would have stayed till the end out of curiosity.

T.M Rezzek August 7, 2017 at 3:17 pm

Thanks for the heads-up about ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me’)! I’m always on the lookout for reading material of that sort, and that’s a book I hadn’t heard of.

You’re right about scarcity–there’s always somebody, somewhere, planning an event that promises to help you fill whatever perceived ‘gap’ is in your life, be it financial, spiritual, or emotional. And unfortunately some people are always seeking a magic bullet that will instantly improve their lives.

David Cain August 8, 2017 at 9:41 am

If you’re looking for some great book recommendations, Helene reviews books for Rockstar Finance. Every time we get together I come away with a few new must-read titles.

Here’s her list:


Anita August 8, 2017 at 9:53 am

Good post David, you are always opening eyes. I’m from The Netherlands, so I’m sorry if I am saying something funny. Someone close to me once went to a personal development class for a couple of days. She was so enthusiastic about it, although she couldn’t actually answer the questions I had about it. So I got suspicious and curious at the same time and googled it. It seems to be that there were a lot of weird things going on there. The same sort of “tricks” were used as you mentioned in your blog post, but also other sick psychological tricks. It seems that you have to be there on a very early time in the morning and it lasts till very late in the evening. So late that it was better that you stayed for the night they said, because you was too exhausted to drive to home (of course the idea behind it was that you stayed with the group and in the same psychological conditions). There were little breaks to eat, drink or going to the bathroom. There were leaders and they worked together with the groups. They motivated them to listen good and reacting good. There was weeping, yelling etc. Good students were treated good and the skeptical students were treaded bad (neglecting, criticism, excluding form the group etc.) There was plastic on the windows so that you have no idea of what time it was. Filming was not allowed of course. For me it seems like hell, I could not understand why you get to such a thing full of propaganda and peer pressure and not walk away. It reminds me of the movie the Wave actually. Luckily there are always skeptical people who recognize this as it is and do what they have to do: walk away or film it or write about it. But they are they exception and that is what wonders me.

Done by Forty August 8, 2017 at 11:01 am

I suppose when we love a free market, we have to at least acknowledge that these sorts of sales tactics are part of it. So slimy though: as you said, it’s formulaic and effective, and they got just the right audience in the door.

I don’t really have any solutions because I suppose these buyers should beware, and I’m not even sure there’s a regulatory body that could protect the consumers.

Clara August 13, 2017 at 7:11 pm

Oh man, I went to one of these when I was 18! Your description of it is spot-on, haha… from the “expensive” free tickets to the audience interaction to the sales pitches. The one I went to was two days of this.

Fortunately, I didn’t spend any money at the time. But, on the plus side, it introduced me to the world of online business and I went home, did my own research, and these days run a successful business (nothing to do with that seminar, though).

Great read!

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