Behind the smoke and mirrors of Internet success

Frank Abagnale was a fake. But not just any fake - one of the world's most famous fakes. The 2002 film Catch me if you can starring Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hanks tells the true story of Frank Abagnale, who, before his 19th birthday, successfully performed cons worth millions of dollars by posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor.

Just like Frank Abagnale was able to pull a fast one on a lot of people, we look at the Internet today and it's difficult to judge how much of the success various people claim is actually the truth. They promise success and riches if you buy their product and do what they did - but how much of it is the truth? On the Internet, we can all look successful, no matter how good or bad things really are.

Four kinds of Internet success

Over the last eight years I've come to notice a pattern in what and how people claim success on the Internet. Getting the data to back this up is difficult (the Internet, after all, makes it easy to appear successful even when you're not), but the pattern shows there are four kinds of success:

  • the flashy, verified success;
  • the quietly successful;
  • the pretenders; and
  • the quietly struggling.

Without data to back it up, it is of course impossible to know how many of each of these types of success there are. But I would make a small wager that it looks something like this:

My instinct for how successful Internet entrepreneurs are

The flashy, verified success

These are the entrepreneurs who are truly successful and love showing it to the world. Some go so far as to publish their financials every month - John Lee Dumas of Entrepreneurs on Fire is one of the best examples here.

This information is helpful because it not only shows how John's income increased over the years, it also gives a breakdown of how his income is divided between different sources.

The quietly successful

Much more difficult to track are the quietly successful - people like Sean D'Souza of Psychotactics have been around since the early 2000's. These entrepreneurs are successful but don't flash it - they're happy where they are and attract loyal followers that stay with them for years.

The pretenders

Then there are the pretenders. These are the websites you see that have a lot of hype, a lot of promises and pop-ups galore. They entice you to sign up for a free email course that will reveal the secrets of Internet success, followed by hard-selling, don't-miss-out offers of courses that will guarantee you untold riches.

The hype is so strong that it's difficult to judge whether these entrepreneurs are actually delivering the value they promise. This is where we tread carefully.

The quietly struggling

And then there are the biggest group - the strugglers. These are the entrepreneurs that are in the process of building a business, but don't have the heart to (falsely) appear ridiculously successful. They don't hype, they don't make false promises - they just keep their heads down and work to make it work.

Should you fake it till you make it?

Most of us are in the "quietly struggling" category. We look at the flashy verified, the quietly successful where we can find them and even the pretenders, and we're quietly envious, worried that we'll never get there and wondering how much of the hype is real and whether we should fake it as well.

So what should we do - fake it till we make it? Appear successful even when we're not? Hype the heck out of it?

The amount of hype you put behind your not-yet-successful business is a personal choice. Some people believe that you have to use hype to attract people to your own success, even if you're not yet that successful. Others don't believe in hype - they would rather plug away at building their products and services, slowly build up market awareness and build success over a longer time.

Whichever strategy you decide to follow, you have to appear confident, even if you're not wildly successful (yet). Here's why.

You still have value to your clients, even if you're not where you want to be

The products or services you provide have value. Whether you're a business coach, an interior designer or any other kind of professional, your products or services can make a difference in other people's lives.

But don't confuse the value you provide with your current lack of success.

It's easy to fall into the trap that says "I'm not successful, therefore I don't have value". We naturally equate success with value - if we're successful, what we're selling has to be valuable to others.

But this is a false equation.

Just because you're not successful yet does not mean your products and services don't have value. Many entrepreneurs are brilliant at what they do, but when they start out they don't know about marketing, or sales, or writing copy that sells. These are skills you still have to learn - but that does not mean your products and services are not valuable.

You will be doing your clients a disservice if you're not confident that what you have can solve their problem.

So believe in what you have to offer, and learn the skills you don't have yet to make a success of it.

You can't sell without confidence

Imagine you walk into a car dealership. You're approached by one of the sales people, and you start talking about the cars in the showroom. But the sales person does not believe in his or her product - they don't quite know how reliable they are, they're not confident that they've been built to high standards of quality, and they think you have a lot of options elsewhere as well.

Would you buy from someone like that?

Of course not. To build your confidence in their product, they have to appear to be confident. They must not only know their product inside out, they must also exude the confidence that you will be making the right decision if you buy one of their products.

And you have to do the same.

You have to know that your products or services provide value. If you don't believe that you can make a difference, you will appear hesitant, not convinced that you can solve their problem. You will be tempted to negotiate against yourself and cut your prices. You will find it difficult to make an offer and stick to your price.

To sell effectively, you have to believe in yourself and in your products or services. Without that confidence, you won't be able to sell a solution to their problem.

So ask questions. Make sure your products or services are right for them. And then use your confidence in your products and yourself to show them you have the right solution.

You have to be confident for your own sake

You will never have a 100% success rate with your clients. Some will be wildly successful, some will not get the benefits they were looking for, and some will be somewhere in between. People are different and results will always vary.

But in the long term, it's your confidence in yourself that will make all the difference.

You need confidence in yourself to get you through the difficult times. You need confidence to keep getting up in the morning, plugging away at that project or product or service that you know will make a difference in other's lives. You need confidence to keep going.

That confidence is not always there. Every entrepreneur goes through times where we doubt ourselves, our ability to make a success of it. Don't despair - if you have value, you can build a business around it. You may have to pivot and change your pitch and re-invent yourself a hundred times - but if you have confidence, and you have value - you can make a success of it.

So have confidence - for your own sake. Success will follow.

It doesn't have to be smoke and mirrors

You don't have to pretend to be something you're not. You don't have to hype or learn the art of the hard sell. You can be yourself, quietly confident that what you have is of value to others. And then you can learn the art of marketing and selling and all the other bits that go into building a successful business.

Your financial success (or lack thereof) is not really interesting to other people. What is interesting is your ability to make a difference in their business or their lives.

And that's where you don't have to pretend to be confident - you can truly be confident. If you have that confidence, you will build trust, find it easier to sell and not undervalue your services.

Frank Abagnale is now a security consultant

Frank Abagnale's primary crime was check fraud; he became so experienced that the FBI eventually turned to him for help in catching other check forgers.

He served fewer than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. He is currently a consultant and lecturer for the FBI academy and field offices. He also runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company.

Frank turned from smoke and mirrors to a respectable career. You don't have to start with the smoke and mirrors to build your business - but you have to cultivate the one thing that made him a successful criminal - confidence.

Have confidence in yourself and your worth. You have a role to play and you will make a difference.

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