My Stealth Wealth course was a dumpster fire – and a raging success

Sonnie Bailey

5 February 2021

I recently facilitated a course titled Stealth Wealth, with 20 or so awesome, switched-on participants.

The course included six group sessions held on Thursday evenings via Zoom, which wrapped up at the end of 2020.

The course didn’t just involve those six group sessions. There were lots of emails and resources before and after sessions. There were a couple of bonus sessions, based on the interests of the participants, with one relating to property investment and another related to productivity. All participants of this cohort also had three hour one-on-one conversations with me: I’ve had two conversations with most participants, and the third conversations will take place soon.

The course isn’t 100% complete. Nor have I received detailed feedback from participants yet. But the holiday season gave me some time to reflect on how the course went, while the group sessions were fresh in my mind.

(Please note, the comments in article are inward-focusing, and don’t focus a lot on the contents of the course or its effect on participants. While working on the course, that was my priority. This is more of an “inside baseball” article.)

Stealth Wealth was a raging success – and a dumpster fire 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how things can be good and bad at the same time.

This is true of many things, including the state of the world at large. We can be living during the best time ever (as Pinker and Rosling argue) but it can also be the most dangerous time ever, especially in terms of risk and the potential for worst-case scenarios.

It’s true of things at a smaller scale as well. The Stealth Wealth course, for example, was both a raging success – and a dumpster fire.

I’ll talk about the raging success side of things later in this article. Let’s start with how it was a dumpster fire.

The dumpster fire

Image courtesy of Match's hilarious ad: when Satan met 2020 

From a financial perspective, the course was a disaster. The course generated less than $2,500 in revenue, and involved almost 200 hours of work. After tax I probably made less than $10 per hour.

There were massive opportunity costs. I could have worked on a number of full planning service clients, and followed up with several prospective clients who probably would have gone ahead with Fairhaven Wealth’s services. I left many thousands of dollars on the table by working on this project.

If I were to take a narrow, financially-focused, short-term perspective, I would write the project off as an expensive experiment.

It was also challenging from a personal perspective. A couple of hundred hours over two months is pretty hard to commit to, especially when other tasks/obligations don’t stop.

Someone recently described running a cohort-based course as like “being on tour”. That feels right. I was physically at home, but in some respects I was absent.

The economics of online courses are challenging

The economics of running an online course sound amazing. Put in some up-front costs, have a marginal cost of $0 for each new participant, and watch the money fly in.

In practice, I don’t think it’s so easy.

For one thing, I suspect this is a power law-driven, winner-takes-all domain. For every Ramit Sethi, Pat Flynn, or David Perrell, there are probably thousands of wannabes. There’s a small group of people who get scale, and a much larger group of people who make next to nothing. That’s especially for someone who wants to target a narrow market (ie, Kiwis).

Another aspect is how I want this online course to operate. I don’t want the Stealth Wealth course to work in a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, type of way.

I think there’s a middle ground that can operate as a hybrid between a “product” (ie, a self-directed course) and a “service”. I want the course to involve participation. I want this to be a key part of the course, and leverage it as a forcing function for people.

I’ve done enough online courses to know that the always-available, on-demand model often doesn’t encourage the reflection or actually working through the exercises, that would maximise the benefit from the course. They usually end up as something on my “to do” list and become a chore, rather than something to look forward to.

I’m only going to offer at at certain times, with people participating in cohorts. Each time I run a cohort, I want to make sure the materials are up-to-date, and I want to be able to tailor communications in real-time to the discussions that occur. I want to have a relationship with every single person who participates.

When the course runs, I want to be giving the course, and its participants, a lot of attention.

Doing this, and finding a way to make it economically feasible is going to be a challenge.

The raging success

If I were to take a narrow, financially-focused, short-term perspective, I would write the project off as an expensive experiment.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can take a wider perspective. In this sense, the course was a valuable experiment that I’m excited to run another cohort.

First up, working on the course was personally rewarding. I enjoyed it, and would like to continue doing more of that type of work in the future.

At a personal level, I really enjoyed getting to know everyone who participated. The people who chose to participate were thoughtful, switched-on, friendly people. It was a terrific group. I look forward to staying in touch with many of the people who participated. Some may even become long-term friends, and it’s hard to put a price on that.

My understanding, based on the feedback I’ve received from participants, is that it has been valuable to everyone who was involved. This means a lot to me.

There were parts of the course that worked a lot better than I expected, like interaction during group sessions. Some examples of interactions that I found impactful:

- in the first session, I asked everyone to introduce themselves, and provide some personal background. I asked people to put their best food forward. This was quite exciting, and prompted a fair amount of reflection across participants: for one, it was eye-opening to see how different people have different paths in life, and how decisions that are appropriate for one person or household can be different from decisions for another household. It also prompted some reflection regarding our natural, human tendency to compare ourselves with others.

- in a follow-up session, we all shared challenges that we’re facing. This involved a level of vulnerability that wouldn’t have been possible in a lot of contexts: I was grateful for everyone’s candour, and also proud that I was able to help create a context for this sort of conversation. I wasn’t sure that it would have been possible before the course began. I’d like to think this provided some insight for people who shared about their challenges. It also provided a richer perspective on our tendency to compare with others — without knowing what is really going on behind the scenes in people’s lives — and emphasised that what is right for one person at one point in their life can be completely different for another person.

- a few things evolved out of the discussions that were outside of the scope of the course itself, but went in interesting directions. For example, quite a few people had experience with, or an interest in hearing more about, property investment. We were able to coordinate a one-off session on this topic. Quite a few participants were interested in “productivity” so we had a one-off session on that topic. In light of some of the themes of the course, and one of the participant’s capstone projects, we all shared easy and nutritious recipes with each other.

I also learnt a lot. One of these things is that it made me realise there’s potential to turn this into something really exciting. It made me realise there’s potential to have a bigger, wider impact than I’m currently having.

Running the course helped me get a better perspective on the nature of the course and how it adds value. To my mind, Stealth Wealth isn’t a “product” or a “service”. It’s a hybrid of the two. In some respects, there is an aspect of the course which is a product. When you participate, you get access to materials. This includes videos, emails, and resources. These are fairly generic, because they need to be applicable to everyone. However, there are aspects where it’s a service. Stealth Wealth involves one-on-one conversations. It involves group sessions, which are facilitated and require participation. This is a service.

Facilitating this course also hinted at ways I can make it more feasible in the future, from both a financial and a personal sustainability perspective.

The future

Reflecting on the Stealth Wealth course has prompted me to reflect more broadly on Fairhaven Wealth’s service offerings.

If my focus was on the short-term, I should put Stealth Wealth, and Fairhaven Wealth’s INSIGHT service, to the side and focus 100% on providing full planning services to clients who can afford to pay these fees. In the short-run, that would be more lucrative.

However, that’s not the game I want to play:

* I want more control over my time, especially my precious deep-work time. Although my full planning service is the most lucrative service, it’s also the biggest constraint to enjoying freedom and flexibility with my time and emotional energy at the moment.

* I want to maximise my positive impact. I have a significant positive impact at an individual level by providing full planning services and INSIGHT services. But if I can provide positive impact at broader scale via Stealth Wealth, then the aggregate positive impact will be higher.

* I want to swing for the fences: I don’t want to generate a living income. I want to see if I can do something bigger than that. In fact, my personal situation is such that the rational thing for me is to do more than create a job for myself. 

This has prompted me to increase fees for my full planning service from $3,000 to $6,000. I still want to provide this service, but I want to provide it far less often, to people who are likely to receive a significant benefit from engaging the service. This will allow me to double down on other types of services, including future cohorts of the Stealth Wealth course.

I will run a second cohort 

I am planning on running a second cohort in the first half of 2021.

At this point, I plan on making a few changes:

I will shorten the next cohort so it is four weeks long. 

The first version of the course was six weeks long. This wasn’t sustainable, since I was preparing materials in advance of each group session. I actually extended this to eight weeks, by stretching the last two sessions to fortnightly rather than weekly.

At a personal level, a four-week-long course is more sustainable. For participants, I think treating the course as a sprint will be more useful as well. It’s easier to sustain focus over four weeks rather than six (or eight). I want people to focus on the course over a short period of time, and then move on with their life.

I'm going to record materials to watch prior to each group session, and focus on group discussion during the live group sessions.

When I started the course, I wasn’t sure what what the group sessions would be like. Basically, it was a Zoom conversation with 15-20 strangers. My initial thought was that I’d have to focus on my own materials, and the group aspect would be ancillary.

It turned out that the group participation was my favourite part of it, and it was great for everyone else to see different switched-on people take different perspectives. I want more of it: ideally, I want to create a sense of community, and facilitate long-term relationships and friendships between participants.

I’ll do a better job of automating emails/resources prior to the course. I will also make better use of surveys for engagement, reflection, and feedback. 

I’m going to focus more on using the course as a “forcing function” for participants

During each session, I asked participants to spend time in silence, reflecting on various questions. They were the sort of questions that we’d all benefit from asking ourselves, but rarely find time to do so. For example:

- spend 1 minute thinking about an area in your life where you could be taking on MORE risk; or

- spend 1 minute thinking about someone in your life who you could reach out to, to develop and cultivate your relationship with them.

I think it’s valuable to have a context where you’re coerced to reflect on these things, in the friendliest possible way.

Fees will increase and I’ll eventually introduce price tiers

For the first cohort, all participants got the same package: participation in group sessions, and three one hour one-on-one conversations. The price was $199 for an individual, $249 for a couple, and $299 for a thruple, etc. (There were no takers for the thruple option.)

For the second cohort, I’m going to offer a single package as well, which will involve group sessions and one-on-one conversations.

I will charge more for the next cohort. At some time in the future, I’ll also probably have tiers, relating to the number of one-on-one conversations included in the package.

I’ve you’ve read this far, I’m humbled!

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts or insights that might be relevant to what I’ve shared? Is there anything you think I’m missing, or that you would push back or challenge? (If you could frame your comments in a constructive way I would be grateful.) 

Are you interested in finding out more about the next cohort of the Stealth Wealth course? Please provide your email address. You will only receive emails relating to Stealth Wealth. This would be a separate mailing list to the more general NZ Wealth & Risk mailing list.

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