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The Masters of the Century seminar, held in Singapore in October, was the equivalent of a Coachella festival for celebrity motivational speakers. Photo: Facebook

Moneymakers or fakers? The rise in Asia of get-rich-quick speakers

  • Motivational gurus promising to help make you a million dollars draw bumper crowds across the region
  • But their prowess is being chipped away by technology and critics label them ‘contrepreneurs’
Serene Goh
Norwegian entrepreneur Svein-Erik Nilsen began his latest business venture with a trip to Singapore for the Masters of the Century seminar – just one stop on his calendar of self-help events worldwide.

For the uninitiated, the two-day gathering in October at the Lion City’s Suntec Centre was the equivalent of a Coachella festival for celebrity motivational speakers, complete with a whooping 5,000-strong crowd fervidly taking notes. In between the tutorials, attendees networked or bought books, weaving in and out of banners displaying platitudes such as “A vision without an action plan is akin to a car without fuel”.

Tickets, which sold for up to S$2,177 (US$1,600), were highly sought by professionals, entrepreneurs and corporate bigwigs across the globe, hankering after insights on “growing your business, building your wealth and making a career out of your passion”.

The seminar, run by Success Resources, urged participants to “live a life more optimised”. Nilsen saw it as “accelerated learning”. His business card says he is trying to make “the next super change”.

“So much content is being delivered. Every person here is giving something for free. It’s important to listen and take notes and pick up what works for you,” he said.

Audience members enthusiastically react to a speech by motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Photo: UPI

Backstage, crew members fussed over security, snacks and coffee for the speakers. On stage, an emcee kept up the “needs-no-introduction” segues.

Headliner Robert Kiyosaki, author personal finance book Rich Dad Poor Dad, which has sold more than 32 million copies since its release in 1997, strode on stage to Queen’s We Will Rock You, before delivering his take on the state of the world economy (“fake money, fake assets”) and education systems he said grossly neglected financial literacy (“fake teachers”). The audience lapped it up.

He is, after all, backed by a personal fortune of US$80 million and at least 17 book titles. But the 72-year-old said most people don’t listen to him. Instead they complain about not getting rich despite buying his book or attending his talks. The problem is, most just want a quick fix, Kiyosaki believes.

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Ultimately, he mused, true success boils down to a person’s innate desire to grow and retain wealth. “Most of the people in the middle class are poor, but they look rich. They have nice houses, nice cars, nice clothes. They might drive a Mercedes and live in condos. But they’re broke.” They are saddled with debt, he said.

“I’ve studied being rich. It’s all a game to me,” Kiyosaki added. “There are a million ways you can get rich. No 1 is you marry someone rich. No 2, you sue them. No 3, you inherit it, but you can still lose it. Most people lose their inheritance. No 4, you can win the lottery. But even then, you look at professional athletes in America – most of them are millionaires in their 20s, and flat broke in their 30s. So it’s not about the money. You have to have it inside of you.”

Robert Kiyosaki headlined the Masters of the Century seminar in Singapore. Photo: Handout

Marketing wunderkind Jay Abraham echoes the sentiment. The founder and CEO of The Abraham Group has an estimated net worth of US$10 billion, as well as a cult following. He said most people who attended similar mass events were primarily seeking “intellectual entertainment”. Many felt they had done something just by attending a talk, or had vague plans to act, he believed. Most wanted a “panacea”. Abraham has now become so disenchanted with this situation that he prefers small-group engagements – for which he earns US$50,000 – reserved only for those most likely to act on his strategies.

“I’d rather be loved or hated than tolerated,” he said. “I want people who are so moved that they do something about what I teach. The greatest acknowledgement to me is not a standing ovation, but if they do something, and then come tell me about it.”

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The modern self-help sector traces its beginnings to advocacy groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous – founded in 1935 – and its 12-step recovery approach, which relied on participants sharing their experiences.
By the 1960s, hippie counterculture in the United States, which borrowed heavily from Eastern philosophies, had spawned the Human Potential Movement, advocating the notion that anyone could experience an exceptional quality of life simply by living more consciously. These beliefs drove a spike in literature promoting methods for “self-actualisation” and large group training events that encouraged physical, mental and emotional techniques to improve life.
1960s hippie counterculture was a driver of the modern self-help movement. Photo: Central Press Photo
In the 1990s Tony Robbins released his bestseller Awaken The Giant Within, which is said to have inspired many CEOs to success. Also selling bucketloads were The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1993) and Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Their ideas transitioned to Asia over the decade and gained traction as the region went through the turmoil of the 1997 financial crisis.

Success Resources, which has organised events since the 1990s, says its conferences attract “probably millions” of repeat attendees around the world, including executives, entrepreneurs, athletes and even representatives of government bodies.

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Richard Tan, the group’s chairman, credits the demand in Asia to a desire for continued learning. Founded in 1992, the firm made its mark introducing the faithful to Robbins, and now has events in 30 countries and 70 cities. Yet the outfit is not without critics. Among the more researched and eloquent of the detractors is Mike Winnet, who touts himself as Britain’s No 1 “demotivational speaker”. He attends seminars incognito to create exposés on his YouTube channel, calling himself the antidote to “contrepreneurs” who sell instant success formulas to “wantrepreneurs” destined to lose their money.

His videos take to task Success Resources events in Birmingham, where headliners only speak in short spurts at the start and end of the day and put audiences through lesser-known speakers pitching products the rest of the time.

Reviewing this year’s National Achievers Congress, tickets for which sold for up to £3,499 (US$4,520), Winnet scathingly pointed out that speaker Grant Cardone “dropped nuggets like ‘sell your house and start renting’, ‘don’t have a nest egg’, ‘don’t have an emergency fund’ … This guy is nuts. Why people still get inspired by him is beyond me!”

In the 1990s Tony Robbins released his bestseller Awaken The Giant Within, which is said to have inspired many CEOs to success. Photo: AFP

But attendees at Singapore’s Masters of the Century were undaunted by such reports. Some said they spent up to S$10,000 a year plus travel expenses to hear their favourite motivators. Nilsen has been signing up to seminars for five years at a cost of between S$5,000 and S$10,000 a year.

Others, such as Vichai Gambhir, who has spent about S$200,000 on self-help events, organise their own sessions back in their home countries.

“I don’t think of it as spending, I think of it as an investment, because I get a lot back, about S$2 million to S$3 million, for my business,” he said.

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“You look for two to three nuggets of knowledge, and that’s the game changer.”

But it is stories like Jerome Tan’s that have become the draw for many. In 1999, as a 39-year-old bankrupt, Tan showed up to an event hungry to restore his finances. He was S$100,000 in debt, and when he heard Kiyosaki speak, realised he had been trying to get rich doing the opposite of what the author advised.

Now 59, the director of PIP Holdings said he owns at least 100 properties around the world, including a recent acquisition of four parcels of land for S$8 million in Western Australia totalling the size of Singapore’s leisure island Sentosa.

“You always have haters in life. Everyone has got haters. It’s not going to affect me. Leave them alone. Why do I have to waste my time,” he said. “Never argue with a fool. They’re the experts. You can be right, I will be rich.”

Marketing guru and motivational speaker Jay Abraham has an estimated net worth of US$10 billion. Photo: Handout


Estimates in 2016 of the size of the American self-help industry valued the sector at about US$9.9 billion. That included motivational speaking, public seminars, training companies, weight management, infomercials, self-help books, audiobooks, personal coaching, and apps.

But says growth is slowing – managing about 4.3 per cent a year since 2011 – due to weak performances by infomercials and weight management services. By 2022 the sector is projected to be worth about US$13.6 billion.

Its original model, driven by gurus with cult followings, is giving way to digitalised content directed at millennials, including webinars, influencer-driven self-care apps and other technology intended to promote quantifiable measurable progress.

Sensor Tower reported that in 2018 the top 10 grossing self-care apps earned US$15 million in the first quarter alone. By the end of 2018 Apple had named “self-care” the biggest app trend of the year.

But motivational speakers continue to command huge money, with the top nine raking in a combined US$200 million last year. And new players are muscling into the market.

Kiyosaki’s wife Kim and her team – including Lisa Lannon, Ceil Stanford and Ronda Jaggers – in October anchored Rich Women, a two-day women-only masterclass on the side of Masters of the Century.

Kim’s net worth, built on real estate deals, is estimated to be US$40 million. She developed the spin-off event in response to women asking her how she managed her wealth independently of her husband.

“Women are taught to marry Prince Charming,” she said, which compels them to couple up for money and become enslaved. “It’s the stupidest thing you can do, because it means you can’t do it for yourself.”

A lot of women struggled with financial confidence, and were “in horrific marriages because of money”, she lamented. Kim advised these women to take the plunge into financial independence.

“You can go to seminars all day, you can read all the books you want. But until you get out there and start doing something, even putting a little money down … You got to get in the game, and make that first step.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Motivational gurus find new audience in Asia