How to Win in Las Vegas,
And in Online Business

image of las vegas sign

I’ve written a few contrarian things lately.

Specifically, I ranted a bit about why I think the most common “make money online” technique doesn’t work for most people, and about how, really, the most important ingredients of success are persistence and grit.

Then, on my own blog, I ranted about why “systems” for achieving specific results don’t work.

I got a lot of comments, emails, and tweets agreeing — too many people are looking for a quick fix, and we need to remember the basics: hard work, and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness.

But believe it or not, there’s actually a problem with taking that train of thought too far.

Yes, a lot of the marketing for how-to-start-your-business products preys on the naive and is motivated by greed. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t good information out there — information that could help you move forward, remove roadblocks, and arm you with new skills.

No, there is no magic bullet

But that doesn’t mean that you should become a business isolationist, figuring everything out solely on your own, wary of anyone, anywhere, who sells information.

The most sensible approach — as is usually the case — is somewhere in the middle.

Spending money on a fool’s dream is akin to gambling, hoping that some “system” will pay off big. By contrast, spending wisely — with a decent chance of a solid return — is more like an investment.

Obviously, the best way for me to explain the difference is by talking about my grandparents.

Gambling vs. investment

My grandparents used to go to Las Vegas a few times every year to play the slots. Every once in a while, they’d win, and come back with a few thousand dollars more than they left with.

More often, they’d come home having lost some or all of what they’d budgeted as their “fun money.” No matter what happened, they always returned happy, with new stories to tell, and couldn’t wait to go again.

So the question is: Were they gambling while they were in Vegas?

And the knee-jerk reaction is, “Of course they were. What kind of dumb question is that, Truant?”

Well, I don’t know. I’d define gambling as risking an asset that you can’t afford to (or don’t want to) lose because you’re hoping it will multiply. Investment, on the other hand, is spending an asset for a defined purpose to receive a return that you have good reason to believe you will get.

If my grandparents went to Vegas, plunked down their pension checks, and then hoped like hell to hit a jackpot so that they could at least recoup the money they put in, I’d say they were gambling.

But that’s not what they did. They set a budget. They “spent” that budget on the slots. If money came back? Aces. But if not, they wrote it off as part of the trip cost and still came home happy.

They went in with a defined goal: Have a fun trip pulling levers and watching things spin and light up. That’s what they got. They were investing in their entertainment, and in their own enjoyment.

Similarly, I’d argue that what makes a business expense gambling versus an investment is the intention you have when you make it.

How to invest in your business

Are you gambling on schemes, or are you investing in information you can use? The line can seem fuzzy, but I’ll bet it’s obvious once you start looking for it.

Ask yourself what you hope to get out of a purchase. You can buy the craziest, most harebrained get-rich-quick course out there, but you’re investing if you have a realistic outcome you want to see from that purchase. (I’ll talk later about some ways that could happen.)

Or, you can buy the most conservative, reputable, boring instructional course in existence and be gambling, if you spent your rent money on it because you hoped that it would revolutionize who you are and what you do, and fix all of the problems in your life.

If you find yourself thinking things like, “Maybe this course will work,” you’re gambling.

Because courses don’t work; students do. No one course or product will “do it” for you.

If you don’t know anything about a topic, yet think that buying one product will make you a ninja master at it, you’re gambling.

If you have a deadline in mind for how fast a course’s content “must work, or else,” you’re gambling.

If you’re spending money that you cannot afford to lose on the hope that you’ll quickly earn it back, you’re gambling.

Investing in information, on the other hand, is slower-paced and more laid back. An “investment” goal should feel reasonable. It shouldn’t make you overly nervous. It should be something you could tell your mother about without her suspecting that you’re one of P.T. Barnum’s famous suckers.

And the interesting thing? There are a bunch of ways to invest, and a bunch of desired outcomes. It’s not always about a cash return.

  • Some people will invest in a course specifically to see how the creator put the course together, and how he is able to justify the cost.
  • Some people will invest in a product simply to get on the radar of the seller, to set up a connection that they might later be able to turn into a working relationship. (This wasn’t my intention when I bought Naomi Dunford’s Online Business School, but that’s what happened. How much did I get from the course? Who knows? But how much did I gain from meeting Naomi? Um, a whole lot.)
  • Some people will buy a product with the intention of learning only ONE tiny tip from the whole thing, and then applying that one tip to make back the price of the course. It might be a quick return, but it might also be over a long time.
  • I even heard a story once about a person who bought a very expensive product so that once inside the circle, she could have prospecting access to . . . well, to the kind of people who could afford to buy a very expensive product.

Still not sure? Here are my three big rules for the “right” way to invest in an information product, a course, coaching, or a service:

1. Know your intended outcome

Even the most expensive, overhyped purchase isn’t a gamble if you enter into it knowing what you can reasonably expect to get out of it.

It almost doesn’t matter what that outcome is, as long as you know it in advance.

Maybe you want to make your money back over either a short or a long time.

Maybe you simply want to see the seller’s marketing sleight of hand.

Even if you say, “I’m pretty sure I already know most of this information, but spending $2k on it will force me to use it,” you’re going into the game with your eyes open.

Obviously, if you buy better stuff, it’s easier to go in with reasonable expectations of what you’ll get out of it.

2. Buy on value, not price

Dave Navarro took some flack in certain circles over his product How to Launch the **** Out of Your E-Book. The program cost $97, and people were outraged that a PDF could be so expensive. After all, you could go down to the local Barnes & Noble and get an actual paper book for $20!

That’s looking at price, rather than the value of the information being sold.

(And by contrast, because an information product consists of slick-looking MP4s with better special effects than Avatar doesn’t make it worth a dime.)

Don’t look at a file or a stack of CDs and ask, “Is this collection of pixels or bytes, in and of itself, worth X dollars?”

Instead, ask how much having this new information will, over time, allow you to earn. (And I can tell you without a doubt that if you read How to Launch and you actually take the advice he gives, you’re going to learn something that can improve your sales by a lot more than $97.)

3. Take responsibility

The hallmark of gambling may be high risk, but investment has risk, too. Even the soundest purchases can bomb on you.

When you decide to make any investment, own up to that risk. Be willing to lose what you spend.

Not everyone agrees, but my own philosophy is, I don’t hedge my bets going in, saying that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll ask for my money back.

I know, I know . . . this is heresy, but think about what the unconditional guarantee mindset says. It says that you’re putting the onus on the product to work for you, rather than on yourself to implement what’s in it. You’re saying to yourself, “I’ll give it a shot, but no promises.”

I always thought that it would be really annoying to own a restaurant, and have someone send a $30 steak back because they didn’t like it. Was it burned? No. Tough? No. So what was wrong? The customer just decided he wasn’t that hungry. Well, if the problem is on the customer’s end, then why should the restaurant have to eat the cost?

I’ve paid for products, coaching, and services that didn’t work for me, or that I just plain didn’t like. Unless a provider has deliberately lied or unless it’s obviously, demonstrably terrible, I don’t ask for my money back. I’m looking at one such product right now, on my shelf. It cost $1500, and had an unconditional money-back guarantee. I won’t ask for my money back, though, because there’s nothing wrong with the course. The problem is on my end, in lack of implementation.

You take a risk when you invest in anything (or, for that matter, when you eat at a restaurant). If you want to be 100% sure about everything, then honestly, you really shouldn’t be in business.

I don’t want to understate this: Investment is really important. You need helpers and partners if you want to be efficient and effective. You need information on topics that you don’t already know well. You need advice in order to grow.

And let’s not forget that the mere act of putting your money where your mouth is tells your brain that what you’re doing is a livelihood, not a hobby. Investment is a way of pushing yourself to take your business seriously.

Just know what you want to get out of a purchase before pulling the lever on the metaphorical slot machine.


Nobody point out that my slot machine metaphor for business is flawed. Of course it is; I’m just being colorful. How exciting would it have been for me to tell the tale of when my grandparents went to Duluth to put a hundred dollars into a low-yield federal bond?

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant drives a flying saucer and invests in low-yield federal bonds. If you dig his mojo, you should join the Charlie and Johnny Jam Sessions for more monthly mojo than you can handle.

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Reader Comments (54)

  1. says


    What you’ve written here reminds me of some advice I got: “Don’t regret anything you learn from.” So you launch some blog or program or e-book with all your heart and it crashes. Did you learn from it? Nothing’s lost. Learning from those types of “gambles” mitigates losses.

  2. says

    Amazing timing. I bought a program yesterday and intend to buy another today. I’ve been struggling with the decision, but you’re right, it is an investment. Thanks for the push.

  3. says

    Value, value, value, value.

    That’s what it’s all about. When you can make a purchase that has legitimate advice to help your business and the value of that advice is worth at least 10 times more that the sticker price, you can’t go wrong.

    It’s funny how people will finance a new car every 3-4 years and take about 20 minutes to make that decision, but they hem and haw for days about dropping a few dollars on an information product that could change their entire way of doing business.

    Price is usually never a true motivator. Johnny, like you said, you have a $1500 product on your shelf that you didn’t take action upon.

    People get motivated by emotion and if we can inject that cutomer emotion into the sale, then closing the deal on an e-book can be just as properous as selling a new car.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  4. Hal Medrano says

    This post struck a chord with me.

    A year ago, I was in corporate America, working an instructional design job that paid me well, but provided little satisfaction.

    I decided to move to Vietnam to pursue more personally rewarding livelihood. I’m making less money now, but my quality of life is wonderful (and yes, I’m still putting away a little…)

    I’m about to launch a blog for English language learners that has a marketing component to it (Third Tribe philosophy rocks). I’m expecting to work my ass off, and I really hope it does monetize.

    But if I don’t prioritize content – the value I provide to others and myself – the sucker’s going to fall on its face. That’s one of the main messages of Copyblogger, if I read it correctly.

    So the investment strategy: for now, I’m filling my ears with free info. But when I invest – and I will – it will be with the idea of learning how I can better serve my readers…and monetize without sacrificing that service.

    Even if the blog goes nowhere, I will have learned something, and lived a little more of my life with an element of integrity, which has its own rewards.

    Good stuff, man. Thanks.

  5. says

    This is really solid stuff as always. I think the key will always be one’s work ethic. And even with a lot of hard work it isn’t easy or guaranteed. I do feel that eventually the hard work will pay off. Just keep at it.

    Don McCobb

  6. says

    I was talking with someone about this yesterday… only we were talking about time as the investment. I argued it was actually a more valuable commodity than money, because you can always make more dough.

    I liked what you wrote about knowing your intended outcome. If more people stopped to think about what they wanted out of something (not just what they don’t want), we’d have a much happier world…

  7. says

    Great post. I too am guilty of trying those schemes in the beginning not really having any direction. The decision to go with integrity and hard work is paying off. Listening to those of you who have been successful really helps a lot.
    Thanks for a great read, know that you are really making a difference in the “working hard to make it online” people like me!

  8. Sonia Simone says

    @Hal, that’s really neat. Good luck with all your projects!

    @Deborah, me too, it definitely took me some time to find my direction. I bought some stuff, particularly early on, that didn’t move me quite down the path I ended up choosing, but I did benefit from all of it. Course correction is a big part of This Thing.

  9. says

    Johnny –

    Your posts keep getting better and better. I appreciate when you take the time to stick it to people straight up:

    “Courses don’t work; students do. No one course or product will “do it” for you.”

    Even my courses. :-p

  10. says

    @Drew – I actually made that up. Sorry. I do have a great upper-peninsula Michigan story, though, involving a flounder.

    Thanks to everyone who got something out of this! I mean, I guess thanks to everyone regardless of whether or not they got value, but that sounds stupid.

    P.S: Dave – Let’s JV on a “this course won’t work” course. :)

  11. says

    “Courses don’t work; students do.”

    That sums the whole thing up for me. Well, all those other words were pretty good too.

    I think there’s also a lot to do with just being responsible. Most “magic button” courses and programs are just really well marketed. Meaning they know how to hit those emotions, just like Vegas does.

    I love courses because I love learning new things, but anytime something strikes me as “I must have this NOW”, I take a step back away from the emotion. Only after my senses have settled and I’ve looked at the economics, will I make a responsible decision.

  12. says

    Here is my take on the subject:

    1) I try to keep my overhead as low as possible. Therefore, I do not “gamble.”

    2) Courses are worthwhile when you do not have a clue, when you do not know how to approach the subject matter, but if you are able to teach yourself through reading and example, you will usually find everything you need to know about online money-making and marketing on the Internet for free.

    3) If you are going to buy a learning tool, you might want to restrict yourself to the local book store (or book chain), where there is more quality control (compared to what you find in online search results).

  13. says

    I put up a video on youtube talking about the value of hard work and getting away from the quick fix. We live in a culture where people are seduced by the “auto pilot millionaire” many of the great things in life require work, dedication and focus.

  14. says


    There are so many paths and so few simple truths. Great job in capturing three of them, with an emphasis on outcomes.

    I also don’t think your slot machine metaphor is too far off. Maybe it’s because I live in Vegas, but I am always amazed by how many companies are willing to try anything to see it it sticks. That is gambling whereas investments generally have some reasoning that minimizes the risk.


  15. says

    I agree — I found the best systems are about getting up to bat time and again … playing the numbers game … learning and responding (more of a “meta” system for results)

    While success leaves clues and success patterns, we usually have to figure out what works best for our own context and test our results.

    One-hit wonders, magic bullets, … etc. about lucking into success. I’m not a fan of lucking into it. I’d rather do it by design and make it repeatable, sustainable, and responsive to change.

  16. Michael Goldfarb says

    You’re absolutely right about knowing your intended outcome. Someone at the beginning stages of forumlating her business may be tempted at buying an all-inclusive solution. But if she’s not ready to take action, it’s more of a gamble. Especially when she can get tons of information at no cost.

    Someone further along in business planning who spends money on a course with a very specific outcome will likely get more for her investment.

  17. says

    I bought Brian and Sonia’s Freelance X factor last fall or whenever it came out. I got 2-3 good clients out of the info instantly that are still paying me. (And, I continue to use some of the language particularly from those calls). That $97 or whatever it was paid for itself many, many times over. 5 figures in business partially or wholly grabbed from the ethos in that book.

    And I’m not really sure if I read it all. I listened to the audio 3-4 times while I was running, and I read through most of it. Fabulous book. GREAT use of language.

    Now, let’s keep going: I bought teaching sells because shit, if $97 was multiplied to 15k++ what would $1399 or whatever be multiplied to….what, a half a mil?

    But I never really dicked with TS too much, never got in, and never took action on the programs. The timing of that course was off for the cycle of my readiness for new loops.

    I honestly have no idea whether TS is any good or not, and I’m unlikely to dive in.

    Did TS fail? No.

    Was I stupid to purchase it? No.

    Just didn’t work out. The thing that this post doesn’t say is that people have such an acute *entitlementality* that needs to get fed. People think that if they spend $60 or $90 or whatever that they deserve more than they do. Providers don’t tell the truth: most customers are full of it, and selfish and nuts. Nobody wants to take responsibility for their own success or failure.

    I’ll buy more stuff when I have time & join it/use it. And if I get a good idea or two it’s cool. Is it gambling? Nah.

    Why? Because a lot of the crap I buy I *know* won’t be for me. It’s not the crap’s fault. It’s just not always a fit.

  18. says

    Great post. I often buy people’s products to learn how they do it and how it they designed it, rather than wanting the actual content. I’m a sucker for the $47 dollar offer and definitely see it as a low risk investment.

    Hey, if I’m helping a start-up entrepreneur in the process, great. Hopefully people will help me out some day by returning the favour.

    I also love the line, “Courses don’t work, students do.” That really sums it all up whether we are creating or buying courses.

  19. says

    Great post and yet another reminder (if we ever need one!!) that there aint no free ticket in this game.

    Work hard and smart and you will gain the reward. I try to restrict myself on how many courses I buy but ultimately, It’s the overall work you put in that counts!!

    Good stuff.

  20. says

    Well done… U have definitely written a truly inspirational article …loved the analogy you made about investing and gambling…

    and the most striking comment is definitely: “courses don’t work, students do”

  21. says

    I love the “no returns” policy. When we lock ourselves in, not only do we feel compelled to make something work, but we’re genuinely happier with the choice we made. Making it irreversible raises our happy-genes higher. (Barry Schwartz said it better, but I said it shorter.)

    Johnny and Dave—if you’re looking for a course absolutely guaranteed not to work, I could help.

    Oh. That’s not what you meant. Never mind.

  22. says

    Great article Johnny, I loved your approach and the simple ways you use to communicate your readers your message. You must have made your investments as well and learn to take out the maximum of them as you polished your skills and expertise as a professional.

    Hard work is definitely the key!

  23. says


    I knew you liked me (reference to my town,Vegas) ha ha. Seriously you have really tackled this issue well. Yes there are some bad courses out there that are not worth it and there is also low end gas stations that sell crappy gas. I am not trying to say that the shitty people who sell a bag of goods are never in the wrong but we live in a time where you can ask people before you buy. Step away, ask the gazillion people on twitter – be an educated consumer. Know what you are buying and who it is from before you jump in.

    And you are right, it is ultimately up to you to be the student and use the tools properly.


  24. Anne says

    And I would like to add that every penny I have invested in JohnnyBTruant’s products was money well spent. While the money I’ve spent might not seem like a lot to others, it was a lot of money for me at the time. But Johnny definitely delivers “value.”

  25. says


    In regards to your comment:
    “While we’re all offering to help work on the course that doesn’t work, if you need a site that doesn’t work to host it on I can do that.”

    Brilliantly funny!

  26. says

    @Darren – Didn’t you do something really similar to what I did a month or two ago, too? I seem to remember that. Maybe we’re the same person. I don’t think we are, but you never know.

    @Bamboo Forest – Possibly. It seems like the kind of quote that could well have been coined before now by someone smarter than me. I made it up from where I’m standing, but then again, maybe I’m Bruce Lee. You never know.

    @Anne – Thanks; I really appreciate that!

  27. says

    Another great post!
    “If you want to be 100% sure about everything, then honestly, you really shouldn’t be in business.”

    The quote above and this post in general remind me of the risk/return continuum in finance – if you get too far out into the tails of curve on either side, you generally lose. i.e. sitting on cash until inflation erodes it to nothing is just a self-destructive as buying defaulted junk bonds and praying for a payoff. No risk, no reward!

  28. says

    I’m going to disagree (just a bit – and perhaps it’s more perspective than disagreement) with a piece of what you and @Chris have noted.

    Sometimes, the product really isn’t worth the price (the juice isn’t worth the squeeze?) charged.

    Before I expand, I’ll note that I’ve purchased many information products. I’ve also had the experience of recognizing that the $795 course I purchased wasn’t really for me – but I had no intentions of returning it, as there was nothing wrong with the product. The one time that I have ever taken advantage of a guarantee was for a product that was only $100. Nonetheless, I returned it solely on principle – it was slipshod, overhyped in it’s promises and I felt letdown immediately upon reviewing it.

    I think I recall Bob Bly saying that an information product should deliver 10x in value what you price it at, or words to that effect.

    So – that brings me ’round to your comment regarding value (here’s where I note that perhaps we don’t disagree after all). Value is of critical importance in the follow through on your initial perspective when making a purchase.

    To flog your analogy a bit further…if I sit down at a restaurant and order a medium rare Kobe steak and they deliver an overdone piece of USDA prime rump roast, I’m justified in sending back my dinner (and being fairly outraged as well).

    I recognize that this wasn’t the core message of your post – knowing your intended outcome and taking responsibility hold equal place in the triumvirate. I do think, however, that a product that does not live up to it’s pricing-promise matrix tends to submerge those other components.


  29. says

    Gambling and investment is a risk. Especially if you just doing something thinking your going to make your money back right away. Always know if you don’t mind losing the money. Then I say go ahead and take the RISK.

    Kind Regards,


  30. says

    One of the better articles I’ve read on investing in educational materials and deciding what to buy. And I totally agree with not returning materials that are good, just not for you. Not for you often means, “not for you at this time”. Another time it may be just what you need, and if you sent it back, you may not have that available to you anymore because offers end.

  31. Leon Noone says

    G’day Johnny,
    This is a really important post. I remind clients regularly that the big issue is value………whether they’re buying or selling. And value depends on perception, usually the buyer’s perception.
    The outcomes issue bothers me. I totally agree with you. But the people who sell courses and instruction online either disagree or don’t know any better.
    I always advise clients to ask course or tutorial providers “What will I be able to do at the end of your program that i can’t do now?” Sadly, web-based providers offer only a
    lot of rambling, imprecise waffle when asked this question.
    It’s hard to determine outcomes when the provider isn’t clear about what they are and what you can expect for your money.
    I’m biased of course. I’m just a curmudgeonly trainer/instructional designer.


  32. says

    Dead on, Leon! I started working as a “trainer/instructional designer” about 46 years ago, and that was the fundamental question then–and always will be (I became “curmudgeonly” later). It is also the question that providers most resist–possibly because they haven’t learned how to think in those terms. We designed a program for educators back in the 1960s that was buried in the “Indiana Jones Vault” of the Library of Congress, never to be opened again. Its primary aim was to get educators to think in terms of the outcomes of their teaching/training programs. About once per decade, someone will pop up with some segment of our full design (I do believe that more than one person invented steam kettles), but the full package that we developed, field-tested and installed, within a doomed bureaucratic nightmare (can you say Chicago Public Schools?) still resides in a dark, tightly-sealed crate, with the letters “ESEA” burned into the sides–perhaps with smoke emanating ever so mysteriously from those inscriptions . . . .
    In any case, you are, in the vernacular of that long-ago educationally adventurous time, “Right on, Leon!”

  33. says

    My business is in Las Vegas, I’ve lived here in Vegas over 15 years. I can completely relate to your story :)

    I’ve worked hard to provide value to new business owners with our products and I believe we are succeeding. But I also encourage them to visit blogs such as this one filled with great free information that is truly helpful.

    Thanks for the article.

  34. says

    Hi Johnny,

    The investment versus gamble in buying informational courses is well put although it is also true that any investment is partly a gamble albeit a calculated and careful one.

    I have never asked for a refund after buying an info product precisely for the reasons you mentioned. Perhaps in some cases I should have because the particular information I was looking for – a special small part of the course – was insufficient.

    At times what is promised is not delivered and it is puzzling that it is being promoted by people who should know better but obviously never bother testing or reading what is inside the product before recommending it.


  35. says

    Choose the value of an important thing to me, is not focused on the price we bought and acquired. This will make us better performance.

  36. Johnny B. Truant says

    Hey everyone… I’m at the SXSW conference and so am writing this on my phone, but wanted to quickly say thanks for the good comments on this one!

  37. says

    I loved reading this post so much I read it twice. I have always had thoughts along the same lines about buying an investment in a product and not thinking about the actual product itself. And you have really brought this to the forefront of my mind.

    So many people complain about the cost of e-books without realising it’s the information within its pages that they are investing in. They just “can’t see the wood for the trees” if all they can see is the actual digital PDF file that they receive.

    You summed up everything so simply with – “courses don’t work; students do”. How true is that statement?

    And I heartily agree with you that if I only gain one nugget of information from a course, as long as that nugget is a golden one, I’m happy with my purchase.

  38. says

    Exactly… it’s really easy to look at a digital product and say, “How is this collection of 1’s and 0’s worth $97? But that’s not the point. What do you learn from it… and is THAT worth $97?

  39. Leon Noone says

    My point precisely Johnny. And until the providers specify the learning outcomes in clearly measurable,
    definable terms, they don’t deserve our $97.
    Until we demand this of providers, We’re gambling on a very long shot.
    Curmudgeons like Kevin Murphy and me will keep our shirts firmly on our backs in tne meantime.

  40. says


    I really appreciate this point of view on gambling vs. investing in these type of products. I’ve spent money on similar products, and I’ve listened to the sales pitches about investing but never really made such a solid connection before.

    When you said “If you find yourself thinking things like, ‘Maybe this course will work,’ you’re gambling”, I could totally identify with that feeling.

    Most importantly, it helps me identify with my own customers to make sure I’m not providing false hope. When I write copy for my own presentation skills products, I want to be honest about the effort needed by the customer, not imply my CD will do it for them.

    Thanks for the insight!

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