YouTube millionaires are not your friends (2024)

Sebastian Ghiorghiu hates excuses. He’s only 24, yet runs a “seven-figure marketing agency.” He owns multiple “dream cars” and is currently building his “luxury dream house” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ghiorghiu is productive, he says, for 98 percent of every day. He went from “skinny fat” to “jacked.” He believes in God. He was born to a poor family who immigrated from Romania and got rich simply because he decided to. If he could do it, why can’t you?

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“If you’re a guy in your 20s and you don’t have a Lamborghini, you should actually sit down and have, like, a serious discussion with yourself as to why you don’t have a Lambo,” he said on a podcast in January. “It is so incredibly easy, and there’s so much money out there.”

He’s right, at least on the last bit. There really is so much money out there, and Ghiorghiu is just one of countless influencers online who are devoted to teaching other men how to get a piece of it. These self-anointed gurus often share interests — sports cars, wristwatches, combat sports, strict diets, rocket ship emoji, lengthy Twitter threads, Sun Belt states with relatively low tax burdens — but tend to make their millions in a few different ways. For Ghiorghiu, it was a combination of most, if not all, of the most common revenue streams for this class of entrepreneur: flipping houses and cars, selling online courses, crypto gambling, digital marketing, YouTube ads, and, crucially, drop shipping. (I reached out to Ghiorghiu for an interview but never heard back.)

Drop shipping, or the practice of purchasing cheap goods, usually from China, and selling them on a legitimate-seeming website for profit, is an industry valued at $225 billion, according to one report, and is expected to grow to $1.2 trillion by 2030. Framed as an easy way to earn “passive income” by YouTube influencers, the videos are often used as funnels for viewers to sign up for an influencer’s multi-thousand dollar online course that may or may not actually teach you anything; a casual scroll through drop shipping forums will reveal plenty of people who spent everything they had on Facebook and Google ads to market their products, only to rack up thousands in debt (or literal children asking about how to start their drop shipping business).

But according to Ghiorghiu and the other rich-guy lifestyle influencers like him — Alex Hormozi, Iman Gadzhi, Jordan Welch, Andrei Jikh, Max Maher, Brett Malinowski, Mike Vestil, Tan Choudhury, there are so many more — making passive income is as easy as watching a YouTube video. Many of them title their posts with some variation of “44 PASSIVE INCOME BUSINESS IDEAS TO START WITH JUST $1K” or “Watch these 55 minutes if you want to be a millionaire in 2022.” Watch hustle bro content for long enough and you’ll get the sense that you’re an idiot for never having flipped a rental property before or not starting your own AI marketing company (these guys are very into AI right now, for obvious reasons. A sampling of some recent YouTube headings: “7 Untapped AI Businesses to Start Right Now,” “I Found the EASIEST Way to Make $1000 with AI,” “Use AI to get ahead while others panic (PREPARE NOW)”). That’s sort of their whole thing, though: Any time or money you’re not using to make even more money is time wasted.

It’s easy to mock this worldview, which is as corny as it is unpleasant. A typical hustle bro meme might feature an image macro of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort or Cillian Murphy as his character in Peaky Blinders alongside platitudes like “your network is your net worth” that promote the prioritization of money and self-improvement over relationships and free time. Several popular parody accounts, like the intentionally misspelled @entrapranure, skewer this corner of the influencer world, using terms like “sigma male grindset” as a shorthand for the movement at large.

The idolization of the hustle bro is arguably the masculine-coded version of what the writer Jia Tolentino describes as millennial women’s drive to “always be optimizing.” In short, it’s the feeling that our primary aim as people is to make our lives as effective and efficient as possible. For millennial women, an “optimized” life might look like athleisure, Sweetgreen, and barre class. Men, free from the feminine requirement of seeming as though they’ve barely even tried to look so perfect, but restricted by the delicate balance of posting to the internet while still seeming masculine, tend to be a lot more straightforward. Hustle gurus encourage their followers not only to become unfathomably wealthy, but also to maximize time spent “bettering themselves,” by which they often mean intense exercise routines, extreme restrictive diets, or refraining from p*rn and masturbation. They are inherently mistrustful of any institution or intellectual movement that is not solely about the pursuit of money and quantitative gain.

- 8 hours sleep
- No p*rn
- Hit the gym
- Make lots of money
- Have a big family

This is the magic of life.

— Sebastian Ghiorghiu (@cbassg16) January 6, 2023

Who young get-rich-quick gurus really owe their popularity to, however, are the elder statesmen of motivational speakers: Tony Robbins, Grant Cardone, and Gary Vaynerchuk, who built fortunes telling other people how to replicate their own business successes. Like their younger counterparts, these men often espouse deep mistrust of higher education and government, encouraging followers to devote their time and money to learn how to market themselves and their entrepreneurial ventures. Sometimes, that can be exactly what people want to hear.

Steve Machuga, a 46-year-old veteran in Los Angeles, discovered Grant Cardone through Audible during a time when both his business and his marriage were crumbling. “I’m a big fan of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, because it gives you the ability to dig yourself out of any hole you’ve dug yourself into,” he says. “As opposed to ‘I got dealt a bad hand of cards, but that’s life.’ A lot of people, my ex-wife included, just live their lives like that.” Through Cardone, he discovered veterans-turned-motivational influencers like Jocko Willink and David Goggins, as well as Joe Rogan, whose messages encouraged him to re-launch his charity that helps veterans with mental health through gaming.

What he doesn’t love, however, are the younger generation of YouTube gurus who seem more interested in exploiting their followers with online courses to learn drop shipping or get-rich-quick schemes. “I don’t follow most of those 23-year-old tech bros and crypto kids,” he says. “I’m 46. It’s like, ‘Okay, 23-year-old, please tell me with all your vast experience of just having gotten out of high school a couple weeks ago, how you’re going to teach me how to live my life.’”

The problem is that it’s never been easier to seem like a billionaire business guru. Lambos can be rented, after all, and all it takes is a single viral video for potentially millions of people to believe you can help them get rich. Within the drop shipping community, for instance, it’s fairly common knowledge that the best time to get in the business was in the early 2010s, before the market became completely saturated. Nowadays, it’s too difficult to build up the kind of SEO needed to make your product populate the first page of Google, and Facebook ads aren’t seeing the same ROIs as they used to. But interest in drop shipping has only grown over the past decade, particularly within the past five years. Jarvis Johnson, a popular 30-year-old YouTuber and podcaster, blames at least part of this rise on TikTok, where it’s much easier to get seen by millions of people regardless of how many followers you have or SEO you’ve built up. In other words, it’s easy to go viral by casually mentioning the fact that you made a million dollars drop shipping, and hopefully convert those viewers into people who will pay you thousands of dollars for your “intro to drop shipping” online course. “It’s like if Mark Zuckerberg had one of those podcasts and was like, ‘Just start a social network!’ But nobody can replicate that, because the lane is closing,” he says.

Johnson understands the appeal of motivational influencers — he says he listened to a lot of Vaynerchuk when he was early in his tech career and felt like he wasn’t accomplishing enough — and especially the way that platforms like YouTube and TikTok make viewers feel like they can trust the person they’re looking at. “You have individuals pantomiming the billionaire playboy philanthropist attitude, which then becomes more attainable because you’ve combined that with the parasocial element,” he explains. “There are lots of young men who feel very aggrieved and under-cared for by the world, and here’s somebody who looks like he’s winning. But it’s all aesthetic.”

The claims of gurus like Ghiorghiu and other young YouTube millionaires are often vague and unsubstantiated. Recently the real estate YouTuber Anthony Vicino published a thorough (yet polite) debunking of many of the strategies used by these types, which include conflating different definitions of “millionaire,” using risky wins in crypto to prove their investing expertise, and implying that “anyone” can do what they did and get rich if they simply work hard enough (as Vicino points out: A lot of people work hard!).

The minutiae of Ghiorghiu’s claims are far less compelling than the fact that he’s a young, good-looking, and charismatic guy who seems to have it all. Whether or not his followers will bristle at some of his other opinions — that a man’s wife should not have male friends or work outside the home, that he would “have a hard time getting along with someone who was extremely overweight,” that there are only two genders, that men in their 20s who don’t own hundred-thousand-dollar sports cars are stupid — are practically besides the point (and who knows how much he really believes any of them or just says them for attention.) “People will say that I’m out of touch with reality,” he said in the infamous Lambo video, “and they can suck it.”

He’s still right about there being so much money in the world. But increasingly, that money is remaining in the hands of the ultra-wealthy. If you’re taking AI or drop shipping startup ideas from online videos with hundreds of thousands of views, you’ve already lost. This is a truth of media literacy, not business or science, and it’s a lot more difficult to learn than watching a YouTube video that basically amounts to “eight easy ways to lose your life savings.”

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