The Halloween masks and costumes have been put away for another year.
That one evening where people young and old, from all walks of life, excitedly set aside their imposter syndrome to enjoy pretending to be something they are not.
Superheroes and celebrities. A simple costume change magically confers the power to appear more than the rest of us. More attractive. More presence. More worth. An illusion of course. No mask or carefully crafted image can grant wisdom or substance. Trick or treat!
Cartoon villains and horrors of the night. Reaping untold damage and destruction, as the cloak of anonymity grants unfounded confidence. Illusion presented as fact, terrorising bystanders for as long as they believe. Duping the easily led and impressionable. Fleecing the sheeple. Separating fools from their wits, judgement, and treasures. Trick or treat!
Retailers goose their end of year results with Black Friday sales. Dumping the stock that failed to sell. Jacking up regular prices, then “discounting” them down again. Everyone loves a bargain. Trick or treat!
Carols playing on repeat and festive decorations abound. Hospitality firms switching from à la carte to overpriced set menus, the Christmas party season is here. Retailers brace for their busiest month of the year, as temporary staff feverishly work hard to gift wrap store-bought happiness. Trick or treat!
It is all part of the annual cadence.
A routine as familiar as it is comforting.
Performance appraisals now. Potentially leading to end of year bonuses later. Hope. Sometimes joy. Followed by disappointment, as the tax authorities claim the big half of any award. Trick or treat!
A few will embrace the pyrrhic victory of salary sacrifice. Taking solace in delaying the tax man his due by temporarily hiding their windfall in their pension. Attempting to offset that hollow feeling of gratification delayed by years. Perhaps decades. The taxman doesn’t care, a horror both omnipotent and immortal, he always receives his due. Eventually.
Bonus season is often followed by new beginnings. The annual employment migration that clickbait headlines are this year dramatising into a fabled “great resignation”. Employees throwing off the shackles of golden handcuffs to take control of their own destiny.
Seizing the moment to advance. Improve remuneration. Reskill. Seek adventures new. Embracing the golden opportunity presented by this once in a generation seller’s market for skills. A Christmas gift from the Brexit voters to you, as their desire to exclude “the other” produces Fortress Britannia. Resulting in skills shortages, higher wages, and inflation. Trick or treat!
In the personal finance world, Thanksgiving weekend marks the end of quality content for the year. December is traditionally full of filler posts. Retrospectives on the year just gone. Excuses made for goals unattained and resolutions missed. A flood of affiliate link laden recommendations for “books that changed my life”. All predictably followed by a short-lived burst of optimism for the new beginnings promised by the year ahead.
This week I received the first of the renewal notifications for Sovereign Quest. A personal finance aggregator and curation service that rose from the ashes when FIREhub’s fire went out.
Nearly a year in operation already. Raising some uncomfortable questions about what to do with it.
The highlight of Sovereign Quest this year has been watching 549 Personal Finance creators from around the world pick up their camera, keyboard, microphone, or pen. At the time of writing, more than 75,000 posts, podcasts episodes, and videos had appeared in the Sovereign Quest aggregated feeds. A jaw-dropping number.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know many of the talented creators. A diverse group of generous folks from all ages, locales, and stages in their financial journey. It appears I’m not alone in this, if the hundreds of thousands of views that Sovereign Quest has received is anything to go by.
One of the goals I had when starting Sovereign Quest was to sprinkle a little bit of happiness.
To start each day by highlighting the best piece of personal finance content I had recently consumed.
To provide the creator of that content with some recognition, encouragement, and possibly even a trickle of new audience members via a feature on the home page as the Champion of the Day.
How successful that goal has been met is a question best left for others. Hopefully, it has put smiles on a few faces.
The lowlight has been watching 45% of those creators give up and move on.
Personal Finance is a shallow subject area, with only a handful of genuinely different ideas to consider and discuss. Each creator arrives in their own time with a unique perspective, then journeys down a well-trodden path.
Some swiftly master the basics, their interests naturally moving on to challenges new.
Many find their newfound interest waning as quickly as it arrived. The behavioural changes required to succeed are too difficult, or the “boring” middle part of the journey proving to be exactly that: boring.
For any creator, finding their voice is a challenging task. Finding an audience is harder still.
The Sovereign Quest audience is self-selecting. Consisting of those already interested in Personal Finance. Analysing those audience behaviours reveals just how tough an ask it is to gain traction and become established. For every Banker on FIRE, Monevator, or Pete Matthew there were dozens of creators who hit publish and were greeted with the sound of crickets.
The experiencing of aggregating and curating the Personal Finance community, as opposed to simply participating within it, has been an interesting one. Observing as the community evolved.
As awareness of the service initially spread, there was a flood of requests for inclusion in the Sovereign Quest creator directory. Once the majority of established creators were included in the aggregated feeds, those requests naturally tapered off. Somewhat surprisingly, in the last couple of months, they have dried up completely.
People haven’t suddenly lost interest in Personal Finance content, but rather the mediums and market for Personal Finance content has evolved.
Platforms not included in the Sovereign Quest aggregated feeds have gained in popularity, with new creators naturally publishing where their audiences reside. The next generation of YouTubers found their audiences on Tiktok. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter degenerated into advertising riddled social media swamps favoured by grandparents, trolls, and wannabe “influencers” honing their SEO skills.
Meanwhile, the younger generation congregated on alternative platforms like Discord, Instagram, Snapchat, and Substack.
New creators expressing their thoughts in writing rather than speech are today more likely to select a newsletter publishing managed service over a legacy blogging platform, preferring baked in subscription management and monetisation options that “just work” over endlessly wrestling with a world of templates, inconsistently maintained plug-ins, and incompatible upgrades.
The focus of popular Personal Finance content has also changed.
The mantra of maximising pension contributions, investing in low-cost tracker funds, and waiting patiently has given way to breathless discussions of the instant riches promised by copy trading, meme stocks, and cryptocurrencies. Far from guaranteed. Infinitely more interesting. Capturing the imaginations of a much larger audience who are keen to get rich quick.
The popularity of buy-to-let property content has dwindled. Regulatory hurdles, predatory tax regimes, and sky-high prices have actively discouraged the time-honoured usage of privately owned leveraged real estate as a route to wealth. Few creators still publish content about buy-to-let, and fewer readers click on them.
Content written about entrepreneurial pursuits have similarly declined in both volume and popularity. There are far fewer clickbait listicles promoting dubious side hustles and seeking to get rich by writing guides about how to get rich.
Meanwhile, as the old guard shake their head in disdain and practice their “I told you so” dances for when the crypto bubble eventually bursts, crypto themed content has boomed. More than a few secretly wondering if they are the modern embodiment of the curmudgeons who back in the day sagely declared that electricity, horseless carriages, and travelling by air were all novel fads that would never catch on?
Perhaps those visionaries who predict immutable distributed ledgers, democratised ownership, and tokenisation of everything will prove to be correct (if early) in much the same way the true believers in the promise of the internet were during the dotcom boom?
Do they have a point when they observe wealth creation is increasingly occurring outside of the heavily regulated public stock exchanges, and associated index tracker funds?
Venture capital and private equity are certainly popular vehicles for those chasing higher returns than are available via publicly listed markets. Though achieving a big exit still appears to require the smart money eventually selling out to a greater fool, often via an overpriced IPO or SPAC.
Which brings me to the question of what does the future hold for Sovereign Quest?
In recent months, it has become challenging to find content worthy of being Champion of the Day.
After consuming an unhealthy volume of Personal Finance content over the year, Sovereign Quest’s weekly Buried Treasure curation newsletter has become dominated by the same dozen or so creators. A reflection of my personal biases and tastes. Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome, with the same result evident on regularly produced curations ranging from the excellent Abnormal Returns to Monevator’s always entertaining “Weekend Reading”.
I have little interest in podcasts or video content, finding both to be time-consuming mediums offering a low signal to noise ratio. This is a problem, given video creators publish far more often than those who communicate via the written word!
Nor have I much interest in pursuing the audience down the rabbit hole that is the exciting new world of crypto. This reveals a disconnect, as it is the direction both the Personal Finance audience and creators alike have enthusiastically taken to. I don’t hold a strong opinion about the future crypto, it just doesn’t interest me any more than actively trading on the stock market.
Which raises the question of whether the problem Sovereign Quest was created to solve still exists?
Is there still a viable place for a Personal Finance aggregator service, when that aggregator service offers limited coverage of fashionable topics that appear to be of most interest to the modern Personal Finance audience?
Is Sovereign Quest still doing its job of helping new creators find an audience, when it does not include content from the platforms upon which many of those newer creators publish? This is a question of technology, as few of those platforms offer a syndication capability that would allow automated aggregation to be feasible while maintaining a reasonable level of quality.
In both cases, I suspect the answer is not.
Sovereign Quest could easily continue to tick over in the background, serving up a reducing pool of aggregated content to a gradually shrinking audience. It costs little to run and requires minimal time investment. However, I long ago learned that “just because we can doesn’t mean we should“.
My concern is that in doing so, Sovereign Quest risks becoming as forward-looking and relevant as a coal mine owner or the tie manufacturers guild. Providing an increasingly blinkered and unrepresentative window into the world of Personal Finance, presented as an unfiltered aggregation of the whole. Trick or treat!
My selection bias in the form of curated creators, combined with technical challenges associated with aggregating newer content platforms, serving to produce yet another comforting echo chamber. A place where creators preach accepted dogma to the converted, and there is no place for contrarian viewpoints, innovation, or adopting new ideas.
Which is not consistent with what Sovereign Quest originally set out to do: help consumers discover new voices, and help creators build their audience.
When do fads, fashions, and trends transition into accepted conventional wisdom?
When does traditional conventional wisdom become obsolete or dangerously antiquated?