What I’ve learned (and taught) at Fincon
For over a decade, I've spent a week every fall hanging out with fellow money nerds at Fincon, the annual “money and media” conference. FinCon started in 2011 as a small(-ish) gathering for a couple hundred financial bloggers. It's now ten times its original size and draws legit financial journalists from all sorts of platforms. It also attracts some of the biggest names in the world of financial products — USAA, Ally Bank, Capital Group, etc. — plus plenty of new companies with cool ideas that may blow up in years to come.
For me, though, FinCon isn't about meeting brands or looking for new ways to make money. Some of that happens, sure, but I spend most of my time catching up with colleagues. Ten years ago, these folks were mostly strangers. Today, they're some of my closest friends.
I opened that first conference by speaking about why we write. Why do we blog about money? Do we do it for the fame? The fortune? The fun? I think all of these are part of it, but I argued that the real reason we blog is because of you, the readers.
Your blog does not belong to you. Your blog actually belongs to your readers. Without them, you have no blog. If you want to grow your blog, to gain fame and fortune, let your readers have as much control as possible. I'm not saying you should allow a no-holds-barred free-for-all in the comments. I'm saying you should allow your readers to steer the blog's content and direction.[…]
We're lucky. We don't have to choose between helping ourselves and helping others. We can do both. One of the things that makes personal finance blogging so awesome is that our interests and our readers' interests are often perfectly aligned. The more we show others how to achieve their financial goals, the more likely we are to achieve our own.
I also stressed the importance of story. I always stress the importance of story when I speak to bloggers. I think traditional financial media is too dry; it lectures. Blogs are great because they let us share real-life stories about money so that others can learn from our successes and failures.
As part of this point, I brought in a special guest: Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot. (Benny recently shared a guest post at GRS about how to learn a foreign language without spending a cent.) Benny is spending time in Chicago learning to speak Klingon for a Star Trek convention. This is a great example of using story to convey an idea to readers.
A Meeting of Minds
Networking is a dirty word to a lot of people. It conjures images of slick guys in expensive suits who spam their business card to as many people as possible while pitching their product or service. There are absolutely some folks like that at Fincon, but they're rare. They're the exception, not the rule.
Because my peers have dubbed me “the grandfather of personal finance blogging”, and because I've been fortunate to build and sell a profitable website already, I view my role at Fincon as a resource. I know next to nothing about modern blogging (although I'm learning!), but I still have lots of experience to draw upon. More than that, my decade in this field has allowed me to build a wide personal network, so I'm able to connect people who ought to know each other.
I suspect most new Fincon attendees spend their time attending the info-packed sessions. Not me. I spend my time in the hallways and lobbies, chatting with whomever happens to pass along. I chat with old friends like Jim Wang and Harlan Landes. I chat with newbies like Gwen Merz and Marcus Garrett. I chat with people who have tiny podcasts and I chat with people who have created massive followings.
When I network, I practice what I preach.
I go into each conversation without motive. This probably goes against every piece of professional networking advice, but I don't have objectives when meeting people. I let the conversation go where the conversation wants to go. Preferably, we chat about our personal lives: about our dogs, about travel, about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Because we're at a business conference, we do often chat about business, but I try not to steer things in any particular direction. I do my best to keep the conversation focused on the other person, not on me.
True story: Last year, at a smaller conference that feeds into Fincon, I co-presented about “the right way to network”. I explicitly said that leading with your pitch is the wrong way to network. After the session, sure enough, a guy came up to pitch me on his product. I wanted to shoot myself.
Bond with Friends and Colleagues
Fincon is first and foremost a chance to meet and bond with friends and colleagues. When you're a money writer (or money podcaster or money YouTuber, etc.), you spend a lot of time holed away by yourself. It's a lonely existence. It's rewarding to see each other, even if it's only once a year.
It's strange to think that although I see these people only one week each year, they're almost like family. We're able to pick up where we left off twelve months ago and continue as if we'd never been apart.
For me, the best part of any conference is meeting and talking with my colleagues. It's almost impossible to overstate how much I enjoy sharing tips and stories and ideas. The people I meet are universally amazing, and this weekend was no different.
Here are just a handful of the folks I've met:
- In 2011, Tom from MapleMoney has started to buy smaller sites from folks who are burned out on blogging. “If somebody will sell me a site for 1x to 2x annual profit, of course I'll buy it,” he said. “It's like I'm buying future income.” He now owns dozens of blogs, though only a handful produce any real money. Still, he's getting close to where he could quit his day job. “But I figure as long as I have my mortgage, I should keep working,” he said.
- Also that year, I met Ryan from Cash Money Life. Ryan used to be an anonymous blogger (or semi-anonymous really), but at some point he decided to go public. “When I started using my real name, so many doors opened up,” he said. I'm a strong believer in transparency, so it was interesting to hear how being more open brought down barriers between Ryan and his readers — and gave him more opportunities outside his blog.
- Shannon McLay, who runs an award-winning podcast called Martinis and Your Money. (I've been on twice: here and here) She recently launched The Financial Gym in New York City. What an amazing idea! I've altered my travel plans so that I can attend the grand opening next week.
- Roger Wohlner, a writer and financial planner in Chicago who works with wealthy families to plan for the future. Roger told me some funny anecdotes about how people relate to wealth. It's clear that he's passionate (and knowledgable!) about retirement planning and investing.
- Jill (a.k.a. Mrs. Mad Fientist), who is at the start of a three-month trip around the world. Jill, Kim, and I have decided that the next time we visit Scotland, we're going to drag the Mad Fientist to a fancy, expensive spa for the day.
- In 2016, for instance, I met Marcus Garrett, who is one half of the Paychecks and Balances podcast and the author of Debt Free or Die Trying. Marcus met with me during the Fincon mentoring session, and did a great job of coming armed with questions. He has a keen, analytical mind, and I think there's no question that he has a bright future in this field.
- Gwen, the fiery millennial who runs a site called Fiery Millennials. Unlike the stereotypical young person who whines about his lot in life, Gwen has a ten-year plan to retire by the age of 35. I believe she'll do it. She'll be at Camp Mustache SE in January, where she's sure to be the life of the party.
- In 2018, I met Piggy and Kitty from Bitches Get Riches. It's no secret that this is my favorite money blog. It's smart, irreverent, and hilarious. I'm pleased to report that I spent more time with the bitches this year (and Kim hung out with them too). They're even smarter, funnier, and more irreverent in person.
- In 2019, I spent some time with Julien and Kiersten from rich & REGULAR, Rocky from Richer Soul, Joshua from Radical Personal Finance, and Bianca from Miss Mazuma. These are all quality folks doing quality work.
- In 2022, I enjoyed chatting with Rob Berger about how he's managed to grow his excellent YouTube channel from 0 to 63,000 subscribers in two years. He now makes more than he used to earn with his blog (and he made plenty with his blog). He does this by putting his audience first and only promoting a handful of products that he actually uses and endorses. Love it.
- Rocky Lalvani from Richer Soul told me about Marisa Peer and the biggest disease affecting humanity. As a guy who has struggled plenty with his mental health, I like Peer's message: “I am enough.” (This is now the lockscreen on my phone!)
- Donna Freedman told me all about her frugal adventures in Anchorage, Alaska. Donna is just as funny and resourceful in person as she is in her GRS articles (and those at her own site). I have high hopes that she and I can reach some sort of arrangement to feature her writing here regularly again — but we forgot to discuss this because we were talking about gardening and education and moose.
- I talked with Carl Jensen about podcasting, friends, and home remodeling. He suggested something crazy but cool: What if he and Pete (a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache) were to fly out to Oregon for a week to help me remodel my bathroom? I like this idea. Carl says he's serious about it, so it's just a matter of getting MMM on board. I suspect I can lure him to Oregon with promises of bikes and beer.
- Yesterday, I had a delightful conversation with Tanja Hester. I've never told her this, but I always feel like she's a female J.D. (or that I'm a male Tanja). Some examples: she's nerdy af, plagued by ADHD, and loves great writing. And we're both competitive pedants (as that sentence illustrates). Tanja and I are both notebook nerds. She showed me hers. I showed her mine.
Teach Everything You Know
Fincon is also a chance for us to teach everything we know in order to help others improve their sites, podcasts, and channels. The unrestrained sharing of info and experience is astounding. In a lot of other fields, people would be jealously guarding their secrets. Not here. Here, folks are dropping knowledge bombs all of the time.
As always, I've been involved in a couple of presentations (in addition to the bajillion casual conversations in bars and lobbies).
- I participated in a workshop devoted to the past, present, and future of the early retirement movement.
- I joined my business partner Tom Drake and a couple of other friends to present a panel discussion on collaboration.
- I joined my pal Jim Wang (from Wallet Hacks) to give a talk on how blogging has changed during the past decade. We had fun exploring the ways in which this world has (and has not) evolved since we started in 2004 and 2006.
- I moderated a panel discussion about “the four flavors of FIRE”. Our small group discussed the rising popularity of financial independence and early retirement. Why is the subject suddenly resonating with so many people? Is it an idea that's only applicable to tech workers without children? How does retiring early affect relationships?
- I participated in a panel about Playing with Fire, the upcoming feature film about financial independence. This project has been in production for more than a year and is finally nearing completion. In fact, Fincon saw the world premiere of the Playing with Fire trailer!
I don't really like public speaking. I turn down a lot of requests. And when I do agree to speak, I'm often very nervous. But I'm always happy to do whatever presentations I'm asked to do at Fincon, and I'm nearly never nervous doing them. Not sure why that is. Maybe because I'm completely comfortable and in my element?
Partner with Like-Minded Companies
Lastly, Fincon is a chance to meet with potential “partners”, companies who want to advertise on our channels or who want to pitch their shiny new money apps.
The real problem, however, is that many partner pitches just aren't appropriate for me — or for you. Fortunately, some are. I was impressed with three companies in particular, and hope to work with them in the future (whether or not there's financial compensation involved).
I came to the startling realization that I, as a man nearing his fiftieth birthday, really ought to be working with AARP, the national non-profit whose mission is to “empower people to choose how they live as they age”. It was hilarious during my meeting with the AARP rep to watch the light switch on in both of our heads: “Oh, our missions are well-aligned, and there's an opportunity here to collaborate and make the world a better place.” We don't know what that collaboration would look like yet, but I'd be surprised if we didn't work together extensively in years to come.
The Future of Get Rich Slowly
Perhaps the biggest Get Rich Slowly news to come out of Fincon 2018 was that I've found somebody to come on board to handle the technical side of the site. As loyal readers know, I'm a writer. All I want to do is write, to share stories and strategies for better managing money. I hate hate hate dealing with the technical and business aspects of this business. (And make no mistake, this is a business.)
Well, my friend Tom Drake from MapleMoney does not hate the technical and business side of things. In fact, he's the sort of nerd who digs this sort of drudgery. (For him, it's not actually drudgery.) We haven't hammered out the details yet, but we've agreed that some sort of partnership is in order. In fact, he's already begun working behind the scenes to clean things up around here. Yay!
Making the World a Better Place
I've been to a lot of blogging conferences in the past. Some are better than others. At a lot of these gatherings, folks tend to be close-lipped. They're reluctant to share how they've achieved their success because they don't want others copying them. It's like they're guarding trade secrets.
That's not how people operate at Fincon, and I'm glad. We all seem to be open, supportive, and approachable. We're willing to talk to anyone, no matter how big or small. We're willing to share how to get more traffic, how to make more money, how to better connect with readers. We, as a group, have an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset, and this leads to growth and success for everyone instead of a select few. That's a good thing.
More importantly, this abundance mentality leads to growth and success for our readers and listeners. That's even better.
As a final note, I want to thank Philip Taylor of PT Money for creating Fincon in the first place. Back in the olden days, when the world was young, we money bloggers rarely (if ever) met. We connected in online forums or by Skype, but it was unusual to have a gathering of more than a few of us. PT started Fincon in 2011 so that we could all get together and share our experience with each other. The conference has grown and improved every year.
Meanwhile, I already miss my Fincon family. I know I'll see many of my closest colleagues several times throughout the year, but I won't see most folks for an entire year.
Paula Pant hamming it up with me while taping an episode of Afford Anything