Scads of people are anxious to learn about profitably investing in cryptocurrencies. At some point, a large fraction of those people will see an ad offering them exactly what they desire in the form of paid newsletters sold by author and entrepreneur James Altucher.
His distinctive ads have become ubiquitous virtually anywhere on the internet that cryptocurrency has been mentioned. Which is just about everywhere after several weeks of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies experiencing four-digit-percentage fluctuations.
Altucher's mop of curly hair may ring a bell. The graphics are flamboyant enough to draw the attention of cryptocurrency savants as well as media insiders, and have provoked near-universal derision. Mashable called Altucher "the face of the bitcoin bubble." On Thursday, Yahoo Finance published an exposé that noted, "It's as if Altucher has thrown in the entire infomercial playbook."
I'm not convinced Altucher is a real person and not just a sentient Twitter ad-- Alex Konrad (@alexrkonrad) January 6, 2018
that's a graph pic.twitter.com/0nWOVH1OPp-- mob associate who thinks he can 'whack moltisanti' (@thetomzone) January 7, 2018
it would be kind of funny if james altucher goes broke again from buying so many ads-- Neeraj K. Agrawal (@NeerajKA) December 29, 2017
Altucher is unabashed -- abashment is seemingly not part of his repertoire. "The reason that these ads are all over the place is that people need educating on cryptocurrencies," Altucher told Inc. in a phone call. "We live in an attention-glutted economy where every page has thousands of ads on it," and hence he has to stand out.
Agora Financial, the company that operates Altucher's newsletter business, is very good at crafting high-impact ads, he said. (Agora Financial and its own parent company, the Agora, don't have stellar reputations when it comes to accuracy.)
Cryptocurrency is a natural pivot for Altucher, who has long excelled at garnering attention. He once confessed to hacking into competitors' emails. He divorced his wife, sold his house, and started traveling with 15 possessions to his name. After selling one of his many companies, Altucher proclaimed during a Reddit AMA, "I blew [millions of dollars] on expensive toys, trips, and bad ideas, and saw my account go from $15 million to $143 in a matter of months."
Altucher's current bread and butter is success-oriented self-help, including 14 books and a podcast. Like other business gurus who have flourished online, Altucher is good at pumping people up. You know the type: Think of Tai Lopez (who has also started dabbling in cryptocurrency coaching) and Gary Vaynerchuk.
They excel at marketing, and what they market the most is the idea that their common-sense guidance contains unique insights for success. Work hard, be bold, and never mind the role of luck or the survivorship bias.
Similarly, Altucher is good at making wantrepreneurs feel like hotshots on the verge of conquering the world, particularly because he's so open about his own failures. At one point, the most common way that visitors found his blog was by searching the phrase "I want to die."
Altucher's newsletters range in cost from $99 to $2,000 per year, the latter being the price of Altucher's Crypto Trader (although the link to subscribe only appears after you watch a very long sales video).
Altucher frames it as an act of service for him to capitalize on the cryptocurrency craze (which may lose some air in response to the market correction this week). He pointed out that his whole philosophy regarding bitcoin is laid out in-depth in a freely accessible blog post, in which he also claims to know the real identity of pseudonymous bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and "read his blog every day."
Altucher told Inc. that his foray into cryptocurrency investing advice started because he noticed that people "were just getting sucked into whatever they were being told, whether it was a scam or not."
A very long sales page for The Altucher Report, one of Altucher's various investing newsletters, admonishes those who eschew his cryptocurrency guidance and don't purchase a subscription: "You could be cheating yourself out of the only chance you'll EVER have... To turn a single $100 bill into a retirement fortune... in a matter of months." (The whole thing... is heavy on ellipses... and dramatic line breaks.) In the video for Altucher's Crypto Trader, he says that he thinks 1,000 percent gains are a conservative estimate.
To be clear, that's a textbook get-rich-quick pitch. And it's true, people have gotten rich investing in cryptocurrencies. But it matters which ones you pick, since there are so many scams out there, and timing the market is tough.
Consumer protection lawyer Chuck Marshall told Inc. in an email that Altucher's sales page is "written in a way to tire you out with teases of information that never comes." Marshall added, "He's hedged his language quite a bit, though at times he comes close to making outright guarantees. There is so much blather, though, that isolating anything becomes difficult because you can also pull out cautious statements to counter the guarantees."
Duke professor Edward Balleisen, who wrote Fraud: An American History From Barnum to Madoff, had similar feedback. "A key point here is the democratic thrust of the pitch -- the GET-RICH-QUICK adviser points out that the paths to investment success are hogged by insiders, but stresses that he/she has found a way to take advantage of the insider's lack of nimbleness, and wants to share those insights with the masses."
Balleisen continued, "And [Altucher] does so in a way that anyone can follow, even 'Erik F., a 12-year-old from Idaho,' or four ordinary individuals with no investing background. The companion message is that you can no longer trust 'conventional institutions, like the government, Wall Street firms, or corporations.'"
Altucher emphasizes the potential of cryptocurrencies that are cheap at the moment, the digital equivalents of penny stocks, pointing out that anyone who mined or bought bitcoin in the early days would be rich now (assuming they didn't sell). Further down the page, Altucher says that by February 2, "I am certain that Amazon WILL ACCEPT Bitcoin," an event that he previously predicted would happen last October. It didn't.
Such mistakes haven't diminished Altucher's confidence in the value of his teachings. "It's very technology-driven, cryptocurrencies," Altucher said. "It's good for the layman to understand why it's valuable." Normal people need someone technically savvy to help them sort out the field, in other words, and Altucher has a programming background. "I know how to look at the code of these things," he said. "I'm an angel investor all over the space."
As for the criticism, Altucher dismisses it. That includes the hate mail he gets, which sometimes includes death threats or anti-Semitic slurs. He says his naysayers are "mostly anonymous people on Twitter or Reddit." He added, "I would think people who are interested in cryptocurrencies would want the masses to have more knowledge about cryptocurrencies!"
Altucher styles himself so altruistically, in fact, that he doesn't keep tabs on how many people are paying him to enlighten themselves. "My main focus is on developing a good product, and I assume the numbers" -- his profit, that is -- "will reflect that." How many people have bought subscriptions to his newsletters? Agora handles that side of things, he says. "I like to focus on just the writing and editorial."
In any case, "[n]obody who's bought the product has complained to me," he said. But that statement is directly contradicted by Yahoo Finance's investigation. After being inundated with pricey upsells and cross-sells to other Agora Financial products, a customer named Ryan McCain had to badger Altucher on Twitter to get a response when the company ignored his request for a refund. For the higher-priced products, no refunds are allowed.
"I want hard crypto investing information, not a wannabe [Tony] Robbins," McCain told Yahoo Finance. "The newsletter is 50% upsell, 30% self-improvement nonsense -- do what you love, accept yourself, etc. -- 15% basic crypto information, and 5% useful information."
Altucher, of course, denied this characterization of his product, insisting that it's rigorously researched and high quality.
As for how much Altucher has personally made investing in crypto -- perhaps the ultimate test of whether his writings have value to anyone except James Altucher -- well, he didn't respond to a request for that information.