Lifelong disrupts the self-help industry

- December 11, 2013 6 MIN READ

Individual-centred therapies have become a dominant force in mainstream Western culture, with the notion of self-help and ensuing terms like ‘emotional enlightenment’, ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-development’ entering the public vocabulary.

However, today, there is no other industry more rife with ambiguous metaphors like the self-help industry. Leaders in the space often walk and talk with a messiah complex, exploiting people’s feeling of disenchantment towards life, and capitalising on their hope.

Frustrated with the reality of the self-help industry, young Australian entrepreneur, Josh Johnston, embarked on a mission to strip back the “big words and big prices” to unveil critical philosophies in a seven-part audio self-help programme.

After seven years of absorbing a variety of ideas, Johnston decided to launch Lifelong – an online, Gen Y-focused brand offering self-help “that is actually helpful”. The brand kicked off in April; and their first product is an online audio course that guides the listener through seven sections of self-development – preparation, introduction, choices, frames, purpose, aims, habits and growth.

Johnston says, “The idea behind Lifelong was to make self-help more accessible by eliminating the big words and prices that stop people from attending seminars.”

“But most importantly, I wanted to step away from the ‘I am the second coming of Christ, therefore you should listen to me’ attitude that’s widespread in the industry.”

Rather than offering one line of thinking in a ‘propaganda-like’ format, Johnston set out to democratise a diversity of ideas, transferring agency from ‘leader to listener’. As such, consumers have the power to apply ideas that appeal to their interests or circumstances.

“I’m offering ideas that don’t belong to just one person. The programme walks the listener through different philosophies that are all explained in simple English, while using practical examples of how the ideas can be applied in everyday challenges,” says Johnston.

Why online? Johnston initially thought about delivering the course in weekend seminars, but realised the inconvenience it poses for the consumer.

“People would have to commit their weekend and there’s a big capital outweigh at first. Using an online platform allows me to package up the ideas; and offering the course in audio means people can listen to the .mp3 while they’re at the gym or commuting, rather than sitting down at a seminar for seven hours,” says Johnston.

While the marketing is targeted at Gen Y, Johnston says the programme has universal applicability.

“We’ve seen people from all walks of life download the programme. It’s been a challenge trying to succinctly describe whom this programme is for,” he adds.

“The truth of the matter is that it’s for anyone experiencing a major change in their life – it could a someone changing the management of their business, it could be someone changing careers, it could be someone becoming a parent.”

Whatever the nature of the change, Lifelong aims to help people position themselves in the driver’s seat, so they’re able to drive their own growth, rather than sit in the passenger’s seat hoping for the best.

“There are many things you can’t control, but there are a few that you can. Often people feel hopeless because they’re focusing on what they can’t control, instead of the things they can,” says Johnston.

Back in the good old days, people would be faced with the decision of ‘fight or flight’ when a voracious lion is in their close vicinity. Johnston says people used to experience hormonal changes that would help them prepare to either go head-to-head with the lion or run for their lives.

“We don’t have to worry about lions today. We have mortgages. We have jobs and bosses we hate. But we can’t run away from them. All of these hormones that worked so well for us a long time ago, are now screwing us over. That’s why we need to find ways to fight back against the stress that affects us everyday,” he adds.

When it came to developing the website, Johnston says a contemporary, stylish and minimalistic design was important, so nobody would feel ashamed if a co-worker looked over their shoulder and caught them browsing the site.

“Many self-help sites look quite awful, and people usually minimise the browser as soon as they hear footsteps approaching. We wanted a website that they’d be proud to have open for everyone to see,” he says.

“Part of the reason why people feel embarrassed about pursuing self-help is because there are some misleading assumptions beneath it. There’s this idea that there is something wrong with people who seek self-help; that they need to “fix” something about themselves.”

Lifelong approaches it differently. The programme starts from the idea that ‘we’re just fine, but how can we grow from where we are now?’ rather than, ‘our personal lives need immediate therapeutic intervention’.

When asked about his positive attitude, Johnston credits his experience at Apple. He worked in a number of areas in the technology company including leadership development, employee engagement and even sales training. He says he had “the opportunity to grow in a work environment that was profoundly positive.”

“I got to work with and watch others grow as well. It was incredible to learn that I could help people see things differently. It’s not about blind optimism; having your head in the clouds is the easiest way to trip over. The most important question I learned while I was working at Apple, is ‘how do I make it work when things go wrong?’” he adds.

At the moment, the business model behind Lifelong is simple. Charge a meager $39 for a seven-part (60 to 90-minute-long each) programme, and watch people adopt new ways of thinking to transform their lives.

Once a person pays via PayPal, a download link will appear in their email. From there forth, they can guide themselves through the programme at their own pace.

Originally, the programme was priced at $289, but Johnston decided to slash the price to communicate that, unlike other self-proclaimed gurus, he’s not out to line his pockets. His purpose, first and foremost, is to help.

“Part of what we’re doing is saying ‘up yours’ to a lot of the established ‘give us all your money’ self-help companies. From that, we decided, ‘bugger it, let’s go all in and cut the price to $39’. What better way to show people that we’re here to help. You can’t change the world by playing it safe,” says Johnston.

“I want to help people surprise themselves with their own ability. That’s what I love to do and that’s what drove my career in Apple – to be able help people achieve unimaginable things. I now have the platform to be able to do that globally. As corny as it sounds, what drives me is the belief that with every person who downloads the programme, I have the opportunity to help them grow (even if in a small way) and be happier in their life.”

Johnston admits advertising is going to be tricky endeavour. Anything that looks, sounds and smells like typical self-help advertising has been scribbled off his list of options.

“They tend to go for ads on the sides of buses and on ‘how to make a million dollars in five minutes’ websites … my plan is to avoid anything they do, to clearly differentiate the brand,” he says.

Given the organic nature of social media, Johnston believes it would make more sense to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread brand awareness.

In fact, the programme itself encourages social media participation. For instance, once the listener has figured out their purpose, they’re prompted to turn it into a tweetable sentence.

“I recently worked with a young girl who was stuck trying to figure out what degree to do next. She didn’t tweet her purpose so I called her up and harassed her saying that I wouldn’t write her a reference until she posted her purpose online on Facebook and Twitter,” Johnston explains while laughing.

“She finally posted it, and within one day she received over 45 likes. She was so proud. Making a public statement has a huge impact on your likelihood to follow through, and then as people share their growth on social media, other people will start inquiring about this self-development programme.”

Where to now? Johnston plans on introducing more programmes – particularly a Wellness Programme for large organisations.

“A manager who’s got a sales team across the country, may want to offer a development programme. But given the physical distance, they could just listen to one of the courses, and conduct a conference call to follow-up on their learning. It’s very accessible for small to medium businesses that don’t have the funds to hire experts in the area,” says Johnston.

Another plan on the pipeline is for Johnston to grow his consulting brand Gen Y At Work, which focuses on helping organisations engage, motivate and retain their Gen Y teams.

“It’s a point of real frustration for both parties and it’s going to be a problem for our business community in the long run. By 2020 over 40 percent of the Australian workforce is going to be made up by Gen Y. At the moment, the baby boomer and Gen X managers are looking at Gen Y and saying ‘why aren’t you more like us? You’re lazy and entitled,’” Johnston explains.

“Gen Y are going to work and hating it, because they’re like fish being judged by their ability to climb a tree.  In early 2014, I’m going to work with some organisations and help them think differently, so they’re not trying to make Gen Y, Baby Boomer 2.0.”

For more information or to purchase the seven-part online programme, visit www.growlifelong.com.