Affiliate mania, problem companies, and bling: Notes from the exhibition hall at FinCon 2017

Network cables

After a while, you realize that conferences tend to have a lot of the same characteristics. They tend to have:

  • Cavernous breakout rooms with uncomfortable chairs and a water pitcher by the door
  • A wheeled table with coffee and tea that shows up and disappears at odd times
  • Large plenary sessions and smaller breakout sessions
  • An exhibition hall with vendors in hastily-arranged booths
  • Swag beyond all good sense
  • Immense fear of missing out of something cool, whether it’s staying out to party or getting there early for sessions
  • Intense desire to sleep for a week afterward

At FinCon 2017, it was the exhibition hall that stood out to me, for its sheer mass and density. The conference had an attendance of around 1,500 people, and at times there seemed to be about a 1-to-1 ratio of attendees to vendors.

#FinCon17 here we go!

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As part of a competition to win a pass to next year’s conference (which I did not win, alas), we were instructed to talk to all of the vendors. I spent about six hours doing just this, and learned a thing or two.

(This is not meant to be a comprehensive review of FinCon. That would be beyond me at the moment. This is just some reflections on one aspect of what I saw there. #fincon17 love y’all.)

Who wants to be an affiliate? (Hint: everyone)

“Have you heard about our affiliate program?”

Everyone has an affiliate program. Everyone. It’s like the startup business equivalent of the biological clock. “We just released our product, so now we need to get affiliates before it’s too late!”

The way affiliates work is that the blogger pitches a company’s products and then creates links to that business such that, if the click results in a sale, the blogger will net a commission. The business gets a sale, the blogger gets a cut.

And hey, I’d like a cut, wouldn’t I?

The problem is that I’ve never been able to figure out a way to add affiliate links to my posts and not feel like all of my advice would immediately become suspect and untrustworthy.

Authority is important. I want you to trust what I’m saying. So when I recommend services from AwardWallet to Vanguard, you know that I am making zero dollars from saying this.

That attitude won’t get me rich, but it will hopefully get me trusted, which feels more important.

READ MORE:  I'm going to FinCon 2017!

(I’m not saying no one should do affiliate marketing. I’ve just never found a way to make it work for me.)

So I could have walked out of there with two dozen affiliate contracts if I had wanted it. But instead, I walked out with my integrity.

Talking to the problem

Uber was one of the vendors. And you know how I feel about Uber (and all the companies like them).

Uber booth
Please pardon the stealth photos.

But, because I wanted that free pass, I gritted my teeth, put on a fake smile and asked them for their pitch. They told me that they were starting—yes you guessed it—an affiliate program.

They wanted bloggers to pitch people to become drivers, and if they did, I’d receive a commission of some sort.

Would I be interested in that?


To be honest, I might be willing to accept a commission for everyone I got to stop driving for Uber. (If you know of a business that does this, please let me know.)

But I just smiled and said no thanks.

Appreciating the no-bling zone

Some vendors had really swanky booths. One vendor, Ally, had actual 3-D printing machines working away printing little purple plastic piggybanks, and served cookies while you waited for your piggybank to print.

Printed purple piggy bank
I own that alliteration.

That’s fine and all, but maybe not quite my style.

The booth that probably made me the happiest out of all of them there was Vanguard. And the reason why is because it was just so darn low-tech. Look:

Vanguard booth
No bling here

It’s a vinyl banner, obviously printed out at a print shop. They had tote bags of course, and the requisite pamphlets, but that was it.

When I remarked on the pedestrian nature of the booth to one of the attendants, she laughed. “Oh yeah, it was a struggle to even get [the banner].

This was, of course, the largest provider of mutual funds in the world. Wouldn’t you expect more bling?

In fact, no. The company is owned by its funds, which are owned by the people who own the funds. It’s like a co-op structure but with serious bank.

Vanguard is in the business of returning value, and there would be less money to do that if they were bringing 3-D printers and hosting lounges and cash grab booths and whatever else the other companies were doing. (Yes, there was an actual cash grab booth there from another vendor.)

And I think that’s great. I don’t want bling in a company. I like a company that doesn’t feel the need to bother with all that.

I stand by that statement, but I’m still not interested in earning a commission to say it.

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