In His New Book, Donald Trump admonishes us to Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (Collins, $26.95). Tired of thinking small and failing to kick ass, I ventured to the Javitz Convention Center on New York City's west side one weekend in November to hear Donald Trump speak. I was ready to get schooled in the secrets of becoming rich. Well, maybe not me personally. I wanted to investigate whether there really was a bona fide method — a secret — that had the potential to educate others like me — a lover of literature with zero entrepreneurial skills — and put us on the path to untold riches.

I had read the book, Trump's 11th — why not see the presentation? And like so many other hopefuls that day, my boyfriend and I began our trek to see Trump with stars in our eyes. Trump, after all, has grown from an over-leveraged real estate developer to an actual icon of capitalism. Today, he's a best-selling author, a TV star, and a businessman with a line of suits and ties named after him. Our golden tickets, or rather golden passes, to the Learning Annex Wealth Expo, as the event is called, came free with the book; but, the standard admission price was $179; VIP passes fetched $499, a bargain in comparison to the millions or so of dollars one would theoretically be poised to make when the weekend was over. People were willing to pay up. It was obvious from the crowds — both inside and outside of the Javitz Center — that Trump has a huge following.

The idea that attending seminars like the annual Wealth Expo can help you to discover the “tricks” you need to learn in order to achieve wealth, power and popularity is ridiculous to many. Nonetheless, despite the naysayers, the concept of unleashing the inner entrepreneur is gaining momentum — and currency. In fact, more men and women than ever are turning to the self-help industry in search of greater personal and financial success. This method, and its application, has the potential to affect the financial services industry in a surprisingly (at least to some of us) profound way.

The self-help/motivational industry is thriving. According to Bill Zanker, founder of The Learning Annex and co-author with Trump of Think Big, the self-help industry generates approximately $19 billion dollars a year in sales. With the popularity of books like The Secret, motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and events like the Wealth Expo, it has become increasingly clear that some of your clients are being sent the message that they can handle their finances without any outside help or professional expertise. (Just think big … ) In fact, it's possible that some of your clients have already joined the self-help movement, and will one day make the decision to phase you out of their decision-making process.

One advisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, “The people behind these programs may well have some technical experience, but their real expertise is in marketing. They are selling hope.” Whether the consumer is offered a band-aid to financial stress, a get-rich-quick scheme, an investing “opportunity” or genuine tools that can ensure financial independence, one thing will probably never change, according to the advisor: “We know there's no such thing as a free lunch. But that doesn't stop most of us from trying to find one.”

With this in mind, it seemed like a no-brainer to accept the offer of a free ticket to the Wealth Expo. Advertised with the promise that “One Weekend Can Make You A Millionaire,” it seemed like an excellent place to uncover why these programs are so appealing, what they have to offer and who is buying what's being marketed. I would get a firsthand look at many of the philosophies and opportunities being sold to the general public by a so-called panel of experts.

Early Saturday morning, the Javitz Center was already packed with groups of every age. Suited up or dressed casually, the crowds appeared fully sold on the idea that in 48 hours they would be on their way to becoming millionaires. Trump, Robbins, Jack Welch — if success was theirs, there was hope for all of us. The seminar offered a diverse course list, with topics ranging from “How To Beat Wall Street” to the power of positive thinking à la The Secret. Regardless of the individual names of the classes, the bottom line was that no advice or opportunity would come without a price; and the number of people running around writing checks to guarantee their riches was amazing.

NO ONE CARES MORE ABOUT YOUR MONEY THAN YOU

The “How To Beat Wall Street” seminar featured speaker Bob Kittell hawking “Investools,” a program that, according to its website, teaches “everyday people to invest with skill and confidence.” Kittell immediately appealed to the standing-room only crowd with his tale of meager beginnings. As the son of a steel-plant worker and a schoolteacher, he understood the day-to-day struggles of the average Joe, but he was now ready to provide the knowledge that would “put the odds in our favor.”

This guy was a true salesman, and the nine-to-fivers in the audience felt an obvious connection to his story, especially when he reminded them how much they (most of them anyway) despised their current jobs.

He consistently repeated the phrase, “No one cares more about your money than you,” and informed the crowd that “going to a broker for financial advice is like going to someone called a ‘sicker’ when you're sick.” The projection screen behind Kittell was plastered with testimonials from folks around the country praising Investools and the freedom of self-reliance. Of course, with every testimonial screen came the warning: “Testimonials are not indicative of investor results; results will vary. Risk is involved in any investment.”

Apparently that caveat went unnoticed as the crowd scrambled to the sign-up tables, armed with their credit cards and checkbooks, at the conclusion of Kittell's presentation. The total cost of the secret to beating Wall Street? About $4,297 — though the packages differed. And that day Investools was offering a discount: a two-day online workshop for $1,999, plus an additional $299 every six months for website membership. Our anonymous advisor observes: “Each [get-rich program] seems to promise the same thing: a quick and easy shortcut to prosperity. No special knowledge or effort needed IF you buy the program.”

The majority of the attendees with whom Rep. spoke at the Wealth Expo were interested in uncovering “new” ways to make money, learning how to budget, curb their spending and invest independently and profitably. Essentially, these men and women sought information that could easily be provided by a qualified advisor or financial planner — yet they preferred to shell out money for a single ticket to a weekend that seemed, at best, a gamble.

Greg Ghodsi, senior vice president of investments at the 360 Wealth Management Group, does not view the growing appeal of the financial self-help industry as a threat to licensed, certified professionals because “the need for advice has not disappeared.” (Indeed, the volume of new assets gathered by retail wealth-management units bears him out.)

When he started in 1987, Ghodsi says, “Many advisors had an information advantage: fax, computers, etc. There was no CNBC; we were the conduit of information.” Of course information has become more accessible in the past decade. “The difference,” says Ghodsi, “is the amount of information, and you need someone to help you decipher it.”

With so much financial data and information being thrown at retail investors via the media and the financial self-help industry — much of it trite, and in some cases outright foolish — he and others say consumers feel overwhelmed, and turn to professional help. Randy Carver, of Carver Financial Services, a Mentor, Ohio-based independent wealth-management boutique firm with $680 million in assets under management, says that the growing appeal of the financial self-help industry will affect the actual professionals and experts who are trained to provide assistance positively: “Ultimately, first and foremost, it is good for everybody; it creates awareness.” Consulting programs created and marketed by those lacking experience and credentials for financial help is comparable, says Carver, to “visiting a website like WebMD.com — it can provide a self-diagnosis, but it's not the same as going to a doctor.”

KICKIN' ASS, BABY

One of the largest draws of the Expo was, unquestionably, Donald Trump. Now I know that there are a lot of Trump-haters out there (his unapologetic, salty and often abrasive language will always be cringe-inducing and offensive to some), but his latest tome, Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life really is interesting, and, well, inspiring. His advice doesn't follow the formula that you would expect from a generic “self-help” book: It's not self-righteous, corny or stale. For example, while Trump embraces the age-old idea that we should “think positively and expect the best,” he is quick to point out that doing so should not be confused with “wishful thinking … It is about incorporating a sense of optimism into everything you do while acknowledging the negative.”

Trump was closing the Expo, and as the lights dimmed around 8 p.m. that Sunday, the crowd began chanting his name. Girls wearing tank tops with the word “FUN” scrawled across the chest ran around the stage, and as The O'Jays' song “For The Love of Money” began playing, the crowd jumped up … and the Javitz Center was suddenly aflood with applause. The Donald had arrived.

The thing about Donald Trump is that he doesn't offer any get-rich-quick schemes. He isn't selling anything other than his story — and maybe that's why so many people are drawn to him. He even called Bill Zanker, the founder of The Learning Annex, “cheap,” because he didn't provide the audience with free copies of Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life. A sharp contrast to a myriad of the other participants in the Expo, Trump revealed that not everyone has what it takes to be successful. And while that was probably not what those in attendance had spent their paychecks hoping to hear, the message was clear: It takes hard work to achieve financial success.

While the idea that anyone can become a millionaire with a few clicks of a mouse, by downloading some software or writing someone else a check for a book may seem crazy, the profits of the financial self-help industry indicate that there are plenty of people who would like to believe it. But one wonders: Have these programs helped many of them? Sadly, too many people will continue to hand their money off to anyone who has enough charm to effectively sell them promises of quick riches, fiscal independence and the “happily ever after” so many of the middle-class dream about.

SELF-HELP IS A PROFITABLE BUSINESS

The top 10 gurus of 2005 ranked by sales.
Guru Sales (Mil.) 2005 Best Known For
STEPHEN COVEY (FRANKLINCOVEY) $130* The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
TONY ROBBINS 45 Personal Power
DEEPAK CHOPRA 36 The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
BRIAN TRACY 26 The 21 Success Secrets of Self-Made Millionaires
SUZE ORMAN 25 The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom
ZIG ZIGLAR 20 See You at the Top
TOM HOPKINS 20 How to Master the Art of Selling
PHILLIP MCGRAW 10+ Life Strategies
JACK CANFIELD AND MARK VICTOR HANSEN 10 Chicken Soup for the Soul
KEN BLANCHARD 3 The One-Minute Manager
*Sales from training and education division of FranklinCovey.
Source: BusinessWeek, April 30, 2007; Data Estimates from Marketdata Enterprises, Inc.