Manifesting is a transition from the inchoate to reality, a process through which the nebulous becomes tangible. Whether it actually works is less easy to pin down than the concept. In recent years, manifesting has become shorthand for the enticing idea that you can have everything you want in life simply by focusing on it, surrounding yourself with positive energy and really, truly believing that it will happen. A cottage industry has sprung up around it which sits somewhere between influencing and what we would have once called 'life coaching', the commercial empire that surrounds Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret being one of the most high profile examples. But you don’t have to look far on Instagram to find someone doling out life advice in a similar vein.
The appeal of the idea that you can manifest success, love or money is obvious. And it’s not total bunkum. There’s certainly something to be said for converting positive thinking into action which has less to do with good vibrations and more to do with getting out what you put in. If you really set your mind to moving somewhere else, getting into the university you want to attend, securing a job or finding a relationship, and make it the focal point of all that you do with laser precision, then it’s not impossible that you will at least get close to something that looks like what you set out to achieve (give or take myriad circumstantial factors, white privilege, family wealth, not having the right qualifications or the person you’ve decided you want to marry having zero interest in you whatsoever). Psychologists who have studied the efficacy of this approach prefer to call it mental contrasting: a psychological visualisation technique which aims to help you achieve your dreams by encouraging you to take the necessary steps towards them.
Life coaching is currently unregulated in the UK. There are independent coaching bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) or the European Mentoring and Coaching Council but anyone can work as a life coach if they want to. However, when self-styled gurus who profess to be able to help others achieve the same success that they have in their own life via 'manifesting' sell this concept, those who buy what’s on offer – whether it’s a book or a coaching course – can find that, far from suddenly having the life they’ve always dreamed of, they are at best in exactly the same position or at worst more frustrated and cash-poor.
This is the situation in which 31-year-old Leonne*, a single parent based in southeast England, finds herself. She works full-time in supply chain management. It’s a good job. She earns around £37,000, which is above the national average. This pays the bills but Leonne doesn’t love what she does and has always dreamed of more. When we speak she’s taking a walk on her lunch break, catching her breath as she hops over stiles on a country footpath. "I went straight from school into work and now I want something a bit more fulfilling," she says, slightly breathless. "I know what I want to do – I want to set up a consultancy which helps other businesses become more environmentally friendly – but I can’t see an easy way of making that happen as it’s not my current field. That’s why I started paying for online courses to help."
Where Leonne would once have flipped through the pages of a glossy magazine for inspiration, like so many women her age she follows a host of aspirational lifestyle accounts on Instagram, each of which sells a different version and vision of success. One of these accounts belongs to Sarah Akwisombe. Akwisombe describes herself as having "a pretty damn varied background in music, interior design and tech startups" but confirmed over the phone that she has no life coaching, business coaching or financial advice accreditation. What she does have, however, is 28.3k and 47.5k followers respectively on her personal and professional Instagram accounts.
Leonne describes herself as a "longtime follower" of around "three or four years" of the self-described "founder, influencer, mum and wife" who began her own business in 2015 – the No Bull Business School – of which, according to Companies House, she and her husband are the sole directors. It is described on her website as "one of the very first female founded indie course businesses in the UK, started with the aim to ‘de-bull’ business education and make it more attainable and fun for millennial women." Akwisombe is also the author of a book which was published earlier this year called The Money Is Coming: Your Guide To Manifesting Money. Scroll through her personal Instagram and you’ll find happy images of her two young children and her husband, peppered with inspirational quotes like "never disappoint yourself with trying to be someone you’re not" and selfies accompanied by longer captions which appear to give a detailed account of how her business works, such as this:
"Last week I shared that I had made 20k in a day. Most people were pretty congratulatory and got that I share this stuff not only because I’m proud of myself but also because we need women to be more open about money. Representation is real, people. If we don’t see people that we identify with sharing their wins (and their failures) with us it makes us feel like it’s not possible. Or like it’s something only men achieve."
Over on the No Bull Business School Account there are generic inspirational quotes such as "do things you think you can’t" and "being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak".
Sarah Akwisombe’s Instagram brand is straight from a familiar playbook: having it all. And who doesn’t want that?
Over the last year, Leonne says she has spent roughly £1,200 with No Bull Business School and, until recently, she was signed up to a "6 month success accelerator" called Smashing It, run by Akwisombe. As part of its "personal development programme" it offered weekly sessions which promised "big shifts" and "a complete LEVELLING UP of your life across the board" to anyone who signed up and paid £199 a month.
Smashing It began in July, as Britain found itself emerging from lockdown but still in the grip of economic uncertainty caused by the global coronavirus pandemic. Leonne was keen to sign up; she wanted to change her life once and for all and make money on her own terms. The "accelerator" promised "downloadable worksheets" which Leonne says were never received. This caused her and several other women to reflect on what exactly they were paying for in the first place.
"I thought I was buying business advice," Leonne tells me, "but it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. But when you follow someone for a long time they build up trust with you. The focus was mainly on mindset and Sarah and the other coach she was doing it with [Llewellyn Davies] were offering advice like getting up at five in the morning and doing loads of cardio or getting rid of people in your life who don’t support you. There wasn’t really anything that you’d call ‘secrets of the trade’."
There was something about coming out of lockdown, feeling let down by the course, stepping back to take stock of how much money she had spent with No Bull Business School and her partner telling her that he didn’t think she should pay for any more courses that changed Leonne’s perspective. "When it’s packaged in this digestible way with nice graphics and tidbits of information that you can easily swallow it feels legitimate," she explains. "I know it sounds ridiculous, in hindsight I want to bang my head against the wall."
She is now in the process of trying to get a full refund. "It’s a hard financial hit to take," she says, "but this is actually about a bigger problem now I think about it. On social media you trust people you follow but when I stop and think about it I do question whether she actually has the qualifications to be giving career or business advice. Once you scrutinise it you realise that it’s actually based on very little."
Leonne is not the only one who wants her money back. Unemployed mother of two, 34-year-old Eaoifa* from London is also questioning the decision to hand over £1,200 of her cash. "I was initially drawn to Sarah’s style and confidence," she reflects. "Courses I had done with her before were very simple: she would teach you one thing and you would learn it but there’s only so much of that you can do. I did her Money and Manifesting course and I realised that there was nothing new there but I kept getting sucked into the dream that she was selling. She was a fairly relatable person with a stunning house, a creative business she ran with her partner, and time to look after and enjoy herself too, which was all pretty aspirational to me as a single mum. I thought that if I could get in front of her and tell her about my business (as was implied by participating in her programmes) then maybe she would post about it. I’d seen her do that for other people."
Akwisombe has never described what she offers as financial advice. If you scroll to the bottom of her "productivity" training course on ending procrastination in exchange for the sum of £35, you’ll see what looks like a screenshot of the widely available task manager Asana.
As always when things go wrong in the world of Instagram influencing, there is now a scandal brewing. As Akwisombe’s brand and business has unravelled, the internet that brought her success has turned against her. Since disgruntled customers of No Bull Business School began to talk to one another, multiple threads containing information about Akwisombe and her courses with varying degrees of veracity have been swarming the infamous influencer gossip site Tattle Life (which has previously spread malicious misinformation and conspiracy about everyone from beauty journalist Sali Hughes to Mrs Hinch). Akwisombe describes this as a "pile-on" and tells Refinery29 that it has seriously affected her mental health. "The toll [being attacked on Tattle Life] takes on your physical and mental health is incredibly high," she says emphatically over the phone. "I have been seeing a psychotherapist twice a week and I'm going to hypnotherapy."
Akwisombe is one of a new breed of micro-celebrity which has thrived on Instagram; relatable but seemingly successful, an aspirational brand of "Girl Boss" who keeps it real. As she puts it herself: "I am super super honest with my followers and I always have been... But I’m just a normal person, walking around Tesco." Where she has found herself in choppy and uncharted waters is the decision to try to monetise this down-to-earth personal brand by offering other people a chance to have the same "success" as her in return for their cold hard cash.
When we speak she seems aware of this. "I’m running a business that employs my husband and three other people who rely on it as income. It’s a business but I think the boundaries between when you are a personal brand and a business brand gets very, very, very blurry and I’m left feeling like... When was the point where I stepped over this invisible line and stopped being a person that others would treat as a person and a human [and became] somebody who is just gossiped about and treated like a piece of meat?"
One of the perils of using a personal brand which, by its nature, builds trust and intimacy with an audience to facilitate a business is surely that people hold you to a higher standard than a faceless corporation if they are not satisfied with your product? I ask Akwisombe how she sees what she does and whether she can understand why some people feel short-changed. On 14th June she created a group on her professional Facebook page called "Sarah Akwisombe Group Coaching June 2020" and updated the group cover photo with a headshot of herself set against a purple background. Next to it the word "COACHING" was spelled out in bold pink lettering. On the phone, though, Akwisombe is adamant: "I’m not a life coach and [have] never used that word in my life to describe myself." She says this while confirming that she is not a member of any accredited life coaching organisations.
Akwisombe says that the vast majority of her customers are satisfied and that I should speak to them. She tells me that of the 259 people enrolled in Smashing It, only around 30 have requested refunds and adds that some people are entitled to refunds while others are not. When I ask why this is, she says: "We have recently obtained legal advice and are acting in accordance with that advice and our current terms and conditions."
After Akwisombe and I say goodbye and hang up, my inbox floods with 12 emails in under one hour from happy customers sharing their testimonials.
One, written by Jane* who has spent £850 on No Bull Business School courses, reads:
"When I joined Smashing It, it was a couple of months into lockdown. I had seen my main income as an Events Producer disappear overnight as event after event cancelled. I had decided to focus my efforts into building the photography business that I had wanted to launch for the last 10 years. I needed some accountability, a reason to be inspired each week to continue to build my new full time career in such a stressful time. Smashing It gave that to me and also gave me a lovely network of like minded business owners who wanted motivation and inspiration, I’m still in touch with many of them now. We covered topics such as confidence, fear of success, guilt, money mindset which are hugely important to me personally and in my business. I’m still using the knowledge I gained from the programme."
"The things I’ve taken from Smashing It that have actually been transformative include having a morning routine. The getting up early and getting some exercise even if that is just a brisk walk around the park while you start to plan your day puts you on the right foot. Prior to starting the programme I was guilty of letting the day take me but there’s a reason why intentional is a buzzword right now. I feel like I’ve learned to direct my days rather than let them wash over me and I’m achieving so much more."
I went back to Jane and asked her whether the course had actually accelerated her success or increased her income. She replied: "I booked two photography jobs through the Smashing It network. I have also found a couple of businesses which will help me in the future. I may have seen a much more increased income if COVID wasn't around but my confidence has grown so much." So, not exactly then.
If Akwisombe has helped these two women stick to a daily routine, increased their confidence and made them feel less alone, their money has not been wasted. Nonetheless, satisfied or not, when you unpack what Akwisombe has actually sold to her followers, it is a self-referential course from which she makes money by offering them encouragement, motivational speeches and obvious tips for managing time mixed with references to her own platform as proof that she is qualified to give business advice (without ever actually giving it). She promises them the idea of success, of making money but is, as she notes herself in our conversation, careful never to give financial advice because she is not licensed to do so.
Her currency does not come in the form of qualifications or even her own business experience (which at best seems limited to what she relays on Instagram) but in the relationship she has built with her community. There is something of Jordan Belfort about it. That’s not to say none of it is real – Asana coaching is not snake oil if the person being coached has never heard of Asana – but rather that it is the subjective social media twilight where the personal and professional merge, where what is implied is interpreted differently by the person taking and the person handing over money.
Because life coaching is unregulated and Akwisombe has never once explicitly described herself as a financial advisor, those who are unhappy may struggle to find recourse because it appears that no consumer law has been broken. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which regulates influencer advertising (aka sponcon) said this did not fall within their remit. Trading Standards couldn’t comment on an individual case but noted that, had Akwisombe misrepresented anything, it would be an issue for the Advertising Standards Authority. Similarly, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said that it was not in their remit because it falls into the realm of "self-help" and doesn’t qualify as a financial service product because there is no associated financial activity (e.g. inviting people to invest in a fund).
As women start talking about money more openly and trying to figure out how to get a piece of the financial pie which, for too long, has been kept just out of reach, they are turning to people who look and sound like them for help via the platforms where they spend most of their time and feel most comfortable engaging with. The problem is that these people – influencers – aren’t always best placed to give them advice. This is because the very thing that makes Instagram democratic – the fact that anyone, in theory, can become a success on the platform, enabling careers like the one Akwisombe has carved out for herself which didn’t exist 10 years ago – is the thing that makes it impossible to bottle and sell.
I ask Leonne and Eaoifa why they paid for what they saw as business and financial advice from someone who has the qualifications to give neither. "Being vulnerable is not something I would like to admit to," Leonne says on the phone when I ask why she thought it would help, her voice cracking with emotion. "But I guess, actually, that I really was. When something that looks like a miracle cure to your situation pops up it does intrigue you, especially when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and everyone is a bit more desperate than usual."
Reflecting, Eaoifa feels similarly. "I have questioned myself a lot," she says, sighing. "I don’t have an income, I receive benefits and anything that I make from my business at this early stage goes back into it. Logically, I shouldn’t have spent money on any of the courses but I bought them thinking it was what I needed because I liked her and the marketing and visuals were just so good. I think it's tricky because sometimes it is inevitable when you buy something like this you realise that you actually already knew more than you thought you did but, at the same time, I think she positions herself as someone who knows more about [business] than she does."
The reality is that most people don't have access to financial advisors or successful businesspeople with proven track records in their chosen field. As we conclude our conversation, Akwisombe makes a point that speaks to a question we should all ask, as Instagram makes it easier for anyone to sell advice and encourages us to look to "normal people" to plug the gaps where our politicians, education system and welfare state fall short. "Where does the line between the expectations that people put onto you as somebody who is a leader of thought, or influencer, or whatever you want to call it, sit? The responsibility and expectation that people place on you is tremendous."
It certainly is. In Akwisombe’s case, though, the problem is perhaps not the lack of goodwill from some followers as she perceives it. All of those I spoke to shared her success story and admired her ability to turn social media into a viable source of income. That’s why they signed up for her courses. And it is testament to the success of her "relatable" and "straight talking" brand that those who are unhappy feel so wronged: they saw her as someone who got them and someone they could trust; they expected her to be able to help them when nobody else could.
Perhaps the real issue is that as a coronavirus-induced recession set in, the scales fell from their eyes and they realised that it might take more than hustling and manifesting to fix the harsh economic reality we suddenly find ourselves in. The boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies, where the real money is, are still as difficult for most people to get into as they ever were.
*Names have been changed to protect identities