June 21, 2017

What I Learned from a Pyramid Scheme Indoctrination

"What is it you do, exactly?"

I was sitting at Starbucks across from a slick-haired salesman when he opened his notebook, clicked his pen and asked, “So Brian, have you ever heard of multi-level marketing?”

Yes.

He continued, delicately, “What are your thoughts on it?”

“Honestly,” I replied. “I had a pretty bad experience with an MLM company.”

“Gotcha. Well hey, will you do me a favor? Will you forget everything you know about MLM for fifteen minutes? This is an exciting business opportunity that Josh shared with me, and he wanted me to share it with you, too.”

I knew what was coming next, and I had a plan.

“Sure,” I said.

~

I met “Luke“, the salesman, months before at a gas station. We were both standing in line waiting for our fast food orders when he walked up and said hello.

A friend once told me that I’m terrible at networking. In the spirit of personal growth, I’ve looked for opportunities to build a more solid network since moving to California. As Luke and I exchanged short stories about our lives, jobs, and the weather, I sensed an opportunity to learn from a fellow young professional and maybe make a friend in the process.

Luke struck me as a pretty nice guy at first, and we concluded our chat on a positive note as we exchanged business cards and planned a non-committal coffee meet-up.

A few weeks later, Luke and I met for lunch. I asked him about his job as a salesman, what he’d learned from it, and what his goals for the future looked like. He asked me the same, and I shared with him my visions of writing books and starting a business later down the road.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to know a guy named Josh?”

I know “Josh” from the local tech scene. He’s a bit older than me, mid-thirties. We’ve travelled in similar circles but never officially met. From my understanding, he has a good reputation, the kind of guy I could trust.

“Josh happens to be my mentor,” Luke added, proudly. “He’s taught me so much about business and personal growth. He has it all. I kind of envy the guy. You know what? You, me, and Josh should get together to talk business sometime soon.”

“Sure, let’s all grab some coffee,” I said, suddenly feeling nauseous and but not knowing why.

And then Luke said something that surprised me. “I’m excited—it’ll look good to Josh if I refer you to him.”

That’s strange, I thought, The only time I’ve ever been “referred” to someone, I’ve been a customer. After our lunch, I decided to lay low and not press the meeting.

But Luke persisted. He left multiple voicemails and sent follow-up texts saying things like, Brian, call me back as quickly as you can! Considering I’d only interacted with Luke for a combined 60 minutes since meeting him, this felt intrusive.

I continued to “miss” his calls for the following week, until one evening while my wife and I were at dinner. She saw his name buzzing on my phone and urged, “Just answer this time. See what’s up. No harm in it.”

Luke began, “Brian, where have you been? It’s like you dropped off the Earth.”

This gave me a sour, stalker vibe.

He continued, “Anyway, I talked to Josh about you, and he’d like for you and me to meet up to go over an exciting business opportunity.”

At that point, I anticipated there would be some sort of pitch during our meeting. In the spirit of curiosity and networking — ugh — I ignored my internal warnings and agreed to coffee that Friday.

I met Luke at a nearby Starbucks. We exchanged small talk for a bit, when finally I asked, “So, what’s the story? What’s Josh’s business?”

Luke smiled and pulled out a notebook and pen.

~

It was there at that table in Starbucks when I finally started to put the narrative together: the seemingly random interest from a salesman at a gas station, the insistence on connecting with Josh, and the pushy phone calls. Of course—I’d even talked to him about my desire to start a business on the side. I’d painted a target on my back.

“So, let me tell you a bit about this opportunity,” Luke said as he began his pitch.

He turned to a blank page in his notebook and started drawing crude illustrations: a four-step analogy on the concept of a scalable business, two squares to represent concepts he referred to as “suppliers” and “builders,” and a dozen arrows pointing to the various diagrams. Nothing made sense to me. After he finished, I took advantage of the pause.

“Let me stop you here for a moment,” I interrupted. “Tell me this: in one sentence, what does your company do?”

He paused, thought about my question, then began the pitch again. He used more than one sentence, but this time, he added an ingredient I was anticipating: the vague emotional hook.

“Our goal is to serve people and help them achieve their dreams,” he explained. “Imagine making more money. Imagine making your marriage better. I’ve seen the people our company has helped. I’ve seen the tears in their eyes as they share how they’ve achieved everything they’ve ever wanted. Look, I know you’re passionate about service to others, Brian (read here), so what do you say? Are you ready to learn more?”

“Hold on,” I said, “you didn’t answer my question. In one sentence, tell me what this company does. What do they sell? What service do they provide? Just humor me and try to explain it in one sentence.”

I could tell he was puzzled, so I elaborated, “If we look at a company like Amazon, you could describe them in one sentence by saying, ‘They provide a high-quality e-commerce experience for a variety of products and services.’ You could describe Google by their mission statement—‘To organize the world’s information.’ So what’s your company’s core mission? What do you do?”

He reached to his pocket for his phone — I assumed to text Josh and get an answer from him — but he put it back in his pocket. “I’ll humor you. I’d describe our core mission around integrity, passion, and great service. Great relationships. Family-oriented. When Josh showed me this opportunity, I asked him, ‘Why me?’ and he told me, ‘If you had the cure for cancer, wouldn’t you want to share it with the world?’”

I pressed. “So in that analogy, what’s this ‘cure for cancer?’ I’m not asking for your company’s secret sauce. I just want to know what you guys do.”

We talked for forty-five minutes, yet I never got a name of the business or a clear understanding of the business model. It was a black box, and Luke was struggling to entice me to look inside.

There’s a common thread with the more nefarious MLM companies: those involved refuse — or can’t — describe the business in a simple way. Like the floor plan of Ikea stores, confusion is part of the indoctrination process. They keep you engaged with frequent meetings to discuss the business, but most of the initial pitch is built on the emotional hook. By the time you get into the details of how to get involved, you’re emotionally invested; you believe this business opportunity will solve all your problems — no more debt, a happier marriage, no more pain or illness.

“Would you be willing to talk about this another day?” Luke added, “Maybe you just need some time to let what I’ve shown you sink in. I wish Josh was here to help explain.”

I was thrilled Josh wasn’t there. “Luke, I have to be honest with you. I don’t think I want to be involved in this company if it’s this difficult to describe.”

What bothered me the most was the feeling of being used. MLM businesses empower their customers to view everyone as a customer, a perpetual cycle that turns friends into dollar signs and causes money to flow up to those who do the most recruiting. This is where MLM gets its common name: a pyramid scheme. I realized that Josh indoctrinated Luke as a customer and profited off him. Luke was now on the hunt for customers of his own.

“Well, okay,” he said. “Listen, I understand you might not be ready to dive in yet, but I have a book in my car that does a better job than me of sharing this vision. Then, how about you, me, and Josh get together next week to talk more about it. How does Wednesday sound?”

I pulled out my phone, miming productivity (and a “yes” to his invitation). But I knew what I needed to do. I switched off my phone and slipped it back into my pocket.

“No. I don’t want to read the book, and I don’t want to move forward with discussing this with you and Josh.”

His face tightened. “So, what you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to forget your past experience with MLM? You’re not willing to be open-minded here and take the time to learn something new?”

“That’s right.”

He shrugged condescendingly. I expected a salesman to handle rejection better than he did, but I soon realized how deeply he’d entrenched himself. He started to open up, and I watched another layer of the narrative reveal itself.

“Look, I believe in this business,” he said. “I’m looking to make a lot of money in just a little amount of time. I have a ton of debt,  and I just want to hit it big and be significant. Josh has all that: the great life, the great finances — everything I wish I had. And he’s showing me how to do it. I shared all my financial information with him, just like he asked. And then we shook on it .  I dedicated the next five years of my life to him and this business. But yeah, honestly, Brian, this is just a means to an end.”

It was all coming together: the desperate kid, eager for a quick buck and an escape from debt and obscurity, finds a mentor who takes him in and tells him that if he just pledges his loyalty, all his problems would be solved. It was an unsettling story, one that I’d seen and heard many times before, and it never ends well.

“A means to an end? So, what’s at the end for you?”

His tired expression gave way to a pained response. “I… don’t know. I don’t know my end goal here.”

“Have you considered using some of the skills or knowledge you have to start a business of your own? If you could share a skill or service with a group of customers, what would it be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I would do.”

Luke and I parted ways, and I wished him well. But what he failed to realize is that he had nothing valuable to offer me in all his promises of success and fortune. I’ve found my richness in life, and it has very little to do with money.

He also couldn’t have known that when I was 19, I was him.

I came home from a MLM conference and met with my first potential sale. I told her how I could show her how to make her dreams come true — travel, money, success — and all it would take was fifteen minutes of her time. After explaining the concepts, she said she didn’t understand and it all sounded like trouble. I got defensive and frustrated, just like Luke did. I’m still ashamed that I once viewed the girl I’d go on to marry as a potential sale.

These days, I stand beside a vow that I never want to be involved in something that causes me to view those I care about as dollar signs.

As for Luke, I have no hard feelings towards him—how could I, knowing that we were once in the same shoes—and I hope he finds the significance he’s looking for, one way or another.

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