As a matter of fact, I had.
He continued, “What are your thoughts on it?”
“Honestly,” I replied, “I had a pretty bad experience with a multi-level marketing company.”
“I see. Well hey, will you do me a favor? Will you forget everything you know about MLM for about 15 minutes? This is an exciting business opportunity that my mentor has shared with me. He’s an amazing guy, and he wanted me to share it with you, too.”
I’d been through a multi-level marketing sales pitch before; 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; we don’t talk much anymore, but I took his critique to heart. Since moving to California, I’ve looked for opportunities to build a more solid network. As Luke and I chatted briefly, exchanging short stories about our lives, jobs, and the weather, I felt this was a good 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 met officially. From my understanding, he has a good reputation, the kind of guy I could trust.
“Josh happens to be my mentor,” Luke added, “He’s taught me so much about business and myself. His family is amazing. They have 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 for a little while and not press the meeting.
But Luke persisted. He made multiple phone calls, left voicemails, and 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, I felt this was a bit intrusive.
I continued to “miss” his phone calls for the following week, until one evening when he called while my wife and I were at dinner. She saw his face buzzing on my phone and said, “Just answer this time. See what’s up. No harm in it.”
I answered, and he started, “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 a business opportunity that we think you’ll really like.”
I knew at that point that there was going to be some sort of pitch during our meeting. In the spirit of curiosity and networking — ugh — I ignored my internal warnings and accepted the invitation for coffee that Friday.
Friday arrived, and 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, presented with a multi-level marketing pitch, when my brain finally started to put a narrative together: the seemingly random interest shown towards me by 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 his diagrams, there was a pause, which I took advantage of.
I was prepared for something like this. I knew the script.
“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?”
I’d heard emotional pitches like this before, and they always turn me off.
“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 strongly believe in the power of 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 and said, “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 is 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 about the business. 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. But from the beginning, I knew this would happen.
There’s a common thread with the more nefarious MLM companies: those involved in them refuse — or can’t — describe the business in a simple way. Confusion is part of the indoctrination process. They keep you engaged with frequent meetings to discuss the business, but so much of the initial pitch is in the emotional hook, so by the time you actually get into the details of how to get involved, you’re emotionally invested; you believe that this business opportunity, no matter how toxic, will solve all your problems — no more debt, a happier marriage, no more 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 glad Josh wasn’t there. “Luke, I have to be honest with you,” I said. “I don’t want to be involved in this company if it’s this difficult to describe.”
I think 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 flow up to those who do the most recruiting. This is where multi-level marketing 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; this was his shot. But at this moment, I resented him for grooming me to be sold something he knew wasn’t in my best interest.
“Well, okay,” he said. “Listen, I understand that 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. And 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 to check my calendar; it’s an instinctive habit when I know that something uncomfortable is about to happen. I put my phone away.
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to read the book, and I don’t want to move forward with discussing this with you and Josh.”
“Oh, well I think maybe I haven’t done a good job of explaining it,” I saw his face start to tighten. He was putting up his defenses, “But I have to ask, Brian: if you’re so passionate about this idea of providing service, why are you so resistant to join us in serving others?”
I thought for a moment, and said, “Because I don’t know your mission and you can’t even tell me what it is, and I can only assume that any service without a mission is self-serving.”
“I don’t know that I agree with that.”
“That’s fair, but I don’t agree with multi-level marketing. I don’t believe in a company that requires weeks of explaining just to understand what they do. I’ve been through this before.”
“So what you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to forget your past experience with multi-level marketing? You’re not willing to be open-minded here and take the time to learn something new?”
He shrugged condescendingly. I expected a salesman to handle rejection a bit better than he did, but I soon realized how deeply he’d entrenched himself in this. 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, I’m not in a relationship — and I want to be! — and I just want to hit it big and be significant. Josh has all that: the great wife, 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 loneliness, 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.
I asked him, “A means to an end? So what’s at the end for you?”
A tired expression gave way to a pained response, “I… don’t know. I don’t know my end goal here.”
I asked a final question, “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 about 15 minutes of her time. After explaining the concepts, she said she didn’t understand and that 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 my loved ones as dollar signs again.
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.