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The day I got 'The Business'

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This is a long weird story, folks, so just sit back and stare in perplexed wonder. . .

As you probably know, my wife and I both work at home. What this means is that we often find ourselves working long hours and not getting out much. We recognized this a while back and have always made a point of "getting out" at least every couple of days to do something non-work-related just to clear out the cobwebs. A couple of weeks ago, we decided to visit one of our usual haunts, which is a Starbuck's up the street from us. We'll just quietly chat and sip lattes while preventing Maggie from pulling down the meticulously-stacked pyramids of coffee-bean-bags.

This particular visit we noticed a married couple sitting outside. They had a little boy who was about Maggie's age tooling about on the sidewalk, and Maggie made it pretty clear that they were BEST FRIENDS and she needed to go out and meet him.

Well, we had some light chit-chat with the parents while the kids chased each other around. Turned out the couple was from Oklahoma, and they owned a cattle auction house in addition to a couple of side-businesses, specifically a couple of convenience stores, and they were striking off for home after taking care of some local business. We mentioned a recent enterprise we were thinking of launching regarding a couple of acres we've optioned nearby and how we were thinking of going into the strip-center business. It seemed like we had a bit in common.

After about a half-hour of chit-chat, the man mentions an internet business he's involved with and that he was looking for technical-types to help him out. I talked a bit about the kind of stuff I did. As we left, he pressed a cassette tape into my hand and told me that he'd be calling in a couple of days after I'd listened to the tape to find out the specifics of the business he was in.

Well, a couple of days later I was doing a delivery for Civilgrrl, so I popped in the tape in to find out the specifics of this project to which I assumed I would be consulting.

It turned out to be 15 minutes of one of those "blab it and grab it" motivational speakers who went on and on about how success in anything can be achieved if you only map out your goals and work towards it. The speaker used numerous examples of people who had applied this strategy, like Tiger Woods, Michael Dell, and other big successes who probably had never attended a motivational speech in their lives.

Red Flag Number One: Completely nebulous motivational speech instead of actual specifics as to the business.

I rewound the tape, pronounced it to be yet more feel-good "if you can dream it, you can have it" horseshit that motivational speakers have been peddling since the invention of sound recording, and dropped it on the floor of the van, hoping that it would go no further.

Of course, it went further. Shelly got a call from the guy a couple of days later to ask if we'd listened to the tape. Shelly said that I'd listened to the tape but was not able to get any specifics of the business from it (Shelly, being an empathetic person, left out the "horseshit" part). He said that he'd get me more specifics if we met with him in a few days. Shelly pointed out that since we've got a kid, a night-meeting will necessary not be able to involve both of us, and since I listened to the tape and had the programming skills that I should be the one to go. I was still optimistic that it was regarding their need for a programmer or something to write a back-end for some kind of e-commerce application. I have a bit of experience in that, so I was hopeful. Shelly suggested meeting at the same Starbuck's, as they're from out of town and probably didn't know the local landmarks. To the contrary, he insisted that I meet him at the McDonald's at the crossing of highways 114 and 121 in Grapevine, TX at exactly 7:30. This seemed odd because it was quite a distance from our house, and it was also well away from the interstates, so you wouldn't happen past it on the way from Oklahoma to anywhere else.

Red Flag Number Two: Insisting on an odd meeting place and time.

The reason for the location became clear after they showed up. Turns out the McDonald's is only a block away from the Grapevine Convention Center, and I would be learning about "The Business" there. At this point, all hope of them wanting me for some kind of consulting had faded, and it was obvious that they were trying to get me to invest in something. The woman (the husband was apparently ill) was dressed to the nines and had brought along two other people, a woman who was probably another prospect, and a fast-talking-sales-guy. They preferred that I ride with 'em to the convention center, but I made it clear that such an idea made no sense because the CC was only a block away.

Red Flag Number Three: Attempting to cut off the "escape-route" by getting me to leave my transportation elsewhere.

Note: Some of you by now probably have already figured out what "The Business" is, so don't ruin it for everybody by blabbing.

While waiting in the lobby of the CC, I talked for a bit with the fast-talking-sales-guy. He was actually interested in some of the work I'd done with Flash, and he talked about how they had been trying to put together some good tutorials and presentations on the web for their business. He got excited when I mentioned a new product that would convert PowerPoint presentations to Flash, and he was interested in getting together with me later to discuss the possibilities of moving some of their sales material to the web that way. My hopes temporarily brightened at the possibility that they actually wanted me to help them with their business infrastructure and weren't just trying to get me to sell steak knives door to door (my current theory at the time).

I asked fast-talking-sales-guy what exactly the business was all about, and he said "it'll all be clear in there" motioning to the big meeting room.

Red Flag Number Four: Complete refusal by anyone involved to discuss what the business is about.

I seated myself near the middle of the room, with the female of the Starbuck's couple sitting to the left of me and another woman who was obviously "involved" sitting to my right. A quick seat-count showed the room to hold a little over 300, and they managed to almost fill the room. The crowd was pretty diverse, with most folks dressed much better than myself (remember, I thought I was gonna talk about technical stuff). It wasn't completely clear who was involved with the business and who wasn't, but there were some obvious prospects, like the three crew-cut guys in hunting jackets sitting in the front row and the two tall-haired black women directly ahead of me who appeared to be dressed for a Pentecostal church-service. While waiting for the pitch to start, the women on either side of me started priming me, going on about how very great the speaker is, how he's got a doctorate from MIT, and how they hoped he would tell the "slide rule story".

My annoyance at being "played" at this point had changed to amusement. Rather than even try to make small-talk or commit the cardinal sin of trying to find out why I was there, I just nodded and started taking notes.

The speaker, Dr David Hollander, finally took the stage to an instant standing ovation.

Red Flag Number Five: Pre-emptive standing ovation for someone I've never heard of.

While pacing back and forth, the good doctor spoke quickly. Very quickly. Blindingly quickly. There were times that he'd start the next sentence before completing the previous one. For the next 90 minutes, I don't think there was a 3-second gap of him resting his voice. He held the microphone in his left hand, and his right-hand was always at the ready to shoot up in the air when it came time to get the audience to raise their hands in response to really obvious questions. . .

"Who here would like to set your own hours? [raises hand, pauses one second for audience to do the same] Who here would like to be able to deduct great vacations from their taxes? [raises hand, pauses one second for audience to do the same]"

His mantra for the first half of the presentation was "residual income". Now then, I basically live on royalties from a few software projects so I'm quite familiar with residual income. Things just weren't adding up. He would alternately talk about "residual income" then talk about getting commissions from selling things in a "virtual mall". He claimed that he had overcome the fact that commissions are just one-time things, and he had methods to get "residual income" from product sales. He jokingly said "it's like if you're a car dealer and somebody calls you up to say 'hey, I like that car you sold me last year, here's your commission again'. Isn't that GREAT???"

The pitch wasn't getting through. My thought wasn't "boy that's great" but "that's amazingly stupid".

Needless to say, it turned out that this "residual income" did not come from people paying you sales commissions repeatedly, but in selling a "virtual mall" to other people. Then if somebody bought something from someone else's "virtual mall", you get a piece of that too.

Red Flag Number Six: Someone claiming to be a doctor from MIT who doesn't know the difference between royalties and multi-level marketing.

Oh, and he posted the ten parts that make up "The Perfect Business"

1. No up-front cost
2. Be your own boss
3. No employees
4. Flexible hours
5. No inventory
6. No product handling of any kind
7. Unlimited territory
8. Unlimited income
9. Training and mentor system
10. Tax benefits

Some folks were throwing themselves into it at this point, hooting and cheering as he wrote up the "perfect business". I was rolling my eyes, wondering if anyone would get excited if he wrote up "11. Big sacks of cash fall out of the sky and into your arms".

The presentation started at 8:15, and it wasn't until 8:50 that he actually gave a hint as to what "The Business" was about. He talked about selling things directly from the factory, thus giving you the 30% that normally goes towards the markups as a product goes from factory to wholesaler to store-shelf. He then said the commission would be anywhere from 3% to 30% depending on your volume (I guess they keep the extra 27% as a "nuisance fee" if your sales dip). He kept referring to all of these things happening in a "virtual mall" that they had set up that sold everything from Sharper Image to Disney Store. I'm a frequent online shopper, and I've never heard of such a "virtual mall". The only thing that came close was Value America, and they closed down years ago.

Red Flag Number Seven: Any mention of a huge globe-spanning internet site that you've never heard of.

He then got into mention of the soon-to-be-exploding "wellness" industry and how baby-boomers would soon be paying big ole' bucks to keep from getting any older.

Red Flag Number Eight: Any mention of the word "wellness".

Earlier he had talked about how they sold damn near every product on the planet, but suddenly he made an undetected gear-shift into "equivalence products". These are products just like those on your grocer's shelves, but even better and forty percent cheaper, and how it'd be your job to re-educate your neighbors into accepting that they don't need the expensive name brand stuff because of these "equivalence products".

My thought at this point was "Waitaminute. A half-hour ago, you said that you guys sold everything a person could need, but now I find that if I wanna buy a box of Tide that all I'm gonna get is a claim that I should instead buy something that you insist is equivalent?"

Now we moved into the second half of the presentation. He dispensed with any talk of selling actual products and gave us the secrets as to where the real gravy was -selling other folks on their own "virtual mall". Just selling boxes of whatever's equivalent to Tide could net you a couple-hundred bucks a month in 3-6% commission, but if you really wanted your commissions to soar up to stratospheric 30% levels, you needed to have other folks selling stuff along with you. In fact, if you could sign up four other folks a month, you could see your income rise from a mere $200 a month up to stratospheric numbers like $2,000, $5,000, or even $50,000 a month.

WHEEEEE! YOU LIKE MY PANTS? THEY'RE MADE OF MONEY!!!

He was clearly appealing to greed at this point. These multi-level products make the bulk of their money at the corporate level by selling training materials and seminars (like the one I was attending). I had a former friend who was into this stuff, and she would regularly take off for stadium-sized events around the country, spending thousands on sales seminars with the promise that attendance would improve your ability to sell -not products but other franchises.

And, unfortunately, the good doctor had a few people hooked by this time. There were folks who weren't already in "The Business" getting whupped up into the spirit of the event, raising their hands and hooting in response to the speaker's stuff. I even saw a hand go up and an "AMEN" from one of the Pentecostal-looking women.

really

This had completely taken on the spirit of an evangelist's tent-rally. The only difference was that they didn't pass the hat until after the event was over and the locals likely went into the individual hard-sell to sign up and get the introductory materials for "a little less than $150".

I say "likely" at this point, because I hastily shook hands, made the excuse that it was very late (about 10:00 now), and retreated to the parking lot to the welcome sight of my van.

While it was an amusing experience and one that I can now check off in my mental checklist of "life experiences about which I was always curious", it was also a rather annoying one in retrospect. "The Business" teaches you to look upon everyone, from friends to casual acquaintances you meet at Starbuck's, as dollar signs. You learn that your next-door neighbor is not so much the guy you wave to as you mow your lawn but is a potential source of income. They teach you that friendship is contingent not upon how much you are compatible with another person, but on whether or not they're willing to buy your products and become part of your "downline".

What started out as a rather amusing view into an odd sub-culture of America became, for me, a distasteful display of how greed can change something as natural and innocent as friendship into something exploitive.

Well, yesterday I was given "The Business". The name of "The Business" was never breathed by anyone. The URL of the amazing "Virtual Mall" was never mentioned.

Red flag number nine, ten, and eleven: A 90-minute seminar on business opportunity that somehow fails to mention the name of the business.

Yep, they gave me "The Business". And "The Business" was Amway.

The only saving grace of the night was that I saw my "sponsor" signing a sheet and getting a couple of blue tickets before we could go inside. Presumably she had to pay to get me into the room, so that the pitchman got his fee for the 90-minute hard-sell. At least wasting my time cost her some money.

They will undoubtedly be calling me to follow up in a day or two, and they will get a few choice words from my wife about how distasteful it is to use your baby as a shill to finance your own greed, but it'll be lost on 'em. The couple was mentioned as one of the "diamond members" of the business, so they've apparently had some success at it.
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