Season 2 Episode 8
We all want to make a better life for ourselves. We worry about the futute. Question the path we are on. And seek ways to escape from some of the more mundane aspects of our lives.
During the outbreak of Covid-19 ,these feelings are heightened, making us perfect targets for pyramid scheme recruiters who promise an antidote to our misfortunes.
Recently, I’ve seen too many people succumbing to the allure of these promises, becoming brainwashed by the cult-like pyramid system, and having their time, energy and enthusiasm sucked out of them.
This episode is my small attempt to shed some light on how these schemes work, how they suck people in, and more importantly, how they end up draining the money of those who enter.
Big shoutout to my brother for producing the episode whilst Henri was away! You can listen to some of his music here
I think I do a pretty good job at introducing the methods and issues behind modern MLM schemes. But here are some really good infographics that explain aspects of it (swipe to see all images):
There are 3 really good documentaries on this topic; I’ve included their trailers here so you can decide if you want to give one a watch:
Be your own boss, work from anywhere, choose your own hours, generate unlimited income, and achieve financial freedom.
Lord Almighty, that sounds amazing.
But if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
And when it comes to pyramid schemes, it certainly is.
Just too good to be true.
Over the last few months, I have noticed a massive increase in the number of people I follow being tricked into joining pyramid schemes; getting indoctrinated by cult-like companies who prey on the dreams and aspirations of millennials seeking a better life for themselves.
Ever since I had a brief run-in with a pyramid scheme 6 years ago, I have been fascinated by how they entice people in with offers of a new business opportunity, how their culture swallows up those who enter, and how they ultimately suck the time and money out of participants at the bottom of the chain.
As we feel the mounting impact of Covid-19 on our present situation and our future ambitions, we are most vulnerable to people who come out of the mist, offering us a chance to change our life for the better. And as a result, many of us fall victim to their false promises.
There is also a trend towards more female millennials being coaxed into joining these schemes, as these companies twist 21st century women’s empowerment to profit off the aspirations of young women.
As I write this, many of you will have a message in your inbox from someone promising an exciting, yet vague, business opportunity; or you may have a friend that has joined one of these schemes and has been trying to sell you stuff; or you may only be days away from being approached by someone trying to rope you in.
And you’re probably wondering what the hell is going on. And if it’s all a scam.
If that’s the case then stick around, because in this week’s episode I explain how a pyramid scheme works; how despite being illegal, they still exist today; and how they target young women in particular.
So hopefully, when the pyramid salesman do come-a-knockin’, you know exactly what’s going on, and you know just what to say:
This is Season 2 – Episode 8 – of Tim Quit His Job, the show that follows me on my adventures into the unknown as I quit my job, start a business, and try to figure out life along the way. It’s a show for people who believe there is more to life than the 9-5. I’m not a guru, not an expert, not a preacher. Just a regular guy in his mid-20s, trying to be honest about my thoughts and experiences. If you enjoy the podcast, then come and find out more about it at timquithisjob.com. The site is actually pretty good now! If you went on there recently and thought, what the damn hell is this? You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised now. I have wasted a lot of time learning the ins and outs of web development just to make this one stupid site, hence the reason I’ve been a bit slack releasing new episodes. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, for additional content, relevant articles and background info on me and Henri, head over on over to the site. Speaking of Henri, he’s actually away in France this week, the land of his forefathers. Yeah, he’s French, that’s why his name is pronounced like that if you didn’t realise. We’re a multinational team at Tim Quit His Job! Nothing if not a place for inclusivity and international cooperation. So as he’s away, this week we’ve got a special guest producer. Some may know this week’s mysterious music producer as James, others know him as DJ Spinx, but I know him as – Brother. That’s right, my very own big brother is mixing down this week’s episode and layering some of his original music over the top. If you like what you hear, check him out on soundcloud.com/spinxmusic. That’s Spinks spelt S-P-I-N-X, because apparently the original spelling of our surname wasn’t cool enough for him…
Anyway, enough of that, let’s tear down some pyramids!
A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent business model where the participants make money by recruiting people to enter into the pyramid beneath them, and not through the sale of products or services. If you were in a pyramid, your aim would be to recruit people into the level below you. When someone joins the pyramid as a result of your recruitment, you gain a slice of the fee that they pay to join.
Why would anyone pay to join in the pyramid below you? Because you promise them that by joining the pyramid, they too will be able to recruit people underneath them. What’s so enticing, is that if your recruit goes on to recruit someone else, you get a slice of the recruit’s recruit’s joining fee. And if you get into the scheme early enough such that your recruit’s recruit then recruits someone? Well, then you’ve made a bunch of money and created a challenging tongue-twister in the process.
The kicker is that there was never a product or service to be sold. The recruits never received anything physical for their sign up fees. Sometimes there was an illusion of an end product, but there never was. A pyramid scheme became categorised by the fact that the income comes only from persuading people to join under the auspice that they too can recruit people for their own benefit. The problem with this kind of expansion, is that it’s exponential, and these pyramids very quickly run out of people to recruit. Chances are, if you’ve been approached to join a scheme, it’s already too late. There is a slim chance that you can build up the number of recruits below you – referred to as your downline – in order to make the kind of money that you were promised when you paid to sign up to the scheme. The kind of money that people above you – in your ‘upline’ – are boasting about making. The vast majority of people who take part in a pyramid scheme, actually end up losing money.
Those of you already familiar with pyramid schemes are probably thinking. Hang on, isn’t this illegal? weren’t pyramids schemes already banned?
It’s true, pyramid schemes were banned. They were banned because there was never any end product, so regulation was passed to make them illegal. But pyramid schemes managed to persist by restructuring their business so that it looked like they were making their money from selling goods or services, when they were actually still making the vast majority of their money from signup-related fees and costs. They cleverly changed the way they operated in order to dodge the new regulations, and they took on a new – legal – name: Multi-level marketing companies.
The concept behind multi-level marketing has been around for a long time, and there are numerous examples you may know that are not scams or pyramid schemes in disguise: such as Tupperware and Avon. Multi-level marketing, or MLM as its known, is a method companies use to sell their products without needing to manage distribution; market to individual customers; or rent a shop front. They outsource these responsibilities to those at the lowest levels of the business. Rather than handle direct sales themselves, companies instead recruit ‘reps’ or ‘members’, who pay money out of their own pocket for bulk purchases of whatever product the company makes, and then figure out how to sell on these items to friends, neighbours and whoever else they can convince. Back in the day, this would largely be done by handing out your flyers round the neighbourhood, developing a reputation as the local Tupperware guy, or by organising ‘parties’ where you would put on a bit of a get together, invite all your friends, and let them sample the products to see if they liked them.
Today, as you might expect, all of this has largely been replaced by social media, with reps and members leveraging their social networks and influence to sell products.
The idea behind successful MLMs it that the products are actually good. Of superior value. When we think of Tupperware, a household name built on the fact that their containers were so well made, we can see that in no way was this a scam. If you forked out a large portion of your savings and filled your garage with Tupperware, then you would probably be able to sell it all.
But with today’s MLMs, the barely legal pyramid schemes, their products are mostly crap. Overpriced and poorly made. Worse than the competition. If you sign up to one of these schemes today, they will make it seem like their products are in high demand, outstripping the supply, and that you will be able to sell them easily. When you are being tricked into joining the scheme, you may think to yourself: hang on a second. If these products are so good. Why have I never heard of them before? Why aren’t they in boots or superdrug?
To which the person recruiting you will say:
“We are an exclusive brand, giving you an unmissable chance to sell these products, an opportunity that even high street chains don’t have!”
They make it sound like the universe has just dropped this exclusive and unmissable opportunity right at our feet, when in actual fact they are using clever psychological tricks to lead us away from the true nature of the business.
These businesses also create, out of thin-air, overly professional and successful sounding titles for people who reach certain levels within the pyramid. These titles are cleverly done to elevate the sense of importance of those who achieve them, and persuade recruits that through this scheme, their professional development happens at a lightning pace compared to the classic corporate ladder. Very quickly, you can reach positions such as district manager and area manager, titles that to someone who has stagnated in their 9-5, sound incredibly attractive. If you actually look at the finances of it, people in these positions still earn barely any money, even though only a small fraction of people who sign up to the scheme ever make it there.
You may be thinking, but aren’t all businesses pyramid shaped with those at the top earning far more than those at the bottom? And then, rightly so, you could argue that life is pyramid shaped, with fewer and fewer winners the higher up the hierarchies you go. Which is also true, but when it comes to normal businesses, the people at the bottom don’t lose money, they have a salary or hourly rate. Sure, they may lose many other things, like their health, sanity and happiness; their friends, their 30s and their family time; their self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect. But not money! They still get paid. In an MLM scheme, most people will lose money.
So they create these titles as a clever way to trap people into the schemes. It’s relatively easy to ascend to the first fancy-sounding position, giving you this huge sense of achievement, a rush of endorphins, and the feeling that yes – this is a legitimate business structure and your dreams really are about to come true! Just don’t give up and you will start earning the big bucks!
With the now-illegal pyramid schemes, there was often a hefty up-front joining fee, and then a subscription fee to stay part of the pyramid. There had to be, right? No products were actually being sold. The fatcats at the top needed some way of staying rich. But with modern MLMs, the joining fees are negligible, about £50 or so. This will be a selling point that’s used to entice people. It’s virtually risk-free! If you know someone that’s part of a scheme, this is what they’ll probably let you know if you ever question whether or not they’re part of a scam. There’s no contractual obligation. But I know what you’re thinking, surely just £50 from new members isn’t enough money to make the people at the top rich, there must be some actual sales of the products in that case. And if the products are actually being sold, then how is this a scam and not just a normal, ethical business?
This is where the line between scam and legitimate business gets extra blurry, and it’s also the point at which these companies start to play off our emotions, our hopes and our dreams. It’s why the modern day MLMs are so cult-like. The MLMs don’t have a mandatory subscription fee to stay part of the business, that would be technically illegal. Instead, to incredible effect, they use psychological trickery and social pressure to keep pyramid members paying into the business every month.
Rather than contractually forcing their members to pay into the scheme every month, they simply persuade and trick them to purchase large amounts of product every month.
This starts from the get-go. As soon as you join, they will stress the importance of buying a load of the products for your own consumption, so that you can ‘get to know’ the business and fall in love with what it offers. Chances are that you’ll spend about £200 right off the bat. They’ll make it seem like you got some special member’s discount, reinforcing the feeling that you are part of some elite club, but you’ll still be making a purchase that will give the person who recruited you a nice chunk of change.
Remember that ‘promotion’ you got after a few weeks? Well, it turns out that in order to keep your fancy made-up title, you’ll need to hit a monthly quota, or risk descending back down the pyramid with your tail between your legs. You are therefore required to keep buying more and more products, the majority of which you will not sell.
When you started out, when you first got into the scheme, you were filled with optimism and excitement. You told all your friends and family about your new business venture, and most of them got excited too! We all have a certain amount of social influence over those around us. Some more than others. Because of that, these people will buy the new products we are selling regardless of whether they genuinely want them or not. They are doing it because they love and respect you, they are doing it to help you out. When you show them the product list, they are a bit sceptical.
“These are a bit expensive aren’t they? How can I trust this brand? Are they even good quality? It seems like they are overstating their claims?”
But they buy them anyway, drink the smoothies, use the face creams, but never want to buy them again. This initial rush is what boosts you up the first ladder of the pyramid and convinces you that you have found your new calling. But, when month two or three rolls around, you start to see that you just can no longer shift the product – none of your friends or family want it anymore.
You get pushier and pushier with your sales tactics. Suddenly, it’s all you talk about to anyone! Then you start getting desperate, you are no longer trying to convince people to buy the product because of its merits, you are pleading with people to buy them to save you from slipping down the pyramid.
At this point you have two options: get out, or get recruiting. And at the point you decide to get recruiting, you are already desperate, so you have no problem ignoring the realities of the business and giving people the same spiel you received when you first signed. Making the same overexaggerated claims. Telling the same lies. You start to wildly exaggerate, just like those who came before you, how much you are earning from the business. You post pictures working from home in full makeup, having fancy lunches, attending glitzy MLM conferences and having a lifestyle that does not mirror reality. You do this to make others jealous, so that they will also fall for the same traps you fell for; but you also do it because you are in denial about your lack of success so far. Seeking to counter this, chances are that the first people you look to recruit are your friends and family.
You lie to the people you love in order to save face in front of your new fellow cult members.
You push and push the people around you to join. When they say no, you message your MLM buddies for advice, they give you counter argument after counter argument to send back to your friends to finally convince them. Either they join, not likely, or you push so hard that you end up pushing them away. Your MLM buddies will tell you:
“They just don’t care about your future. They will never take risks. They are jealous of your progress. They don’t want to see you succeed. We do”
If your friends try and persuade you to leave, you won’t listen. They aren’t arguing against your logic, they are arguing against your hopes and dreams. And this will make you feel like they don’t have your best interests at heart, when in actual fact, they are the ones trying to save you.
Separating you from friends and family only pushes you further and further into the cult, embeds you deeper into the pyramid, and makes you more reliant on continuing your status within the organisation, and hence continuing your monthly purchase of product – regardless of if you end up selling it. You think you are a business owner, an entrepreneur, a distributor. When in reality, you are a customer.
And why women? Why is there a surge in female millennials being swept up in these schemes?
These companies are experts at capitalising on societal trends and individual psychology. They understand the power of narrative, so have ingeniously been co-opting and twisting the discourse of 21st century women’s empowerment, to do just the opposite of what the movement intended. These companies are using the movement’s rhetoric to exploit, not empower these women.
They play off the enticing aura that surrounds terms such as ‘miss independent’, ‘this girl can’, ‘she boss’, and of course, ‘boss ass bitch’, to present their scheme as an opportunity to become the enterprising woman who doesn’t need to rely on the 9-5 for income; who doesn’t have to deal with misogyny in the workplace; and who is in control of their finances and their future.
These companies also know that women are likely to get more attention than men when they start a business, for numerous reasons, but mainly because women are still far less likely to start a business – so it’s more noteworthy when they do – and they can get a bigger initial rush of support from friends and family. And the bigger the initial rush, the less likely a participant is to admit defeat and bow out of the pyramid – public humiliation.
It also provides a great counter argument when someone, particularly a man, tries to persuade a woman to leave one of these schemes:
“They just don’t think women should be independent, they just don’t want to see a young woman succeed” is what they will tell someone who has joined the pyramid. And this narrative is incredibly convincing, and it feels like it is empowering. But it’s not, it’s doing just the opposite. Funnelling their time and money up to those at the top of the pyramid.
The promises these barely legal pyramid schemes make are enticing to everyone. They sound great! But I’ve noticed that they particularly target women, and unfortunately, women end up losing the most money as a result.
To suggest that women need to be made aware that they are being targeted like this is not to say that they shouldn’t take risks, start their own businesses, and aim for financial independence. I believe they should if that’s what they want. But not through a pyramid scheme. These MLM schemes don’t care about women’s empowerment, about creating female entrepreneurs, they care about building their pyramid. About sucking as much money from those at the bottom as they can.
In 1986 US President Ronald Regan and his wife sat on a sofa in the white house and broadcast to the American public that if anyone should offer you drugs, you should “just say no”
In 2020, struggling podcast host Tim Spinks stood in his bedroom studio and told his listeners that if anyone should try and rope you into pyramid scheme, you should just say:
Thanks for listening