A few days ago, while working my day job (in retail-sales) I received an unusual proposition from an inquisitive customer I had spent some time assisting. He explained he was starting up his own business and because he was impressed with my attitude and customer-service skills he wanted to know if I might be interested in working for him. I was instantly skeptical. Not so much of the offer itself, but of why I would want to switch one sales job for what I assumed would be another. But not wanting to appear rude, I politely accepted his contact information and quickly changed the subject. (After all, talking about changing jobs at your place of work is a tad unseemly.) He must have picked up on the whole ‘thanks but no-thanks’ vibe. After a bit more banter he changed the subject back to his new business, this time making an earnest plea for me to at least come check it out to see if I might be interested.
It was a good pitch. What got me was how sincere and optimistic he was. He said things like, “this is more than just a business - I really believe
in this” followed by, “if you give it a chance, you will too” and the tried and true, “This is an opportunity to be a part of something great.” Among the clichés he dished out few details about his new startup (something to do with computers), but since I was still uncomfortable having such a conversation at work I simply assured him we could talk later and excused myself.
I spoke with him on the phone the next day (yesterday) and scheduled a job interview for myself later the same day. The interview would be at his house (as it turned out he lived nearby and this was simply convenient) with the promise that if it went well I would be invited to go with him and a few other prospective employees to a hiring function at some conference hall downtown. I still wondered if it would turn out to be worthwhile, but by then I was interested enough to put on a business suit.
I am such a sucker.
I arrived at his modest middle-class home (a fair bit nicer than my tiny townhouse I should add) relieved to see him wearing a suit and tie as well. At least I wasn’t overdressed. I met his wife and two of his kids– everything seemed normal. After introductions, he and I sat down alone to discuss business. As he started prattling on about his new company I was immediately taken aback by the fact that he didn’t seem the least bit interested in me at all. He had no questions about my past work experience or job skills. Worse, he started making promises about becoming instantly rich and retiring in a few years. I quickly became suspicious that he was about to try to sell me something. Then it happened. He took out a little sheet of paper and prefaced his briefing with, “this isn’t a pyramid scheme or anything” as he drew a bunch of little circles and lines in the shape of, well, a pyramid.
I laughed out loud.
I couldn’t believe that I had been suckered into such a lame con. When I asked him a bunch of questions I was surprised by what I found out. Simply put, he wasn’t any kind of conman. He was a sucker too. He wasn’t even a business owner – he just thought he was. In truth, he was a disgruntled postal clerk (go figure) who had been conned into purchasing an own-your-own-business kit from some company I’d never heard of. The whole scheme involved purchasing goods from what he called a ‘virtual mall’ on the internet and selling – get this: own-your-own-business kits.
Of course you have to pay up front for the kit, which grants the sole privilege of being able to shop in the virtual mall. And a percentage of every overpriced sale helps line the pockets of those higher-up in the pyramid. My would-be employer was so enamored with the concept that he shopped there religiously. He honestly believed that by purchasing all his goods online he was making himself richer. It was his sincerity that had pulled me in, and his sincerity was still there. Of course he hadn’t made any real money doing this, but he was sure his big payday was just around the corner. Recruited as a consumer he thought he was a businessman, and he really believed he was doing me a favor by letting me in on the fun. I didn’t have the heart to tell him just how screwed up it all was.
A little while later another would-be-millionaire, who had already bought a kit from my new friend, arrived and announced it was time to leave for the big meeting downtown. I was thankful I had discovered that I was dealing with kooks before I ended up trapped at what was sure to be some sort of Jim Jones brainwashing session. Of course there was going to be free food at the meeting, but there was no way that was going to be incentive enough to waste the rest of my evening. Then again my wife was away taking an evening college class, and I knew there wasn’t much in the fridge for me to fix for myself. How bad could it be?
It turned out to be almost fun, in a sick kind of way. It was like being in one of those TV infomercials. What struck me most was how happy everyone was. There was certainly no shortage of fools who seemed to think they had found paradise. I learned that a lot of them were already ‘business owners’ who came to these meetings regularly. It was half recruitment, half pep-rally for the recruited. It was like group therapy – for idiots. I found myself wondering who among the crowd might be silent objectors like me, along for the ride but more interested in the freak show than the main event. The guest speaker, who definitely was a confidence man, was at least entertaining. It was like watching standup – dinner and a show. Who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
Now I just hope they accepted ‘no’ as an answer and don’t keep trying to recruit me like those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses I unwittingly let into the house that one time.