No, this isn't going to be where I try to sign you on to join my scheme.
Today, I am a success coach and a motivational speaker. I love making a difference in people’s lives and guiding them to become the best version of themselves. I am so very happy with my career, however, just a few short years before I became a success coach, I was in a pyramid scheme. At the time, I was studying to get my Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Human Resources; I was just 20 years old.
With this degree in mind, I always thought that I would pursue a 9-5 job in the corporate world. However, one day in university, I was introduced to network marketing or multi-level marketing (MLM). This industry completely shifted my mindset from wanting a 9-5 job to wanting to become a full-time entrepreneur.
What really attracted me to the world of network marketing was the whole idea of “being your own boss.” I wanted the promised “financial freedom,” to work my own hours, and the opportunity to make a passive income while at the same time making a difference in people’s lives. It sounded like a dream come true!
I didn’t realize it at the time that it actually was too good to be true! Lesson learned.
Becoming an MLM “Entrepreneur”
At the time, I jumped right in and started working for a network marketing company selling healthy energy drinks. When I first started working with this company, I was very excited about the products and the fact that a “healthy” energy drink even existed. But it wasn’t just the company or the products, I was also excited because I made so many new friends.
As I first progressed in the company, I loved all the recognition I received from everyone. I felt like a real entrepreneur, and I honestly did believe that I actually owned my own business. I was buying endless amounts of products every single month, but I put in a lot of work to sell them. I literally did this full time, and I treated it like my actual job.
Everyone kept telling me that I actually was making money, but in hindsight, that just wasn’t true at all. In order to be paid by the company, you had to purchase a certain amount of products every month. I didn’t make a cent because when I “got paid” the money went straight into purchasing more products. (Usually, in a job, you don’t need to purchase products on a consistent basis in order to get your commission as a sales ambassador.)
I felt like a real entrepreneur, and I honestly did believe that I actually owned my own business.
Another telltale sign that this was, in fact, a pyramid scheme is that most of my actual income came from recruiting people and not from product sales. They use the product as a front so that they can stay legal in the eyes of the law when in effect it’s still just a recruiting scam. By law, a pyramid scheme is when the company’s main source of income comes from recruiting people and not selling the products. This is effectively exactly what this company was doing, despite the product front.
When I joined the company they promised high returns within a short period of time while putting minimal effort into building your business. They preached this in order to attract new recruits. Even then, it was so hard to recruit people myself. Furthermore, these promises of high returns for low effort were never really attained. Even though members of the company said they were making a lot of money, behind the scenes we were all broke.
Professional “Body Draggers”
After nearly three years, I had hardly made any money. Actually, now that I think about it, I wasn’t even close to breaking even. I was constantly encouraged to buy more products, but I lost anything I put into the company. I kept on pushing myself to make sales and message everyone that I knew about this “opportunity” (because that’s what they told us to do), but still, I didn’t make a cent.
I would say I was definitely naive...actually naive is an understatement. I was brainwashed. If you didn’t make any sales even though you put your heart and soul into it, it was always your fault. They would say, “You didn’t work hard enough” or “You need to think more positively.”
They told us to message or call everyone...I do mean everyone! I honestly felt so awkward messaging people because I felt like I was cheating them. I felt like I was selling them on a lie. I would start the message off with, “Hi, it’s been so long, how have you been?” The acquaintance then told me how they were doing, and then I would introduce the “opportunity” to them.
We were taught that we are the messengers, not the message. Our mentor at the time said that we had to be “professional body draggers.” So we never questioned him at all and always followed what he did. If our friends were not interested or didn’t support our new business, we were encouraged to cut them out of our lives.
Our mentor at the time said that we had to be “Professional body draggers.”
For those that stuck around, usually, at that point they would ask for more information, and this is where it gets really good. We were taught during our MLM training to not let the person know anything about what the business was actually about. You were encouraged to always invite them to a one-on-one meeting or a company event to learn more about it. If the prospect asked questions, something I was taught to say was, “It’s kind of like a haircut, I can’t exactly explain it; I have to show you.”
The Cult Mentality
During our weekly company presentation events, we used to open the event with a company promo video. The video had a lot of energy in it and it's loud uplifting music echoed throughout the entire venue. At one specific point in the video, all of the members of the company were encouraged to scream, “yes,” and jump out of our seats at the same time! When I look back at this, we probably scared people away.
One of the tactics used to recruit new members was to invite your friend or acquaintance to a party at a house, but when the person got to the “party,” it was an entire sales presentation that was designed to recruit the person you brought. This person had no idea that the party would encompass a sales presentation—they would be blindsided.
If the potential recruit chose not to join as a member, the members would guilt them for not joining. They would say things like “You’re going to become a slave working a 9-5 all of your life,” or “You will basically be building someone else’s dream and not yours.”
It was an “us against them” culture.
Another tactic was to let the person you’re trying to recruit know that there is a get together happening at a particular person’s house and there is going to be an American guy who has made millions of dollars through being in this industry: “You have got to meet him.” Or “He can show you how he did it.”
We were all completely brainwashed, and a lot of us didn’t know what was really happening. We didn’t question our so-called leader. If anyone did, they were shunned and considered an outcast. It turned into a very toxic environment. It was an “us against them” culture.
We were taught to believe that we owned our own business. I truly thought I did. However, at the time I couldn’t realize that we were just customers of the product. We had no say in how the company was run, no shares in the company, and no influence over which products are sold, how the products are sold, or where they are sold.
I honestly thought I would make a very long career out of being in the network marketing industry. Of course, that clearly did not happen.
It wasn’t until my last year in the company that I realized it was too good to be true. Eventually, I realized that my hard work simply didn’t match the income I was making. Most of the “friends” I had made revealed themselves as not having my best interest in mind. I was swindled for nearly three years of my life only to come out empty-handed—except for some key lessons learned.
Of all the things going wrong, the unethical behavior within the company was what really made me leave. There was one experience that I had in which I felt they were really pushing my boundaries. I will never forget it.
All of the leaders, including myself, were at our mentor’s penthouse in Cape Town, South Africa one day. They wanted to make a testimonial video with all of the leaders sharing how wonderful our company was and how much money we were all making. My other mentor—who introduced me to the company in university—told me to say in the video that I was making R10,000 a month. I was making absolutely nothing.
My other mentor—who introduced me to the company in university—told me to say in the video that I was making R10,000 a month. I was making absolutely nothing.
At the time with the exchange rate between the Rand and the Dollar, I had to say that I was making the equivalent to $1500 a month. This was a lot of money at the time, especially in South Africa. I did the testimonial video, however, I refused to say that I was making $1500 a month. This testimonial video was never released, and I say thank goodness to that.
What really hurt me the most was the fact that I thought the friends and mentors I had made wanted the best for me. Looking back, I realize that they just wanted to use me to further their own needs.
I decided to leave it all behind; I quit.
Becoming My Own Entrepreneur
I can honestly say that it was difficult for me to quit and leave this company as I really put mine all into it. But the one thing that kept me grounded throughout this challenging experience was my morality.
Now I want to be clear and say that I’m sure that there are people out there who are in network marketing that are a part of some wonderful companies having wonderful experiences, and loving what they do. I’m happy for you; I’m simply sharing a bad experience of mine.
I used to have a lot of regrets about joining this industry in the first place, and I felt embarrassed that I was part of it. I felt like a failure. However I realized that there is no such thing as failure, only lessons learned.
“I never lose. I either win or learn." — Nelson Mandela
Despite the negative beliefs about network marketing, I learned a ton of critical skills during my time there: sales, marketing, presenting, the power of influence, how to do an elevator pitch, how to network, etc.
I have always genuinely had a passion for helping people, but this is where I first learned how to do motivational speaking. Though as time went on, however, it became very clear to me that the people who were rooting for my “success” in the company didn’t truly want to see me succeed in life. I was encouraged to lie about my earnings, and never ever quit, otherwise, I would be considered a complete and utter failure.
It took time for me to follow my integrity out of the MLM, but the skills this experience helped me hone ultimately gave me the confidence to pursue a career that was truly right for me.
One of the biggest emotional hurdles that I had to overcome was the fact that I feel like my mentors didn’t really want the best for me. This moved me to become a mentor that truly has a vested interest in helping people become the best version of themselves and a mentor that has my mentee’s best interest. My passion now is helping people feel that for themselves—a mentor that is truly there every step of the way for my mentee.
I do believe that everything happens for a reason and I was meant to go on this network marketing path in order to discover my true passion—my deep desire for empowering people and making a difference in their lives.
WRITTEN BYYumna Aysen