Terror, Greed and Salvation:
My experiences with the Amway Corporation
"The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common
thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than
condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to
acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes."
Part 1: Amway is your friend.
After we parted company, Ted immediately sniffed around and called me back the following evening with some leads on software companies and investment corporations. None of the leads seemed to fit with my goals, but he had obviously worked very hard on this and so I thanked him politely for his efforts. Then he asked, "How would you like some personal help from trained professionals to start your own business?" Thinking that he meant my own software company, I naturally said, "Sure would!" He said, "I have a venture that you might be very interested in. I'll send you some information about it." A week later I received my first Amway tape in the mail.
It was an audio cassette which had some sort of innocuous label like "Building a bright future in the 21st century" or some similarly attention-grabbing-yet-vague thing, attributed to a speaker named John Sestina. I didn't listen to it right away. I put it aside until I noticed it lying on my desk about a month later, so I popped it in my car as I headed to work.
The tape was a half hour in length and the content was virtually nil as far as I was concerned. It was first a discussion of how difficult it is to get money in the modern world, and how complicated it is to budget your time so that you are properly poised to make the most money and be successful. Then it shifted gears: How would you like to hear about a business which can raise your income and decrease the time you spend? Wouldn't that be wonderful? To hear more, contact the person who gave you this tape. (No genuine information given yet. The word "Amway" was not referred to in any way.) Immediately I was both unimpressed and suspicious, and not sufficiently motivated to do anything about it. I didn't call back. Ted called me back another month after that. He wanted to show me another presentation on his business. I didn't want to hear it, but I figured it was only polite to listen to him after all he'd tried to do for me. So I agreed to meet at his place.
Ted showed me a videotape this time which was just as vague as the first cassette, but this time he told me what he was up to. When he said the word "Amway" it was the first time I'd heard anything about it other than as an unknown product name. So I didn't have much of a reaction one way or the other. When he saw that I didn't respond in the negative, that's when he launched into the real sales pitch. And for the first time, I found myself interested. You see, although I already knew about pyramid schemes, Ted had some very convincing reasons why Amway WASN'T really a pyramid. "You see, we offer real products for your money, and you're saving money on stuff you would buy anyway, and besides that there's a certain point where you 'break away' from your sponsor so that you can actually make more money than I do, blah blah blah..." Matter of fact, Ted was well prepared with counterarguments for everything I could possibly say. His arguments were like Chinese food: they sounded terrific at the time, and an hour later I couldn't remember why they had convinced me.
The new recruit
Ted roped me in that day. I said I "might be interested" and
that was his cue. He invited me to an informational meeting that
weekend, and I finally agreed to check it out. That was to be my first
Amway meeting. And what an experience it was!|
"You'll love the people there!" Ted declared. "They're all so nice and friendly and helpful! They all love each other! Why, I've seen people put their wallets down on their seats to save their place, then just walk away! I've never seen that kind of trust displayed anywhere else, not even in church!"
I arrived at the meeting a half hour late and discovered a man in his sixties on stage delivering a speech which obviously had the Amway folks worked into a passionate frenzy. They hung on his every word and applauded wildly about every two minutes on average. Every single person in the room wore a conservative suit or dress, had an identical planner in black leather casing, and was diligently taking notes on a yellow legal pad. I thought it odd that they were taking so many notes, because for all I could see his speech was just more of the "all hype and no content" stuff that I'd heard on the tapes and everything. As I recall, the speech ran something like this: "In my experience, there are two kinds of people in this world. People who have excuses, and people who have money! You have an excuse to give me? You keep it to yourself." And: "I say to people everywhere I go, 'If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?'"
I soon realized that every single person in the room worshipped the ground this man walked on, the primary (perhaps the only) reason being that he was very rich. There was a massive standing ovation as he left the podium, which I reluctantly joined only after I was the last one left sitting. Ted was somewhere in that crowded room, and he located me with a delighted smile and wave. Ted said "I have more information for you in my car, but first, would you like to meet Mr. So-and-so?" (the speaker.) I said, "Not particularly, what would I want to say to him?" "Just ask him anything, he'll be so nice to you and this may be your chance in a lifetime to meet him." I didn't see why this was a chance in a lifetime, but it looked like people were crowding in as if they'd been waiting their entire lives just to touch him. Still I hung back.
Another man observed my hesitation and said, "It's all right, you can go talk to him. I had the same reaction when I first met him, but he's human just like you and me." I gave him a weird look as I thought "You just have NO clue what's on my mind, do you?" but I said nothing. Not wanting to cause a scene, I went forward and shook the guy's hand, saying, "Uh, hi, uh... Ted here sort of accosted me while we were both shopping for video games, you know... (dumb chuckle)" The guy said, "Well great, because you'll find that's how we normally get people into the business." I thought that was interesting, since it meant Ted had really been scouting for new members rather than striking up a conversation out of genuine interest in who I am and what I do.
After about thirty seconds of such awkward conversation, I excused myself and went away with Ted. Sure enough, he had a gigantic box in his car, filled with... stuff. Two more motivational cassettes. (I didn't know this yet, but Amway has approximately ONE THOUSAND motivational cassettes available. They all sound just like the ones I described previously.) A book called "Network of Champions." (I skimmed three chapters... no different from the tapes.) A catalog of Amway products. (Arriving home, I read it and guessed at comparative prices for products I buy normally. Mostly the prices were identical to retail.) And finally, some Amway products themselves. Being a typical apartment-based college student, I was really hoping it would be free food, but they were all Amway's own soap and detergent products. I wasn't supposed to use them anyway, Ted explained, just look at them. Ted said that if I wanted to get signed up, I could call him back and pay $150 for a "starter kit." What would the starter kit contain? Why, more motivational materials of course, and more products, and "all the tools you need to start your business."
In spite of everything I'd encountered in that meeting, I was gradually tapping into the spirit of Amway. I had managed to find that little voice in my head that whispered "Wait! I think something's odd about this whole situation!" and tell it to shut the heck up and stop preventing me from achieving success. The people were excited because they all KNEW they were going to get rich. No question. And I liked that. They all talked about retirement and golfing, and I wasn't too keen on that because I'm so young. But I could still enjoy the idea that in just a couple of years, "The Business" would have earned me enough money to fund the start of my own company, and I could spend my life writing games. I'd even hire my own actors and a team of artists, without worrying about the money involved.
Shadows of doubt
It wasn't until the next day, when I tried to read the book in
all its empty rhetorical glory, that the doubt started to creep back in.
Why aren't they telling me anything? Why are they cushioning their
information in all this pompous talk about values and goals and dreams
without telling me the nitty-gritty details of the business? Not only
that, but the tapes were starting to almost... scare me? They were all
rich, super right-wing, fiftyish men and women who were in every way
identical to the speaker at the meeting, and they all talked along these
lines: You're going to get rich just like us, but you must be willing to
work very hard for very little money in the beginning because it's an
exponential curve and you'll start out low. You must really WANT to
achieve success, and you must listen hard and take notes when you hear
tapes and speakers. You must listen to at least one tape per day (and
here's where I started to get the picture about just how many tapes
there were!) and you must love, honor and respect your upline friends,
who know everything ("upline" means your sponsor and everyone else above
you in the tree) and above all you must NEVER for a moment listen to
naysayers who try to talk you out of Amway. They are fools who don't
understand the system, they are failures who haven't made it, and if you
give them the slightest bit of credibility then they will destroy your
chances of success. If your family or friends try to talk you out of
it, ignore them because they are not truly your friends.|
I was bothered by the amount of time they said would be going into Amway; not just the time one spent selling things, but also the time that I would (MUST) spend going to meetings, listening to tapes, and reading their books. I was very unhappy at the prospect of never listening to rock music in my car again because an Amway tape would always be running.
I resolved to call Ted that night and run down a list of things that were bothering me. Why should I get involved in this? I'm not a salesman. I mean, sure, there's money to be made (I was absolutely convinced) but what's wrong with making money the old-fashioned way? I LIKE computer programming. And I like meeting people too, no question, but I don't like sales pitches and I can't stand the people who give them. If I become one then people who think as I do will no longer like me. And hey, what if Amway takes up all my time and I'm never able to learn all the tricks and tools of the software biz? Finally, a moral issue: great wealth, yes, but would devoting my life to Amway give me the sense of ACCOMPLISHMENT that I craved? Could I respect myself after getting rich off Amway? How would I be doing my part to make the world a better place?
When I was done with my tirade, Ted said "Uh huh," to prove that he was listening, and said nothing else. He just continued to listen after I was done talking. And so I continued to say how worried I was, and I began repeating myself just a bit. And finally, for the sake of breaking the silence, I said "Look, it sounds like it works for a lot of people, I don't doubt it could make me rich if I gave it a chance. But those are my concerns." And Ted started to talk.
Ted fed me more of his Chinese food answers and I swung around to his side once again. Not only did he tell me how rich and successful I would be with only a few working hours per week, not only did he say that I could quit the Business in just a few years and enjoy the fruits of my labor, but he also told me more about the social wonder that was Amway. It's all about "people helping people": you get rich, then you help others become rich. (Kind of begs the question, doesn't it? Why is "getting rich," spread over however many people, supposed to be a goal in itself when it comes to changing the world?) People in Amway love each other so much, they're the best people in the world. Did I know that the divorce rate among Amway couples was 1%? Not only will Amway tell you how to get rich, but the wise sages in your upline will also teach you how to keep your marriage together and make more friends. Isn't that a lovely thought?
He had me convinced again, and I was gung-ho. I so much wanted to hear more that I invited HIM to lunch that weekend. He said "Let's make it breakfast instead, and I'll bring along somebody that you'll want to meet."
Calling the big guns
On Saturday morning there was a knock at my door, and there
stood two men in full business attire, even at 9:30 on a Saturday
morning. One was Ted. The other was a new character in this story
whom we shall call "Phil." Phil was what was known in the business as
a "Direct," meaning he'd achieved a certain degree of success in Amway
and he had some sort of special relationship with the company when it
came to buying and selling products. As I was learning, there were a
number of ranks to be gained as you sponsored more and more people who
buy Amway products. "Direct" was the first level of recognition, and
above that were ranks named after various jewels. Pearl, Ruby,
Emerald, a bunch like that - and the king of them all was the Diamond.
There are higher levels, such as Double Diamond and Crown Diamond and
so on, but the Diamond level is the basic goalpost of success. Most
everyone who spoke on tapes and at meetings was a Diamond or above.
Seems perfectly consistent for a group that is so preoccupied with
money to name themselves after jewels.|
Phil was also a computer programmer. He was therefore able to cut straight to all my deepest worries and doubts about the computer industry and tell me that being successful would be difficult, to say the least. He, Phil, had been lucky. He was making about 100K, but he had topped off because it's much easier to hire a hotshot young programmer who'll work for low pay (like me!) than it is to pay for someone like Phil's salary. Therefore, Phil would continue to make the same amount of money until he retired, then his income level would plummet and he'd have to give up his lifestyle. But thank God he had Amway to save him!
With Phil and Ted working on me together, I hadn't a chance. I said, "I think I'll do it!" And it was completely unsurprising to me that Ted instantly invited me to the next Amway meeting. I noted with some dismay that there seemed to be not one meeting per month or even one per week, but several meetings every single week. Also, this would be the second Tuesday in a row that I'd been to a meeting, and I had a club on Tuesdays that I didn't like to miss so many times. Still, the riches beckoned. So Ted said he would pick me up in his car on Tuesday, because he's such a nice guy who's always ready to go out of his way for me.
That Sunday my father came into town. My father is a very
skeptical guy, much more so than I, and so I was reluctant to tell him
about this whole story for fear of sounding foolish. But he wanted to
plan to have dinner together on Tuesday night, and I was more
embarrassed to make excuses without telling him the real reason I
couldn't go. So finally I confessed to the whole thing and told my
story from the beginning. I said I wasn't sure if I was doing the right
thing, but I was going to sign up because I didn't see what I had to
lose. To my surprise, Dad didn't try very hard to talk to me out of it,
and I was grateful for that. (A wise move, too. If he'd tried to talk
me out of it at that point I probably would have said "I knew you
wouldn't understand" and ignored him.) Instead, he said "I only want to
suggest you should do more research on it. Maybe you could find
something on the internet that would be useful." I said I'd consider
When I got home I halfheartedly searched for "amway" on the web and found nothing but good things. Amway had their own home page which was all hype and ads, and countless people advertised a "unique business opportunity" on their pages. So I figured I'd done my part, and on Tuesday I went with Ted.
The meeting was the same. People wore suits and took diligent notes and listened in adulation as the speaker (I think this was Charlie Marsh) told them they could be rich if they all followed "The Plan" with absolute faith and never questioned their upline, even when the going got tough. Phil was not at the meeting, but his lovely wife "Connie" was. She was attractive for a middle-aged woman, though she also seemed to care for nothing in her life besides money.
Something new was dawning on me. Ted had told me that the number one reason I'd be happy at Amway was that I'd like the people -- "I would rather be in a bad business with good people than a good business with bad people" ran the common quote from a Diamond named John Sestina. (In case you forgot, he was the speaker on my very first tape.) He said I couldn't be in a business if I didn't like the people. There was just one catch: I didn't! I couldn't think of anyone I'd met so far whom I would ever want for a friend. They all could have been carbon copies of each other.
The meeting came to an end. Once again I was pushed forward to meet the distinguished gentleman, but this time I didn't hesitate and I didn't ask him about Amway. Instead I said: "You said that one thing you'd like to do with your enormous free time is learn computer programming. Do you need a personal tutor?" And he gave me a patronizing smile and said that with all the trained professionals he knew, he was sure he didn't need my help. Translation: "I'm not really looking for anyone to help me learn computers, boy. That's just talk."
At this point Ted got me to tell him that I would be receiving a paycheck on Thursday and I'd be ready to sign up then. I saw Connie working on another newbie, and the newbie was claiming to be skeptical but clearly growing more enthusiastic by the minute. Like me.
Ted then took the opportunity to invite me to one of two gatherings, my choice: a large meeting (yes, another one!) on Thursday or a small party at Phil and Connie's house on Friday. (Phil, being a Direct, has a medium-sized group of followers who admire and adore him, i.e. his downline. They frequently meet in his house.) I decided to choose the small party because of some homework considerations on the night of the meeting. I was, in fact, already eager to get home because I had an assignment due the next morning.
On the way home, we got lost. Maybe Ted's an inept driver, or maybe he just wanted to keep me talking longer; either one seems equally likely. I didn't waste the opportunity. I started questioning him in more depth than ever before. I demanded straight answers out of him and every time he started to wander off the subject, I would interrupt and ask a new question. Having been a debater in high school, I had a fair amount of philosophy under my belt, so first I hit him with the philosophical theory that the only action which is worthwhile is one which should be a universal law... if Amway is good then the whole world should do it. "How would the world be different if everybody were in Amway?" I asked. Without thinking, Ted first emitted more empty rhetoric: "Everyone would be rich! There'd be no more wars!" "Yes, but how can everybody be rich when there's only a finite amount of money to go around? No matter which way you arrange all the money and resources on the planet, you'll have the same total amount." "There's not a finite amount of money, there's as much as there needs to be." "Okay, how can everyone get rich if everyone on the planet is already signed up? There's no one left to sponsor, and everyone needs to sponsor several people to benefit." "Yes, well parents can sponsor their children." "Children don't have any money." "Okay, but why are you worried about that? There's no chance that the whole planet will ever sign up." "So you DON'T think it's a universal law?" "Of course not! Somebody has to buy retail products!" "So you don't think everyone should be a part of Amway?" "Er... I didn't say that. I think everyone should. That way they could all be rich. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?" I'd never heard so many reversals in so few sentences before. I changed the subject.
"Is it true what they say on the tapes, that no one succeeds without devoting their full time and energy to Amway?" "The tapes sometimes send a mixed message. It's not true." "How can the tapes be wrong when you're supposed to believe everything a Diamond says?" Vague nonanswers. Next subject. "Why does everyone wear suits?" "People won't take you seriously if you offer a business proposition and don't wear a suit." "I don't want to wear a suit all the time. Actually I would have taken YOU more seriously from the beginning if you'd been dressed like a real person." "Not everyone is like you." And on and on. Ted must have been so relieved to get me out of his car, although he said (as he always would) that "It's been a lot of fun, hasn't it?"
With so many bad, unsatisfying answers you'd think I'd be backing out by now. But I didn't. My mindset was still "What have I got to lose? Can I risk missing a good opportunity?" And so it was that I got home close to midnight on Tuesday night, too tired to do my assignment. I did it hastily and shoddily the next morning, and anticipated a fairly poor grade on it.
Wednesday passed. I couldn't go to work because I was busy with my assignment. I went home after my first class to finish. About twenty minutes before I had to leave for the next class, I decided to hop onto the internet to see what was up. Just out of curiosity, I searched the net for "amway" one more time. Again, nothing illuminating. Then, out of further curiosity, I searched for "amway + bad", using a different search engine which my Dad had recommended. And that's when I saw something that stopped me cold in my tracks.
With growing fascination, I printed out the entire document so I could read it as I headed to class. That evening I stayed up for hours sifting through thousands of lines of information. One thing was instantly clear: I had been rescued from a horrible mistake.