What I learned about belonging from my brief encounter with a multi-level marketing scheme
I was struggling to settle on a topic for this week’s installment until I had the following exchange with my friend Mike:
The people have spoken (well, one person), so I’m going to tell the story of the time one of my startup’s customers tried to recruit me into a multi-level marketing scheme. If you’d rather hear about police abolition or my musical, blame Mike—and cross your fingers that I text you instead the next time I can’t decide what to write about.
Anyway: in the summer of 2016 I was 26 and living in Detroit, and running a startup that wasn’t doing very well. I had started the company when I was 24, basically a child, and we had just had a year or so where we had been doing very well indeed; we had graduated from a famous accelerator in California often called “the Harvard of startups,” and I had taken a lot of coffee meetings that ended with the person across from me deciding to wire us lots of money based on a pitch deck or a particularly canny line, or based just on the fact that I was young and male and have always been uncomfortably good at intuiting who the person I’m talking to wants me to be and then temporarily becoming that person.
But now the accelerator had ended and we were back in Detroit, where we were realizing that much of the success we’d previously attributed to our brilliance had actually been the result of dumb luck. (For example: one of our local competitors had turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and had been busted by the FBI during our time at the accelerator, flooding the market with desperate customers in need of a new solution.)
Our team of around ten or so, all of whom had either been my friends already or become them, was so visibly counting on me, and I lived in constant fear of letting them—not to mention our customers and investors—down. My relationship with the millions of dollars we had just been given had become kind of like the relationship between Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in the last scene of The Graduate, when he’s just broken up her wedding and they ride away together in the back of that bus, her wedding dress still on, and give each other that panicked look that says, Okay, now what do we do?
It was in this context that one of our customers invited me to meet with her and her husband at their home in the suburbs. Her name was Veronica Lovelorn, which is, of course, a fake name I invented for the purposes of this piece, but I promise you that her real name was equally ridiculous.
It wasn’t unusual for our customers to want to meet us. My company was a tech-powered property management service for small-time landlords, and as such we spent a lot of time in American real estate’s emotionally nebulous netherworld. Amateur real estate investors are a weird bunch: they tend to be both enthusiastic capitalists and yet also drawn to real estate for idiosyncratic, highly personal reasons, of which “I ran the numbers and this seemed like the best investment” is rarely one. Some of them like the idea of their investment being put to use as a home for a real person instead of just being a line item on some giant company’s balance sheet; others have been suckered by the ever-present portrayal of real estate as a can’t-lose investment strategy; and still others are the type who want to be “entrepreneurial,” but aren’t creative enough to actually come up with their own business idea.
I wasn’t sure which Veronica was. She owned a few properties that we managed, and she’d recommended us to a few landlord friends who had also become our customers. Today, of course, if I was running a business and a customer asked me to drive out to their home for a meeting, I would probably ask at least one follow-up question—such as “Why?” or “What about?”—before agreeing. But we were desperate for any and all growth we could get, and it seemed like there was a chance this meeting could lead to some. Besides, at 26, I still found it hard to say no any time an “adult” asked me to do something.
Veronica lived in Grosse Pointe, a wealthy, predominantly white suburb bordering Detroit’s eastern edge that was infamous at the time for having erected a literal wall in the middle of the road to prevent Detroiters from driving into their city. Her house was nice that generic suburban way, like a magazine spread come to life. Most notable, though, was the fact that though I had been under the impression I was meeting with just Veronica and her husband, there were at least ten other people there when I arrived. They were all good-looking in that way people in their early forties often are, where you could tell they’d been even better-looking in the recent past and had just begun the long, slow decline of middle age.
I grabbed a paper plate of supermarket hors d’oeuvres, adjusted the tuck of that one button-down shirt I always wore to meetings, and started making my way around the living room, where—after multiple people asked me how I knew Veronica—it quickly became clear that this was not, in fact, a business meeting at all, but rather some kind of social event. Still, everyone was unfailingly lovely and polite, and no one acted as if it were at all strange that I was a decade younger than everyone else there. Wanting to fit in, I quickly found myself exaggerating the extent of my relationship with Veronica, implying that she was somehow an extra-special customer and not just one of the two hundred or so people who paid us to manage their properties.
Then Veronica asked us all to take a seat—so, she said, “the presentation could begin.” I hadn’t been aware that there was even going to be a presentation, but by the time everyone started sitting down, it was too late for me to make a discreet exit. So I grabbed a spot with the rest of the crowd and steeled myself for whatever it was I was about to experience.
The presentation—which lasted well over an hour—was so vague, and so full of generic stock imagery and ambiguous, new-agey mumbo-jumbo, that it took me a while to even figure out what it was about. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, I thought I might have just accidentally stumbled into recruitment for a cult, and so I was relieved when, about midway through, I finally realized that this was “just” a multi-level marketing scheme.
I still don’t remember exactly what service the company they’d been ensnared by actually provided: it had something to do with getting a discount on your existing cable bundle, or maybe switching to a new, superior cable bundle. I don’t remember any of the details of how the finances of the system worked, or even how much money they claimed you could make.
I probably don’t remember these things because none of the speakers spent much time on them. Instead, each presenter extolled the true greatest benefit of this scheme: the incredible community it had allowed them to become a part of. Speaker after speaker became visibly emotional discussing the friends they had made and the bonds they had forged through their membership with this company. Multiple people seemed to be on the verge of genuine tears.
This one hour completely changed my perception of the kinds of people who get sucked into MLM schemes. I had assumed they were largely driven by greed. But I realized, that afternoon on Veronica’s extra-wide couch, that they were actually driven by loneliness. And I felt sad for them, even as I made my half-assed excuses and got the hell out of there as soon as the presentation ended: how have we ended up with a society where so many are so desperate for a kind of belonging they can’t find anywhere else?
When I got back to our office—which was also our house—I told the rest of my team what had happened, and we collapsed in laughter. We were outsiders in so many ways: startup types in one of the most old-school industries around; young people in a field dominated by middle-aged traditionalists; relative newcomers to Detroit. At the time I saw my misadventure at Veronica’s house as just one more instance of my startup odyssey giving me a peek at a world so totally unlike my own.
But looking back on it now, I’m not sure Veronica and I were as different as I would have had myself believe. Sure, my company wasn’t a fraud built on taking advantage of the vulnerable—though we certainly got accused of being all that and more when we collapsed a few years later. But I too had gotten into business primarily out of a search for community: I wanted to build something meaningful with the people I cared about the most.
More than anything else, that was why I pushed through the sleepless nights and the repeat heartaches and the non-stop stress that, to this day, I’m convinced took at least five years off my life—not really for the money, not even really out of any deep conviction in the importance of what my company did, but to build a community around me. To belong, and to provide others with a sense of belonging. And when the company shut down, it was that feeling of belonging that I missed the most.
I have a new job now, one where a core part of my work is creating community. I think a lot about the different places people find belonging, or at least try to. And I think about Veronica. Though I never sold a single cable bundle on her behalf, in a way, she and her fellow hucksters got to me anyway.
Yours in having just now realized that if I ever wanted to start a multi-level marketing company myself, I’d probably be pretty good at it,
Read of the week: speaking of community, this Vice article about a “pro-choice” suicide forum raises some thorny questions about belonging, free speech, and the limits of individual rights. (Be warned: not a light read.)