An Open Apology To Everyone I Annoyed When I Was In A Pyramid Scheme

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I am so sorry I was ever a part of this mess.

Oh my God, you guys, I’m so, so sorry. If I had known what a horrific hell-beast this entire Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) culture would become out here in these cruel suburban streets, I never would’ve asked you to buy anything from me ever. Please accept my apology for having been one more friend who got caught up in a pyramid scheme. 

Please believe that my foray into the Pyramid Cult Community started innocently. I was a new mom in a new town during a recession when I thought I’d put my love of talking candidly about sex to good use by educating housewives about adult novelties in private in-home parties through a major MLM company that specialized in sex toys and romance aids. 

Alright, fine. Obviously, I’d seen the horrors of losing friends to pyramid schemes but I figured the kind of work I was doing would be different.

I was personally delivering education to curious women who were never going to set foot in a sex shop out of terror of the unknown. I was teaching women about their bodies and how to enjoy them via free Sex Ed Q&As that featured a completely voluntary shopping opportunity at the end. I was the ride and the gift shop right in your own living room! To me, this was a public service as much as it was a job and, what’s more, it was a ton of fun to watch women open up, ask questions, and laugh about things they'd never been able to before.

I even joined a couple other of these MLM companies for some low-key cash on the side. In all three instances, I made it clear to my supervisors that I was never going to resort to aggressive sales techniques and I wasn't going to recruit anyone to work under me. I’m too lazy to be anyone’s boss and pressuring my friends to buy stuff they don’t need felt gross.

All three “upline” supervisors agreed to my method, and I spent a couple years casually slinging hydroponic gardens, artsy vinyl nail wraps, and dildos to any of my friends who wanted them. It wasn’t a bad gig.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that I was signing myself up to be one part in a seemingly ubiquitous culture of Crazy. It took me about a year to realize that being part of the at-home sales rep industry wasn’t anything I wanted a part of. God was I naïve.

Alright, I wasn’t completely clueless. Like anybody born in the 80s, I knew at least one Tupperware rep in the neighborhood who came calling as often as the Avon Lady, and I’d been to more than a few Mary Kay “makeover parties.” But I was not at all prepared for the explosion of popularity in these multilevel marketing sales gigs had grown since I was a child, and I was even less prepared to combat their armies of “independent consultants” who came in droves, usually disguised as friends.

These women stampeded into my newsfeed, aggressively vying for attention to shamelessly plug mediocre products while also maniacally exalting the merits of their “employers.” 

They caught me in my inboxes, coming out of the woodwork to try to sell me candles, tote bags, heavily-caffeinated weight loss shakes, and flimsy leggings. I woke up to find I’d been added to Secret Groups and Online Parties on Facebook, forcing me to wade through a deluge of shameless advertising to excuse myself without coming to blows with someone just trying to get me to buy her $700 wrinkle cream.

They posted relentlessly, extolling the virtues of what they have somehow been brainwashed to believe is their “own business!!!!!!!!!!” despite not owning any part of the company, not having any control over the management or business model, and having to shell out tons of cash for marketing materials they have no say in developing.

I was invited to seemingly innocuous parties with friends only to find myself Trojan Horsed with sales pitches and recruitment tactics, sometimes after a communal prayer that we unassuming victims would develop rapid Stockholm Syndrome and climb aboard this shameless sh*t parade.

Like I said: I am so sorry I was ever a part of this mess.

In an age when women are expected to “do it all,” a job that allows some to stay home during the day with our kids if we want to and make our own hours is very appealing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

And while the whole “pyramid scheme” concept seems problematic to outsiders, it should be understood that absolutely everyone participating knows what they’re getting into; recruiters explain the whole “downline/upline” model to prospective consultants up front. Everyone signing up gives consent to making money for all the people above them and, really, how is that so different from any other sales gig? At least independent consultants don’t have to clock in, wear a uniform, or deal with mall parking.

It’s just the rest of it that has become so toxic and exhausting.

Can someone explain to me why it would be considered trashy to brag about the exact dollar amount I’ve earned each month to everyone in my life in normal circumstances, but it’s somehow socially acceptable for MLM representatives in pyramid schemes to post their precise incomes all over social media as a means to get more subordinates?

Similarly, why is it okay for my sales rep friends to repeatedly beg me to “help” them reach their never-ending new car/dream vacation/promotion goals by spending more money on their overlord's product, when I certainly couldn’t do the same if I wasn’t shilling some overpriced merch of my own?

Why do people from my past think it’s okay to come out of nowhere, put in the energy to set up a coffee date, then sit me down and try to get me buy energy drinks or join what they still somehow believe is a “unique business opportunity”?

And why, when I delicately address these egregious faux pas to friends caught in this bizarre cult mentality, am I being accused of “not supporting their success,” when all I ever suggest is maybe having a little dignity and refusing to be a mindless shill for a company that doesn’t care enough about its employees enough to pay them what they're worth, provide mandatory marketing materials for free, or even legally acknowledge employees so they can provide decent benefits and pay taxes like normal companies do?

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Yeah, I’ve seen the rewards and incentives given to top sales people in almost every major MLM company. Does nobody realize how little these rewards cost the company in comparison to what these top earners actually make for them? It’s the adult equivalent to choosing a toy at an arcade’s prize counter when you could’ve just bought the thing for a fraction of what you spent on tickets to “earn” it.

They get representatives to appeal to close acquaintances for sales and recruitment because they know friends have a better chance of taking recommendations from friends than strangers. It’s a controversial practice known as “Referral Marketing” and is absolutely utilized deliberately.

An MLM rep's sales success is only partially because of what they’re selling, and mostly because people are too uncomfortable to confront their friends. Nobody wants to call out someone they love and tell them that these tactics taught by their uplines are rude, shameless, and cringeworthy.  

To those these last paragraphs apply to: I know it doesn’t feel like you’re playing yourself, but if it did, you wouldn’t keep doing it.

I digress.

I have a handful of friends who casually sell a few things here and there for some side cash but aren’t obnoxious in their sales tactics. I see that they’re out there but, like me, they’re eclipsed by this ever-expanding mass of product pushers who don’t know when to stop.

To this day, when I consider that at least one of my friends thought “Oh God someone else got sucked up into a pyramid scheme. What’s she trying to get me to buy now?!” about my own foray into that life, I cringe really hard.

Honestly, while I wish more people would do the same sort of introspection, I guess it’s validating to learn which of my friends are willing to ostracize me just for the sake of some company they don’t even own.

Watch the video below for a quick look at how Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes work:

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Liz Pardue-Schultz is a writer and activist based in North Carolina, where she overshares her bizarre journey through mental illness, recovery, parenting, and surviving Southern suburbia on her blog or anywhere she can get published. Her words have appeared in Huffington Post, Time.com, XOJane, Ravishly, ThoughtCatalog, and one time in the Letters to the Editor section of Playboy. 
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