eCommerce Pyramid Scheme
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
So…I recently got approached on LinkedIn by a guy. We apparently went to the same university and at the same time, so that was an instant way to connect to me. “Hey, I noticed you were an Alum too!”
Anyway, the next line got me hooked, but only because I am open-minded and have always wanted to do some extra work on the side. I’m also into networking, which seemed to be a potential prospect. “A few of your qualities in your profile caught my attention. We have some projects and would like to partner with some like-minded people. Just thought I’d shout out and see if you would like some opportunities in addition to your current role.”
So, I responded with an enthusiastic text about our school, then asked the very poignant question, “what in particular about my profile caught your attention?” and “what are you involved in?”
He responded by saying that he liked my management, public speaking, and customer service skills…and that many of his partners were also engineers. The fact that many of his partners were engineers is what I would describe as a “good hook”. He is trying to appeal to not just my profession, but many engineers are proud of the fact they are engineers. He was in a way appealing to my pride and asserting that other intelligent people are part of this too.
Yes I am a manager and an engineer, but I’ve never touted any public speaking or customer service whatsoever (I’ve never done any of those things) or mentioned them in my profile. So that was the red flag for me and it signaled that the message he sent was probably a pre-made response and meant to be a catch-all. Just ambiguous enough to draw your interest.
So when he responded with the above, I pressed again asking “I’d still like to know more about the projects you are working on.”
He gave me this shakedown:
“We are currently looking to add a few people to our organization on a select basis who are outcome focused vs process oriented, free thinkers, interested in business ownership / entrepreneurship, willing to learn new concepts, and like the idea of business mentorship. In terms of logistics we are partnering with some major consumer brands (REI, Apple, Target, & Macy’s to name a few) and helping them link up with local entrepreneurs doing some revenue sharing, group purchasing, etc. in the e-commerce arena. What kind of opportunities do you keep your options open to? Let me know your thoughts. Maybe we can move this to a quick phone call and chat more?”
Okay, I’ll bite, but only because I want to get to the bottom of this and your response was totally prefabricated.
The Phone Call
We talked for about 45 minutes – it was about who he was, who I was, what I was looking for in my career, etc. The second half of the conversation he steered toward this “opportunity”. “You have kids, wouldn’t you want to spend your time with them instead of at a job? Wouldn’t you want to spend as much time with your family as you could? Go on vacation, enjoy your retirement when you get there…” etc. Yeah, duh. Who wouldn’t?
I kept pressing about what it was exactly that he did and what I would be doing if I got this opportunity. It’s not that he was deflecting my questions, but he was responding with ambiguous and nebulous answers. It was an “eCommerce opportunity” and he named some of the big stores like Target, Macy’s, REI, Apple, and how they are trying to compete with eBay and Amazon. The goal of this position is that he is a talent scout, looking to recruit like-minded people that share a passion for the “entrepreneurial spirit” and could think outside of the box. The problem with this argument is that you’re essentially asking the person “hey, are you smart enough to do this kind of stuff?” because most people won’t admit to not being smart enough or having enough drive or not being entrepreneurial enough. It’s a very interesting tactic.
Anyway, he couldn’t tell me more because he had a team of people that like to mentor and invest in people that have expressed an adequate interest and that fit the profile of their “entrepreneur” and that then and only then would I be able to learn more. But first, he’d like to meet up to get coffee…
The idea was intriguing – I know what you’re thinking, but I had to know more so I could write about this!
We met for coffee at a Starbucks. I recognized him from the picture in his LinkedIn profile. I’m not going to lie, he looked pretty well put together: button-up shirt, slacks, well groomed, pro-looking.
We started off by just conversing. I thought if I played the friendly and chatty card, he’d divulge more than he’d be prepared to. After about 30 minutes of banter, he did a great job segueing into the topic at hand, “so would you say you’re satisfied with your life and the path that you’re taking?”
Yeah, I think so. “What about your dreams and are you doing what you really love?” Well, I mean, I’m striving to achieve my dreams as much as anyone is, working hard, developing my career, raising my family, etc. Aren’t we all?
He continued to talk about the successes that he has accomplished. He likes to network with people, he’s even built up a successful network in the Greater Denver area (whatever that means) and likes to connect. His idea of success is being able to bring people together, “what if one day Mayor Hickenlooper calls me for advice on a problem, and I tell him, ‘I don’t know anything about that, BUT I do know this guy Matt that would be able to help…’ and then boom, you’re connected with the mayor.”
He proceeded to tell me about his mentor. There was an incredibly talented Mechanical Engineer from Florida. He has several patents, was very successful, but got tired of working for someone else and knew he had the entrepreneurial mindset. That’s how this engineer found this very same guy I’m talking to right now: he started looking for success-driven people.
He described the definition of wealth as not just money, but time. Money to do what you want and Time to be able to do it. That is true and it is healthy to pursue a strong sense of wealth, but here we are talking about wealth and this great opportunity but there is no meat or substance to this discussion.
Almost the entirety of the next hour was devoted to talking about buzz-topics: Success, Entrepreneurship, Working Your Own Hours, Spending Time with Family, Business Mindset, Being Driven, Hunger for More, Motivation, Mentorship…(you get the idea).
Interspersed throughout our entire hour-and-a-half together, I kept pursuing the same question that had been on my mind since he first contacted me: what is it exactly that I would be doing?
This whole eCommerce/business thing.
Here is the message I’ve managed to piece together through an exhausting but patient process of gleaning as much information as I could. My role would be to work with large companies like Target and Best Buy (he keeps dropping the same large company names over and over again), where I would try to obtain online traffic towards their websites because they are losing their business to places like Amazon and eBay.
Okay. How does one go about doing this? “That’s the beauty of it. You can do it any way you want!”
That’s great, how do other people manage to be successful? “They just spend more time at it in the beginning, grow, learn, and become talented. But you wouldn’t be alone at all. We have excellent mentors that will guide you, train you to be successful.” Didn’t really answer what I wanted to know.
How would I interact with the customers? “There are many various ways, and we expect people with the entrepreneur in them to get there.”
So I made it clear what this guy’s position was in this collective program (I don’t know how else to describe it – very smoke and mirrors thus far) by asking him directly. He was essentially a talent scout or recruiter. He meets with people every week and then determines if they “have what it takes.”
He could only tell me so much though, because this whole process is a learning experience. Here is how he tried to convince me:
“You know, we could sit down, I could take you through the entire process, and you’d maybe be able to absorb maybe 10% of what we talk about. Or, we could make this a more casual, laid-back process, where we meet several times and I expose more and more each time what is involved” Very friendly. Also, I’m sure I can easily keep track of more than just 10% of what we would talk about. Try me.
So I’m thinking to myself, if I could be this successful, why is he just a talent scout? Is being a talent scout more lucrative than someone performing in this role?
So how do you benefit from this program? I assume you get a commission? “That is correct.”
A fool and his money are soon parted
So finally, toward the end of the conversation, I ask the most blaring question that you can think of, “is there an initial investment?”
“To be honest and straightforward, there is an initial investment. It’s nothing huge or outlandish, but it shows us your commitment to wanting to pursue this avenue of learning, mentorship, and growing. It’s an investment in your success.”
We concluded by having a conversation about mentorship and I asked about what books he reads and recommends for people in this role. (He must have mentioned these damned mentors about 200 times)
If I wanted to pursue this role, he would have a talk with his team and mentors about bringing me onboard (this sounds very lofty) to be part of this incredible team. I would be given the opportunity to learn from the best, business-minded mentors available, and become as successful as they are.
Which books did he recommend? Robert Kiyosaki. The author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad and other works. Google this author and you’ll see a lot of articles about his shady dealings (as well as his riches). He is wealthy, but he’s under a lot of scrutiny. Anyway, the guy I had met up with said I should read the book and then get back to him; I think he was aware that I was aware, of this whole game because he didn’t want to spend much more time with me other than to leave it at that.
I’m tempted to go in further just to see what else is going on here. Exposé?
Things to Watch For
- Someone you’ve never met before contacts you. Social media is excellent at allowing people to cast a large net. Imagine you message 5,000 people and only 1-2 get back to you. It takes nothing and is easy. Typing a message and clicking send is free. This is the modern rich Nigerian Prince scam.
- “Do you have the entrepreneurial spirit?” This question gets you to really look at yourself and doubt everything you’ve been doing thus far. OBVIOUSLY if you’re not already rolling in the dough you’re doing it wrong… You’ll want to respond with “hell yeah I’m entrepreneurial! I’m ready to go. How dare you doubt my ability to pursue my dreams!”
- Lack of direct and concrete answers. I hate nebulous language – what are you hiding? I also hate all the grandiose language aimed at building up my ego and self image (are you a self-starter, smart, driven) without having anything to place it on (I don’t know how to pit my ambitions against this role, because I don’t know any of the details.)
- Initial Investment. If you “invest” in your success by giving us $100, we’ll get you everything you’ve every hoped for: teaching, training, success, and obviously more wealth.
- Lack of transparency. There’s a reason why [successful] investors research and thoroughly check all the information in front of them before they even think about investing any more time and money. I cannot believe he would even for a moment think that I would continue into something like this without any information. No intelligent, self-respecting being would do that!
- Playing on your emotions. Surely you would love to be rich, successful, and do anything you ever wanted. The image of you being those things gets imbedded in your mind so deeply that you can’t help but fantasize. John Oliver has an excellent section on Pyramid Schemes.
- Argumentative Fallacies – Such as Argument from Repetition (kept answering my question about eCommerce with the same responses), Circular Reasoning, Appeal to Authority (he has “successful” mentors and engineers on his team), Thought-terminating Clichés (defining Wealth=Time + Money as enough motivation to pursue role), and Appeal to Emotion among others.
- Multi-level marketing. With Multi-level marketing (MLM) you hope you’re on top, otherwise, you’re relying on people below you to make you successful. It’s a pyramid scheme. Think, “why do you want me to be successful? You just met me. Why would you share a piece of your pie when you could take a bigger one for yourself? Unless I offer a larger benefit for you than I would for myself.”
- Don’t think you’re invulnerable. The guy I talked to was intelligent. Well put together. He was a communications major and had worked in management for over a decade. However, he had a rhythm and had talking points that he regularly practices and gets to use. You don’t. I tried my best to disrupt his way of talking as much as I could and it made him try hard to stay on track. He was a KellyAnne Conway – answering questions without really providing adequate answers.
- Follow your gut. Does this seem sketchy and make you feel nervous? It should. Listen to your intuition.
This guy also dropped big names to get me hooked (Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, Amazon, eBay). He talked in a confident manner. And he talked fast. He had a ready answer for many of my questions. He practiced for sure and had talked to many other people before me, so I’ll give him that.