Jul 7, 2009

Retrospectives: "Selling the Dream"


Here I am, looking sharp in suit and tie with briefcase in tow, along with Babs and my associates, listening intently to the pearls of wisdom from successful Amway Diamond Dean Kosage backstage at the "Family Reunion" function, July, 2000 inPortland, Oregon. If you have no idea what any of that is, read on. . .

"Yeah, you reach for the golden ring
Reach for the sky
Baby, just spread your wings

We'll get higher and higher
Straight up we'll climb
We'll get higher and higher
Leave it all behind

So baby dry your eyes
Save all the tears you've cried
Oh, that's what dreams are made of
Oh baby, we belong in a world that must be strong
Oh, that's what dreams are made of"

--"Dreams" by Van Halen

The message was on our answering machine when we got back from an end-of-the-summer trip to Guam:

"Hi Sean and Barbara. I've got a really exciting project I'm working on that I think you'd be interested in. Give me a call."

Curious, I called my fellow teacher back, but was given only a few more details. A few days later, he was in my house, dressed in suit and tie, weilding a white board and an independent buisness plan. In industry parlance, we were "shown the Plan." We liked what we saw, and, with visions of independent wealth in just a few short years, we got in.

And so began our adventure with the company variously known as Amway, Quixtar, and in it's most recent incarnation, Amway Global. For readers who are not familiar with the company or others similar to it, Amway is a network marketing business, and in fact is the original network marketing business. In this type of business, in addition to whatever profit you earn from products sold, you are paid additonal bonuses for the volume created by your organization--the products moved not just by you, but by everyone you recruit to join the business (as well as everyone they recruit, and everyone that their recruits recruit and so on). The real money in the buisness is made less from how much product you can sell, and more in how many people you can sign up--in essence your real product is not the household cleaners, or mulitvitamins, but the business opportunity itself. You are selling the dream.

In the late summer of '99, Babs and I bought the dream. For the next two and a half years, our lives in Saipan were consumed with "building the business." This meant three to five nights a week selling the dream i.e. showing the plan to prospective "IBO's" (Independent Buisness Owners)--though in actual practice once a week was more typical for me. It meant buying Amway products exclusively, whenever possible. After all, what business owner doesn't use his own products? It meant listening to "Standing Order Tape", a weekly cassette tape with a motivational speech by one of the successful "Diamonds" or "Emeralds" in the business. It meant "counseling with upline"--those "above" me in the buisness, and thus more experienced and presumably more successfuly than I was.

In carports and patios, living rooms and dining room tables, in offices and over coffee, you'd find me in my incongrous suit and tie (nobody wears a suit and tie in Saipan), earnestly going over "the plan" with skeptical and suspicious prospects. You'd find me on the phone, sweating through those dreaded first contact calls. There were many rejections--and they hurt. I remember being berated on the phone by the father of one of my former students and the fury from some good friends we prospected back in the States during the summer--sadly, our friendship was never the same after that. There was the time I showed the plan to a local businessman who brought in his lawyer brother to study me with folded arms and a jaundiced eye, and tp bark questions at me--a true attorney's grilling. Needless to say they didn't get in. It was hard to take the rejections, but every now and then we got the longed-for yes, and had someone sign on. We were always on the lookout for that sharp couple, like the bank manager and his wife who signed on with us and quickly eclipsed us in terms of buisness success--at least for awhile. But everyone was a potential contact. We never knew who might catch the vision and start seeking the dream. Finding people like that made all the rejections worth it. That and knowing that in a few short years, if we kept at it, we'd be rich, and--as the already-made-it Diamonds would constantly remind us,--free.

Motivation is key to this kind of business. Because it's essentially a numbers game, where most of the prospects turn you down, it's very easy to lose your zeal. Thus, the recommended tape-a-day listening program, the reading list (How to Win Friends and Influence People, God Wants You to Be Rich, and The Best Kept Secret in America are among those on the list), and of course, the "functions." There are four major functions held each year around the country, and we were strongly urged to attend them all, the exorbitant time and expense of flying from Saipan to the U.S. mainland notwithstanding. Amazingly, we managed to scrape together the funds to attend a few--"Family Reunion" in Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2000, "Leadership" in San Diego in the spring of 2001, as well as the smaller "Dream Night" functions held in Guam each January.

These functions were something else--part pep rally, part business meeting, part motivational seminar, with a little bit of church service and a smidgen of rock concert thrown in for good measure. Within Amway there are several large training organizations--essentially, the buisnesses built by a handfull of the oldest and most succesful buisness owners, organizations large enough to create their own motivational and training system. Ours was called World Wide Dreambuilders, founded by Ron and Georgia Lee Puryear, and it was WWDB that put together these functions. The meetings featured loud, upbeat music, mostly odes to financial freedom by the Goads, an Amway-oriented singing and philanthropic group; flashy videos of the Diamonds and their fabulous lifestyles--fast cars, palatial homes, and glamorous vacations; and lots and lots of motivational speeches by the Diamonds themselves. If you were lucky, you might even get a few minutes with one of the Diamonds, perhaps even your own upline Diamond, and come away with some valuable nuggets of business wisdom. These functions really served one basic purpose--to keep us fired up, to keep the dream alive.

And for awhile, we did keep the dream alive. We never really made any money to speak of. But we made some new friends, we had some pretty darn good cleaning products in our home, we paid a bit more attention to our personal finances than we used to, we had a project that Babs and I shared--those nights out "showing the plan" together sometimes felt like dates, and we had the dream. At least until the winter of 2001-2002 when it all came crashing to a halt. Our relationship with our sponsors, who up until then had been probably our closest friends on Saipan, went suddenly and irrevocably sour for reasons unrelated to the buisness. As the fallout out from this spread through the school and the church, our Amway buisness activities came to a standstill. We stayed technically "in" for another year or so more, but for all practical purposes, our involvement with Amway had come to an end.

To be honest, I'd never felt more relieved. I felt like a massive weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It's all about freedom, financial and personal, in Amway, but I never felt less free than I did during the Amway Years. Because the truth is, even though I think I was pretty "good" at the business, deep down, I'd hated every minute of it. Now, I know there are a lot of bitter ex-Amway folk out there (just do a Google search of Amway or WWDB!), but I'm not one of them. I do believe it is a legitimate buisness, and possibly an ethical one, at least the way that the folks at World Wide Dreambuilders taught us (I've heard about the practices taught by some of the other organizations, which in my mind are ethically questionable, such as the "fake dinner" where you think you're just getting together for dinner and are instead, blindsided with The Plan). It just wasn't for me. Despite the insistence of all the upline motivators to the contrary, Amway is definitely not for everyone.

There were a few key things I could never get comfortable with in the Amway business. First, I never bought the idea that wealth is a moral necessity. The Diamonds pounded it into us that it was our moral duty to get as rich as possible. If we didn't, we were letting down our family, our community, even our nation. I never could accept that idea, and I found the Diamond's biblical justifications--World Wide Dreambuilders, in particular, has a very strong conservative Christian bent--for this prosperity gospel to be quite a stretch.

Second, I absolutely loathed the fact that everyone I knew, everyone I met, and everyone I had yet to meet was a potential contact. I dreaded the moment when I'd have to open my pitch: "So, are you pretty happy with what you're doing right now?" I dreaded the sting of rejection. But most of all, I hated how my constant buisness-building seemed to color all my relationships. I felt like I could never just relax and just be friends, because at the end of the day this was going to be someone who either got in or didn't. The business seemed to lend a sort of insincerity to all my friendships and I hated that.

Finally, there was the sense I had, especially at the end, that it was all too easy to be fooled in this business. Not so much fooled by the successful people exhorting us from the motivational tapes and seminars, but more so fooled by ourselves. It was easy to fool ourselves into believing that we were going to get remarkably wealthy running what was essentially a part time "business"--showing the plan maybe 3 times a month, creating a few dollars of product volume, but listening to tapes religously and attending whatever functions we could. I believe there are thousands of IBOs out there like us, cheering at the functions year after year, faithfully listening to the tapes, but not really doing enough of the real business work to make any progress. They are all "fired up" but going nowhere. It's on the backs of these people, honest folks with a dream of making it big but not much else, that Amway is built. Because though the money they make is erratic at best, the little bit of money they spend--on products, motivational tools, functions etc--is steady and consistent. And that little bit adds up to quite a lot. It is in this sense only, that I think that the Amway buisness is somewhat deceptive. They tell you the truth--3 to 5 nights a week minimum, work hard, put everything else in your life on hold--you can get back to it later, when you're "free"--but they make it very easy to not hear the truth if you don't want to. More important than an unemotional, just-the-facts buisness presentation is keeping the downline "fired up" and emotionally engaged. It might be years, if ever, before they actually do something with the business, but in the meantime the most important thing is to keep them in, because their combined value is keeping the Diamonds at the top rich.

So do I regret our Amway years? No, I don't. It was a learning experience, and it was kind of neat being part of such a positive, optimistic bunch for awhile. There are a lot of angry people in the world, I've learned. The Amway people are not among them. There are still snippets of useful advice I picked up from my time with Amway. For example, because of their strong emphasis on postive thinking, one of the Diamonds talked about how they never called their young children negative pet names, you know like "Little Stinker". Instead it was always something positive. "How's my little winner, my little champion" and so on. And so to this day, I always use positive nicknames for our favorite Little Feller. Also if you've ever heard me say, "You've got to be STRONG!", that's a quote from a crusty old Diamond named Dave Severn. Or if you've ever heard me say, "What's the name of your company?" as shorthand for skepticism that's a line from another Diamond imitating a skeptical prospect. There are still little bits of Amway floating around after all these years.

But when all was said it done, it came down to simply this: We were already rich--we had wonderfully rewarding work at the best school with the best kids in the world, we lived on the type of tropical island that most people could only dream of vacationing at once they were Diamonds, we were surrounded by a warm, caring community. We had all we needed and so much more, and Amway just didn't offer enough to compete with that. We discovered that the dream was not for sale; it could be had for free.

"No more
No more
I ain't gonna do it no more
It used to be a big deal
But, I ain't gonna do it
If it ain't real

Big money
Big plans
You stand with a ticket in your hand
You don't play you can't win
But, I ain't gonna do it'
Til I feel it again

When I see that sun go down
My mind begins to clear
Sure was a hard time
It sure was a hard time my dear

No more
No more
I ain't gonna do it no more
It used to be a big deal
But, I ain't gonna do it
If it ain't real
No, I ain't gonna do it
If it ain't real "
--"No More" by Tom Petty

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