The Day I Chose Not to Start My Own Business

I am an aspiring writer, living and studying in London. I work part-time as a shop assistant, I am writing my first novel and I have big dreams. There’s a certain kind of romance in what I do: I wear a uniform and go to work, meet different kinds of people, get a salary at the end of every month, with which I buy presents for my loved ones and Indian takeaway and a bottle of wine for myself, and work on my novel at the end of the day. I get minimum wages but it’s exciting nevertheless because many great people started out earning peanuts so there’s a lot of inspiration and lots to look forward to.

Bullshit.

I work in Central London in Covent Garden, which is so expensive that many of the shops there are being shut down because they can’t afford the exorbitant rent. The shop where I work is one among them. I will lose my job by June.

After I get off the tube, the seven minute walk to my place of work is through the high street, lined on both sides by Burberry, Reiss, Banana Republic and many such outlets selling adorable clothes, which at present are not so affordable for me. When I look through the shop windows, the mannequins say to me, “We don’t have hair, we don’t have facial features, we are just a mass of white plastic, yet we have the clothes and you don’t.”

I have sent my resume to a lot of places. Most of the recruiters are “sorry to bring disappointing news,” and it takes great reserve on my part to not email back saying, “No, you are not sorry. You don’t give a fuck.” At some places I get through the interview, but a week later I receive: “Unfortunately, we have decided to go ahead with another candidate at this time. But please don’t take this as a reflection on you, you were brilliant. Regards, Sandra.” Oh shut up, Sandra, who are you kidding? If I was brilliant the job would have been mine. And when I get no email or phone calls asking me to come for an interview, I peer at my inbox and phone, obsessively, like a letch staring at a woman’s breasts, waiting for the damn thing to ring.  

So with rejections piling up, desires mounting high and time ticking, I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up a few days ago to this in my inbox:

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Now that was a motivating email to start my day with. This man had seen potential in me just by looking at my CV. My three page long CV, with huge margins, one long job at a publishing house, where I was editing books that no one has even heard of, one semi-long job as a copywriter, during which I didn’t produce a single copy that made its way into print or digital advertisements, lots of short short short internships and several educational degrees (which, perhaps if I had accumulated less of, might have given me a more solid career by now. But let’s not get into that at the moment).

Enthused and intrigued by the email, I did what it first asked me to do: watch the video. But before that, I brushed my teeth and made myself coffee; this was my potential career that I was about to deal with, and I had to have all possible concentration. I clicked on the link and a blonde, slightly mature woman began talking about how we all want a job with an income that will give us a comfortable life, allow us to fulfill our dreams and those of our loved ones, live in a swanky house, drive a jazzy car and go for sexy vacations paid for by the company, travel for work and have a share in the company’s profits; a job that, in addition to all this, would give us enough time with our families and other perks. Then she talked about the brand that she was associated with, which gave her all the wonderful things that she mentioned in her spiel, enabling her to turn herself into a mini brand. She ended the video by saying that if I wanted all this and more, I should get in touch with the person who sent me the video in the first place.

I knew that in order to live in London and have money, mansion and a Maserati, I needed to be the CEO of a multi-billion pound company or be married to the CEO of such a company. On a more serious note, my rational brain told me that the stuff promised in this four minute video was too good to be true. But, if people were rational, there wouldn’t be love affairs, poetry, discoveries, inventions or terrorism. Also, the mind has a great propensity for thinking “what if?” and I began doing the same: What if this was true? What if these people could indeed change my life? What if she is the mentor that I have been whining about not having for all this time?

So I wrote back to the person who sent me the video, asking for more details and fixing a time for a call. After all, what did I have to lose? I did some digging online about the woman in the video and the brand that she was endorsing. The company produced health and fitness products and the woman was associated with them for almost two decades. She had a well put together Linkedin profile as well as a website, which mentioned her other pursuits. I wasn’t taken by anything I saw, maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism and suspicion. I was beginning to get a sense of what this “job” was about, though I was hoping it wasn’t that.  A few hours later, I got a phone call from the person who sent me the video.

He had a cheerful, enthusiastic and confident manner of speaking and in less than five minutes he had told me about his educational background, his work experience, being laid off at work when his wife was expecting a baby, and how his life had changed once he had joined the company. Incidentally, his mother’s life had also changed years ago when she got affiliated with the said company.

By the way, did I mention that the woman in the video was this man’s mother? A small voice in my head was prodding me to ask him why he didn’t consider joining in her footsteps and changing his life sooner. I let the voice die because let’s face it — children have different ambitions than their parents, right? Also, seeing a slightly older woman talk about what was on offer had built just enough trust to make me reply to the email. I wouldn’t have bothered if it had been a man. 

He asked me about myself and what interested me to get on this chat with him. Because I knew nothing about the “job” he had in mind for me, I said that earning money was important to me. I told him that I did a bit of research on the company and he offered me some more validation, saying that he liked people who showed initiative. We still hadn’t got around to talking what the “job” was, what my hours of work would be, the salary, place of work, start date — none of those things that are discussed during an interview. Was this even an interview, I wondered?

At the end of the conversation, I was promised another video which would answer all my questions and we fixed a time for another chat the following Sunday. This time the video was 40 minutes long, a “presentation” delivered by the people who were part of this company to a group that resembled the bunch surrounding Jesus as he gave the Sermon on the Mount. 15 minutes into the video — the first ten of which were spent in promising mind-boggling materialistic things that I wanted with every pore in my body — I pressed the little X on the right hand corner of the video and switched to watching some porn when the presenter said it all begins with buying some products worth 200 pounds.

pyramid scheme

It was what I thought it was: network marketing if done ethically, pyramid scheme if not. But the basic premise remained the same. You invest a few pounds, or dollars or rupees, depending on which part of the world you are in, to buy a certain product, you sell it, over a period of time you get some more people to join in to assist with further distribution — with a supposed pay raise for you — and then get some more people to join and so on and so forth. And at some point, it’s never explicitly stated when and is dependent on chance and luck, your work yields rich dividends.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website offers a more nuanced definition: “Pyramid schemes—also referred to as ‘franchise fraud’ or ‘chain referral schemes’—are marketing and investment frauds in which an individual is offered a distributorship or franchise to market a particular product. The real profit is earned, not by the sale of the product, but by the sale of new distributorships. Emphasis on selling franchises rather than the product eventually leads to a point where the supply of potential investors is exhausted and the pyramid collapses. At the heart of each pyramid scheme is typically a representation that new participants can recoup their original investments by inducing two or more prospects to make the same investment. Promoters fail to tell prospective participants that this is mathematically impossible for everyone to do, since some participants drop out, while others recoup their original investments and then drop out.”

Now, I am not insinuating that the people who got in touch with me were running a scam. For all I know, they were part of a thriving business and each of their employees/distributors had gotten exactly what was promised. In fact, after I turned down their “offer,” I spent some time searching Google and YouTube to find some dirt on them. I typed the names of the people followed by “scam” and “fraud” but I didn’t find what I was looking for. In fact, YouTube only turned up videos wherein people were talking about how this was anything but a scam.   

I am not saying that network or multi level marketing is a bad way of going about things. Like I mentioned before, if done ethically, it can be beneficial for all the members involved. If you have the tenacity you can perhaps make good money. Incidentally, the Federal Trade Commission website says, “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. If the money you make is based on your sales to the public, it may be a legitimate multi level marketing plan. If the money you make is based on the number of people you recruit and your sales to them, it’s not. It’s a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and the vast majority of participants lose money.”

I wasn’t sure if this was a case of comparing apples and oranges or apples and apples and I didn’t want to find out. Maybe this was an opportunity that knocked at my door but went away because I didn’t extend a friendlier welcome. But there was also faint memory of something that had happened in the past— years ago my father had been approached by a friend for something similar. The pyramid had collapsed but thankfully, Dad had recovered the money that he had invested. In that respect, I shouldn’t have entertained these people in the first place. And they weren’t even friends whom I could trust.

But when you are young, desperately trying to get your foot in the job market and dealing with constant rejections, the slightest of positive reinforcement makes a huge impact. For a brief moment you can forget that sometimes what you are being offered is as whimsical as the myth of Tantalus. At that point, you need to step back and take stock of what’s in front of you and what you want to do by way of a career.

Like any other job, this job also demanded hard work which I am not averse to. But the idea of catching hold of people, talking to them and trying to convince them to buy products and join my scheme was, for the lack of a better word, a turn off. I was reminded of those young salespersons knocking at my doors, trying to sell sanitary pads, a yearly supply of washing powder or the latest weekly. This kind of jibber jabber wasn’t what I had visualised for a career.

On a positive note, I think I learned a few things: I learned to be alert, to do my research about any company that approaches me with spectacular job offers, to ask a lot of questions, to not commit to anything in a moment of passion and to listen to my gut.         

All said and done, I saved 200 pounds that these people wanted me to spend in order to join this venture. I think that money can get me a couple of outfits from Reiss or Burberry.

Shyama Laxman
Shyama Laxman has done a Masters in Creative Writing from City University, London and has written her first novel as part of her dissertation. It is now laying eggs in her laptop. When not working as a Sales and Marketing professional, she fantasizes about her book launch, driving a red BMW convertible, getting a bikini body and other things too naughty to be mentioned. She lives in London.