The Amway Experience

Last week, I posted some quotations from Dexter Yager, who is a big wheeler dealer in the business world and in Amway (AKA Quixtar). That prompted a couple of emails asking if I was in the business or not. Actually, back in college, I used to be and for good or ill, it was one hell of an experience that I’ve always meant to write about. Now seems like as good a time as ever.

It all started when I had a buddy from college contact me and ask me to go to a business meeting. I hadn’t heard of Amway, but I’ve never liked taking orders from anyone, didn’t mind working hard, and figured that if it would help me get into business for myself, I’d give it a look.

So, I headed to Charlotte (I was home for the summer, but I went to college there), caught a meeting, was impressed by what was said, liked the people I met, and despite some warnings that Amway was a “scam,” I decided to give it a try anyway. That decision was the beginning of two years of hard labor…

…and Amway is hard work, especially if you’re like a college kid with not particularly impressive people skills. The whole thing seems simple: You sponsor people into the business, they sell or buy products, and you get a cut of the action as does every person “above” you in your line. So, the more people you sponsor, and the more people those people sponsor, the more products you move, the more money you make.

Some people will tell you that nobody is making money at Amway except a few guys at the top of the food chain: not true. But, at least in my neck of the woods, the people making the biggest chunks of change were a private business owner and a dentist: in other words, exactly the sort of people who didn’t need a business like Amway to make money — which makes sense if you think about it. If you were going to get into a business, who would be better able to convince you it’s a good idea? A poor college kid like I was or a guy whom you already know is a success?

The system is geared to try to get around that problem by getting people to meetings where they can meet other successful people, but you still have to get them that far — and I wasn’t so good at it.

That’s not to say that I didn’t sign anybody up. I did manage to bring in a few and one of the people in my line, a guy by the name of Lamar, who was a walk-on for the school basketball team, had a lot of charisma. Mainly through his efforts, my line was up to almost 20 people at one time. The problem was that all of them were college kids and none of us had the money to buy a lot of products or the skills necessary to sell them. So, that 20 people didn’t produce a lot of dough.

But, the business did take money out of our pockets and time out of our schedules. For those of us who were dedicated enough — and I was — you went to a meeting on Monday where you brought new prospects and a meeting afterwards for the people who were in the business. During the week, you were supposed to try to meet new people, get their phone numbers, and then call them on Sundays at another meeting to try to convince them to come to the Monday meeting.

Then there were the functions. There were usually smaller functions that were relatively close about once a month and bigger ones that were father away every few months.

The idea behind these functions was to give you the knowledge you needed to be better at Amway and more importantly, to motivate you. Why was the motivation angle so important? Because doing Amway, like a job where you have to do cold calls or sales, can be incredibly deflating. You hear a lot of people saying “no” to you. You have people promise that they’ll show up and they flake. You can sometimes, especially if you’re not very good at it, go weeks or even months without having any success. So, you need to keep growing personally, you need to keep getting pumped up, you need to keep on keeping on if you are ever going to make it work…and many people didn’t, but for a long, long, time, I did.

In fact, I was dogged enough to do things that most people simply would not do. Once, there was a function in Raleigh that I had to start driving back from, utterly exhausted, at about midnight. I was so tired, I had to keep doing things to try to stay awake and eventually…I am not sure if I tried, I failed, or what — but just as I was driving into the parking lot of the place where I lived, I realized that I could not remember a thing that had happened for the last two hours. Everyone has heard of sleep walking, but I did a little “sleep driving” and it was really scary to realize that.

The bigger functions that were farther away were even more problematic because I seldom had the money to fully pay my own way. Multiple times I went to these functions and slept in my car for the whole week-end because I couldn’t even afford to share a hotel room. I can still remember, at one of them — and this was another one where I slept in my car — having nothing to eat for a week-end except a bag of apples and a bag of powdered doughnuts, which was all I could afford and have gas to get back home…and that’s not the worst of it.

Once, I wasn’t able to drive for a function that was on a college campus and I didn’t have the money to afford to share a hotel room for all 3 nights. Friends of mine offered to let me stay with them for free, but I had too much pride for that and so I decided to just go find a place to sleep. Eventually, I settled on an elevator and spent the night asleep on the floor. I was awakened by a security guard who was apparently doing his early morning rounds around 6 AM. I talked fast, kept walking, and didn’t chance getting arrested.

So, with all this work, all this sacrifice, how much was I making? Pretty much nothing. I am not sure I ever made a hundred bucks in the business.

Why? Well, remember those 20 people in my line? They were college kids and moved very little product. Furthermore, with college kids being college kids, most of them soon got tired of taking it in the chin in Amway and quit while I couldn’t seem to replace them. I just did not have the people skills at that time to meet someone at say, a gas station, talk to them for 5 minutes, get their phone number, call them back later that week, talk them into coming to a business meeting, get them signed up at the meeting, and then lead them into success in a brutal business.

In fact, with all due respect to Amway, the business is sort of like selling dog turds as door stops. Most people couldn’t ever make it work and the few people who could, could probably be making a hell of a lot more money doing something else.

Now the flip side to that, one that Amway people would surely point out, is that there are plenty of people, some of them who didn’t have impressive business backgrounds, who have made the business work. That’s very true and it’s partially because of the very important fringe benefits of Amway.

You get turned on to really good books. You get to hear really good motivational speakers who understand how to communicate with people. You get to associate with really ambitious, Christian people who are striving to make their lives better. You become used to sacrificing to try to get to where you want to be in life.

Those are not small things and they are why I don’t consider my time in Amway to be wasted, despite the fact that I lost money on the whole enterprise. I was always a voracious reader, especially of books on psychology and communications, but Amway introduced me to a lot of excellent new material. It also got me around a lot of successful people and getting to pick their brains taught me a lot. Additionally, it taught me a little something about putting in effort — most people just aren’t willing to do what it takes to succeed. But, after the crap I did to try to make it in Amway, working late into the night every week-day after work on my blog, getting 4-5 hours sleep, and then doing it all again day after day, week after week, and year after year didn’t seem so bad.

Still eventually, I wore down and little things started to bother me.

For example, although I am a Christian, I thought the particular group I was in put a little too much emphasis on Christianity. I heard higher ups say things like, “The purpose of this business isn’t to make money, it’s to bring more people to Christ,” and “You can’t succeed in this business, if you’re not a Christian.” Actually, a lot of people were, believe it or not, introduced to the Good Lord through Amway, but it bugged me a little to hear people going so far overboard because we were supposed to be a business, not a church.

Also, it seems like a minor thing now, but I got a chance to meet one of the big “rock stahs” of the business at a function. This is a guy a lot of Amway people have heard of, a guy whose tapes I had loved, a guy whom people talked about like he was the greatest man on earth. Well, a guy upline from me knew him, introduced me, I was genuinely excited to meet him and…he didn’t say a word to me and barely paid attention to me as he shook my hand beyond looking at me like something he just scraped off his shoe. Maybe he was having a bad day, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but think: “Geeze, this is the sort of guy we’ve been taking advice from? He’s a real jerk.”

But of course, the real problem was that I was having trouble making new contacts to pitch and I was frustrated that I seemed to be going nowhere in the business. So, I made a decision, and called it a career after roughly two years in the game.

I walked out of Amway with less money than I took in, but I also left as a better person than when I started. When it was over, I had a burning desire to do something besides work for some company. That’s not just because I had an anti-authoritarian streak and hate to take orders, but because I don’t like working for people who look at me as nothing more than a human widget that they will use or dispose of based on little more than whether I’m a plus or minus on their balance sheets.

Would I recommend Amway to other people? Probably not. So, would I tell people who are in the business to quit? No, I wouldn’t do that either. There are some people who make it and I can tell you, if I hadn’t had the experiences that I did in Amway, I’m not sure I would have had the grit to blog for a living. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, I’d have told you that Amway was a waste a time — and I might have even been right. But, I still have this haunting feeling that those experiences helped mold me into a better person than I would have been otherwise.

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