The time I almost joined a pyramid scheme

The title of this post should be “The time I almost joined a multilevel marketing scheme” but that wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

Back in 2005 or 2006 during my mid-twenties my girlfriend at the time was interested in signing up to sell something called American Communication Networks (ACN for short). She explained it to me like this: ACN was a telecommunications organisation that let you sell on behalf of them to friends and family to make some money on the side. The best part (so to speak) was the opportunity for passive income, if you recruited friends to sell ACN you got a slice of your friend’s sales, and if your friends recruited their friends, you got a slice of your friend’s friend’s sales, and so on. The dream from what I could tell was to sit at the top of a pyramid of people selling ACN’s product and creaming off a passive income without having to do any work.

Eventually it would come to light that my girlfriend was going to have to shell out NZD$500 for the starter kit or selling strategy materials or whatever it was you needed to get started with them. For my girlfriend this was a lot of money at the time and I told her to pause on spending it before I had the chance to find out more. I did a quick google and it turned out ACN was an American company that sold VoIP telephone services. VoIP wasn’t as common back then as it is now but it was a real product from a real company so I had to admit on face value it seemed legit. Something fell off though, it was something about the way ACN presented itself as this multi-million dollar telecommunications company that no one online seem to be talking about except ACN themselves. And then there was the way they were using people in little old New Zealand to sell their product. It just seemed weird but the next time I saw her and told her not to spend the money she told me it was too late, she had signed up.

I remember from this point on every time I was hearing about ACN it was always a bit off. For starters my girlfriend never signed up for the ACN VoIP service herself. The focus was always on that passive money gravy train; how could she sign up other people to sell ACN. The instructional material for selling ACN talked about approaching people like family members and close friends because they would be more likely to sign up because of the personal connection with you. The material even said that people who were negative or skeptical of ACN were “bad apples” and that people selling ACN should move on as fast as possible from them. I remember reading this and thinking “Ok according to this I am a Bad Apple, but I know I’m not, so what’s going on?…”

The crowning moment came when my girlfriend and a couple of people further up the pyramid from her were organising a pitch night at my girlfriend’s apartment to get people to sign up to selling ACN. I was invited and I thought I would go to support my girlfriend and I figured I would just hang out at the back and watch proceedings. So I show up and it is just me, my girlfriend and these two ACN guys. I can’t remember if I twigged immediately but at some point I realised it was only ever going to be just the four of us so they could put the pressure on me to join. The moment that stands out in my memory is how after a bit of talking they said to me “so [girlfriend’s name] tells us that you would like to be a writer one day, is that right?” And I said something along the lines of “yeah, one day maybe, that would be cool”and then they said “well why aren’t you signing up to sell ACN then? Don’t you want to achieve your dreams?”. In retrospect it seems kind of hammy that that approach would even work but I do remember that evening stumbling a little bit saying “well, um, yeah I do want to achieve my dreams…” Eventually I committed to “think about it” and since I was only with her for three months I imagine I broke up with her pretty soon after that.

What’s weird is in retrospect I realise I don’t remember ever saying to my girlfriend “Hey, what was with telling those guys I want to be a writer so they could use that on me?”. I just wasn’t that alert to things like that back then, like I could only see 16 colours or something and it was like I just couldn’t even see some of the more complex workings of life. Writing this story now I feel a lot of sympathy for people that get sucked in by those sort of schemes. I can remember how my girlfriend had been signed up by a friend of hers and you got the feeling he was kind of using her and then I got to see my girlfriend sign up one of her friends. You could tell her friend was a lovely bloke but just not the sharpest guy and trusted my girlfriend and was open to persuasion and wanted to believe that easy money was just out there, and in the end she was using him a little bit too.

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