The Pyramid Scheme Novel

In the Broke Georgia Series, my prequel is about getting conned out of your money by your significant other; Book 1 is about getting out of debt; and Book 2, which I’m about to publish for the first time, is about getting recruited into a pyramid scheme. (I already know what Book 3 will be about, but it’s a secret!)

Why Pyramid Schemes?

I have no personal beef with any particular pyramid scheme; I’ve never joined one, and very few people I know are in one or have been involved in one. I just felt that given the trajectory of my heroine, it made sense that in her first foray into the world of money she’d unwittingly end up in a pyramid scheme. She grew up in a broke household, so she’s never known much about money or investing. She’s the perfect target because she doesn’t know what she’s getting into once she’s recruited. 

I should be up front on my stance on pyramid schemes: I think their business model is cruel and unsustainable. Even if a company isn’t technically a pyramid scheme (cuz those are “illegal,” right?) and refers to its operation as multi-level marketing (MLM), network marketing, direct selling, social selling, referral selling, or whatever—if its whole MO is about aggressively recruiting new members because you can’t make any real money until you’ve recruited people to work beneath you, it’s still a pyramid!

If you’re a new member to a pyramid that sells a product or a service, the cost of entry is more than you’ll pay to start at any job because you must be a paying customer before you can become a seller or distributor. You’re buying the product that you have to sell; you’re paying membership fees; you’re paying for training and starter packages; and you’re pushed into attending conferences and seminars which you have to pay for yourself. All of these expenses are the cost of “running your own business.” You can do well in sales all you want, but you’re never going to earn a higher commission unless you recruit people. When you recruit enough people, you move up in rank. Then your sales commission rate goes up and you get to earn a cut of your recruits’ commissions. And when your recruits recruit others, you get a cut of their recruits’ commissions, and so on. That’s generally how it works.

I came at this novel ass-backwards. I drafted it last year in November, during National Novel Writing Month, without doing much research. (I had originally wanted to work on a different novel idea, but I changed my mind two weeks before the competition was going to start.) Everything I wrote was based on my personal interactions with pyramid schemers. It wasn’t until after I drafted the story that I began my research. That was when I learned about the massive growing anti-MLM community; it consists mostly of ex-members who had left their pyramid schemes and are out to educate and warn the world about the dangers of being in one. They’re also committed to offering support to those who want out.

Publishing this book could invite the wrath of pyramid scheme people. They’re a fiercely protective and defensive bunch. On the other hand, since most of them don’t believe they’re in one, they probably won’t realize the book is about them.

In my book, I satirize what you’d commonly find going on in a pyramid scheme: the constant denial of being one, the inflated success stories they tell to entice new recruits, the promises to make a shit-ton of money, the pressure to participate in all their waste-of-time motivational activities (all designed to monitor you and ensure your allegiance remains in check), the push for members to keep recruiting new members, the bullying you experience for complaining or expressing any doubt, and the tactics they employ to keep you from talking or leaving. Brutal, right? Well, this experience is also similar to what ex-cult members go through when they leave their cults.

My PhD in Cults

If you look at my minimal author biography, it says I got my Bachelor of Arts at UBC. What it doesn’t say is that my major was in Religious Studies (not Theology.) As much as I enjoyed studying world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism), my favorite subject was cults. At the time, only one course was being offered. 

In that class, our prof arranged for us to go on field trips to visit cults or culty off-shoots of the main religions. These field trips were so fun! I ended up doing my term paper on Scientology. For my research, I talked to their main guy (priest? wizard?) at the Scientology Church in Vancouver (it was more like a store rather than a church). He didn’t try hard to recruit me as I was a broke university student, but he was nice enough to give me really un”clear” answers to all my questions. I was able to go through the expensive reading material in their library and watch in their mini theater an intro film with appearances by Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, and maybe Tom Cruise (I don’t remember, it was years ago). In the end, the main sources I used for my paper were Dianetics and books about people who escaped Scientology and lived to tell their stories.

After I graduated, I went on a four-month trip to India with one of my schoolmates. We visited and stayed at a number of well-known religious sites (like the ashram where the Beetles stayed), as well as some cult sites (Osho!). I thought my cult-visiting days were over until a few years later when I was volunteering at an orphanage in Thailand—which turned out to be a cult run by European yogis (long story for another time). Given my life experience, I feel strongly that the university should be giving me an honorary doctorate in Cult Studies. I’m kidding, but why not? The pyramid scheme Monat is giving out PhD degrees for completing a reading list, after all.

If there was one thing I learned with all my experience in interacting with cults, it’s this: they’re not all “bad” and extreme like Bikram and NXIVM. A cult, simply put, is a new religion, philosophy, or movement. They’ll often be centered around the teachings by one guru, but that’s not always the case. They don’t all use brainwashing techniques, manipulation, coercion, or violence to keep their followers in line. I’ve met people in cults who seemed happy—enough. I’ve also met people who’ve left their cult saying they didn’t have a bad experience at all, it was what they needed at the time, and when it wasn’t serving its purpose anymore, they left with no drama.

So, what’s the connection between cults (I’m talking about the “bad” ones) and pyramid schemes? Believe it or not, they have a lot in common. The recruitment process is strikingly similar. While most people would be put off by the overzealous passion of the recruiters from the get-go, the ones who join are usually at a place in their lives where they want something more—be it meaning, love, money, opportunity, friends—because what’s currently available to them isn’t working.

Let’s say you’re having a personal crisis, or you’ve been unhappy with your life for a long time. Then someone, out of nowhere, has reached out to you, when you’d be floundering on your own otherwise. You go along with them, and now your world has opened up and there’s a whole community welcoming you with open arms, adoration, mentors, and resources you never had before. The members never say, “Join our cult” or “Join our pyramid scheme” because even they shield themselves from that admission. So how would you know you’re joining a pyramid or cult? Because once you’ve signed up, there’s a price. There are a lot of mandatory activities, obligations, and contributions. Your first few meals might be free to lure you in, but the rest is member funded.

After you’ve been at it for a while, you might start asking tough questions—the biggest sin at these places. Questioning means you’re not only seeking the truth, it means you’re experiencing doubt.  The people in charge are armed with answers and strategies on how to deal with doubters, and they’re experts in gaslighting. It’s all your fault you’re not getting the results you want; the rest of us are successful because we work hard. If you’re failing at your business, it’s because you’re not putting in 100%; there’s only one person to blame for your failure (hint: it’s never the person at the top of the pyramid!).

I’m oversimplifying for the sake of drawing the parallels between the culty cults and pyramid schemes, but hopefully you get the picture. These groups rely on constant recruitment because they have a high dropout rate. They fear doubters because they have a high bullshit rate. And they hate critical thinkers who will see right through their machination. For these reasons, they have to work really hard to ensure the recruits comply and remain in the org. The people who founded the earliest pyramid schemes studied the strategies of cults and employed the same tactics to gain members and ensure loyalty. Why not? L. Ron Hubbard, the founding father of Scientology himself, famously said: “If you want to get rich, start a religion.” Chew on that for a moment.

My Hot Take:  Even If They’re Not Entirely Good, They’re Not Entirely Bad 

Not everyone who joins a pyramid scheme has a bad experience. What?!?

Some people join pyramid schemes and actually like the work and make good money. If you join early enough, you get to enjoy the benefits of being higher up in the pyramid by having more levels of people beneath you. Their earnings become your earnings. People can build strong teams where they all join efforts to hit their monthly targets and move up in rank. Sometimes they love the product and truly believe in it. If it works for you, then great. 

Where most of those happy people start feeling conflicted is when, after achieving so much, the people in charge stop rewarding them like they did in the beginning. It’s harder to get bonuses. They struggle with finding new recruits, and likely because of the scheme’s eroding reputation. And all those dubious thoughts they had along the way begin staring them in the face. It gets harder to stay up in rank. Then they start to lose money because they have fewer customers. Out of desperation, they end up buying the product to meet their sales quotas and maintain their rank as top sellers. They sometimes end up in debt. Then it’ll get to a point where it’s hardly worth it to stick around, and that nine-to-five their recruiters love to shit on suddenly looks like a good idea.

My Novel

In the series, my lead character Georgia is on the path to prosperity, but it isn’t a straight one. She must learn several lessons in order to evolve and finally arrive at financial freedom. The purpose of my novel isn’t to expose and annihilate pyramid schemes as that would be an impossible task; instead, it’s meant to be yet another cautionary tale that is a part of my heroine’s journey.

I anticipate that most of the readers of this novel will be a part of the anti-MLM community. My hope is, whether or not you are or were in a pyramid scheme, that you will be able to connect with Georgia as she gets lured into the mysterious and complex MLM world in search of wealth and success; and rather than judge her, just follow along and enjoy the ride. It’ll be a fun one, I promise!

Author: Donna Fernandez

Author of women's fiction.