Monday, January 9, 2012

Fire it up!

I've had a lot of bad jobs. I've slung phones. I've (poorly) advised people on how to fill out their student loan applications. I've called alumni to beg for money for a university that I only attended during freshman year. I had a job that I rather liked as a cameraman for a TV station, but it required me to wake up at 4:18 a.m., and after tolls and gas for a daily 68 mile round trip, it actually cost me money. I've sold fireworks for 14 hours a day in a non-air conditioned shipping container in July, although I dug that job too. I've worked for the dreaded McD. Still, if I'm asked my worst job, the unequivocal answer requires less than .00001 seconds of thought.

See, for 16 days (not counting weekends, holidays, or days that I was out of town), I sold art out of my car. I've already made it sound far better than it was. Already, I'm sure you imagine that I painted something, or that people that I knew put together a sculpture, and that I was parked next to some public square and selling art to passers-by that may have been a self-selecting bunch that may care about the arts. Real life at this job was far less romantic. I sold Monet and Van Gogh and Dali prints to businesses door to door. Door to door.

Essentially, I would walk into a place of business, be it a law firm or a KFC, and I would bring a couple prints with me. I would present the "company's" scripted lies (Hey, I'm with a design company, and we were just decorating an office across the street. We have a couple paintings left over and we're selling them for 80% off. Would you be interested in checking out a couple?) Generally, it was my job to get kicked out of places. Hey, why not? I'm good at getting kicked out of places.

The want ad

Maybe this would be a good time to talk about the "company," and why I use the term "company." When I first moved to Chicago, I was flat broke. Flat broke. I applied for every job in the paper. Some of these jobs were "marketing" opportunities, which my major was somewhat related to. I responded to ads that said things like "Account Executive needed! Work in a rock and roll atmosphere. $600-$1000 a week to start. Advancement opportunities. Only apply if you love to travel." Of course this sounded good, as it would to pretty much anybody, and I was in my early 20s so I didn't know any better.

The Interview Process

The economy sucks now, but it wasn't super awesome then either, at least not compared to what I grew up with in the Clinton years. I never heard back from most of the jobs that I applied to, but I heard back from these sorts of ads. I would get a call a day after applying, and the secretary would ask me to come in the next day for an interview. I was broke, so I would, even though I still knew nothing about the job. At the interview the next day (always in the suburbs), I would be greeted by the super foxy secretary and asked to fill out an application. I would go to the interview, always a really charming dude in a suit talking about magical opportunity, but very little about the job itself. Again, I was young, so I was kinda too dumb to ask about job specifics. I would invariably be asked back to a second interview, which was always the next day.

At the second interview at the first company of this sort that I interviewed at, I realized the game. I was partnered with a sales rep, and was told it was a whole day interview. He drove us to Lake in the Hills or some far flung suburb like that, and then we went door to door selling coupons for office supplies to businesses. At lunch (I paid for mine) I was told how I could become a manager in 6 weeks and be making six figures within a year. I stuck around for the whole "interview," largely because I didn't have a car with me and din't have enough money in my bank account to cover the $70 taxi ride back to my car from Lake in the Hills. After watching this cold calling all day, I decided this wasn't for me. Once we got back to the office, I pretty much skipped out and drove home.

Trouble is, I was still broke, and I still wasn't getting calls from legit companies. A couple days later, I went to a similar first interview. I agreed to a second interview, knowing that I would be selling for free, but I asked the guy if I could drive my own car and follow from place to place. No dice. This company was selling spa treatment coupons to women in malls, and everyone who worked there was stunningly good looking and well dressed. I'd just spent 4 months driving across America and camping in Montana and drinking in Mexico. I had nothing in common with these people. Fortunately, the "second interviewer's" territory was Orland Square Mall, in the south burbs. I sorta knew the area, and more importantly, I knew how to figure out the bus system there. After watching this dude hustle mall customers and fail for an hour or so, I ducked out for a smoke. I took the chance away from the "rep" to catch a suburban bus back into town and then the El back to my car.

I went to another interview with Vector Marketing. They were in the same north Chicago building as the 50th ward alderman's office. I hoped that Vector had something to do with the Chicago Democrats, but sadly they were focused on selling knives door to door. We had a group interview, and I got up and left in the middle of the presentation. I felt like a rock star walking out.

You would have thought I'd have learned my lesson, but I still needed to pay my rent and had no source of income. I went to yet another interview with a shady company because they called. I didn't even pay attention to the spiel at the first interview. I knew what the second interview would be, cold sales all day, but I didn't care, I came back for it anyway. I had nothing else to do the next day anyway.

It seemed like the universe wanted me to work at a shady door-to-door sales company. This last interview, selling art, seemed like the least obnoxious of the groups I had come across. I decided to throw in my lot with whatever this company was called. They changed their name often enough that it didn't really matter.


The Work Day


Being on time and meetings were of the utmost importance with these people, so there was a morning meeting at 8 a.m. every day. The "office," (an unmarked warehouse space with a couple offices) was in a business park exactly 11 miles north of my apartment, but nowhere near the El so I had to drive to the meeting. Because of traffic, it took at least an hour to cover those 11 miles, so I left home before 7. At the office, we would load our cars with art and have a meeting, which I will discuss at length shortly. At 8:30, we were free to go to our territories. I had no interest in going to Lake in the Hills or some far-flung burb, so I was assigned a territory in the city. My turf would be Lincoln Avenue, from the Chicago line all the way to the road's terminus down in Lincoln Park. Thus, at 8:30, I left the "office" and drove back into town, still during rush hour. It would take another 45 minutes to get the the far northern parts of the city.

We kept our unsold pieces in our cars at all times, in case we wanted to sell after hours or on the weekend. My car was filled to the brim with framed prints. Since I didn't sell much, I didn't have much need to reload. As the meetings were totally ridiculous but required, I basically left my house at 6:45 and got to my territory to start selling at 9:15. Two and a half hours killed to get to an area that was a 15 minute drive from my house.

One of the tenets of the company was the "5 at 5." We were officially done at 5 p.m., but we were expected to hit up 5 more businesses after 5 struck, then to return to the office (again, at rush hour). As I plied Lincoln Avenue from north to south each day (covering about a mile a day, there are A LOT of businesses on Lincoln), I would always finish the day a mile closer to home than I started, but then had to return to the office in a northern burb.

Why go back to the office? To cash out, of course. If I made any sales (it wasn't a daily occurrence), then I had to got back to the office to give my money to the boss and get my paltry cut. Even if I didn't make sales, I had to go back for a "rap session." I would get back to the office at around 6 (I learned that showing up before that was bad, I obviously wasn't committing to the "5 at 5."). By the time I got back home, it would be close to 7, because again, rush hour. four times a day. I was away from home over 12 hours a day, and 4 of those hours were to make pointless trips to the office.

The System

My job, and the other jobs that I interviewed for selling office supplies or spa coupons or knives were all multi-level-marketing schemes, which are legally not pyramid schemes but employ some similar practices. Only the absolute most gifted salesmen in the world could actually make a living making cold calls with no leads and no customer qualification. The way to make money in the short run and to keep the bosses happy and rich is to use warm leads, i.e., selling useless shit to friends and family. Since I'm not one to bug my peeps about products they don't need nor want, I was a dead end.

The way to make money in the long run is to recruit friends, family, or suckers into the fold of the company and make a commission off their sales to their warm leads. Recruit a few people to the fold, and you move from an "associate" to a "trainer." See, the guy who gave me my "second interview" was actually "training" me, thus he would get a piece of anything I sold. If you are a trainer, you rotate who trains what new meat, and get a percentage of anyone that sticks around. Train enough people that stick, and you become an "assistant manager." Assistants, of course, get a vig off of every trainer under them and every peon under them. Assistants take n00bs on their second training, two weeks after the n00b starts. Of course, the assistant gets 100% of that day's sales take, just like the trainer did on the "second interview," only now the n00b is a little more likely to make them money.

From assistant, one can become a branch manager, who runs the office. He's the cat that ran the bullshit meetings and spent most of the day hanging out in the office, although he still went out and sold too. That was always one of my questions early - why is a guy who claims to make 6 figures managing an office out doing the same bullshit that I did? It couldn't have been for fun, nobody could enjoy cold call outside sales. Of course, the manager made cuts off of everyone in the office. Above him was the regional manager, and now we get to people that have actually been entrenched in the company for awhile, people that have the top of the, um, triangle on speed dial. The regional manager that I dealt with ran an older Chicagoland branch, and a Google search shows that she is still with the company. She really doesn't go out in the field, and she really does stay at the office and rake in cash. The people above her in Seattle or Atlanta or Cleveland (the location of the main office was kind of a moving target) do likewise.

I'm sure you get the pattern. So yeah, there's good money to be made, the peon just has to wait for people in the regional management level or above to be promoted, or to quit, or to get fired, or to die. Thing is, they never do. They hang around forever like an unwanted party guest. If I were to look up the middle and upper management of Sprint, I'm sure it would be vastly different now than it was when I left. Recently, I've done some research on my old art sales "company," and the middle and upper management are the exact same people it was nearly a decade ago when I was there. Like any self-respecting gang, the street level has constant turnover, but the king stay the king. Best way to make money at a pyra.. er, MLM - be early to the party.

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