I was sitting in an office lobby reading Cosmopolitan, surrounded by fresh-scrubbed twentysomethings in nice suits, waiting to be interviewed for a job I knew nothing about. That's when the manager came out to change the music—skipping from "Don't Stop Believing" to "Any Way You Want It." Now, I like Journey as much as the next terminal ironist, but that soundtrack, combined with the presence of so many milling hopefuls, made me feel like I'd stumbled into Rush Week purgatory.
A few days before, I'd sent a resume to Hyphire Solutions in Tigard. Twenty minutes after hitting the send button, I received an email response claiming I seemed "really, really qualified," and asked me to dress nicely for my interview. I'd first heard of Hyphire several months previous, while in earnest search of a job. Googling the company yielded a weird mix of job ads, vague corporate websites, and pages that implicated Hyphire as a scam connected to the multilevel marketing giant known as DS-Max. I could've taken their word for it. But I figured... why not find out for myself?
While Oregon unemployment rates continue to shrink, many new jobs don't pay well, entry-level employment is tough to find, and Portland is still experiencing an influx of young, creative college graduates—resulting in a nearly desert-like job market. For those new to Portland, an "entry-level marketing job" with lots of openings looks like an oasis. So I did my best to sound like an eager jobseeker on the phone, bought some cheap pantyhose, and drove to Tigard for my interview. I didn't tell anyone I planned to write about my experience, but I used my real resume (which outlines my experience as a journalist—I was surprised no one asked), my real name, and my real number.
The Hyphire office was noticeably bare, with a single desk and PC in the lobby. The two managers' offices were separated from the lobby with sliding-glass doors and blinds. I was whisked off to one of them by a twentysomething assistant manager with deep visible cleavage and perfectly manicured hands. The interview was quick. I mumbled, slouched, said I'd rather work with computers than people, and tried to hide the fact that the skirt I'd worn that day had a tiny rip. She congratulated me on making the cut to the second-round interview, and told me to come back the next morning. A former recruiter told me later: "They don't care. They just want warm bodies." Warm bodies in professional dress and comfortable shoes.
IN THE FIELD
The second round is a "day of observation," shadowing someone in the business. In this case, I went out with a distributor (entry-level sales rep), who I'll call "Martha," and a team leader (one higher up on the food chain), who I'll call "Jill." I liked Jill almost immediately—she was in her early 20s and a recent college graduate who said, not 20 minutes out into the field, "I want to be really rich. I want to retire young."
The field, that day, was outer Burnside and Gresham. We left Martha—who was younger, maybe a year out of high school—to go off and sell on her own. We were selling "golf passes" door to door at businesses, ignoring "no soliciting" signs, and marching unabashedly into schools (where we actually made a sale). If it had a functioning door, we went through it. The one exception was the neighborhood police station.
Some of the people we talked to didn't speak English. Very few golfed. Many of the roads we walked on had no shoulders. We sold no more than eight golf passes between 9 am and 5 pm. Over lunch, Jill asked me to get out my notebook, so she could explain how the business worked.
The cards Hyphire sells (that is, the golf passes, or sports tickets, or pizza coupons) are printed cheaply, and the client, in exchange for free marketing, provides the inventory. The money from each sale is then shared between each rep and the two managers above her. So for each $40 coupon sold, the sales rep may get $15, with the team leader manager taking $15 and the manager taking $10. Many of Hyphire's clients are, as the ads boast, Fortune 500 companies—and you've heard of them: the Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Mariners, Pizza Hut. They get people in the door at no cost, the customer gets a discount, and the sales team pockets the change. Jill called it a win-win-win.
The point of the job, she said, was not to sell stuff, but to train people to be managers. They get promoted fast, and they retire young. Jill had been with the company for less than two months, and was already a team leader. Once you become a manager, you open a different office—a completely different business, of course, with a different merchandise mix, and a different name. Each office is independently owned and operated, though merchandise will still come from Smart Circle, or another company that has a distribution and licensing deal with companies in Hyphire's family: Cydcor, Innovage, and Nu-Life are the names to know and search for in the United States.
An investment of $10,000 is recommended to open a new office (each manager rents the office space, pays a salaried receptionist/recruiter, and assumes the cost of advertising), but one former manager told me this isn't required. Another advantage of having offices operate individually, under different names and owners, is that it makes it more difficult for prospective employees to run Google searches, do the math, and balk. And the ability to own your own business—the opportunity—is the key thing these companies sell, along with the possibility of retiring young. Jill asked me, "Would you shovel manure for six months if you knew you'd get the chance to own your own company?"
DO YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT IT?
After lunch, as we walked the territory, Jill began peppering me every few minutes with a strange rotation of questions and statements. "Does this seem like something you could do?" Ten minutes later she'd tell me, "You know, people usually have more questions for me. I want to get you in for a third-round interview, but you've got to show me that you really, really want it." That is, ask more questions, show more drive, and exhibit more enthusiasm.
"I sense you're a bit skeptical," she said later, "and I'm willing to address your concerns. But if you want this job you have to show me that you want it."
By 5 pm, I was exhausted. I was hungry. I was cranky. And I was processing a tangle of contradictions: This wasn't a sales job, but we were selling stuff nonstop. All Hyphire reps are self-employed, but a supervisor determines their hours and territory. When we got back to Tigard I decided I'd seen enough for one day, and waited for the evening meeting to end. (These meetings involve a lot of chanting, ringing bells to signal successful sales, and, of course, lots of loud music... though they'd switched from Journey to recent, Top 40 stuff.) To find out if I qualified for a third-round interview, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire about what I'd learned that day. I filled in a bunch of snarky answers, such as, "Why am I being made to believe these are such hard jobs to get, when you advertise all the time?" Then I pretended to go to the bathroom—which was across the outdoor courtyard in the same office complex—and bailed.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
One person I spoke to for this story, Oliver, said during his third-round interview the recruiter got angry when he said he couldn't start right away. The next day he received an email from the same company asking him to write a one-page statement about why he thought he was good enough for the job. I'd seen enough of this kind of "build-break-build" psychology on my day of observation that I halfway expected to hear from Hyphire the next day.
But I started reading up. The history, at least the way most in the company hear and retell it, is this: DS-Max started in 1980 when a 26-year-old Torontonian named Murray Reinhardt lost his sales job and needed a way to start over. He started by buying cheap goods from wholesalers, selling them door to door, and recruiting salespeople. Two other large companies operating under a different, but related model came along later: Cydcor and Granton Marketing. Granton is now called Smart Circle, and is Hyphire's merchandise supplier. Only one of the big three—Cydcor—has a public relations representative whose contact information can be found on its website.
Gail Michalak, Cydcor's PR director, would only tell me that Cydcor has no offices in Oregon and is no longer affiliated with DS-Max. She claimed to know nothing about Smart Circle. As for business practices—well, each office is independently owned and operated, so she couldn't speak for them. While clients have their own specific requirements for how they can be represented, that information could not be released to the press.
In fact, trying to follow the name trail, or establish a connection between individual offices and their parents, can feel like a game of Whac-a-Mole. But their modus operandi, right down to the music in the lobby, are nearly universal: the vocabulary ("Let's get juiced!" might be the signature catchphrase of DS-Max culture —"juice" being an acronym for "Join Us in Creating Excitement"), the business model (multilevel marketing with some significant differences), and the schedule (work eight hours a day—not including mandatory meetings). DS-Max culture is saturated with the rhetoric of personal responsibility and accountability—it's your dream, but only if you really want it—but there's no accountability for the high turnover and failure rate. Those who "toast" (DS-Max speak for quitting, or washing up) are blamed for their failure, even if after years of working hard in the field, they find themselves bankrupt and nearly homeless.
"DS-Max: the Aftermath," an MSN group devoted to former DS-Max employees, and their families, is peppered with messages from people who say they haven't seen their children, siblings, or significant others for months. Many have been transferred to open new offices, while constantly trying to satisfy the company's aggressive us vs. them mentality.
Some people leave after deciding they're being ripped off, but others—particularly those who ascend rapidly within the system, and stick around for a long time—don't make that judgment call until later, if at all. "Todd" (name changed at request), the moderator of DS-Max: the Aftermath said he left because he was bankrupted out, not because he stopped believing, and he continued to defend the company for months.
IN NEED OF A DREAM
Several months after my day of observation, I found Jill's MySpace page and inferred (from comments made by her friends) that she left the company a couple months previous. I wrote her, informed her I'd actually been working on a story, and asked if she'd be willing to talk about it. Initially, she seemed upset (claiming I had wasted her time) and wouldn't tell me why she had left the company—though she admitted the practices were probably "shady." I wrote back explaining my motivations and what I thought of the company, and this seemed to calm her down. Jill responded that she was naturally defensive of things she'd been attached to. She still didn't want to talk to me, but no longer seemed upset. As Todd wrote me later, "It can be a terrible thing to admit that all you did, for however long you were in the company, has now come to nothing."
I don't know what would have happened if I'd represented myself honestly. I also don't know what would happen if DS-Max represented itself honestly: if the ads said "straight commission, door-to-door sales, multilevel marketing with limited chances for success." Plenty of people would read no further, slam down the phone or walk out the door—but plenty of people already do. The "build-break-build" recruitment, the contradictions, and slow release of information make it easier to ensnare people—but it's the dream of against-all-odds success that makes the company tick. In a job market where the odds already against entry-level workers, maybe the dream is all they need.