Thursday, September 30, 2004

Back in the New World


Maybe the grass is greener on the other side, but I am always excited to be back in North America. Canada is very different from the US, but has a lot of the energy and excitement that you find over there. There is the newness and modernity of everything, the dynamism, the "can do" attitude of the people you meet, and of course blue skies, something you so rarely see in Britain.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of things missing here, the lack of ancient history which makes up so much of European culture and the fact that most people here only get two weeks vacation but that aside, the social / political make-up over here is so much healthier.

Contrary to all the claims that Britain is becoming the 51st State, Britain is increasingly European and increasingly anti-American, something highlighted in this weeks Spectator.

Americans see Tony Blair on TV and assume that Britain is behind him. Unfortunately, he and all the other pro-American European leaders are not marching in tune with their voters. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. On just about every measure, Britain and America are moving in opposite directions.

Whilst 40% of Americans go to Church, the only thing Britons do in Church is marry (or at least they do on Eastenders). Whilst Americans continue their love affair with the death sentence, judges in Britain are trying to scrap the life sentence. Whilst Americans long ago lost interest in Benjamin Spock, legislators in Britain want to ban spanking. And whilst the US scrapped it's 55mph limit years ago, the British plan to fit speed limiters forcing cars to travel at whatever speed the Government chooses.

Americans, even those who are critics of Bush's policies in Iraq are unashamedly patriotic, whereas the British Intelligentsia are full of self-hatred for their own culture, history and traditions. Even amongst ordinary Brits, you hear a distinct tone of voice that is pessimistic, negative and cynical, that's partially why British comedy is so successful. It hones in on all the bitterness, cynicism and sense of failure that ordinary Brits feel. Whilst Americans are proud of successful people, Britain has hits with titles such as: "we hate it when our friends become successful".

If you want to find a definitive measure of how Britain and America are growing apart, there is no better measure than people's attitude to Government. Whilst Americans have a distrust for "Big Government", Britain is becoming more and more of a "Nanny State", with calls to ban everything from fatty foods to fox hunting. Britons may be horrified by the lack of gun control in the US, but again, their reaction shows just how far apart the two countries are. In reality, the US is a country where most of the guns you see are in the movies, and where even liberal minded people feel it's unhealthy for the Government to tell the people what do (even concerning guns).

I may be generalising, but broadly speaking, it's fair to say that Americans believe in individual responsibility, whilst Britons feel sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden. It explains an unwillingness by the British law authorities to crack down on crime or why the British Intelligentsia feel sympathy towards suicide bombers.

Back to Canada, Americans may mock it for its "socialist" welfare state and for it's liberal views, but Canada is closer both physically and psychologically to the US than many Canadians care to admit. There is a preference for state rather than federal government, there is multiculturalism that Europeans can only envy and there is still an immigrant culture where anyone despite their social background and their race can "make it". It doesn't matter how many times I fly here, I feel like I'm back in the "New World".

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Following on from Amway, I made a belated discovery that convinced me there is some justice in the world. I stumbled across a Which report from 2000 about a company called "City Financial Partners Limited". They tried to recruit me when I was a graduate, telling me how I could make huge amounts of money selling financial investments.

The first time I went there, there was a seminar more geared towards scaring away those who were unsuitable. On the second meeting, I had one-2-one with one of the Executives who spent most of the time showing me a brochure of the new Jaguar she was going to buy and telling me how she can afford to drive into town every day, park illegally and pay the parking ticket. It took her a while to demonstrate how I could actually make some money. What she showed me was astounding. I was expected to make up a list of my friends and relatives and sell financial investments to them, for commission only. Before I could start selling, there was to be a few of weeks of training during which we would get paid nothing. When I asked how as graduates we were supposed to survive, the Executive got angry and said: "why should we pay you when we are investing tens of thousands of pounds to train you". If people lose their temper when you ask sensible sensible questions, something is wrong, and there was also something rather strange about the fact that everyone in the organisation wore black suits.

As the Which Report makes clear, graduates were given inadequate training, and in their desperation to earn commission, missold investments. For every "City Financial Partners" who gets caught out, there are numerous other businesses eager to exploit those who have a cash flow problem. I can tell you lots of other stories, like my very brief summer job at "City Road Associates" in Camden Town who claimed to sell fax paper that didn't fade and trained the telesales staff to "f*** with their heads". University Graduates often go for jobs like lambs to the slaughter. Ever eager to make it in the world, they will sell themselves to the devil (or sell their grandmother some dodgy investments) in order to acheive their goals and pay off their student loans. My Father always warned me against taking on any commission only jobs but I didn't listen...I must be a glutton for punishment.

Haunted by Amway

Being self-employed, I find work by networking with other business people wherever I go. But the last thing I expected was to be approached for a business opportunity 3500 miles from home!

I am in Toronto a couple of times a year on family visits and am always on the lookout for programmers to work for me. But on this occasion, instead of a programmer, I got a business proposal. In fact, it was a proposal that was originally presented to me ten years ago. It took a while till I clicked as the guy speaking to me took about an hour to get to the point. When it takes this long you start wondering..."Am I too slow to understand what they're saying? or is it that they're too scared to spell it out?" Anyway, as the meeting wore on, the letters that began to materialise were

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Amway is a multilevel marketing scheme where someone sponsors you to distribute the company's range of products. You then sell a few of these products but the main thrust of your business is to sponsor new business associates who also distribute the products. Once your business associates in turn start sponsoring new distributors you finally start making money.

The guy trying to recruit me was promoting the sister company / parent company of Amway: Quixtar and Alticor. In fact he claimed that Quixtar / Alticor was the largest e-commerce operation in the world. Doing a quick search on the internet, I couldn't find any facts to back it up. Unfortunately most of what I did find on Amway / Quixtar / Alticor was a set of results that speak for themselves:

1. There is which as the name suggests is written by an ex-Amway distributor and lists all the lawsuits Amway have launched against "dissidents" who have spoken out against the system.
2. There is the Skepdic's Dictionary which lists itself as "A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions".
3. Finally, Amway: The Untold Story is packed with facts, opinions and articles critical of the Amway experience.

There are numerous other sites that I could mention but there is too little space here. What I will say is that most of what I've read is true:

a) At meetings, they spend about an hour telling you about how you can change your lifestyle, get rich, go on constant vacations (together with other Amway couples), destroy your alarm clock so you never have to get up for work again, but it takes them ages to get round to telling you about the actual business opportunity.
b) The meetings do have a very religious, almost cult like feel to them and everyone you meet has "seen the light". You have to dress smartly (double breasted suit) as though you are going to a house of worship, and everyone toes the party line. (Even in a house of worship you find a few religious scpetics!) There is definitely an atmosphere in the meetings that there are the "Amway" people who have seen the light, and there are the rest of us.
c) You are encouraged to spend more time with the Amway crowd and less time with commoners. Amway is extremely family oriented with the vast majority of the senior and direct distributors being couples. As with many religions, marriage is an ideal because as a couple, you can reinforce each others beliefs.
d) The regular meetings are very expensive and their prohibitive cost can only be explained by the fact that someone somewhere is making a very handsome profit.
e) There are a few very wealthy people who are making money from the network, most of the distributors have aspirations without ever getting there.
f) At Amway meetings, they claim that it isn't a "get rich quick" scheme, but it certainly is a "get rich scheme". And as with all the "get rich schemes", you have to offer a good product that people want if you want to make money. The people I sold Amway products to later confided that the products were awful and only bought them because they felt sorry for me.

There are several other observations I made about Amway which didn't make sense: The fact that you can only buy products from your "upline", that is the guy who sponsors you. In my case, it meant travelling 15 miles to the other side of London when I could have bought from his distributor who lived less than a mile away. The fact that most of your business revolves around finding new sponsor new sponsor new distributors....makes you wonder whether anyone actually sells anything. The products themselves are hardly even mentioned. And then there is the constant pressure to buy books tapes and go to meetings week in week out. Before long, it all costs a fortune.

I was in Amway for two years but most of the time I was inactive: None of my friends were convinced by the presentations, I didn't have any answers to their questions, and finally, the sums just didn't add up. I didn't lose a lot of money as I wasn't prepared to buy all the books and go to all the meetings. Although Amway sell their plan as "running your business", the distributors I met had a very strong "employee mentality". My observations were that they deferred towards a strong hierarcy rather than make their own decisions, they wanted to give up working (which is why they wanted to make money quickly), and they had little interest in Entepreneurship.

Whereas most successful businessmen have a unique idea, they work hard, and they keep going, long after they've "made it". Not because they have to but because they want to.