Bumble Bizz and the Rise of MLMs

It’s a warm October afternoon, the sun is baking and your only line of defense is a 12-year-old fan. You open the weather app in hopes of gaining some sense of reassurance, but through a quick glance, the realization that things are only going to get worse quickly becomes apparent. 

There is a pause. My eyes fixate on the words in all white that read “Poor Air Quality,” and upon further investigation through opening up social media I’m reminded of the ongoing California fires. The thought process goes something like this:

The fire nation has struck again.

Fires produce tons of carbon-filled smoke.

The air quality isn’t too good outside. 

It’s probably best to stay inside. 

It’s safe inside.

“Guess I’ll turn on the AC and deal with the high electricity bill later, a problem for future me. Let’s see what’s new with the world!”

I continue to mindlessly scroll through my social media feed when suddenly I stumble upon a Bumble Bizz advertisement.

I think to myself, “It appears my phone heard me complaining about lockdown, the dying music industry, and my desire to socialize more within the community to be able to produce new music with new people. Oh Zuckerberg, you sneaky boy. But hey, I could potentially meet someone cool and maybe get to jam with them or at the very least get a beer with them once this whole COVID stuff dies down. Sure let’s try it out, what’s the worst that can happen?”

I download the phone application and within seconds I’m customizing my profile, importing photos, and deciding what captions to use. A general trend is observed in other profiles with phrases such as, “let’s grow together,” “looking for like-minded individuals,” “let’s collab,” and several varying quotes on success being the most popular to use. Deciding to mimic them to a degree, I add the phrase “Open to all opportunities” to my bio.

I begin swiping.

Not much happens at first. After 20 minutes of inactivity, I start to become uneasy from the lack of matches, and in an attempt to speed up the process, every proceeding profile is swiped right on. To my surprise, 15 minutes later my phone notifies me that I’ve matched with someone and that they have sent a message. Eagerly, I open the app and to my delight there are five new matches, three being individuals who have labeled themselves as self-made entrepreneurs and one who is claiming to be an expert on the emerging crypto-market. But the most captivating one in my eyes is John, as through his pictures he created the image of an affable individual.

The other four accounts sent messages that seemed more like a template they had copy and pasted, one specifically asking if I wanted to get in early on an investment opportunity that I’d be incredibly foolish to miss out on. But then I received a message. His message.

John’s wasn’t like the other boys. He didn’t hit me with the typical “Hi I’m John, nice to meet you,” nor did he do the more boyish approach of the classic “heyy.” No, John was proper and straight to the point; a true gentleman. John boldly sent a voice memo showcasing the deeper tone in his voice, one that gave off a friendly impression – a welcoming one – the voice of someone who could potentially become one of The Boys.

His voice message begins in an inviting fashion, commencing with his love for the pictures on my profile, and then continuing on to how he is a musician looking to make a name for himself. The message ends on the note of potentially getting on a call later in the week to get to know each other better, something I see as his attempt to become friends. I respond with a yes, writing that Wednesday afternoon works best and that I’m looking forward to further connecting, to which he promptly confirms it and says he will call me at 3 o’clock sharp.

Come Wednesday, the call starts off with standard topics you’d expect. We touch on questions to the likes of who you are, what you do, and how your mental health is coping amongst a global pandemic and wave of unemployment, typical stuff. But the conversation takes a strange turn when John casually mentions that he will be retiring in the next year or two. 

“I could tell you more about it if you’d like, but I definitely owe it all to my mentor who I met last year and how much he is changing my life with everything he is teaching me,” he says.

My mind is suddenly bombarded with questions, wondering how someone in their mid twenties who had just met their mentor a year ago can claim to be retiring in the next few years.

I bite. 

“So how did you do it?,” I ask.

John proceeds to tell the story of his life up to this point, mentioning how he had no idea what he was doing the past few years. He was completely unprepared for the reality of post-graduation life, and as he put it, he was a sheep lost in the unforgiving city, struggling to make ends meet until it all changed one day when he found his herder; his salvation. Although never mentioning exactly what he does for a living, his claim to knowledge and doors opening because of his mentor was enough to satisfy my curiosity. He concludes the call by advising me to read a piece on open-mindedness and to be ready to discuss it in a Zoom call in four days. 

“You must learn to have an open mind and forget what you previously knew about success, as it was all wrong,” he exclaims.

We meet up four days later as was agreed, this time over Zoom. After some quick remarks on individual appearances, we go straight into dissecting the reading John had assigned, his first question asking if I identify with any of the characters and if there are any themes I took from it.

Just as I’m midway into answering him, he suddenly asks, “So are you willing to do anything to get rich?”

He makes it clear that it is not a position or anything of that matter being offered, merely that he wishes to know if I’m mentally open to “learning” and doing all that I can to become “successful” through “re-educating” myself. I hesitate for a moment but for the sake of not seeming like a buzzkill say yes, to which he casually mentions that I’d be dealing with “Multi-Level Marketing,” a term that gives off the impression of legitimacy, but with a few google searches I’d come to think otherwise.

We agree to Zoom again in two days. As he put it, it would give me enough time to process everything discussed so far and help in having a fresh mind, ready to have it blown the next time we conversed. However, within this two-day period something peculiar would happen, something that would open my eyes.

What starts out as a sense of liberty and an opportunity to have your first independent business, quickly turns itself into hours spent soliciting friends and family to buy overpriced goods, making little if any profit, more likely than not losing money with each consecutive order.

But first, let us quickly discuss what “Multi-Level Marketing” is. With a “what is multi-level marketing,” google search the first sentence that pops up reads: “Multi-level marketing (MLM), also called pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral marketing, is a controversial marketing strategy for the sale of products or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce selling the company’s products/services, while the earnings of the participants are derived from a pyramid-shaped or binary compensation commission system” (Wikipedia). Funnily enough, right underneath this definition is the “People also ask” section, and the first three questions are: “Is multi-level marketing a pyramid scheme?” “Why is MLM bad?” and “Is multi-level marketing illegal in Australia?” 

In short multi-level marketing isn’t legally a pyramid scheme, although many experts disagree. The key distinction is that a pyramid scheme focuses on the recruitment of people while multi-level marketing focuses on sales. Furthermore, both will offer something of tempting nature, often it being the opportunity to get rich quick, to be mentored by top business people, to gain access to exclusive information, or really anything that would sound appealing to an individual struggling to get by. Upon joining what one would assume is a legitimate MLM, one quickly finds themselves stocking up on overpriced products and having what is now in essence a sales job. What starts out as a sense of liberty and an opportunity to have your first independent business, quickly turns itself into hours spent soliciting friends and family to buy overpriced goods, making little if any profit, more likely than not losing money with each consecutive order. This is primarily because almost everything in the catalog of items available for sale is available for cheaper or higher quality almost anywhere else. At this point, you realize that the only way of making this a viable endeavor is by playing their pyramid game. This is done by creating a new bottom layer to the pyramid by recruiting people to your downline just as your sponsors had done with you. This is further incentivized as you learn that a sponsor takes a portion of commission from all of their recruits’ sales. Suddenly this whole operation is looking a lot like a pyramid scheme, something which everyone involved in an MLM will become defensive of at the mention of their similarities, claiming this is all a legal operation. However, it is worth noting that this isn’t the case for all MLM’s. There are certainly legitimate ones functioning across the country, but this isn’t the case for the majority of them.

Going back to me now. 

Having done some quick research on google after John mentioned MLM, I become aware of the above information and start having doubts. I’m hopeful this won’t turn out to be a pyramid scheme in disguise, plus why would John lie to me? 

By this point in time, I’ve been on Bumble Bizz for just over a week and have gotten other conversations up and running with other matches, one in particular being with a woman by the name of Sarah who appeared to be in her late sixties. I specifically swiped right on her as she resembled the stereotypical caring grandma that bakes you cookies every time you visit. 

Suddenly, it was like deja vu.

The same thing occurred where she asked to call after a few messages to get to know each other better, something I saw as sweet coming from a nice old lady. However, it was in the call the next day when a red flag was raised. Sarah asked questions that were almost verbatim to those asked by John, even suggesting the same reading he had suggested at the end of his call. I think to myself either Sarah is a woke Boomer, John is her interracial grandchild and she is genuinely trying to connect me to a successful helping figure in the industry, or this is all some sort of Ponzi scheme. Unsure what to think, I agree to call again in a few days. 

Suddenly this whole operation is looking a lot like a pyramid scheme, something which everyone involved in an MLM will become defensive of at the mention of their similarities, claiming this is all a legal operation.

The next day I get on another Zoom call with John, this time skeptical of his persona. Almost immediately, he tells me to forget any outside information on anything he is about to lecture me on in the next hour and a half, stating that all the contradictory information on the web, even from reputable sources, is all a lie aimed at stopping people from investing in their futures. With this, he name-drops several items and brands, the main ones being that of Herbalife and Amway, two companies I recall having heard about in prior conversations with people. He continues by saying how he could explain how finances work but for my sake, he will instead simplify it down to a new and better system that his mentors taught him. 

This new system he proceeds to lecture me on is in the most literal sense a pyramid scheme. He even goes as far as drawing a pyramid shape when explaining the structure of the business, stating that I want to build a network of people below me to help sell products off of Amway.

He adds, “Now I know what you’re thinking, but no this isn’t a pyramid scheme, this is all 100 percent legal and within two to five years you’ll be rich and financially independent just like I will be by the end of next year.”

Seeing past his deception, I put a smile on my face as I tell him, “Whoa John, this sure is some wild stuff, can’t believe it’s really this simple!” A smile lights up his face. I have gained his trust, or rather he believes I’m an idiot for believing everything he’s said.

“Why Brian, it looks like you just might be what I’ve been looking for, it’s not just anyone that I offer the opportunity to learn about this business opportunity, much less the chance to meet my mentor, but I can tell you’re a smart guy looking to make his life better,” he says.

He tells me that the next Zoom call will be with his mentor and his associates, to which he quickly adds that the call will also have around 50 other people in attendance but quickly reassures me that it’s meant to encourage me to want to stand out, not at all due to the fact that these are individuals also being lured into this pyramid scheme. Lastly, he adds that I should wear something business casual and to be ready to re-educate myself on all the lies that have been told by the media. I smile and agree.

The big day is finally here

I’m finally meeting the messiah of success, the man deciding my fate and determining if I am worthy. Eagerness fills my body as I sit in the waiting room, wondering if my hunch has been wrong this whole time and this is actually the big break I’ve been looking for. Upon being let in, I notice about 40 other individuals of varying backgrounds in button-up shirts, each with a smile on their face, stating their name and identifying who got them access to such a lucrative opportunity. The host announces that the mentor will be arriving shortly and to continue going down the line giving our introductions. The whole experience quickly began to feel more like personal introductions on the first day of school. However, the intros are cut abruptly a minute later when the mentor suddenly arrives. In his attempt to connect with the audience, he rambles about himself and continually drops phrases on how it is “your choice” and “your opportunity” in what is being discussed today but how he is like any other person in the world and is doing all of this solely out of “the kindness of his heart.”

At this point, you realize that the only way of making this a viable endeavor is by playing their pyramid game.

The next hour continues with a series of rants focused on the need to open one’s mind and a reminder every 10 minutes on how everyone should be grateful for this opportunity. The few sponsors in the call give reassuring grunts each time the mentor goes into this routine, and since everyone is dressed more or less the same this would give the illusion of everyone in the call agreeing. Suddenly, the mentor’s tone of voice changes to a softer one as he acknowledges that there are many people that will tell you that this is a pyramid scheme, especially at the sound of the name Amway. But alas, they are all in the wrong, merely ignorant fools unaware of matters they can’t comprehend. Again he reassures everyone that this is all for them and that anyone can leave whenever they want, saying it’s as easy and simple as paying an initiation fee and immediately gaining access to their immense network of people and the resources they have available in the MLM which, funnily enough, they don’t mention you have to pay for as well. 

At this point the mentor says that for those that are still interested, in the next call they will be moving on to the last step in initiation where they will sign up for the MLM and begin the process of integration. He bids farewell with a big open smile, hoping he’s caught some of the impressionable people with his bait.

The call ends.

Over the course of the next few days, John continues asking if I’m still interested in the offer to join the MLM, something a week prior he had specifically said he would never do. I make sure to leave him open-ended, giving no clear indication to whether I’m in it completely or am simply too incompetent to understand what is going on. Moreover, it starts to become more and more apparent that over half of the conversations I’ve started on Bumble Bizz are all MLM recruitment offers, the people ranging from liberal college students to Palestinian immigrants. 

But then out of the blue, I receive a notification for a new match. I think to myself, “Surely this is another person simply trying to get my guard down only to then push their MLM agenda, ugh let’s see what they have to say.”

Being selected by the app to start the conversation, I send a simple “hello” in the chat. Not expecting to hear back for a few hours, I receive a call via the in-app call feature about a minute later. It is him. He starts the call off with how he digs my pictures and explains how he’s a rapper with a growing presence in the area, all things validated through a quick Spotify and Instagram search. He tells me, “Hey man I get you don’t know me but I checked out your stuff and am really feeling the saxophone and your energy from your pictures, you should come by the studio some time to record and vibe, we’re always here popping bottles and making music. Here’s my number, no pressure. Any help you need, just hit me up.”

After weeks of conversations started, countless calls made, and the constant threat of brainwashing, when you least expected it, you found what you set off for when you originally downloaded Bumble Bizz. You found “one of the boys.”

*Names were changed to protect the anonymity of individuals mentioned in the article*

Brian Mendez is .WAV’s Interview Coordinator, he wrote the article. Olive Robertson is a .WAV staff member, she created the graphic