Too Good To Be True? My Glimpse Inside an Alleged Chattanooga Sales Cult

(This is the second installment of a two part article on Smart Circle, an extremely controversial direct sales firm that critics accuse of being a pyramid scheme that ensnares its victims in a world of social isolation and financial servitude. I highly recommend starting with Part I because this shit is extremely complicated.)

Dale Vanderburke was two minutes early for his high stakes job interview with an elite corporate marketing firm that recently opened its doors in Chattanooga. An extremely vague online post promised a salary in the low 40’s, managing the corporate marketing needs of several Fortune 500 companies. There were 18 such positions open, and despite Dale’s questionable education, complete lack of experience, and professed passion for farting in bed, he decided to apply for a job that was way out of his league.

In a laughably inept resume, Dale shared the details of a long and depressing career that began with an eight year stint inside the giant rat costume at Chuck E. Cheese. For a while he worked as a medical guinea pig before applying himself at University of Phoenix Online and securing a job at the nearby Logan’s Roadhouse. Dale’s resume included lots of pretentious words like paradigm, cornucopia, and matriculated.

He also claimed to have won an Employee of the Month award for a job he’d quit months earlier. He boasted of winning multiple awards for “Excellence in the Field of Achievement.” And oddly, he bragged of founding his high school’s “Dutch Oven Society.” (For those of you unfamiliar with the term “Dutch Oven,” Urban Dictionary defines it as “the act of trapping someone under bed covers and releasing vile ass fumes.”)

Dale Vanderburke

In short, Dale Vanderburke was clearly either a moron or a liar. Possibly both. But in a stunning turn of events, Dale Vanderburke received an immediate response when he submitted his resume from the address DaleTheBoss69@aol.com. Moron or liar, Dale was their man.

Wait. Hold on.

Let me back up for a moment and explain one thing: there is no Dale Vanderburke. He is my fictitious response to one of those countless spammy job ads that have started popping up in Chattanooga (after popping up word-for-word in other cities for years), promising unbelievably great pay with no experience needed. There are other red flags that this is part of a scam. Like for instance, the fact that it took me five hours of extremely dedicated research to answer two seemingly obvious questions: what is this company, and what does it do?

Wait. Hold on.

Let me back up and once again urge anyone who didn’t read the first part of this article to do so now. There’s a lot of extremely bizarre, frightening and ultimately tragic stories of people who found themselves trapped in this direct sales MLM (aka semi-legal “pyramid scheme”) that’s in a perpetual state of name-change to try and outrun its imminently Google-able reputation. It used to be called DS-Max. But for now, it’s known as Smart Circle. And if your heart can handle it, here’s one of the many YouTube testimonials from people who were grateful to escape its clutches after investing time, money and their good faith in an empty promise great wealth.

So what is this company, and what does it do? The short version is that they receive a contract to sell products like DirectTV inside of Costco stores. Instead of hiring sales people and paying them to do that, they encourage their sales people to incorporate themselves into their own “independent” marketing firms where they can down-line the shitty job of yelling at people in Costco to new recruits and then fast-track them through the process of opening their own “independent” marketing firms. If one CEO “graduates” another CEO, he gets a cut of that CEO’s start-up fees. And the CEO above that CEO gets a cut too. And so does every CEO up the chain to the top of a pyramid-shaped business venture that I am slightly reluctant to simply label a “pyramid scheme” because (like the Church of Scientology) they are notoriously litigious, and I would hate for a tiny rhetorical embellishment to expose me to a bunch of bullshit lawyer scare-tactics (like for instance, their attempt to stop a blogger from photoshopping devil horns over the executives’ heads).

So needless to say, after my five hours of extremely dedicated research I had no intention of pursuing this job opportunity on Dale Vanderburke’s behalf beyond what I’d read would be a fifteen minute sales pitch for a “management training program” disguised as an interview for a marketing job. I only wanted to know if I was right… was EQUIP Marketing Solutions actually a part of the Smart Circle network? And if so, why were they trying so hard to convey the opposite?

If job applicants were expected to ignore these glaring red flags, I felt like my fictitious job applicant should set off plenty of red-flags of his own. So to prepare for the job interview, I smoked a bunch of bomb-ass weed, being extremely careful to blow the pungent smoke directly into the “business professional” blazer I was instructed to wear. I also made sure to select blazer with an unambiguous graphical representation of my love for marijuana, the reason I’d stumbled down this Internet rabbit-hole in the first place.

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“What’s that on your jacket?” the CEO asked me with a knowing smirk as he greeted me at the door to a hip shared office space.

“Oh. Fresh herbs,” I told him, having forgotten I was wearing a marijuana blazer because smoking marijuana affects my short term memory.

It might seem strange that a man in a marijuana blazer pretending to be a medical guinea pig for the purposes of blowing a job interview with an alleged pyramid-esque scheme would care much for ethics, but you might be surprised. And that’s why I don’t want to use the CEO’s name in this article, even though the CEO’s brand is basically his personal identity, and his social media is mostly meme-ified selfies featuring inspirational quotes — all of which are ostensibly directed to an audience but subconsciously directed at himself.

The point is, he’s not a bad guy. To the contrary, he’s really bright and nice and friendly and well educated with a loving family and some relatable dreams. And he’s genuinely a hell of a sales person. That is no joke. He recited one side of a ten-minute sales pitch to a hypothetical DirectTV customer, systemically but reassuringly overcoming each of the hypothetical objections. It was an impressive feat of memory, performance, and confidence. He’s great at what he does.

But if the Internet is any indication, his company will be shut down in the next year. He’ll either go broke, hit spiritual rock bottom, or come into some dispute with Smart Circle and have his “independent” business clawed back along with any profits he’d managed to accumulate along the way. So I don’t want my site to anchor his name to Smart Circle for the rest of his life. But I do want to use his business’s name because I think desperate job-seekers in the Chattanooga area deserve to know the full story about these strategically vague job ads before they waste their time going in for an interview that feels more like a hard sell for a time share property.

The CEO asked me a couple of cursory questions designed to pivot into his monologue. I quoted some Drake lyrics, lamented my habit of overeating a regional slaw made from nothing but shredded cheddar cheese and mayonnaise, and professed my desire to obtain financial freedom by one day owning my own business.

It was go time. The CEO turned my resume over and sketched out a four-step diagram for how within a year I could be on my way to becoming a CEO of my own corporate marketing firm too. There were lines and and arrows and lots of scribbled words like goals, dreams, and management. Prepared as I may have been, I still struggled to keep up with the deluge of information. He repeatedly assured me this was all “very easy.” But I still had plenty of basic questions… like how much does this job pay and what are the hours? And to his credit, he tried his best to answer.

For 45 minutes, he explained a lot more about the true intent of the company than I expected, though he was still careful not to mention the name “Smart Circle.” He told me that he made more money by graduating sales people into the CEO program than he did for selling the actual DirectTV packages, which at least on the surface was the company’s only reason for existing. He explained how all the CEOs above him made money off him signing up new CEOs, and he would make money off all of the new CEOs that signed up downstream of him.

He explained that as a young CEO in training, I would have to invest a portion of my earnings into a “business savings account,” and that once my account reached $3,000 it could be used it as the start-up capital to create in my own “independent” marketing firm. That $3,000 would be used to set me up with a website, obtain access to the corporate legal team, and afford me all the critical training and marketing materials associated with opening what’s basically a franchise of a marketing company that sells more franchises of marketing companies. He even explained that failure to meet sales goals could demote a CEO back to the starting position of Costco Crier — though he assured me that with the skills I’d acquire along the way, I’d make it back CEO status in no time.

I only had one question left. I asked the CEO if I could speak to him alone, and his assistant left the room. Oh yeah. He had an assistant. She was young and stylish and hardly said a word beyond hello and goodbye.

I told the CEO that I wanted to ask him one last question, but I didn’t want to create an uncomfortable moment for him in front of her. But I wanted to know… did this elaborate network of CEOs paying other CEOs for hiring more CEOs trace itself back to the company currently known as Smart Circle?

He blanched. But he kept his cool. And he admitted that yes, Smart Circle was the “national” company whose name he had so carefully danced around for nearly an hour. So I asked why both he and Smart Circle were going to such great lengths to keep their association under wraps. The CEO’s calm veneer finally slipped as he explained how he didn’t want their brand’s awful reputation to affect his brand.

The dire need to conceal your brand’s identity should be a red flag for any aspiring CEO. But here he was, trying to convince a Drake-quoting, cheesy mayonnaise-swilling, retired medical guinea pig who reeked of dope that he too could be a CEO. This was a guy who genuinely could not see — or would not allow himself to see — obvious red flags. And now his job was to identify others with that same deficit. The consummate salesman, he was now living in a constant state of self-sales.

I told him about all the research I’d done, and how according to an abundance of credible first-hand accounts, Smart Circle was at best a pyramid-ish scheme and at worst a cult that’s not religious in nature, but financial. That it systematically undermines its members’ confidence while providing a false sense of community that can be yanked away at any moment by a power structure beyond them. That it isolates its members from friends and family and sequesters them in new cities with nobody to talk to but other members of the program. But instead of promising eternal spiritual salvation, they promise eternal financial salvation.

And I told him how I thought he was an awesome salesman with a great set of skills, and I was certain that if he worked as hard at selling an actual product as he worked at selling Smart Circle, he’d be an extremely successful person. He may never have Wolf of Wall Street money, but he’d have more than enough to be happy.

And I admitted that I might be full of shit. I might be totally wrong about all this stuff because I’m just some stoner who went down an amusing Internet rabbit-hole one day. Maybe all these CEOs really were getting rich, and maybe all the stories I’d read about how their profits are “reinvested” into Smart Circle and how they’re so poor they often have to live together in Smart Circle group homes was all just a bunch of fake news — nothing more than vindictive lies from bitter wannabe CEOs who couldn’t hack it.

Only he knew if it was true. But I told him that if maybe one day his feelings start to change, and he starts to regret arguing with his parents, or wasting his money, or moving away from his home and his family to spend years with these strangers, and he just needs someone outside of it all to talk to… I’d be down listen.

Despite his exquisitely crafted sales pitch, there was no was no script for the last few minutes of our conversation. And it was only when I took him off-script that I was allowed to catch a glimpse of the regular guy under all the levels of conditioned behavior. He shrank in his seat. His eyes grew sad. If we were drunk at a bar, he may have cried.

“I’m an adult, and my parents don’t make decisions for me,” he said, and I understood what he meant.

As I got up to leave, he warned me that if I was ever lucky enough to get an opportunity like this again, I shouldn’t mention the name Smart Circle. Then we put on our happy faces, and I said goodbye to his assistant.

Later that night I got an email.

Good Afternoon Mr. Dale,
Thank you for all of your thoughts, we will be taking a lot of what we discussed today in for consideration on how to better brand our business.
Have a great day and good luck on finding your next position.

 

I’m not sure if it was a form rejection letter or a coded message of hope from someone who fears his emails might be monitored. I’m choosing to interpret it as the latter.

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