At eighteen, I dropped out of college and jumped into network marketing selling beepers in Compton, California. My family had just moved back to the states from Korea, believing that an American education would secure my future. I was bored and impatient with school and ready to jump into the American dream. I gladly paid the $400 fee for a "marketing internship" with a network marketing company. My English was choppy, at best, and I was thrilled that an American company was willing to take a chance on me.
Statistics show that 99 percent of network marketers fail, yet within three months I was making almost $10,000 a month. How was this possible?
You can read the full story in my book The Outlier Approach: How to Triumph in your Career as a Nonconformist, but here's quick a look into how my boiler room-like experience taught me several lessons that have served me well throughout my career:
1.Learn the basics of body language.
As a kid, I moved so often between Korea and the U.S. that I was not fluent in either language. Because I could not interpret the nuances of spoken English, I learned early on to study and understand body language and social cues.
For example, According to psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian, the impact of words is only seven percent when communicating. The remaining 93 percent consists of tone of voice and body language. No matter what, always remain confident. Sure my English was choppy, but that was not what 93 percent of what my communication was saying. My confidence alone won me many deals.
2. Trust your moral compass.
At the company that I had worked for, Excel Communications (NYSE: ECI), our business was simple: we targeted students who wanted to get rich quick. They paid us $400 to sign up, then had to sell at least two of our products in any combination. We sold long-distance phone services, refurbished cell phones, and even beepers in underserved neighborhoods such as Compton and Inglewood where saving five dollars on a phone bill mattered. Our products were not great and most customers canceled quickly. The math was always suspect, but we made hundreds of dollars on each product we sold.
Ashamed of my questionable business, my family threatened to disown me. People accused my team of taking advantage of others. The company was publicly traded and we weren't breaking the law, but no matter how hard I tried most of my sales representatives lost money and customers were unhappy. I knew that something about our business model was off.
My adventure came to a screeching halt when someone lit my car on fire where it sat parked in front of my parents' house. My dad and his neighbors watched in horror as the car melted into the asphalt. I had to witness my parents' distress and fear for our family's safety.
I finally took a step back and thought about all the people I might have hurt: the unsuspecting lady in Compton who was just trying to save five dollars, the college kid who never made her money back. Did making money have to be so hostile? We later learned that the vandalization to my car was random and had nothing to do with my business, but the experience changed my perspective and I decided to quit my business.
3. Build value for others.
After the experience, I was determined to use my skills to make a positive change in the world. My experience had, at least, made me realize that anyone could become rich. Now I wanted to enrich others' lives.
I returned to school and obsessed over perfecting my English. One day, when my roommate of four years said, "You finally speak like you were born here, " I went to my room and cried. All those years watching Friends, recording and listening to my own speech, and weekends spent at bookstores had paid off. After I graduated, I restarted my career in finance and used some of the funds I'd made through investing to co-found a company, Dealflicks, and build it up to a fifteen-million-dollar valuation.
It took me a little longer, but focusing my career on creating businesses that provided value helped me build a career that was more lucrative, respectable, and personally rewarding. You want to build your career like a brick house, slow, steady, and sustainable.
If your business is creating unhappy customers and employees, take a step back and focus on creating products and services that provide value.
So what happened to that network marketing company? The multi-billion-dollar firm went bankrupt just a few months after I cut ties with the company. Don't believe me? You can visit my parents' house and consider the burnt tire rubber melted into the pavement. Always trust your moral compass...or gut.