[Red Corvette]: Today we have a rather startling experience from guest writer Sophie [not her real name] who is based in the UK. She is here to talk to us about her dalliance with direct selling company Empire Initiative. This looks to be one of the tons of ‘come and go’ organisations that work under the DS-Max umbrella, which runs abusive door-to-door job schemes.
This type of scheme is designed to get as much free or cheap labour as possible, typically targeting the young and impressionable. There are hundreds scattered all over the world, with thousands of victims taking to scam exposure websites, blogs, comments, forums and Facebook to vent. — The Truth Behind Door-to-Door Jobs
[Elle:] Following on from what Red said above, I had a quick google for them, and found this collection of articles from Journalism.co.uk. They are described as “experts in direct sales and marketing. Their bespoke campaigns help businesses acquire customers, and grow their brand awareness” but there is no further mention of them beyond 2014.
It will be interesting to hear what Sophie has to tell us about them.
[Sophie]: Thank you all. So. Here’s my tale. I hope it helps to warn others!
It was January of 2014, I was 20 years old and had just dropped out of university after discovering that it wasn’t for me.
I was living back at home with my mum and dad, and I was desperate to get back on my feet and have some direction in my life again. I was spending hours a day trawling through job applications when I came across an advertisement for a sales assistant at a local business in town who went by the name of Empire Initiative.
The role of sales assistant appeared to a rather far stretching role at Empire Initiative — it would include events management, marketing, networking, customer care. It was a fast-paced environment and they wanted any and all “driven, motivated and eager (i.e. desperate) candidates to apply!” All appears well, I thought to myself; I tick all of those boxes! I read further and saw that the starting salary was a minimum of £300–£600 a week. I hadn’t a penny to my name at the time after just surrendering the remainder of my student grant back to the Student Loans Company, and claiming Job Seekers Allowance was akin to drawing blood from a stone. Seeing this gave me dollar signs in my eyes.
I hadn’t ever heard of the company, and neither had anyone I knew. All I could find was a Facebook group with a few motivational quotes and pictures of lions, as well as an extremely basic website with a job application interface and nothing else.
What did I have to lose? I went for it. I went into painstaking detail about my strong work ethic, how I can apply myself, how I am responsible and hard working, work well with a team — and it paid off! Within the hour I had an email from a lady called Claire inviting me to an interview THE FOLLOWING DAY, because they “were SO IMPRESSED with my application.”
WOW! I thought. This beats the three week wait to hear back from House of Fraser and Waitrose; this company must really know what they are doing!
So the next day I went suited and booted into the centre of town, and set off in search of their office. I had to double check the address a few times because, after walking up and down the street, I could see nothing resembling the purple and silver company colours. Eventually a woman walked out of a shop which I thought had closed down, upon seeing my confused face she said “Empire Initiatives?” and ushered me inside.
I was immediately met with loud (and I mean LOUD) music and a flurry of people rushing around in all directions. I made my way over to the reception desk and was asked by a girl in jeans and a crop top to fill out a form. In hindsight she was probably someone’s girlfriend or relative who was volunteering.
The interview system resembled a factory production line. Myself and the other candidates took it in turns to be called up to one of the three desks at the back of the room, talk for ten minutes and then make way for the next set.
I was interviewed by a man whose name was Rogan. He had a beaming smile and reeked of Invictus by Paco Rabanne. The interview itself involved a lot of him talking at me and drawing boxes and arrows on pieces of paper, demonstrating that within a year I had “the chance to progress and be on a six figure salary.” He then said he was so impressed with my (mainly yes or no) answers and wanted to invite me to come along for the second part of the interview process, once again THE NEXT DAY. I was elated.
I came home to a flurry of emails of congratulations. I was told to arrive back at the office at 12pm the next day. I was told to “dress professionally and wear comfortable footwear” (I thought nothing of this at the time but it would become VERY relevant later on).
The next day was FREEZING cold, I settled on a black dress and tights and a suit jacket but thought this would be fine. When I arrived at the office there were several other candidates sitting down in the foyer, and more loud music, jumping around and shouting going on upstairs. This I later learned was their “Atmosphere” session, where they talk each other up and get excited for the day’s events.
We waited for around an hour and were told to fill out a form which basically said:
“I am aware that I can leave at any point throughout the day.”
“I will not interact with any clients.”
“Should I fall down a ditch it’s my own fault and the company are not liable.”
That sort of stuff. I thought nothing of it and signed away with my Hello Kitty pen.
After a while, a few excitable twenty-somethings came charging down the stairs, and we were each allocated one to be our “mentor” for the day. What struck me is how FRIENDLY everyone seemed to one another; they all seemed to get along so well, and the environment was much better than anywhere I had worked before.
I was paired with a chap named Tom. He wasn’t the most talkative of the group but seemed nice enough all the same. We then bundled into his Ford Fiesta along with another candidate and their respective mentor (this mentor’s nickname was “Stretch” so I shall refer to him as that), as well as Adam; one of their newest employees, and Tom’s newest downline. Being the gentlemen that they were, they let me sit in the front.
We then started driving; to where, I had no idea. The car journey conversation was based around analogies about netball teams, and WHAT WOULD YOU DO scenarios about washing-up liquid running out at a busy restaurant. I thought this was part of the interview process, and became suitably aggravated when I got the answer wrong about looking for more hypothetical washing up liquid in the hypothetical cupboard, silly me.
Eventually the conversation turned to how excited Stretch, Adam and Tom were about starting up their own companies, and what their company names would be. This is when I was told — “you do realise you will have your own company, how amazing is that?!“
“That’s really great!” I replied.
We drove to another town which is about a half hour drive away, and honestly I couldn’t wait to get there. Stretch was getting on my nerves keep asking stupid questions about honeybees and lottery tickets, and I really needed a wee.
As we approached our destination, the words “direct marketing” were mentioned more and more frequently, and as we pulled up to park, we were finally told that we would be spending the day knocking on hapless peoples’ doors trying to sell them Wuaki.tv (now known as Rakuten TV since 2017). I have no qualms about mentioning them in this post, as I think its abhorrent that they allow such dirty sales tactics.
We were also told that the neighbourhood we were in was predominantly housing association (AKA social housing), and apparently this was one of the best areas for door-to-door selling as — AND I QUOTE — “People on benefits don’t work, so are at home all day, and they tend to be quite bad with managing their money so are more likely to sign up to stuff like this.”
I very quickly started to fear that I had made a grave, grave mistake.
Stretch and his candidate got out of the car and his parting words to me were “Don’t worry, Tom only r*pes people on Wednesdays” (it was a Wednesday). My irritation at this disgusting joke was quelled by the fact that he was buggering off and I wouldn’t have to see him for a few hours, so I ignored it.
Tom, Adam and I got out of the car and began our “canvassing”. The day got off to a slow start, no one appeared to be home, or interested in talking, so Tom revved up the conversation amongst ourselves about how amazing the company was.
It was Adam’s first day on the job, so Tom thought it would be helpful for me (a new candidate) to talk to someone who had been working for them for a day longer than myself. The conversation went something like this:
Tom: “Adam, tell her what an amazing opportunity this is.”
Adam: “It’s such an amazing opportunity.“
Anyway, I took a liking to Adam, he seemed a bit mellower than the rest, and he was the only one I could have a normal conversation with. He told me a rather sad story about how he and his girlfriend had just had a baby girl who had some quite serious medical complications. So, he was really pleased that he would finally be able to provide for his little family; he felt really proud of himself. My heart breaks for him, as these are the kind of people that these companies prey on.
Tom was ploughing away knocking like there was no tomorrow. Any woman over the age of 60 was met with his charm offensive of “You need to be over 18 to sign up, so do you have any ID?”. This was entertaining precisely once. The package they were selling was three months of Wuaki TV for £5, and then you would be charged £5 every month thereafter.
I still really needed a wee, but realised that there was unlikely to be an opportunity to relieve myself so I stopped drinking water and hoped for the best.
Adam wasn’t having much luck, but Tom, somehow, managed to make a few sales. He was obviously overjoyed whenever someone said “Oh, go on then” but I however was filled with dread. These were the worst parts of the day; awkwardly standing around in a stranger’s living room making mundane chit-chat whilst Tom faffed around on his phone and tried to get the bleeding thing to set up.
On a few occasions the customer would sign up and pay only for it not to download or work. This was gutwrenchingly awkward to say the least. Sometimes they would demand a refund, in which case they were told to “call head office” and on other occasions their concerns were allayed by Tom’s assurance that “a member of tech support would be in touch.” Ha.
It was getting later in the day and children had started coming home from school. This made the actual sales an even more awkward endeavour, because I would have to play Lego with some stranger’s offspring whilst the sale was going through.
By this point I had developed kidney stones from holding my bladder so long; what was once a frightful urgency was now a dull, uncomfortable ache. Tom, the slimy bastard, asked to use a customer’s toilet. I felt to awkward and embarrassed about asking a stranger to use their loo, especially one which we were asking for money from. I was also starting to get really f*cking cold. So cold that I couldn’t even light a cigarette. Tom helped me with this, and then used this opportunity to ask me for petrol money.
If my teeth weren’t chattering my jaw would have hit the floor. He had spent hours banging on about the pure “bank” he had rolling in from this amazing opportunity, and was now asking me for a £2 contribution to the journey. I was also a rather annoyed because I had not been told beforehand that you had to incur your own expenses. However, in the interest of politeness, I obliged. I also felt a bit sorry for him because he probably wasn’t even going to make as much money in the whole day as that the journey would have cost him.
As if my physical state wasn’t bleak enough, I was bloody starving. I couldn’t even drink my Diet Coke to quell my hunger because of the situation with my bladder. I had brought nothing with me and there was not a shop in site. I almost bit Tom’s hand off when he offered me a crumpled up chocolate biscuit from his blazer pocket.
Adam hadn’t been with us for a while now; he was out on his own. Tom said that he and I would go back to his car for “day break” whatever on earth that meant.
I was relieved that I would be out of the cold for a while, however, given Tom’s low petrol funds, he wouldn’t turn his car on, so it was just as freezing inside as it was out.
“Day break” consisted of him talking about the law of averages, and their so-called “traffic light theory”. Rogan, who had interviewed me the day before, was hailed at his ability to turn a “red” (a f*ck-off-slam-the-door-in-your-face-situation) into a “green” (take my money!). I also had to write down endless lists with my trembling hands about good qualities of a leader, pros of direct marketing, and a load of other crap which I would be tested on later in the day. I also had to “sell Tom’s glove to him“, which apparently I did a really good job of!
We got back to selling and it was getting colder and darker. Tom sensed by fed-upness I think, because he asked me at one point if I was OK, and jokingly asked me if I wanted him to take me home. I SO did, more than anything in the world, but for some idiotic reason laughed along and said “No, I’m fine”.
I presume the area was subject to a lot of door-to-door selling, as lots of houses had those “NO SALESPEOPLE” signs up. This didn’t matter to Tom, who went on to bother them anyway. One gentleman threatened to unleash his Dobermann out of its cage, and Tom still told him he should hand over a fiver for Wuaki TV.
Adam regrouped with us, but had made no sales. He told Tom that he was thinking he might have to take an afternoon off within the next few days to visit his brother in prison. Tom was appalled at this idea, as it would “get him out of the habit of working and selling every single day”. Poor Adam.
This day felt eternal. I thought I would never feel comfortable again. We were told that the day would last from 12 to 8pm, however 8pm was closely approaching and we showed no signs of slowing down. I had to place my poor dad on standby to pick me up, as I had absolutely no idea when we would be back. It was getting colder, darker, and more miserable by the second.
Eventually it struck 9 o’clock, which meant no more knocking. I was relieved beyond belief, but also annoyed at the blatant lie in the information we were given. We made our way back to the car where we were met by Stretch and his candidate, who to be honest looked just as fed up as I did.
So now the boys had to call up “head office” and report their sales for the day. Tom had made five or six, which wasn’t too bad I guess. Adam had made one. Stretch had made ZERO. Zero sales all day long after all of his bullshit about being the best salesman in the company. This mildly improved my mood.
The drive back was quiet, myself and the other candidate were whispering about what a nonsense it all was and “If it sounds too good to be true it probably is”. We got back (at about 9.45pm!) and were told to “sit down for the final part of the interview.” WHAT!! I just wanted to go home. This involved answering a few questions about the concepts and terms we had learned throughout the day. It probably wouldn’t have mattered what we wrote but being the studious person I am I went for 100% accuracy.
Tom then told me he would report back to overlord Rogan about my progress throughout the day, but I shouldn’t worry because he was “really impressed” with me. LOL.
Before long I was back in the same seat in front of Rogan, with him giving me another beaming smile and telling me how delighted he was to offer me the job.
By this point I was exhausted. My feet and back hurt like hell (I have sciatica and it was flaring up a bitch), I was pretty sure I had permanently lost the use of my bladder, I was famished and had an insatiable thirst and most of all I was extremely hacked off about all the lying and deceit.
So I exploded. I told him what a joke he and his business were. Told him he should be ashamed of himself for being so deceptive, for being a part of a company based on lies and abusing people’s trust. I told him that some people might be foolish enough to fall for the whole charade, but I would never be one of them. I also promised him one day that he would be exposed for the charlatan that he is.
He was probably used to this response, as was relatively unfazed, tried to shake my hand but I was already on my merry way. My phone was bleeping non-stop from texts from my dad asking where I was, and I just wanted the f*ck out.
As I rushed out of the building, someone came running after me. It was TOM. He told me he’s sad that I felt like the “job” wasn’t for me, but he really enjoyed spending time with me for the day, and would like to stay in touch. I told him to do himself a favour and get out whilst he still can. He didn’t respond back to that but gave me a HUG and said good bye.
My poor dad endured a full-on rant for the entire journey home. When I finally arrived home at almost 11pm I rushed to the toilet and was surprised to see my bladder still worked. I wrapped myself straight up in bed (I still hadn’t warmed up), and declared my undying love for my mother when she bought me a late dinner, which I ate like I hadn’t eaten in weeks.
The next day was spent licking my wounds and reflecting. It all became so clear to me; the reason they make you sign the disclaimer about knowing you can leave is obviously aimed at irate people like myself, so I can’t go and sue them for false imprisonment or whatever. I began to properly search online and found hundreds of people who had had the same experience, all over the country. I realised that I had been taken for a fool, but vowed to never be so naïve ever again.
After a while, the shop/office they were occupying became vacant again, so I’m not sure what happened. Their website and Facebook page have now disappeared, so I assume (and HOPE) that the whole thing fell apart.
I saw Adam a few months after the ordeal, I assumed it hadn’t worked out for him as he was out and about in town during “prime selling hours.” I wanted to ask him if things were any better for him, but I honestly felt too ashamed.
There were more ridiculous events and exchanges throughout the day, but I would be here forever if I was to list them all. I hope now that others can learn from my experience and mistakes, and a long for the day that someone puts a stop to these nonsense schemes.