This hard truth belies Amway’s populism, its promise that success depends merely on getting in on the ground floor, and that every floor is the ground floor. Deep down, Josh may have realized that an Amway easy enough for even him to master would soon self-destruct. This buried consciousness surfaced, for example, in the way he consoled himself with weird probability statistics. He knew how many levels deep he had to extend his downline (something like six) before he was certain to recruit someone with a knack for huckstering, providing a rising tide on which Josh could float. It was unlikely, of course, that a guy like Josh could spawn a six-level downline without the help of such a person, but that simply masked a deeper improbability: that there were enough of these theoretical master salesmen to go around to every schlub who couldn’t succeed otherwise.
‘We here, man,’ says a young black man in a blue T-shirt. ‘See all the IBOs. It’s good to be withpeople in your company, to feel the love. A lot of people back home be wondering how it is and how big of an organization it is. You see: just imagine the potential of having all these people in one group, man, even if you get ten dollars off a person’ – he points to a random person in the audience – ‘all these people. There’s a whole lot of money floating around in here somewhere.’
In his memoir Simply Rich, Amway cofounder Rich DeVos tells the story of Amway’s origins. The country was in the last gasps of the Great Depression. Rich was fourteen. He was walking two miles through the snow to his high school each day, in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan: wool collar popped high, galoshes squishing, wind in his face. Occasionally he would take the streetcar or city bus – but allowing time for the city bus meant having to rise long before the sun came up. ‘I needed more efficient transportation, and already being an enterprising type, I had an idea,’ he writes.
Their first product was called Frisk, a concentrated organic cleaner developed by a scientist in Ohio. DeVos and Van Andel bought the rights to manufacture and distribute Frisk, and later changed the name to LOC (Liquid Organic Cleaner). They subsequently formed the Amway Sales Corporation to procure and inventory products and to handle sales and marketing plans, and the Amway Services Corporation to handle insurance and other benefits for distributors. In 1960, they purchased a 50% share in Atco Manufacturing Company in Detroit, the original manufacturers of LOC, and changed its name to Amway Manufacturing Corporation. In 1964, the Amway Sales Corporation, Amway Services Corporation, and Amway Manufacturing Corporation merged to form the Amway Corporation.
When I was ten, my parents bought a house for $200,000. My dad had been running his advertising agency out of the spare bedroom of our house on Twelfth Avenue, and when he hired his third employee, he set up a desk in my bedroom for the graphic artist to work at while I was at school. Then a neighbor called the city about all the cars parked on the street, and my parents cracked a plan to move into a bigger house and bring the agency into the new house with us. By that time, though, business had gone gangbusters, so it turned out that moving the company into the new house wasn’t necessary, after all – my dad rented an office, instead. The new house was entirely ours.
I loved the days when we’d go to the Bayou Club as a family. We began going immediately after joining Amway, when I was in second grade. The development was new, still under construction. There was space between the houses and the far stretch of the golf course undulating luxuriously around them. Model homes rose from the landscape like castles, bigger than any houses I’d ever seen – and vacant. Never occupied. Empty dreams, waiting to be filled.