The Rise and Fall of a Direct Sales Marketer

By Justin Harmon of Unplugged Recreated | @justinharmons

2005 was a major turning point in my life.

When it began, I was a domesticated member of society. I worked in corporate America as a manager for one of the world’s largest companies. I was following the rules of what I was expected to do with my life. Everything seemed to be going as planned – I was making my way toward the American Dream.

But later that year, everything changed.

California Dreams

In the fall of 2005, I quit my job to move 2000 miles away to California.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest idea.

I saw an opportunity to escape my salaried slavery and I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, after three months of living as if I were free from all obligations and responsibilities, I had to move back. It was either that, or become homeless.

I wasn’t bringing in any money, I didn’t know anyone, and I missed my family.

With only enough cash to make the trip back, I gave up on California dreamin and went home.

Leaning Into the Unknown

I’m not sure what possessed me to not take my old job back.

I was broke and essentially homeless, but I just couldn’t accept the idea of going back to where I started.  Instead, throwing caution and reason to the wind, I took a gig that looked the least bit like my old job: direct sales marketing.

What can I say, the ad was intriguing.  It promised (or, at least, seemed to promise) $300 a week, and I needed the money.

I took the job out of pure curiosity. The office manager was extremely convincing about the possibilities that the future would hold for me. I had been exposed to a world completely out of my comfort zone and perception, and I was in awe of it all.

In reality, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

My paycheck was commissioned based (which I didn’t find out untill after they had me hook, line and sinker), I had to travel 75 miles one way just to get to the office, and the personal skills required for the job were the complete opposite of who I was as a person.

So there I was, an introverted, soft-spoken, shy guy who got nervous when talking to people, working a job that required me to talk to people all day to sell them cheap promotional products – and my livelihood depended on doing it well.

It’s safe to say that I had my work cut out for me.

The Road to Rock Star

To be honest with you, I was terrified of failing.

The last thing I wanted to happen was having to crawl back to my old job.

This fear kept me focused, energized and moving forward.  I put all my time and energy into learning the ins and outs of this new business.  I needed to understand just what kind of game I would be playing so I could actually make a living. I spent hours on end studying the training materials they gave me in the basement of my brother’s house.

Before I knocked on my first door, I knew everything there was to know about direct sales marketing.

When the moment finally arrived, I killed it.  In my first week I did over $1,500 in sales – the second best performance in the office.  I made over $80 dollars in profit for three straight days, which was the requirement to become a trainer. That doesn’t seem like much, but at the time, the perception of it was different. They called anything above that mark a “bell”, which basically meant that you were doing great.

And it felt great.

Every store, bar, and mom-n-pop shop I went into was another chance to practice my pitch and make a sale. It didn’t take me long to realize what worked and what didn’t. Every day I got better and better.

The feeling was euphoric.

I was as high on life as I’d ever been. I walked into each place with a smile on my face and glare of determination in my eyes. I was having a blast!

After two weeks, I was a veteran.  I was consistently a top earner, ringing the bell almost daily (making over $80 in profit each day).

By the end of the first month, I was a rock star, making more sales than anyone else in the office.

I felt like a completely different person. Where I was once reserved, I had a spark that lit up the room. I was so excited and present in what I was doing that I forgot how difficult it had been for me to talk to people, how reluctant I used to be in taking initiative, and how scared I once was facing the unknown.

I had seemingly conquered the fears that I thought held me down my whole life and all I had to do was just submerge myself in the moment and in what I was doing.

That’s all I could do.

It’s what I had to do.

There was no time to be uncomfortable – I had to make money to eat. [click to tweet]

Looking back on it now, I was so busy trying to survive and enjoying the ride, I never took a step back to ask myself if this was something I actually wanted to do…

The Travelling Salesman

Two months in, I was asked to travel to Wilmington, North Carolina with three co-workers to help retrain and rebuild a failing office.

Of course I went – I was a consistent earner, I was a star employee – I was a rockstar. If anyone could help these guys, I could.

My ego was at an all-time high. Confidence was oozing from my entire essence. At the same time, I tried not to come off narcissistic or cocky. I would always do my best to help a fellow marketer reach their goal.

The first day at the Wilmington branch, I was sent out on my own. This was a little discouraging because I had no idea where I was going or how to get there. I wasn’t worried, though – like I said, I was full of confidence and knew that wherever I went, the methods I used would be the same.

I was out in the field for six hours before selling out of all my product.

And this was in a territory that wasn’t supposed to be fruitful.

By the end of the training, I had blown out of product twice and brought on three new members to the Wilmington office team. I felt like a badass.

At the end of two weeks, the four of us made the 17 hour drive back home. The Wilmington branch was left with a chance to become profitable once more.

The Demise of a Mentor

We returned to Wisconsin in high spirits.

I did, at least.

When we got back, the office manager called me in to say how highly the district manager felt about my abilities. He told me if I kept it up, it wouldn’t be long before I was opening my own office. I walked out of the office with my head held high, ready to hit the streets and sell some merchandise.

While I was reveling in my success, things weren’t as good for one of the guys who came with us on the trip. It was the guy who trained me originally. I don’t know the exact count, but I’m pretty sure I sold more my first day there than he did the entire two weeks. He looked broken and burned out.  His despair was palpable.

One day, after a particular bad day of rejections and no sales, he left the office, dejected.

I never saw him again.

Watching my mentor fall so quickly left an unsettling feeling in my gut.

If it could happen to him, who is immune?

Another Business Trip

To be honest with you, I shook off the feeling and the memory of my mentor as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to have the negative energy rub off on me. I was on a hot streak and needed a positive attitude to continue my momentum.

It wasn’t a week after I returned from Wilmington that I was chosen to go to a conference in Dallas, Texas.

It was hard to believe, but I was even more excited now than I’d ever been in my job. I had arrived. I was a marketing superstar and everyone knew it (or at least, I thought they did).

The company even paid for the plane tickets and hotel room.

I arrived safely in Dallas/Fort Worth after a long, turbulence ridden flight. That night, everyone attending the conference was invited to the hotel bar for a meet and greet. I got to meet all of the head people of this large company and even the CEO himself. To be honest, I was a little surprised (although maybe I shouldn’t have been). They came off like “holier than thou” jerks, too high on their horses to talk to the lower level guys and gals one on one. It was disconcerting to say the least.

I shook it off, made my rounds, and headed to bed.

The next morning, I headed down to the conference room early. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the last one going in (I wasn’t).

The conference was encouraging and inspirational. These guys gave speeches that only built the desire to have what they have. It was all about the money you could make, and they were making a lot of it. There were seven speakers, each with their own inspiring speech about how they got to where they are.

The trip added fuel to the fire of my excitement level.

I returned home and was eager to get back to work.

Moving Up

For the next couple months, I grinded.

I didn’t really have any bills to pay so I just needed to make enough money to pay for gas, food, and half the price of a Motel 6 room I was sharing with a female co-worker, whom I was also seeing.

I was just living day to day and for whatever reason, it didn’t really bother me. I knew I had to hustle my tail off so I would be able to afford to eat, and sleep in a bed. So that’s what I did. I was too focused on having a good time with it all and being in a very positive and fulfilling state of mind, I never stopped to think about tomorrow. It was all about today and today was awesome.

I was in the zone and couldn’t think about anything else.

I was getting used to the different territories and had an idea of who would buy, who wouldn’t, and so on. I knew which businesses were “juice”, meaning I was more than likely going to be selling a good amount of merchandise. Although our manager always told us to hit every place possible and not to cherry pick. I did it anyway so I could get a good head start on the day’s earnings, then go to the “hit or miss” places.

One day, I was out in the field for no more than a couple hours. I had yet to make a sale, but the day was still promising. I was taking a guy out for his first day of training and trying to stress how important it was to pitch everyone. We were coming out of a gas station after a hard no and I saw this disheveled, poorly dressed man who most people would have perceived as someone not worth the time to pitch. I wanted to prove my point to the new guy about the statistics that about one out of ten people on average would say yes.

Without a second thought, I made the pitch. He asked to see what I had, so I showed him. He pulled out a fat stack of bills and from what I could tell, there was probably over a thousand dollars in his hands. He told me he owned a flea market and said he would take everything I had. The new guys face lit up with an “are you serious” type look and just observed how I nonchalantly added up the total of my trunks product and gave the kind gentleman a pass on taxes for buying me out.

Just another example of why you shouldn’t hesitate to pitch to anyone, no matter what they look like, I told him.

Moving Sideways…

In April of 2006, the assistant manager, who was a good friend of mine, received a promotion. He would choose an office in a new area and start building his own team. The company paid for the office. He asked me to join him to help build up the business.

What do you think I said?

I was honored to be chosen to have a chance at building a business from the ground up.

We would open in Rockford Illinois, which was about 70 miles from our current office, but had an untouched territory of its own, including only an hour and a half drive to Chicago. Chicago had a couple offices of its own so we didn’t go there often. Most offices are promoting the same products, so it didn’t look good when a different guy came along selling the same products as the guy who was just there the day before. That, and I wasn’t too eager to drive a couple hours to get to the territory I would work in. I really disliked having a lesser amount of time out in the field. Rarely did it pay off to drive more than a couple hours away from the office.

So we stuck to Rockford and started grinding.

The Fall

The first few days came as an opportunity to get used to the new area.

There was always a bit of a learning curve with new areas, so I expected things to be slow…

But not this slow.

It was one thing to have a bad day, but I was encountering some extreme prejudice that I just wasn’t used to.

I didn’t sell anything that first day.  It was a blow to my confidence, but I chalked it up to new territory.  Surely, these results wouldn’t last.

The next day, things didn’t improve.

Nor the day after that.

By the end of the first week, I was hurting.

The territory was proving to be more difficult to break into than we had previously thought. It turns out, another office had been there about a year and a half before us. Apparently, they had done wrong to a lot of different people. The company’s name was looked down upon for extremely poor customer service.  The more people I talked to, the more I realized the previous company had left this region in disarray (and distrust).

After a month, things turned from bad to worse. The response from potential customers was still hostile. I could barely sell a thing. Every morning I woke up feeling less rested than the night before. I was as white as a ghost and starting to look frail from lack of nutrition. I was making so little money I couldn’t afford a decent meal. It was taking a toll not only on my health, but my mental well-being.

It used to be so fun to get out to the field. An adrenaline rush. A challenge I was ready to take on…

All of that excitement was gone now.

I felt my desire for direct sales fading. I only wanted to go out into the field on my own. I didn’t want to interview or train anyone. I was feeling low and just wanted to go out to hustle for my numbers.

But they never came.

I was lucky to make 30 to 40 dollars a day and 20 of that went towards gas in my car. I was hanging on, but barely. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was tired of it and just wanted to quit, but I didn’t know how.

I got sick to my stomach thinking about the idea of failing at this…

Two more weeks of this hell went by – no improvement.

Actually, it got worse.

I was in a very low place.

One morning, I woke up and skipped out on going to the office right away. That’s wasn’t me – I never did that…

But I couldn’t stomach letting my coworkers see me – see someone they had looked up to, become such a wreck of a man.

When I got to the office, I met with my manager.  I told him the truth.  I was burned out – it just wasn’t for me anymore.

Turns out, he was burned out too.

Two weeks later, he quit the business.

The Road Home

Driving home that day was the longest trip of my life.

I reflected on the last 5 months of my life as a direct sales marketer.  That’s not a lot of time, but it felt like 5 years. The people I had met, the experiences I had, my coworkers – it was all one big blur.  And at the end of it all, I had been defeated.

I drove the open freeway, I couldn’t keep it together – I started to cry. What would I do now, I asked myself.

I thought about some of the amazing people I may never see again, but remember and cherish the time we had together. I visited many places and talked with thousands of people. It might have been as little as a few minutes, but those minutes were spent trying to make some sort of connection with that person. That’s what life’s about, isn’t it? The connection we have with others?

As I got closer to the place I had left 10 months prior, I remember feeling very content about the uncertainty that awaited me. I had no place of my own, no money, and no job prospects…it was almost like life was repeating itself.

Only this time, it was different…

This time, while I had nothing, I wasn’t weighed down by my lack.  Instead, I was uplifted by it.

I was no longer afraid of what I would do.  I wasn’t afraid of what might happen.  I wasn’t afraid of the future.

I knew I would figure it out.

And in that moment, I was free.

What Path Will You Choose?

The paths we take can lead us down roads we never expected and bring us to places within ourselves we never knew existed.

Even if you take the wrong path, you can still find the opportunity to grow as an individual – as long as you accept, embrace and lean into the discomfort.

At the end of it all, nothing matters more than the strength to seize the opportunities life throws at us and risk it all for the chance to take a journey…

A journey that, win or lose, rise or fall, changes everything.

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justin harmon

Justin Harmon is the author of Change Your Perception, Change Your Life and founder of where he helps dreamers, freedom seekers, and difference makers create a life of purpose and fulfillment by living life on their own terms and making a meaningful difference in the world.