April 18, 2011

“Actually, It Wasn’t Always a Porn Site …”

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This summer you do not want to sell home theater systems out of a van in Rhode Island. Nor do you want to pin all of your career dreams on a startup online dating service or the Internet’s newest custom jewelry store.

I implore you to learn from three of my mistakes and do your homework before you sign on for a questionable summer gig.

The summer after freshman year in 2004, I took a night job as an intern with a startup online dating service for Democrats. I was living at home near Boston, which was hosting the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After lifeguarding during the day, at night I would go downtown, sell T-shirts and sign people up for the dating service. They paid me in beer and pizza, and I loved it. Our “Smart, Sexy, Liberal” stickers and T-shirts were all over the city. Despite the publicity, our debut launch party had an attendance of about five people.

When I came on board, the site seemed like an amazing idea, but I learned that ideas are cheap and that hype doesn’t pay the bills. There were already a dozen dating sites for Democrats, and the people running them apparently knew a thing or two about web development. Our CEO didn’t. A month after we launched, the site was sold.

Curiously, it entered my life again recently when my friend Dave emailed to tell me that a German S&M porn site now owns the URL.

“Thanks Dave, I’ll take it off my resume. Please don’t tell me how you found this.”

After failing to adequately explore the online dating industry or find out the CEO’s background, I resolved to do more research the next time I decided to work for a startup. My chance came in 2006 when I responded to an ad looking for a part time content writer for a startup online engagement ring store.

I was abroad when I sent in my cover letter, but in an “Open, honest, put everything out there on the table” phone conversation with the two entrepreneurs, I asked them what their backgrounds were. “We have diamond wholesaling experience on the west coast and now we are looking to break into the engagement ring market. We think that Boston is the best market to start in.” These guys were legit and experienced, not like the dating service.

After a month of part-time writing on the weekends, I decided to Google their names and discovered that they were rising seniors at Babson College. Curiously, they neglected to mention this during our “open and honest conversation.” One kid’s dad ran a jewelry store in L.A.

I felt like a frickin’ idiot.

Later, I learned that Googling everyone I speak with and asking more probing questions about their backgrounds still is not enough to weed out the bad apples.

In a fruitless job search one summer, I responded to an ad for a position as a driver with a home theater company. The guy told me to come in for a full day of paid observation. I couldn’t find any company info online, but being a driver seemed pretty straightforward. When I showed up at the warehouse in my khakis and blue polo shirt, I ran into a former high school classmate, Nick. Nick once came to a Blood Drive on E to get the free bottles of water. He was standing next to a guy wearing a T-shirt that said “Hustler.”  They were a surly bunch of ragamuffins.

The warehouse was stacked floor to ceiling with boxed home theater systems, and the walls were covered with signs that said “STFO.”  It was a bright day, but things seemed rather shady.

The group got together in a circle, and the boss came out into the middle. “Alright, guys, we got a challenge going on with the New York office. I’m throwin’ a lot of money at you guys to win this, so now I want you to get out there and sell these things. Alright? On three:  1 … 2 … 3 — SELL THE FUCK OUT!”

“STFO.”

WTF was I doing?

The “driver” position was actually a sales job. The speakers they sold were purchased directly from factories and weren’t advertised anywhere. The “drivers” pretended that they were delivery teams for a high-end sound company. They carried a catalog that listed the boxed system as selling for $1,800, but the drivers sold them for anywhere between $320 and $600.

My driver for the day was named George, and I helped him load six home theater systems into a rented mini van. We drove to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and George pitched to people in parking lots, in parks, at gas stations, on construction sites, and even to a trucker on the highway. It always started off the same way:

“Hey man, you wanna buy a home theater system?”

“Uhhh I dunno. How much?”

“Here, lemme show you. We’re drivers for a company that delivers them and our boss put an extra one in the van / we got one free and we’re trying to sell it for cheap / we’re trying to go to the titty bar after we finish our shift.”

It wasn’t shocking that George tried to sell these things from the back of a van — it was shocking that he sold ALL of them.

When the day was over, we returned to the warehouse and I found out you get paid at the end of the week for your training days. I never came back to pick up the money.

The fact that the company didn’t have a website should have been a red flag. Another red flag is the fact that “White Van Speaker Scam” has its own entry on Wikipedia.

To avoid working for 20 year olds or a misdemeanor charge, do your homework before the interview. It’s 2011 — if a company isn’t online then something is wrong. In the interview, ask your boss or the entrepreneur to quantify their experiences. If it is a startup, ask about their competition and place in the market. Lastly, add “scam” to everything you Google, just in case.

Best of luck. If you earn a lot this summer and are in the market for a new home theater system, meet me in Pawtucket. I know a guy.

Ben Koffel is a first-year grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at bkoffel@cornellsun.com. Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ben K.