Money: My savings had gone, I was pounds 10,000 in debt, and I had sold my soul

Judith Hampson tells Corinne Simcock about her worst investment
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The Independent Online
Dr Judith Hampson, 45, is an animal welfare consultant turned writer. A former head of the RSPCA's animal experimentation research department, she has successfully campaigned for changes in legislation around the world. A disastrous encounter with a network marketing company nearly left her with her tail between her legs, but fortunately she emerged stronger than ever...

By the early Nineties, as the recession started to bite, consultants operating on a freelance basis with charitable organisations found the amount of work available diminishing. After much soul-searching I decided that what I really wanted to do was be a full-time writer, so I sold my share of a house and bought a caravan in the Cotswolds, which left me with pounds 17,000.

At that point, a friend of mine said she'd spotted a marvellous network marketing opportunity and wanted to know if I was interested. At first I said no, but then she lent me an audio tape. There were lots of interviews with people talking about the amount of money they had made in a very short space of time. They explained how network marketing worked, and it all seemed very egalitarian.

My first thought was that if I could do it part-time I could have financial security and spend the rest of my time writing. The ironic thing was that I already had financial security; I just couldn't see it. It was fear of loss of income that drove me to get involved.

I went along to a big meeting. It was a very American approach, with lots of hype, slick visual presentations and everyone in business suits.

But what clinched it for me was that a lot of the testimonials came from professional people. They were doctors, lawyers, dentists, company executives...

They all talked about how this business had changed their lives for the better, how they enjoyed their work, were making fantastic amounts of money and could see themselves retiring early.

The idea of being financially independent and in control of my own destiny was a powerful incentive, and I invested pounds 3,000.

What I didn't realise was that within this system of business very few people ever make it to the top, and the ones who do forget everything that matters in life apart from making money. They weren't actually selling the product at all. They just got people along to meetings and encouraged them to invest pounds 3,000. As they built up their network, they made their profits from sales made by the people working under them.

You were encouraged to start with people you knew, so of course I went around and saw a lot of my fairly high-powered contacts. Looking back, they probably thought I had taken leave of my senses.

I couldn't build the business because most people I knew weren't interested; they had far more sense than me. But I sold my demonstration stock, so within a few weeks I had gone back to the warehouse and invested a further pounds 2,000.

What really eroded my savings wasn't my pounds 5,000 investment so much as the fact that I was driving all over the country going to see people at my own expense. I was going to meetings and buying training aids, all of which were expensive. Obviously I was trying to get other people to meetings as well, so I usually ended up paying for them too.

The turning point came when a businessman who I was trying to bring in said to me: "Watch it, because drop by drop, the cup fills up." He had done a number of things in his business life which he now regretted and thought were less than ethical. What he was trying to tell me was that you don't set out to do anything unethical, but slowly and surely you find yourself behaving more and more out of character.

Sure enough, there was I, forgetting my values, forgetting my emotional life, neglecting my friends, my writing, all the things I cared about, in order to make money. All I thought about was how many hours a day I could work, yet these were things that I had always thought were insane about our society.

The worst part was that I had been trained to regard everybody I met as a business prospect. I was just waiting for what they called the "hot button" - any sign that someone was dissatisfied with their circumstances.

After 10 months I took a break and went skiing. I came back with my hand in plaster and couldn't type or drive. It was then that I stopped, took a look at my life and decided: "This is madness."

I sold my teaching aids and the rest of my product, then tried to rebuild my animal welfare and environmental work, trading on the skills I thought I had. But a lot of doors slammed in my face. I had behaved like an idiot and queered my pitch with an awful lot of contacts.

From having pounds 17,000 in the bank and everything going for me, I ended up pounds 10,000 in debt. It took quite a while to re-establish my sense of self-worth. I had gone from being somebody who earned pounds 80 an hour to someone who was now living on pounds 47.10 a week.

The wonderful part is that, having been at the bottom of the pile and seen how people are forced to live on inadequate resources, I understand the huge divisions between the haves and have-nots in our society, and the extent to which we are identified by what we do, not who we are. And that is the basis of my current novel.

It was an extremely valuable lesson and an exercise in humility, but at least I got my soul back. Business stinks if it's all that you have in your life. My advice to anyone thinking about getting involved in network marketing is: don't. Run away as fast as you can.

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