A year ago, Twitter let a thousand jokes fly at the expense of rapper Joe Budden, who had, apparently, become a celebrity spokesman for a pyramid scheme. The photo was fake, however. Budden would eventually join the mockery of Wake Up Now, the latest "multi-level marketing" scheme to pique the ambition of a million door-to-door hustlers. Across the U.S., Wake Up Now had recruited thousands of "network affiliates" who aggressively defend the company to this day.
I say “had” because in February, the Utah-based Wake Up Now filed for bankruptcy and immediately ceased its operations. What those operations were, exactly, was never quite clear. As a "multi-level marketing" company—already a dubious corporate distinction—Wake Up Now offered consumer discounts on various online vendors, household goods, mobile phone plans, personal tax services, etc. While the company claimed to make 100 percent of its profits from product sales, the company's biggest revenue source was the membership fees assessed to new recruits.
This American Life, a long-form investigation podcast hosted by journalist Ira Glass, sent two correspondents to a Wake Up Now conference in Times Square late last year. The reporters found that attendees were "incredibly excited about something they weren't terribly good at explaining."
If you query “wake up now,” or even “wake up now pyramid scheme,” search engines will yield reams of blog headlines that apparently question whether Wake Up Now is a scam. When you click many of these links, however, you're often directed to an essay or video testimonial in which an ostensibly unbiased author explains Wake Up Now's business model and methodically concludes that the company is, in fact, a wonderful opportunity for new recruits, a.k.a "independent business owners."
One such YouTube video description reads: “Kaylin Garcia who at one point in time dated Joe Budden and also appeared on TV multiple times has decided to join the WakeUpNow movement and explains why.” It’s an SEO conspiracy of the lowest order.
“What does this company even do?” you ask. Oddly, that’s a question that even Wake Up Now’s most talkative recruits refuse to answer in simple, object-oriented terms, e.g., "We sell X, Y, and Z." Instead, Wake Up Now's recruits would redirect your attention to the fabulous profit to be made on the company's so far unspecified goods. In most cases, those goods were middle-man repackagings of larger, legitimate business' coupons and discounts.
"Let's say you pay the $100 to access [Wake Up Now's] travel deals," one debunker explains. "Well, you can go onto Priceline and get pretty much all of those deals for free."
While most pyramid schemes are obscure by design, Wake Up Now is remarkable in its attempts to siphon credibility from hip-hop culture. Wake Up Now members have circulated doctored photographs that suggest endorsements of the company from Drake, Bill Gates, and others. While many of these co-signs are forgeries, The Diplomats’ Juelz Santana did in fact star in a Wake Up Now recruitment video, in which Juelz offers viewers his personal email address and the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Even if you don't want to make money," Juelz says, "I'm sure you want to save money!"
Pyramid schemes aren’t a new hustle. They’re especially, distressingly popular among working class strivers and kids with time and effort to piss away. In September, a friend of mine passed along his account of a conversation in which his friend, who had previously been involved with multi-level marketing company Ambit Energy, "presented" Wake Up Now's business model and profit structure. My friend was not convinced. “Basically,” he explained, “Wake Up Now is Groupon for people who want to throw money away.”
Three months after the company's bankruptcy, Wake Up Now still has its defenders. There’s some confusion, it seems, as to whether Wake Up Now is, indeed, defunct. Having engineered such a deceptive buzz online, it's now permanently difficult to sort news about Wake Up Now from the company's manipulative bullshit. On Feb. 16, chief executive Phil Polich posted an open letter via Facebook, addressing his "Wake Up Now Family" to report that his predecessor, Kirby Cochran, had irreparably mismanaged the company's finances.
"I will continue to work with the creditors and vendors in anticipation of getting all obligations resolved," Polich said with a heavy heart. "We hope you move on to what is next and be better because of the experiences you have had with WakeUpNow."