Six Lessons About Online Business from the NXIVM Docuseries Seduced and The Vow

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By Maggie Patterson


Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual assault, physical abuse and mental health.

All opinions in this post are my opinions and mine alone.

You can view our full disclaimer here.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by cults and extreme religions. Some people crochet, others golf, I read, watch and listen to anything I can on cults.

So when I discovered two NXIVM Docuseries Seduced and The Vow, of course I was going to watch. But then something happened that I wasn’t entirely expecting.

I found myself nodding long as I saw so many clear parallels between what was being shared on-screen, and what I see every day running a business in the online business industry. It was especially interesting as NXIVM was initially billed as a self-help program, and the online business world has a heavy crossover with the self-help and wellness markets.

Plus, like those markets, it’s completely unregulated meaning tens of thousands of people are exploited each year.

I’ve been involved in the online business world for eight years, and I’ve been vocal about the problems I see across the industry most of that time. I’ve detailed many of these issues in an essay which you can read here.

I continue to speak up about these challenges as I believe in the power of running an online business and how it offers a low-barrier way for people to start their own business. I know for a fact, there are many people doing business with integrity and ethics in the industry, and collectively, we have an opportunity to help root out these practices.

The NXIVM Backstory

In the Fall of 2020, I watched both Seduced and The Vow, which gives the viewer a look at what was going on behind-the-scenes of NXIVM.

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If you’re not familiar with NXIVM, it was essentially a coaching-based multi-level marketing company. It’d bring people under the banner of Executive Success Programs (ESP) for both personal and professional development.

Turns out, the organization went far beyond ESP with multiple organizations including DOS which has been labelled as a sex cult.

Before we dive into this post, I want to be clear that I don’t want to take away from the countless stories shared in these shows. Nor do I want to minimize the significant and lasting impact of each individual’s experiences as members of NXIVM.

Allegations of NXIVM being a cult surfaced in the early 2000s, including cult investigator Rick Alan Ross publishing a secret manual, and stories which appeared in Forbes and Vanity Fair.

NXIVM was back in the media in 2017 and early 2018, with coverage of DOS in the New York Times, on 20/20 and in a feature on A&E.  During this time, investigations began into the cult and its operations, which were aided by a number of members who’d left the organization.

Then, in March 2018, NXIVM leader Keith Raniere was charged with multiple counts including sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Other key leaders in the organization including co-founder Nancy Salzman, Alison Mack, Clare Bronfman and Lauren Salzman were also brought up on charges.

Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison in October 2020. As for the others involved, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to 81 months, while Nancy Salzman, Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman are awaiting sentencing.

Now, two docuseries on NXIVM have been released. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult shares the story of cult member India Oxenberg who tries to make sense of her experience. Oxenberg played a critical role in helping authorities convict Raniere.

The Vow shares the experiences of multiple ex-NXIVM members, including documentary filmmaker Mark Vicente, a former member of NXIVM’s executive board. Vicente’s footage is what drives The Vow, and the series shows how members were pulled into the organization.

Both series have their merits and help tell the NXIVM story. As I watched, I made copious amounts of notes as the stories unfolded.

Here are six lessons from both Seduced and The Vow that are directly applicable to online businesses:

#1. Trapping You in a Cycle of Spending

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In the early episodes of The Vow, the ex-members share how they got involved in the organization, and how there was a relentless push to sign up. They discussed how it was pitched as an “investment” and that you should just put it on a credit card as a way to invest in yourself.

While it would be easy to dismiss an organization that’s now been labelled a cult as using tactics that are unethical, we need to watch for these same tactics being used by online businesses.

This “invest in yourself” message, and push to put things on a credit card (or to get access to additional credit, or to borrow the money) is a common tactic in the online business world. Over the years I’ve heard countless stories from fellow online business owners about how they were encouraged to liquidate retirement savings, borrow from a family member, open multiple credit cards or apply for a line of credit.

We need to reject the “invest at all costs” message, as it’s designed to get the sale by breaking down our self-trust and playing on our vulnerabilities.

One of the survivors shared how at one point they realized they weren’t comfortable with what they were experiencing, but they figured that they’d already spent the money so they should “ride it out”.

This is what’s called sunk cost fallacy in action. This is a phenomenon whereby we follow through as we’ve invested time, money or energy into something.

This is all too common in the online business world as people decide it must be a problem with them, and that they’re already committed. This often traps people into a cycle of investment, and/or engaging in programs or with a coach that’s toxic. They keep spending money thinking that if they just do a little more, they’ll finally reach their goal.

#2. Insider Secrets and Moving Up the Levels

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On the surface, NXIVM was operating as ESP, which was about personal and professional development. As members got more and more involved, they learned about a number of offshoots of ESP, and were encouraged to join new programs so they could get to the next level.

One such example was Jness, which was a program for women. To be “invited” to the group was seen as an honor, and being a member involved a series of eight day workshops, that cost $5000 each.

Other groups included a group for men called Society of Protectors, as well as DOS, the secret women’s group which was engaging in sexual and physical abuse of its members.

This idea of spending progressively more money to get the next insider secret (as well as access to people who are at your level) is rampant in the online business industry. The way products are structured in many businesses are designed to “indoctrinate” us as we invest more and more money.

And if the price tag for Jness, gave you pause, it’s not far off the $50k and $100k masterminds that exist at the top levels of the online business world.

Also, NXIVM was built on coaches who’d create a “business” to help the world, and recruit more members. Coaches, such as Sarah Edmondson who’s featured in The Vow, would earn a living from bringing in new members, and they’d work their way up the ranks.

Working your way up the ranks was called the Stripe Path, which was a way of rewarding members for taking more and more courses, and for recruiting other people to take classes. With each stripe, they’d get a new sash to signify their level of accomplishment.

The sashes really remind me of the stream of certifications in the online business world, as we try to find ways to demonstrate we’re experts at what we do.

As for the recruiting part of things, there’s an undeniable comparison to be made between how NXIVM operated, and the current state of the online-based coaching market.

Currently, the market is flooded with coaches teaching people to become coaches, who then turn around and teach other people to become coaches. It’s an endless cycle that has led to thousands of freshly minted coaches who lack actual professional skills or experience to back them up.

#3. Limiting Beliefs Always Take the Blame

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The idea of limiting beliefs came up multiple times in both docuseries. There was a discussion of how it was commonplace in the organization to blame limiting beliefs for any objections or concerns that were raised.

In The Vow, Mark Vicente shared a story of how he told higher ups they were full of shit, and it immediately was chalked up to being the result of his limiting beliefs. Catherine Oxenberg (India’s mother), who’s featured in both docuseries, shared a similar story of how any question you raise is immediately dismissed and you’re told you’re not self-aware.

The idea being that you’re “responsible for your reality” and they'd find a way to blame you for any objections, questions or doubts you may have.

While this is classic cult-like behavior, as detailed by the emotional control portion of the BITE Model, this often shows up in the online business market. This exists due to a strong leader-follower dynamic where coaches and leaders are put on a pedestal.

An example of this is what happens when someone doesn’t get the results that were promised, or they question the guidance they’re being given. Instead of trying to serve the customer, any challenge is simply chalked up to being a limiting belief or other similar mindset issue.

Across the industry, it’s rare that leaders take responsibility for their customer’s results, or their own behavior. The end result is a culture of silence where people believe they’re responsible for failed investments, poor results or any other problem that may arise. The coaches and influencers at the top of the industry are infallible.

#4. Reliance on NLP and Hypnosis

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Neuro-linguistic programming or NLP, is an approach to communication and personal development.

According to the website Good Therapy NLP is “a psychological approach that involves analyzing strategies used by successful individuals and applying them to reach a personal goal. It relates thoughts, language, and patterns of behavior learned through experience to specific outcomes.”

NLP has been widely used in the self-help industry since the late 1970s, It’s worth noting that NLP was popularized by the “founding father” of Pickup Artists, Ross Jeffries. Today, Tony Robbins is one of the most prominent people using NLP and he was mentored by one of the creators of NLP, John Grinder.

Both documentaries share how NLP was used heavily by NXIVM leaders, including president Nancy Salzman, who was one of the top NLP trainers in the world and a nurse.

One of the cult experts featured in Seduced shares how NLP and hypnosis are problematic when being used in this context as there’s no professional oversight. When a trained professional such as a psychiatrist uses this, they have a professional duty to do no harm.

Both NLP and hypnosis are commonly used in some way by cults, as cult expert Steve Hassan details in the Thought Control section of the BITE Model. In the case of NXIVM, Hassan claims that the group used NLP and hypnosis to gain the compliance of members.

NLP and hypnosis is also used extensively in self-help, and you guessed it, in the online business world.

In recent months I’ve seen numerous coaching certifications that feature both NLP and hypnosis as part of the training, and to my knowledge, none of the individuals running these programs are accredited mental health professionals.

The idea that anyone can take a course and is then qualified to use mind control techniques to help people improve their business is terrifying to me.

It begs the question as to why a coach of any kind should be using NLP with their clients. Particularly, as in Seduced, there was a discussion of how the use of these techniques resulted in more than one member having a psychotic break.

For me, the idea of any coach or professional who’s not received formal training and is bound by a duty of care using these techniques is highly disturbing. While these tactics may be common, they shouldn’t be ones that we permit to be used on us in the name of improving our mindset. That type of work should be done under the supervision of a trained, accredited professional.

#5. Charismatic Leadership

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It’s no secret that cults rely on charismatic leadership, and NXIVM is no exception. Raniere made many audacious claims including that he was the smartest man in the world.

In The Vow, they discuss how Raniere would make claims based on “science” and “technology” he’d invented, ensuring that people would accept what he was saying as fact. This helped create trust with members, plus, they relied on the credentials of several members who were doctors to validate these claims.

Fun fact: Therapists weren’t allowed to join the group. Former member Edmondson says it’s because Rainere said they’d steal his ideas, but she realizes now that it was because they’d recognize his methods as being similar to common practices such as cognitive behavior therapy.

In both documentaries, they share stories of how leaders would engage with dignitaries and celebrities as a way to legitimize the organization. With the Dalai Lama, NXIVM made a million dollar donation to secure a meeting and a photo opportunity.

Again, this was familiar territory. Online business leaders often invent authority and use “facts” in order to gain the trust of their audience. It’s not uncommon for them to embellish experience, revenue or even credentials, (or outright lie about them) in an effort to make money.

The use of celebrities as a prop is a common tactic used across the industry. This type of social proof is deployed as a way to imply an endorsement and appear like they’re a big shot. From pictures of Oprah to celebrity entrepreneurs, these photos are used strategically to imply a relationship that’s not real. There’s no actual endorsement, but that halo effect provides social proof, even if it’s bought and paid for.

#6. Left Feeling Exploited

At the end of Seduced, India Oxenberg and one of the other DOS members discuss how they felt when they figured out what was really going on. They share how they feel like they should have seen it sooner. 

Every single person I speak to about a negative experience in the online business industry feels like they were exploited. (And I have these conversations nearly daily at this point.) They feel a range of emotions including shame and anger over not having seen the signs that the program they bought or the coach they hired was taking advantage of them.

But here’s what we all need to realize. As much as we all like to think that we’re immune, we’re all vulnerable, whether it’s to the manipulation of a cult like NXIVM, or the promises of a celebrity entrepreneur.

The truth is, we all want to believe that we can do better in both our lives and our businesses, and they take full advantage of that hope and desire.

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My Biggest Takeaways:

Online Business is Walking a Fine Line

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After spending 12+ hours watching both of these docuseries, along with hours of research (plus a lifelong obsession with cults of all kinds), a few things really stand out to me.

It’s an extremely fine line between many of the practices that are rampant in the online business industry, and how cults, like NXIVM operate.

We all think we’re smart and that we won’t get sucked in to anything questionable, but both cults and online businesses target people who are bright, accomplished and have resources.

Additionally, Seduced wrapped up with one of the cult experts talking about how the self-help industry is completely unregulated, which is how organizations like NXIVM are able to thrive. With a clear crossover between self-help and online business, the concerns around the lack of regulation or professional oversight is extremely relevant.

The perfect example of this in action is the constant focus on mindset work in the online business world, which may be helpful in some cases, but what happens when what’s really needed is therapy with a qualified professional? How’s your coach with a bullshit certification going to address your trauma or mental health issues?

Honestly, should we really be placing something as precious as our minds in the hands of a fly-by-night expert or coach with a certification they received in a weekend seminar? 

The coaching industry, which is a big part of the online business market, needs stronger guardrails in place, and as consumers we need to better understand what we should and shouldn’t put in the hands of any coach.

As consumers, we cannot be vigilant enough when it comes to investing our time, attention, money or energy with any coach, mentor, influencer or celebrity entrepreneur.

Finally, as business owners, each one of us has a moral obligation to our community and our clients to not use these cult tactics in our sales, marketing and delivery of our services or programs.

While it may seem like a stretch that we can (and should) learn how to protect ourselves from being manipulated and exploited in the same way as members of a cult were, it’s not as far away as any of us would like to think. 

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