On January 3, 2018, Mike Rinder published a blog post detailing some of the data points showing the contraction of Scientology around the world. One of the more interesting data points was the announcement of an “Ideal Mission” in Košice, the second-largest city in Slovakia. Slovakia is half of the former Czechoslovakia, a country that underwent a peaceful “Velvet Divorce” at the end of 1992.
We estimate the potential number of Scientologists that the Košice mission might serve and the money that the cult might generate from those customers, and then we come to a surprising conclusion about whether this was a good decision or not.
Scientology Mission in Košice, Slovakia
What are Scientology Missions?
For those of you who aren’t regular Scientology followers, “missions” are small offices, typically started by Scientologists as a sort of franchised business. Like opening a McDonald’s, the “mission holder” pays a franchise fee, which I have seen reported to be around $50,000. In the heyday of Scientology back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, missions could be quite profitable so this wasn’t a bad investment.
The “Ideal” sobriquet is applied to the new generation of Scientology facilities, meaning that they have spiffy (and very expensive) facilities and thus, at least according to the story told to members, will help the cult “clear the planet,” turning everyone into a Scientologist while bringing about the end of hunger and world peace. This strategy started in the early 2000’s as a fundraising gimmick to allow the church to raise a lot of money to buy and rehab buildings; various documents show that Scientology has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on these buildings. There’s absolutely no evidence that worldwide Scientology membership is growing; outside of a couple of countries, even former Scientology hotbeds continue to shrink.
In the last couple years, the “Ideal” tag has been hung on regional administrative centers and other facilities that don’t really have much impact on the public. So it was perhaps inevitable that we now have “Ideal Missions” as a strategic initiative.
After the “mission holder’s massacre” in the early 1980s, a conference where leader David Miscavige announced radical changes to the rules that unleashed the church to compete against its franchisees, missions were unable to compete and became financial money pits. Today, with the almost nonexistent pool of prospective recruits, few, if any missions are financially viable without being subsidized by the mission holder. Most are open only a handful of hours per week, and have no employees other than the mission holder and family. They’re often located in spare bedrooms of private homes or in a rented room in another business. And many missions have closed outright even in the Los Angeles area, home to the biggest Scientology population on earth. That gives lie to Scientology’s breathless claims of unprecedented expansion.
So given that the deck is stacked against Scientology missions, you have to wonder why even the most devoted Scientologist would want to spend $50,000 in this day and age to open one of these emaciated excuses for a business.
The Addressable Market for the Košice Mission
It’s hard enough to understand why anyone would want to open a mission anywhere. But you really have to wonder why someone would want to open a mission in Košice.
Basic statistics: Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia, a country of 5 million people. Košice has about 260,000 people, but it’s fairly isolated geographically from the rest of the country. The western half is far more urbanized, and urban population represents an essential demographic that Scientology recruits from. Some data I compiled on the respondents to the “Stop Leah” petition on change.org that the cult circulated in September showed that virtually all the Scientologists in the US lived within the top 25 urban areas. That holds true in other countries as well.
Basically, the population of Košice is the entirety of the addressable market that the mission can draw from. The million plus rural Slovaks in reasonable driving distance are not going to be candidates for Scientology. Compare that with the capital, Bratislava, which has a lot of suburbs and smaller cities within reasonable driving distance, giving them a substantially larger base of prospective customers to draw from.
Estimating Scientology membership in that market: Let’s do some math to try to estimate the number of Scientologists that the cult could reasonably expect to see in Košice. One way to do this is to take another country of similar population and extrapolate proportionally to the population of Košice. Ireland has 6.5 million people total, in the Republic of Ireland and in the UK territory of Northern Island. The population of the Dublin metro area is 1.9 million. According to several reports I’ve seen over the years, the total number of Scientologists in all of Ireland (almost all in the Dublin metro area) is not more than 50.
Scaling back proportionally from Dublin to Košice, we estimate that the likely number of Scientologists that could be recruited in Košice tops out at about around 5 or 6. That number could be lower, as lack of translations of Scientology materials into lesser-used languages typically are of poor quality, if available at all. In general, Scientology is less well established in European countries without a lot of native English speakers (though this is changing as Italy and Spain seem to have growing Scientology membership, perhaps the only European countries where this is the case).
Evaluating the need to account for a potential “gotcha:” Sometimes, when you’re doing analysis of this sort, you have to look at some other factors that may impact your ability to take demographics in one country as a proxy for another. One such in this case may be education, which matters because college students are often a key target of cult recruiters. Surveys by Margaret Singer and other cult researchers in the 1990s said that over 40% of cult recruits joined when they were in college.
I checked the college graduation rates for Ireland and Slovakia, and discovered that they were significantly different: 38% of Irish adults had degrees, double the 19% reported for all Slovaks. However, the younger generation of Slovaks is catching up broadly, with 26% of under-30’s now possessing degrees. Given the small size of the Scientology membership in Ireland, we can’t forecast the effects of a lower college attendance rate, something that’s correlated to cult recruitment, on the Slovak model. If there were 50,000 Scientologists in Ireland, we would have to take into account the different college attendance rates in trying to predict Slovak attraction to Scientology, but it is merely noise in the data at this population size. It suggests, however, that there’s not much chance of upside from our proportional estimate based on the Irish population from other factors.
Revenue Potential for Scientology Mission in Košice
So how much money might the cult make from this new mission given that there are perhaps only 5-6 prospective members? Let’s try to estimate per capita revenue. Slovakian household income of about US$20,000 is well below the norm for countries further west. I’d estimate that the cult could reap perhaps US$10,000 per year, which is pathetic. For comparison, Scientology in Ireland reaped revenue of about 80,000 Euros according to their most recently published financial statements (from 2016, I think) from about 50 customers, which works out to about 1,600 Euros or US$2,000 per person. So my US$10,000 number is pretty generous if the estimate of 5-6 Scientologists holds true; the actual number could be less because household income in Ireland that yields the US$2,000 per person revenue figure is about US$30,000, much higher than in Slovakia. That, in turn, yields higher disposable income than in countries like Slovakia, where money is tighter.
So Why Do a Deal In A Market This Small?
In a company constrained by normal economics, the next location you open is the one where you have the maximum profit potential in the shortest period of time, which gives you the maximum return on the investment costs needed to open the doors.
It would be surprising for a normal business, especially one with well over a billion dollars in cash reserves in offshore banks, to feel the need to open a location where the revenue potential is a few thousand dollars per year. If a company I had invested in told me that their focus is to build their next location in Košice, Slovakia, when there were dozens of similarly-sized cities in the US that had no branch locations, I’d sell the stock without hesitation.
But Scientology doesn’t have to operate according to the normal management rules. They are constrained by economics, but they’re not a normal business. So this move actually makes strategic sense, even if it doesn’t make them a lot of money in absolute dollars. That’s because every dollar they make from the mission is pure profit.
The beauty of the mission program is that the mission holder bears all the costs and the losses. Scientology charges the mission holder an up-front franchise fee and for a starting inventory of books and other materials. That’s just like a multi-level marketing company (think: Amway, Herbalife, etc.). Scientology also reaps substantial royalties on all sales. And if the mission holder should somehow start to make money, Scientology will know it from the financial reports, and “registrars” (salesmen) will soon be on the scene to collect donations for other Scientology causes from the mission holder’s take-home income. They will ensure that he ends up with a net income in his own pocket of zero, and probably less.
So when Scientology has a substantial initial profit, and no risk of losing money on a mission, and zero direct costs for supporting the mission holder, it is entirely rational for them to do a deal for a mission in a small out-of-the-way city in a quiet corner of Central Europe.
But if that’s the case, then why don’t we see a stream of press releases with many more of these missions launched? There is a group inside Scientology that’s in charge of signing people up for these deals, yet few are opening, and the net number of missions in the world is shrinking. We can only conclude that the number of Scientologists with $50,000 to start a mission and who believe that the mission will actually succeed is now near zero.
Scientologists with enough money know by now that opening a mission is a ticket to years of pain and woe, since they will be absorbing far more in losses than their initial investment, and they’ll have to invest a fair amount of time in trying to run the business. They know that Scientology won’t let them close the doors if they’re not making any money, because of the need to try to persuade everyone inside the cult that it’s expanding at unprecedented rates. News of a failed mission would be a major PR problem.
Failed franchisees of a normal business can simply go out of business if the franchise concept is no longer viable. But Scientology will bring tons of pressure to bear, including threatening the mission holder with “disconnection” (i.e., excommunication) and consignment to an eternal hell of normal life, and will inflict all sorts of other headaches. He’ll be miserable for years, throwing good money after bad the whole time, all so Scientology HQ can make a pittance from his sweat.