Founded in 2012 by a Mormon mother, Deanne Stidham, LuLaRoe is named after her three grandchildren, Lucy, Lola, and Munroe. As the company lore goes, she designed clothing for her daughter and had so much success selling copies to the parents of her daughter’s friends that she hired consultants to sell for her. In just four years, her company’s range of leggings, dresses, shirts, and other wares generated $1 billion in sales, making it one of the largest MLMs in the US; between October 2016 and June 2017, it claims it sold nearly 40 million pairs of leggings. Mary Kay, one of the oldest and most successful MLMs, had $4 billion in sales in 2015.
This article will analyze four problem areas with MLM. Specifically, it will focus on problems of I) Market Saturation, II) Pyramid Structure, III) Morality and Ethics, and IV) Relationship Issues associated with MLMs. Thus, you can properly assess your “instincts.”
The combined number of recruits from these cycles are the sales force which is referred to as the salesperson’s “downline”. This “downline” is the pyramid in MLM’s multiple level structure of compensation.
Jen Donald first heard about Arbonne a few years ago. A dental hygienist in Oakville, Ont., she was in the middle of scaling a patient’s teeth when she noticed her amazing skin. When Jen asked about her beauty regimen, her patient raved about products from Arbonne, a health and beauty direct sales company that claims to use a botanically based formula and premium ingredients. (Though not everyone agrees — nutritionist Meghan Telpner believes Arbonne’s marketing materials count as “healthwashing.”) Donald began buying Arbonne products, which range in price from $44 for cleansers and $88 for night cream to $364 for the company’s complete suite of anti-aging products, from a friend who had recently joined the company, but never really considered signing up as a salesperson herself.
Nu Skin, a cosmetics MLM, has accumulated more than $48 million in civil penalties since 1994 for exaggerating the effectiveness of its products, which include baldness treatments, wrinkle lotions, burn creams and others, and for making bogus claims regarding chromium picolinate and L-carnitine, key ingredients in several of their supplements.
The problem here is one of common sense. At a mere three levels deep this would be 1,000 people. There goes the neighborhood! At six levels deep, that would be 1,000,000 people believing they can make money selling. But to whom? There goes the city! And the MLM is just getting its steam going. Think of all the meetings! Think of all the “dreams” being sold! Think of the false hopes being generated. Think of the money being lost.
And Donald, who has cut back on hosting Arbonne parties since her mat leave ended, says she still makes about $200 a month thanks to her e-commerce site and regular customers. “It’s not a lot, but that’s just from people going online and buying products themselves. So it’s extra money I’m not doing a lot to make,” she explains.
And these sales aren’t just to customers. You see, in order to join an MLM you usually need to buy products to sell (often referred to as a starter kit, or similar). And then in order to remain a seller, stylist, supervisor, or whatever term the company uses, you often need to make a minimum number of sales in a given time period (though not always).
A few noteworthy points on this list… The only companies considered for this list are U.S.A. based; and if you click on each and every company linked above, what you will not find should be as interesting to you (and as revealing) as what you will find. There are no travel companies, only two technology companies (ACN and 5LINX), just one service company (Legal Shield), and 22 health and wellness companies. Even Amway, whose core product line still includes soap, really got started by way of the wellness revolution! Read this book by Paul Zane Pilzer and you’ll understand why nutrition, weight management, and skincare products continue to drive the trends in the network marketing industry to this day.
The most cult-like thing about MLM is that it manipulates members’ existing beliefs and desires, and tricks them into believing they are exercising free will. MLMs are able to coerce people into willful and compliant self-destruction on a staggering scale: we’re talking quitting or getting fired from a six-figure full-time job due to an MLM, alienating everyone you know due to your constant sales pitches, investing your own or someone else’s life’s savings into an MLM, ruining your credit or losing collateral by borrowing heavily to fund an MLM, and even theft to support an MLM habit. Suicides related to MLM have been reported.
* Why 10 years? Because that amount of time really seems to matter. For example, according to research, since 1956 thousands of different MLM, Multi Level, or Network Marketing companies have opened their doors; and to date only +/- 50 MLM companies have found a way to celebrate their 10th anniversary and still remain in business today. Now, to be completely fair, we should also point out that each and every company on our list was at one time a start-up company too.
Shortly after, Stern began to pull in anywhere from $18,000 to $24,000 a month in sales. She was working 80-hour weeks with seven women selling underneath her. “The moment I woke up, I was taking pictures and answering questions,” she says. “My husband had to do the food shopping. My daughter has dance one day a week. While she was dancing, all the other moms would talk, but my face was always in my phone. I was uploading albums, or I was part of a multi-consultant sale.”
For a portion of independent retailers, LuLaRoe is to economic opportunity as Goop is to wellness: It’s for ladies who already have it all. The ability to throw down $12,000 to start a LuLaRoe business and work 30 hours a week sometimes comes from a place of privilege, not desperation. Some mothers who are just looking for a hobby have husbands whose salaries are already high enough to support their families. “I felt like I was trying to keep up with the Joneses to stay in business against these other consultants who can afford to drop a $500 order every few days,” Ashley says.
If these guys show up in your neighborhood, you are either “in” or “out,” family or target, friend or foe. Suspicion rules the day; everyone has an “angle”; greed supplants innocence. The “neighborhood” is turned into a marketplace, and may never recover from the blow.
Any business must carefully consider supply and demand. For example, if the ReVo Corporation thinks that it will have a full-fledged fad on their ovoid sunglasses next summer, perhaps they should plan to build and distribute, say, 10M units. This involves gearing up factories, setting up distribution and dealer networks, and carefully managing the inventories at each level so that ReVo will still have credibility with their distributors, retail outlets, and the public the following year.
In an October 15, 2010 article, it was stated that documents of a MLM called Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing reveal that 30 percent of its representatives make no money and that 54 percent of the remaining 70 percent only make $93 a month, before costs. Fortune was under investigation by the Attorneys General of Texas, Kentucky, North Dakota, and North Carolina with Missouri, South Carolina, Illinois, and Florida following up complaints against the company.
The longest-running, most trusted, well respected and relevant Direct Selling Event in the World. “Direct Selling” encompasses the terms “Network Marketing,” “Social Selling,” “Party Plan” and “Multi-Level Marketing.”
Look up CEO’s and other company leaders. Keep the same things in mind as when you investigated companies. Is the company leadership reputable and law-abiding? If company leaders have been accused of carrying out scams or have had legal trouble, you may want to avoid this company.
“As of the end of first quarter 2017, approximately 90% of all retailers who started an independent fashion retailer business since the time LuLaRoe was founded still maintain their businesses today,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “We are very proud of this figure.” In part due to this high retention rate, the market is becoming saturated, both online and off. Multiple retailers now often live within a few blocks of each other—and how many pairs of leggings does one neighbor really need? “They’ve flooded the market with so many consultants, nobody is making money, and everyone is so stressed out,” Sophie says. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s another consultant down the street.’”
Use the internet to your advantage in network marketing. You can interact with many more people than you would in your personal network. The more contacts that you can make, the more your network will grow. Spend some time to create a web site that people can use to interact and to find out more about you.
MLMs are also criticized for being unable to fulfill their promises for the majority of participants due to basic conflicts with Western cultural norms. There are even claims that the success rate for breaking even or even making money are far worse than other types of businesses: “The vast majority of MLMs are recruiting MLMs, in which participants must recruit aggressively to profit. Based on available data from the companies themselves, the loss rate for recruiting MLMs is approximately 99.9%; i.e., 99.9% of participants lose money after subtracting all expenses, including purchases from the company.” In part, this is because encouraging recruits to further “recruit people to compete with [them]” leads to “market saturation.” It has also been claimed “(b)y its very nature, MLM is completely devoid of any scientific foundations.”
Read your contract carefully. Don’t sign anything right away. Take some time to read over and understand the entire contract. You may even want to consult a lawyer or accountant to make sure you’re getting a fair deal and that the company is legitimate.
In the MLM business model, the commission derived from the MLM’s pyramid-shaped structure (i.e. from the sales of one’s recruits) is the most profitable revenue stream. This revenue stream, however, is also the least statistically probable source of remuneration to a salesperson. Conversely, the revenue stream from direct-sales of ones own personal sales is the least profitable. This revenue stream, however, is also statistically the most likely source of remuneration to salespeople. For the overwhelming majority of participants, however, neither one of these two revenue streams will be profitable after operating expenses are deducted.
Jump up ↑ O’Donnell, Jayne (February 10, 2011). “Multilevel marketing or ‘pyramid?’ Sales people find it hard to earn much”. USA Today. https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/2011-02-07-multilevelmarketing03_CV_N.htm. Retrieved April 6, 2018.
In 2016, the US Census Bureau stated the median rural household income is 4% lower than it is for urban families, and income inequality is also higher. The US government tried to help people understand the risks before joining these kinds of companies, but MLMs had their way. In 2012, federal legislation passed requiring all franchise companies to provide a disclosure document with information on weighing the benefits and risks of signing up. However, MLMs poured money into lobbying and flooded the FTC with more than 17,000 comments from consultants saying the disclosure would be a burden, and asked to be excluded. The FTC complied, and now MLMs aren’t required to disclose information on risks to interested consultants.
Stern decided to get out after she realized she had $20,000 in unsold wholesale inventory sitting in her living room. “It clicked for me that if you order 30 items, they send you 10 quick movers and the rest sit. It’s a false sense of actually being successful,” she says. “I noticed all these people started going out of business. I started getting scared that my inventory would be worth nothing, and I would be stuck with $8,000 on my credit card.”
For example, when a hypothetical 20-something, Priya, buys skincare, makeup and bath products from Arbonne at a discount and sells it at the suggested retail price, she earns a commission of about 15 percent. But Priya can also earn a percentage of commission on whatever Sarah, a friend she recruited to the company, sells. Word-of-mouth is one of the key strategies in direct sales, so both Priya and Sarah are likely reaching out to their friends and families — and, increasingly, online social networks — to both move product and recruit for their respective sales teams.
Where is the “switch” that can be flipped in an MLM when enough sales people are hired? In a normal company a manager says, “We have enough, let’s stop hiring people at this point.” But in an MLM, there is no way to do this. An MLM is a human “churning” machine with no “off button.” Out of control by design, its gears will grind up the money, time, credibility, and entrepreneurial energy of well-meaning people who joined merely to supplement their income. Better to just steer clear of this monster to begin with.
The end result of the MLM business model is, therefore, one of a company (the MLM company) selling its products/services through a non-salaried workforce (“partners”) working for the MLM company on a commission-only basis while the partners simultaneously constitute the overwhelming majority of the very consumers of the MLM company’s products/service that they, as participants of the MLM, are selling to each other in the hope of one day themselves being at the top of the pyramid. This creates great profit for the MLM company’s actual owners and shareholders.
In most cases, you can sign up to become a Network Marketing Distributor online, by making an initial investment and completing an ‘Independent Distributor Agreement.’ When you do sign up with a Network Marketing company, you are not considered an employee, usually, but seen as a representative, a dealer or a consultant (depending on the type of company you are representing). You may even consider yourself as a business owner.
So now, I’m making $500/month without doing anything. That’s only half my previous income, so I still need to sell widgets to maintain the same income as before. But I no longer have my old leads, since I just created my own competitor. Let’s make another EXTREMELY generous assumption that my new distributor has found some new customers and increased sales by 10%. Total sales are now $12,000, but the money is now split between two people, so each of us sells $6,000 in widgets and pockets $600, and the upline (me) pockets an additional $300 as commission (5%). So I now make $900 per month.
It is a fact that a few large MLMs have survived against the best efforts of law enforcement officials to shut them down, spending millions of dollars to protect, lobby, and insulate themselves. But the same could be said for any organized crime. It is difficult to stop once it becomes so large.
Buying products from a network marketing company isn’t cheaper, faster, or more pleasant than buying them on the open market, and it’s often considerably worse in all three of these categories. That’s because unlike normal retail business, where the supply chain is direct and logical (from manufacturer, to wholesaler, to retailer, to customer), in MLMs the supply chain follows the customer’s upline, accumulating markups and compounding inefficiencies at each level of the pyramid. The result is higher prices, frequent unexplained delays, and products that are constantly “on back-order.” MLMs will often try to artificially suppress competition by claiming their product is unique or superior to all others – even claiming that their competitors’ products are poisonous or even Satanic – but equivalent products are always available from normal retail outlets, often at a fraction of the cost.
But having devotion to a company despite evidence that they are not telling the truth or that their products are not superior taints the reputation of all MLMs and their reps. It’s frankly uncalled for.
In mainstream terms, it’s most similar to franchising, where a business operator buys the rights to a specific brand and in turn receives support from the company that owns the brand. But there are two big differences:
After a slew of complaints, LuLaRoe rolled out a Happiness Policy in April 2017, which states that customers can get a credit, cash refund, or replacement pair (but not the same pattern) for defective leggings purchased between January 2016 and April 2017. However, many are saying their refund checks have still not been issued, even though they were told they’d arrive several weeks ago.
Again, the simple fact is that even the most successful products will have partial market penetration. The same is true for services. Demand and “market share” are finite, and to overestimate either is catastrophic.
A tutorial on market saturation hardly seems necessary in most business discussions, but with MLM, unfortunately, it is. Common sense seems to get suspended when considering if MLMs are viable, even theoretically, as a profitable means of distribution for all parties involved. This suspension is created by a heightened expectation of “easy money,” but more on that later.
“Network marketing” and “multi-level marketing” (MLM) have been described by author Dominique Xardel as being synonymous, with it being a type of direct selling. Some sources emphasize that multi-level marketing is merely one form of direct selling, rather than being direct selling. Other terms that are sometimes used to describe multi-level marketing include “word-of-mouth marketing”, “interactive distribution”, and “relationship marketing”. Critics have argued that the use of these and other different terms and “buzzwords” is an effort to distinguish multi-level marketing from illegal Ponzi schemes, chain letters, and consumer fraud scams.
If you’ve been thinking about, or already are using, essential oils, at one time or another you’ve likely wondered if you should be part of Young Living, doTERRA, or some other multi-level marketing (MLM) company to get “the best essential oils” at a discount.
MLMs have been made illegal in some jurisdictions as a mere variation of the traditional pyramid scheme, including in mainland China. In jurisdictions where MLMs have not been made illegal, many illegal pyramid schemes attempt to present themselves as MLM businesses. Given that the overwhelming majority of MLM participants cannot realistically make a net profit, let alone a significant net profit, but instead overwhelmingly operate at net losses, some sources have defined all MLMs as a type of pyramid scheme, even if they have not been made illegal like traditional pyramid schemes through legislative statutes.
For most people, thankfully, the MLM experience usually ends in very quick financial failure and is then sidelined. Two possible responses are: 1) being embarrassed about participation, or 2) becoming even more intractable when the MLM has failed. You will find the latter chasing after the latest “get rich quick” scheme with similar results. “If we could have just sponsored so and so–they have so many friends–we would have made it.”
Jump up ^ Vander Nat, Peter J.; Keep, William W. (2002). “Marketing Fraud: An Approach for Differentiating Multilevel Marketing from Pyramid Schemes”. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. 21 (1): 139–15. doi:10.1509/jppm.188.8.131.5203.
Scheibeler, a high level “Emerald” Amway member: “UK Justice Norris found in 2008 that out of an IBO [Independent Business Owners] population of 33,000, ‘only about 90 made sufficient incomes to cover the costs of actively building their business.’ That’s a 99.7 percent loss rate for investors.”