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Dear Long-Lost Acquaintance from High School,
Thank you for reaching out to me. I appreciate your compliments about my social life, my family, my hair, and my “spunk.” Thank you for noticing my social media “feed” and for feeling like we never stopped being friends even though we haven’t talked in over a decade.
I enjoy seeing you so happy, too, and I’m genuinely glad to hear from an acquaintance from my past. The thing is, I can feel an MLM sales pitch coming on. You began your message with the telltale “hey hun” and to be honest, no one calls me “hun” but my mom and salespeople. Also, I never sensed that you cared that much about me in the first place, so I can’t help but wonder, “Why now?” Still, I will entertain your message and say hi back, just in case you do actually want to know more about my life, my business, or have questions about that cool hike I just did.
Just as you’ve studied my feed, I’ve noticed yours as well. It would be hard not to; your colorful #bossbabe images and generic musings on wine, coffee, family, and happiness frequent my social media experience. It feels so familiar because I’ve seen it a hundred times and in a hundred different ways, from the many dozens of women I know who are leveraging their social networks to sell patterned leggings, cosmetics, essential oils, health shakes, supplements, jewelry, press-on nails, and skincare, to name a few. Because your social media feed mimics those of women who have already tried to sell me $90 lash booster, you’ll understand my suspicion at your unprompted DM.
If the worst that happened was that I received annoying Facebook messages here and there, I really wouldn’t think twice about it. I’m a small business owner myself and know that it really helps to have the support of friends to get started. Really, all of the sugarcoated sales messages in the world wouldn’t matter to me if the financial reality of multilevel marketing (MLM) schemes (like the one you're involved in) weren’t so dire: A paper commissioned by Jon M. Taylor for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission found that 99% of participants in MLM schemes lose money after costs of business are accounted for. And just as the proliferation of MLMs has increased because of the use of social media, so have everyday horror stories from the sellers involved: Women and men who were convinced by outrageous promises of success and glamour to incur debt, quit their jobs, drain their savings, and engage in obnoxious sales tactics at the cost of their own personal relationships and ultimately, their reputations within their own friend groups.
An MLM, also known as a “direct sales company” or “pyramid scheme,” works in such a way that you, the seller (sometimes called a “consultant”) makes a commission on what you sell and via the additional sellers you recruit to sell beneath you. Generally, the commission earned through recruiting additional members far outweighs the commission on the wares you sell. Unfortunately, the mathematical equation of which MLMs operate upon ensure that there will only be a few very successful people at the top (called “up-line”) while the great majority (“down-line”) will struggle to make a living wage. This is never what you’ll hear from those trying to recruit you to work with an MLM, though—you’ll hear stories of wild success, big bonus checks and vacation prizes, and testimonials claiming that you can do it, too! These stories are generally backed with little proof—for example, bonus checks are often paid out over the course of several years and can be revoked if the seller doesn’t maintain a minimum amount of sales, which happens all of the time.
What I despise most of all, my dear old acquaintance, is that these schemes target women in desperate need of money, belonging, or a sense of purpose. While not all MLM sellers are women, many MLM companies thrive by promising homebound moms or underemployed, underpaid women that they can own a business, make money, and be part of an indestructible #girlboss community. For rural women who might not otherwise be able to start a business or work from home, the siren song has the strength to trick women into believing what simply can’t be true.
Is this really how you want to make a living? To be successful, you will be required to recruit more women, probably by promising them a golden ticket out of economic misery. “Think of it now! You’ll hang with the girls for a couple hours a day, make lots of money, and have plenty of time to spend with family!” What you’ll fail to mention is that your success depends on recruiting women like them—whether or not you think they’ll succeed. Over the long-term, your success has very little to do with your ability as a seller of product; the business model quite literally prevents this possibility. As a business model for which you would devote yourself to, this is alarming at best and morally abhorrent at worst.
Recently, there was an absurd tell-all about an MLM company known for its patterned leggings and popularity amongst the Mormon community. This company represents the worst of MLM, requiring that sellers buy and maintain $5,000 worth of inventory. One woman says she was encouraged to go into debt, sell her car, and cut her cable to afford her initial inventory. For months and even years, all or most profits need to be funneled back into inventory to keep the business running. Perhaps worst of all, sellers aren’t even allowed to pick their own inventory, meaning they must sell whatever increasingly crappy designs were provided to them no matter their own personal stylistic preferences or what sells best in their geographical location. At its peak, this company had over 80,000 sellers, oftentimes with a dozen or more women in one small town fighting for market share. At some point, the market becomes so saturated with sellers that there’s no one left to sell to, and women are left with garages full of inventory and credit cards racked up with debt.
I know, I know—your MLM is totally different. Your MLM doesn’t require you fill a storage unit with ugly leggings. Your MLM is the get-rich-quick scheme that actually works. I’ve read many an angry defense of MLMs over the years, most of whom were by folks who are, suspiciously, no longer selling the products (and business) they once so vehemently defended. I'm sorry to say it, but your MLM isn’t different. It’s not a sustainable money-making strategy, maybe unless you got in early at a new company during the rise of social media over the last decade. And then, your success is quite literally contingent on recruiting sellers below you—mostly desperate women—who you know will likely sign up and fail.
Before I make a final plea for you to reconsider your decision to participate in a pyramid scheme, I want you to know that I truly understand where you are coming from. During a time where incomes aren’t rising as fast as inflation, real estate, college, and childhood costs have skyrocketed, wealth disparity is growing like a fault line busted open, and women still struggle to get paid equal to their male counterparts, it makes sense that you’d be looking for ways to create an income outside of traditional work. Most of all, I commiserate with the unfair balance of raising children and being a productive member of society that is expected of women and am continually disappointed in the lack of reasonable employment options available to women with children, especially low-income women. Above all, I want the system to be better.
But just because the system is broken does not mean that you should contribute to its brokenness; the perpetuation of MLM businesses will create more problems for working women, not less. Joining a business model that requires the failure of others for your success is not your only option, even though it might seem like the easiest or most glamorous at the time. If you're still currently on the fence, I encourage you to watch John Oliver's piece on MLM companies.
Please be careful, old friend, because even though we don’t really know each other—I care about you.
That Random Chick You Know From High School
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