Multi-level marketing companies (MLM’s). We’ve seen them around. They seem to be everywhere these days, offering promises of hope and freedom when it comes to building home businesses.
If you don’t know what they are, MLM’s are companies like Epicure, PartyLite, Scentsy, Pampered Chef, and more. These days, they seem to also be using the descriptor of “direct sales company.” You’ve probably seen them in the form of old friends that you haven’t talked to in years contacting you to talk about something like a business opportunity, or possibly trying to get you to buy things from them.
These companies entice people — often women — with the promise of having their own business at home, the ability to work their own hours, and the ability to be their own boss.
I had the unfortunate experience of being mixed up with these companies for a few years. I generally spent more money on products with these companies, while trying to keep my business going, than I was actually making. Every four months or so, these companies would come out with a whole new line of products and phase out other ones either seasonally or completely. If you didn’t have the newest products for every season, you were often looked down on, in my experience. You were seen as less than everyone else or not trying hard enough.
I haven’t worked for an MLM since 2015. Even now, four years later, speaking up about my experiences with the two companies I was with is hard. They tend to reinforce loyalty to the brand, using a variety of different methods, including guilt.
I’m not the only one who’s had this experience. I chatted with a couple of students from around the campus who have been a part of these companies. Tara (name changed for privacy and security reasons), a first-year open studies student waiting for admission into paralegal studies, and Shelby Hays, a third-year sociology and psychology double major student.
Tara used to be a part of Beachbody, and she also dabbled in the World Financial Group (WFG). Hays, on the other hand, worked for a company you may have seen posters for around campus: Vector Marketing.
“I found WFG to be really condescending,” Tara says. “They would stand up and proclaim they were not an MLM but they would behave exactly like one.” She talks about mandatory meetings that she needed to attend twice, if not three times a week, and how she was encouraged to bring people with her in order to recruit them into the business.
“Beachbody was actually more fun at first,” Tara comments, thinking back on her time with the company. “As time went on, it became more about recruiting to your team.” She says after a while, it started to feel rather slimy.
Tara says these companies prey on clients’ weaknesses and then they use those weaknesses to incentivize joining. Once that happens, in Tara’s experience, they use guilt-tripping and constantly comparing you to others in order to drive further commitment to the company and brand. All the while, the tone they set is framed to sound like sweet talk.
She says that staying with the companies generally isn’t cheap either. “You have to buy the products, use them and prove it, attend all these training sessions, travel to the yearly event and spend there also,” Tara says that she was paying out $150 per month on nothing more than just the upkeep. She says the pressure to buy products that she “needed” was constant and unrelenting. If she had given in, that cost would have most likely gone up to almost $300 per month.
When it comes to advice for what to do with MLM’s, Tara says that she advises staying well away from them. “My advice is very much don’t join. Don’t feel the pressure, and resist buying the product if it’s not right for you.”
Hays, on the other hand, has a much more cynical view of MLM companies. “(MLM’s are) one legal step away from being a pyramid scheme,” she says. “I know people can make money at it, but it’s still sketch.” She says that with MLM companies, you still need to recruit people under you to make money.
While Hays says she hasn’t done any selling for the company she was with, she says she still had a pretty shady job. “I was hired to do the scheduling for interviews,” Hays says her job was to sit in an office with a script in front of her and convince people to come in for interviews. She says the numbers were obtained from people who had responded to Kijiji ads, classifieds, and from new hires who were asked for numbers of people to call.
Tara says that while she never made any money, she had contact with people who allegedly had made some cash before she broke it off. Hays, on the other hand, says she acknowledges that there are people who generally enjoy this kind of work, but other than people talking about their theoretical incomes, she doesn’t really know of people who made money. “As far as people that I personally know, doing MLM and making bank, (there are) very few.”
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