I Was A Serial Network Marketer

What I learned about myself along the way…

Multilevel marketing, network marketing, social selling. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter to me. I am not interested, Susan.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not making fun. I know plenty of people who make a good living at network marketing, and who are really good at it and they do it honestly. It just isn’t my cup of tea. Before anyone gets offended (because let’s face it, everyone is offended by something these days), I am simply speaking from my own experience.

Avon, Stella & Dot, Chloe & Isabel, Ambit Energy, Pampered Chef, Isagenix, Thirty-One, It Works, etc.- with the amount of money I have invested in these and other network marketing companies, and the amount of time I have spent trying to get friends, family, acquaintances, and even total strangers to buy their products, I could have started my own business by now.

“It’s just like owning your own business,” I would hear from an enthusiastic consultant who wanted me to join her team, and I’d sign up, believing that this time it would be different. I would really work at this and hustle through the hard times. I am a business person. After all, I do work in marketing. I know how to write creative copy and content that converts. I can do this!

But, it wasn’t until I decided to become a freelance writer and consultant that I realized that it really isn’t the same as owning your own business. You still have to follow corporate policies and procedures and brand standards that you don’t control or determine, you have to abide by social media guidelines for what you can and can’t post, and then, of course, there are the milestones you are supposed to achieve by a certain period of time in order to earn bonuses and incentives.

Where is the creativity in that? When you truly own your own business you make the policies, you determine what your brand looks like, and there isn’t any expiration date on the goals you set for yourself.

In “How Women are Fighting the Marketers That Nearly Ruined Them”, an article on the website, Daily Beast, Taylor Lorenz explores the darker side of MLMs, writing about a Facebook group, “Sounds like an MLM but ok,” that is comprised of ex-sellers from LulaRoe, Amway and other MLMs who post to warn other women about those to watch out for. According to the same article, a Federal Trade Commission report states that 99% of people who join MLM companies lose money unless they are at the top level with a significant amount of consultants in their downline to earn commission from. The report also notes that most people who sign up for MLMs never earn back the money they invested.

While not everyone in network marketing loses money, according to the FTC the odds of making a profit are infinitesimal. Lorenz also points out the most recent and notable lawsuit against LulaRoe, in which many women went into debt to purchase inventory and then couldn’t sell the merchandise.

According to the article, “Every year, women are driven deep into debt by multilevel marketing companies… In recent years, MLMs have co-opted the language of entrepreneurship, telling primarily young women, stay-at-home moms, and military spouses that they can become “self-employed” #girlbosses if they simply spend thousands of dollars in savings to buy up inventory and sell it to their friends.”

My first foray into MLMs was after college graduation when Avon came calling. I had grown up with Avon and I fondly remember when my mother’s Avon lady would stop by our house with the latest book. My entire family has bought so much Skin-So-Soft we should own stock in the company. I had been in a sorority when I was in college and missed having a community of positive and uplifting women. After college, I moved away from my hometown and while I had work friends, it just wasn’t the same.

I looked forward to our district meetings, but I didn’t find the camaraderie with Avon that I was looking for until they launched Mark, their cosmetic and accessory line that was geared towards college students. I recruited some of my younger sorority sisters who were still in college and Voila!, I had a downline. I put my heart and soul into that business, holding pop-up shops (before they were actually a thing) on college campuses and recruiting other college girls to sell. I left Avon in 2003, after the birth of my second son because the market was saturated, there were five other Avon ladies in my neighborhood alone. Thinking I was done with networking marketing, I focused all my effort on raising my children and then on having a career in marketing for the next several years.

I didn’t join another network marketing company until Stella & Dot (costume jewelry and accessories) in 2008. At that point, MLMs had evolved to resemble more of what network marketing companies look like today and social selling on Facebook was just starting to take off as the newest way to promote your business. I didn’t have much luck with Stella & Dot and gave it up again for a while, but then Thirty-One was all the rage with my mom friends so I decided to give that a go and then decided to invest in Chloe & Isabel (more jewelry) simultaneously. (I even created a Facebook page named “Bags & Bling” to promote both businesses). But neither of these ever went past a few parties hosted by close friends who had reluctantly agreed to help me launch my new business. Eventually, it seemed everyone was tired of my new business ventures and I grew tired of spending money on inventory every time the company introduced a new line only to be stuck with what I couldn’t sell.

Every time I entered into a new network marketing business, I did so with the best of intentions and I gave it the old college try because I was attracted by the idea of being a #bossbabe. As a single mother, I wanted to be seen as a strong independent woman and because I lacked the cash flow to invest in a brick and mortar business or the overhead involved with a traditional startup, network marketing seemed like the next best thing.

The truth is, no matter the product, I have never been successful with network marketing and I am never going to be. I just don’t have it in me and that is okay. First of all, I don’t like asking my friends and family to support me by buying products they may not really want or need. Second, I am not pushy. I am not a hard seller and I am not going to try to convince someone to take an interest in a product when they clearly weren’t interested the first time they heard of it.

Let me just say that out of all business models, I find that party plan models are, by far, the worst. I am not really a girl’s girl, to begin with, and by that I mean I don’t care for pomp and circumstance. I don’t oooh and ahhh over babies, other than my own and my closest friends and family. I am not the kind of woman who approaches total strangers to fawn over their newborn; in fact, I think it is kind of creepy and weird. I hate being a bridesmaid and all the ceremonial duties that go along with it. I don’t care for baby showers (I even loathed my own) or bridal showers or bachelorette parties (a night of drunken debauchery where women humiliate themselves drinking out of penis straws, and embarrass the bride by making her wear a shirt with lollipops taped all over it and a sash that labels her as “BRIDE”). But these are all the things, that as a woman, you are supposed to get excited about, right? Sorry, not sorry. I just don’t think you need to subject yourself to silly party games that are potentially humiliating for the guest of honor (guess the mother-to-be’s baby bump measurements, anyone?) in order to share in someone’s joy.

When I was younger, I indulged my close friends by attending these displays of forced merriment, and at the risk of seeming hypocritical, may have even partaken in some of the festivities. And hey, I was a bridesmaid once. I was terrible at it. It was for one of my closest friends at the time too, so I should have been overjoyed, right, but I just wasn’t that into it. Ultimately, I would have rather preferred to be a guest at the wedding watching her get married than standing up in front of God and all our closest friends with five other women, looking like clones in our matching dresses, shoes, and jewelry, while trying to help her deal with the stress of her big day (she had a panic attack just before she was ready to walk down the aisle). Ever since that first experience, I never agreed to be a bridesmaid for anyone (not even my favorite cousin) again. Of course, I have always declined by politely explaining that I would be a better guest their wedding than an attendant at their wedding, and I do believe that saying no has probably saved quite a few friendships from ruin.

So, every time someone would invite me to one of these obnoxious parties, whether it be for Silpada, Tupperware, Thirty-One or whatever, I would cringe but reluctantly agree to attend. In hindsight, it was never one of my closest friends inviting me, it was always the spouse of someone my current boyfriend was friends with, or a coworker, or someone on the periphery of my circle of friends. By the end of the evening, I would always be guilted into placing an order because “the more orders you all place, the more free stuff the hostess gets. You want to help Karen get her order for free, right?” Not really, Karen drives a beamer and lives in a 4000 square foot home, but fine, I’ll play.

So knowing how much I despise these kinds of things, you may be asking why on earth I would ever want to be the one running the party or worse yet asking my coworkers to support my business and hosting one? “Your friends and family are the first people you should list in your sphere of influence because they are the people who want to see you be successful.” I have heard this mantra so many times I can recite it in my sleep.

I am not saying that my friends and family don’t want me to be successful, or that I don’t want any of my friends who have decided to become an “independent consultant” to be successful in their own business, but there is only so much money you can spend on tote bags, and costume jewelry, nutritional supplements, and makeup before you are tapped out. I have bills to pay, Susan.

Network marketing is the only business model I know of that basically tells you to FIRST ask your friends and family to spend money with you and then try and encourage them to ask their friends to spend money, and so on and so forth.

Sure, if I owned an independent bookstore (my dream career), I would want my friends and family to be patrons, but maybe they don’t read or drink coffee or even like bookstores. Maybe they can get a better deal on Amazon. The point is, I wouldn’t expect them to finance my dream let alone keep it alive. I would do what most small business owners do and advertise and learn about what my customer wants and needs, hold cool events and promote my business in the community. Which essentially, is what network marketing asks you to do as well, but there is just something weird about constantly trying to get people (whether you know them or not) to buy a product from you by constantly nagging them to do so.

For me, building a business is about building relationships and gaining someone’s trust to gain their patronage. And it certainly isn’t about making as much money possible (although a profit would be nice). There needs to be a purpose behind the desire to earn more and that purpose should always be tied in some way to helping people as much as you can before you even think about how you are going to profit from it. I think that those who are the most successful at network marketing do understand this concept and apply it.

It is the network marketers who are pushy and constantly shoving products and opportunities in your face that leave a bad taste in my mouth. I cannot tell you how many times, on a daily basis, I receive friend requests and private messages from total strangers promoting their products and asking me if I want to do what they do. No Susan, I really don’t want to join your Silpada sisterhood.

In many ways, network marketing companies are like sororities for middle-aged women (again, not making fun, I was in a sorority in college, this is just a comparison). They recruit individuals who are like-minded (and yes, I know men do network marketing too, not trying to be sexist, but it is mainly women), who have similar interests, who live roughly the same lifestyle and even dress similarly. I have never attended a national conference for any of the companies I worked with (I never made enough money to justify it), but every time I see pictures from one, I always take note of how similar everyone looks in appearance.

I think a lot of people get involved with network marketing because they are looking for their tribe and a sense of community, and the majority of these companies know that, so they cater to that desire in their messaging. I know I was looking for all of those things, but really what I was looking for was a sense of freedom. I was burnt out working a 40+ hour work week to make someone else money. My face was firmly pressed against the glass ceiling and when I went to another company, I felt like I had only made a lateral move in my career. I also felt like I wasn’t doing anything that lit my soul on fire.

Looking back, I have felt that way for most of my career, but joining multiple multi-level marketing companies, whether I intended them to be a side-gig or my bread and butter, wasn’t the answer either. What I did come to realize is that by jumping from selling one product to another, even though I was girly enough to appreciate the handbags and makeup, and jewelry I was peddling, I was still making a lateral move. I would have a little success at the beginning, enough to fuel my desire to keep selling, but eventually, I would plateau and then my upline would be on me about not meeting my next milestone because my success ultimately contributed to hers.

The biggest thing that turned me off to certain MLMs was the cult-like indoctrination that they employ. By offering a duplicatable business, they are really just attempting to clone those who are the most successful (which isn’t a bad business practice necessarily) but in doing so, they encourage what psychologists call “groupthink,” the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individualism.

Where is the fun in owning your own business if you can’t be creative? Or an individual? “When one of us succeeds, we all succeed” was another mantra I heard all the time at team meetings. Still, I joined in because I wanted to be a part of something successful.

I think what made me the ideal target though is my desire to please. I am a people pleaser and have been from a very young age. I just want everyone to be happy and that isn’t always possible. And every time I didn’t make my goal or I missed a milestone or I didn’t have the energy to try and sell one more thing or try to get one more person to sign on, I felt like I had failed my team.

Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely want to support other women in their endeavors. I love to see successful women kicking ass and taking names, whether it is with one of these companies or on their own. But I have learned that I can do that without signing up to sell. So, Susan, you go girl, I may even buy a product or two from you, but please don’t ask me to do what you do.

Freelance Writer and Editor, Content Marketing Specialist, and Writing Coach. I am a literature-loving, coffee consuming logophile, and bookstore aficionado.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store