What I Really Think about MLM Businesses

My mom used to sell Avon cosmetics. When I was a little girl, probably eight or nine years old I remember vividly the trial size lipsticks she used to carry around in a small, book-like case. Dozens of tiny lipsticks, no bigger than your pinky. For a little girl, the array of colors and possibilities was breathtaking. I would flip through the Avon product catalogs that cluttered our coffee table, pouring over every detail. The scents of the perfume, the color of the bubble bath bottle... a new iridescent plastic made an old shampoo seem like a magic potion. Mom would sell these products to her friends, mostly. Every once in awhile, if she was feeling ambitious she would do a walk around our neighborhood and leave a catalog on strangers doorsteps.  

Later, my mom hosted a Pampered Chef party. I don't have many memories of this direct sales kitchenware line but I do remember going to several of these parties. In the 90s, they spread like wildfire around my neighborhood. All of us kids tried to convince our moms to host one of these parties because they would bring us along as well, and a signature element of these parties was to make monkey bread for your guests. Monkey bread was nothing more than a can of Pillsbury biscuits cut up into cubes and baked with a ton of cinnamon, sugar and I think some apples? Didn't matter.

What mattered was that the women in the community were coming together to support one another and sometimes aid in earning a paycheck while indulging in a little pampering or retail therapy. Avon, Pampered Chef, and later, Amway was not just my mom’s side hustle. It was her social network, her tribe, her support group.

Through selling products to their friends, millions of women like my mom found empowerment. The ability to make a few bucks to afford the things her husband didn’t want to pay for, and to prove that she could be successful outside the home was intoxicating. I can see how these things spread so quickly, and continue to do so today.

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Since becoming a working woman myself, I have always been employed in a traditional sense, meaning at a salaried 9-5, at an office. Yet I’ve been hyper aware and very curious about the side jobs, self employment routes, and multi level marketing businesses many of my friends and acquaintances seem to make work. I always felt I had to stay within my lane in a corporate environment because it was more stable, more socially acceptable to do so. I also knew that I didn’t have what it took to sell things to my friends the way many others did. I was intrigued by what made others not only take this plunge— but what made them successful at it.

When I say “take the plunge” it’s because I know its not always easy or cool to sell stuff to your friends. In my personal Facebook feed, there is someone new every week suddenly and sometimes very loudly trying to sell me on something. Many of the "mom-preneuers" in my feed seem to stick to seemingly practiced scripts and marketing messages, and their propensity to publish nothing but motivational quotes (which, hey sometimes I need!) can sometimes feel coerced.

Nevertheless, when invited to online or (gasp!) IRL parties by friends in direct-sales businesses, I always attend. And I usually buy.

Partly just to support a friend who’s going out on a limb.

But also out of sincere curiosity. What is this product? What magical quality must it possess to turn a part-time account executive into a printed legging saleswoman? She’s too smart for snake oil. I need to know! Perhaps I am the one missing out, after all.

And that’s just it. I want to belong just as much as anybody else. Direct-sales has always been less about the products, and more about belonging to something bigger than yourself, and giving one another a chance to succeed. We all need to buy things: lipstick, cookware, leggings… why not buy those things from each other and build a thriving, powerful community at the same time?

My years of fascination in this industry is beginning to make sense. I’ve been watching from the sidelines to see where I fit into this larger movement, and now its become clear.

My challenge is to take my love of community building, and my expertise as a brand builder to help transform these businesses and the lives of fellow-working women. How do I help take their marketing strategy from something that feels canned and cringeworthy to a professional success that doesn’t just make a few extra month each month, but something that makes everyone feel proud of what they’ve built together?

There are plenty of ways to sell an exciting or life changing product— but the best way starts with selling yourself. Figuring how how to distinguish yourself from everybody else who selling the same thing is the key to becoming profitable and successful. Because I understand that success is more than just making a side-income— it’s about building something you’re really proud of.