When I first heard about this magical lipstick that some of my friends out west had started selling, I barely new what network marketing was. I had to google the acronym “MLM”, which stands for Multi-Level Marketing. And almost immediately, I had my first encounter with the “anti-MLMers” and MLM hate.
The nexus of MLM hate on the internet is the subReddit r/antiMLM. It is a dark hole that my social researcher side, and my self-critical tormenting side, has fallen into too many times in the past year. I usually emerge a few hours later, angry, shaken, and confused. What gives these strangers the right to judge my life choices as not only wrong, but wholly misguided, uninformed, idiotic, and even evil?
I have been asking this question for the past year and the answer has quietly emerged. Fuelling it all is a deeply buried toxic seed of misogyny. In one breath they berate and ridicule these “Hunbots” or “Huns” as brainwashed manipulative robots, and in the next they bemoan the exploitation of all those poor women who have been tricked and duped by the evil MLMs.
Let’s review the basics of multi-level marketing and its two key elements: direct selling (essentially, individuals become small business owners who sell products made by the company they are with); and “network marketing”. Rather than spend big money on slick advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsement, and complex high level marketing strategy, MLMs outsource (and pay) their distributors or representatives to do their marketing on a ground level. So you are selling a product or service and you are spreading the word about that product, and if someone is interested in doing what you do, you are in charge of on-boarding and training them. In return, you get a percentage of commission from your teams sales.
Contrary to what antiMLMers love to claim, it is not a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal and involve no actual product or service of value, only the promise of value that is based on nothing. Now, I will say that some network marketing companies are better than others (just like some business owners can be real jerks and some corporations are horrific exploiters of their workers and the environment, right?). Of the tens of thousands of direct sales companies operating legally in North America (still none of them actual pyramid schemes), only a couple hundred are members of the Direct Sellers Association, which means they are upholding the highest voluntary standards in the industry. So if you are considering joining an MLM I certainly advocate doing your research and choosing one of the good ones. I will write more on this another time.
Let’s return to the idea of a pyramid. I challenge you to find a single business model out there that, when put to paper, doesn’t look a little pyramid-esque. Have you ever seen an org chart that doesn’t narrow as you move upwards? Two key parameters to look more closely at are who occupies each level and the potential for upward mobility. In network marketing, the answer at every level *including the very high earning ones* is women. In fact, home businesses (many of which are MLMs) are still one of the primary ways in which women in North America break into the 6-figure earners club.
What about the potential for upward mobility? One of the things I read over and over from antiMLMers is “get a minimum wage job you will earn more”. And sure, in the first 6 months of starting a new business, this is likely true. But would you say this to someone who had opened a brick and mortar business? Of course not, because there is an expectation that it will take some time to take off and build. The main difference is that because the level of investment required to start an MLM business is so many orders of magnitude lower, there is a larger percentage who give it a try, and then choose to walk away in the first year or two.
Also included and glossed over in the “high failure rates” of MLM businesses are all of the customers who choose to “join” for the product discounts and loyalty programs but never have any intention of trying to earn income. This isn’t a flaw or an evil twist in the system, it is a basic fact that everyone actually involved in MLMs is well aware of, not the least of which the customers who are joining. It would be like saying that Costco is exploiting its customers because their memberships aren’t paying their mortgages. It is a fundamental and deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.
Now look a few years down the road. What are the chances that someone starting today in a minimum wage position at a retail store or fast food chain is going to be at the director level in 3-5 years? Let’s just say, it is not good. But did you know that 95% of those who stick with their network marketing business (and actually choose to treat it like a business rather than a product discount) for that same amount of time become leaders and TOP EARNERS in their companies? In most career paths you are lucky to maybe get one big promotion during that amount of time, never mind jumping from entry level to high level leadership within the company.
But that is exactly what is possible in the MLM model. AND it is possible (and extremely common) to do this WHILE raising children at home, or caring for an adult dependant, or continuing at your full time corporate job, or island hopping as a digital nomad. I see it every day, all around me. Stay at home moms of 4 are retiring their husbands from dead end jobs. Single moms are moving their families out of the crappy basement apartment, paying for piano lessons, and taking their children on vacations for the first time in their lives, all while spending far more time with their kids than they were able to when they were working long hours at that minimum wage job.
Another key criticism of MLMs is the spector of “market saturation” – the idea that since a piece of the business model involves growing the reach of the company, it is inherently flawed since there are limits to how many people will buy the products and you are essentially “recruiting your competition”. I actually love this one. Because you know what? If you have a problem with the fact that MLMs rely on growth to succeed, then you have a problem with capitalism. Simple as that. There is absolutely no difference between a retail clothing company that requires people to continue to buy their clothes in order to succeed and a direct sales company that requires people to keep buying their products to succeed. And the good MLM companies are always expanding into new regions, countries, and product lines. Market saturation is a myth used to distract from the power that the MLM model offers women. I’m certainly not saying that the limits to growth critique of modern Capitalism isn’t valid. But that is another debate entirely, and not one that antiMLMers are engaging in. They want us to believe that there is something unique about the MLM model that makes it worse than any other. There is not.
The direct selling aspect also carries its own stigma that I argue is rooted in a patriarchal approach to commerce. Our society seems to frown upon the idea of buying something you need from someone you know, rather through the impersonal avenues of box stores and online shopping. But why? Certainly, the origins of the marketplace, when it was a physical place where merchants would gather to trade their goods and services with others, bears much more similarity to the direct sales model than the corporate model we have shifted into. The return to a more intimate and connected mode of buying and selling is intertwined with feminine qualities of relationship building, caring, and cooperating. Often, direct sales reps will exchange products directly with each other, bypassing cash altogether.
Contrary to the “recruiting your competitors” myth, the culture within all the network marketing companies I have come in contact with is deeply supportive and cooperative. Time and again I am blown away by the selfless support and training that women who aren’t even in the same organization are willing to provide each other. In a world where women are inundated with pressure to compare and compete with each other, it is immensely refreshing to find communities built around lifting each other up. Because unlike the dog eat dog testosterone-fuelled rat-race of modern capitalism, network marketing offers respite, where these types of altruistic actions are not punished, but rewarded. No wonder so many women flourish here.
There are a lot of factors and misunderstandings that fuel MLM stigma. But what I have come to see clearly is this: what turns the misinformation into hate, what lies hidden under all the mansplaning about profit margins and patronizing feigned concern for the poor gals who are being duped by the big bad MLMs, what fuels trolls as they create not very witty memes to make their hater buddies snigger, is fear of women’s power.
Fear of a business model that allows women to be women, that doesn’t require them to display only their masculine side to succeed, and yet STILL ALLOWS THEM TO SUCCEED. Fear of a business model that allows them to raise their children without daycares and nannies WHILE MAKING MORE MONEY THAN THEIR HUSBANDS. Fear of women who are gaining financial freedom and what they might do with it once they have it. Fear of women becoming empowered, plain and simple. Because I’ve seen what this kind of financial empowerment, confidence rooted in authenticity, and female-positive sisterhood does for women and let me tell you, MLMs are Just. The. Beginning.
That is why on this International Day of Women I think there is no better way to celebrate, than to shout praise in the face of MLM stigma. Is there a woman in your life who has her own direct selling business? Send her a message today telling her how awesome she is doing, and how brave you think she is for taking the leap into entrepreneurship and pushing herself to dream bigger than she grew up believing was possible. Tell her you appreciate the all the ways that she is making the world a better place. Because she is.