A lot of my friends’ Instagram feeds are filled with brightly colored photos of the leggings, makeup and health or beauty products they sell. They talk about the things they’ve bought with their new income stream, and how empowering it is to “own my own business.” They offer tips on how to use their favorite products, show before-and-afters of their weight loss, and regularly go to Vegas for networking conventions.
Having a “side hustle” as an influencer especially appeals to us Moms.
Working Moms latch on to the idea that we can leave our uninspiring 9–5, and spend more time with our families.
Stay-at-home Moms get excited about the opportunity to contribute to the family income, build a business they are passionate about helping friends and family live a healthier life, get out a little.
Both imagine themselves connecting in a meaningful way with friends, and living out their dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, meeting new people.
They figure, with their connections, influence and good looks, why not?
But many of the companies seeking influencers to represent them today are set up in a way that tips the scales too far in their favor, not yours. They’re selling you “the opportunity of a lifetime,” but beware: you’re likely to end up worse off than you started after working in network marketing or multi-level marketing (MLM).
Former reps who’ve spent a good chunk of their precious time, or worse, invested their nest egg are beginning to speak out about the changing terms, widely varied product quality and culture of blame prevalent at many of these pyramid schemes disguised as “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Is it a house of cards, or a viable sales job?
Read on to learn how to tell whether a company is offering you a legitimate opportunity, or if you stand to lose more than you could gain by working for them.
(You can read more about the shifting “influencer” culture and my embarrassing experience with an undisclosed brand of leggings in my recent article, linked below.)
The Influencer Culture is Shifting. Here’s What You Need to Know.
If the Instagram culture troubles you, take heart. I believe there is hope for our future.
Friends for Sale
I’m not proud of the fact that my personal experience “selling” to friends goes back to childhood. In High School, I invited two of my Jewish friends to an event at my Christian church, a Youth Group game or movie night of some sort.
My entire Youth Group had been challenged to get at least two friends to attend, and high-achieving gold-star good Christian soldier that I was, I sold the event and got ’em in the door.
What I didn’t realize was that there would be a hard-sell on Christianity, a real altar call, at the end of this event.
I kicked myself after because I really should have known.
Years later, I reconnected with one of these women at our 20th High School reunion. The night with the altar call had made a lasting impression on her, and she brought it up.
Thankfully a lot of water had gone under the bridge and she was incredibly gracious. We talked about where I had gone wrong.
I still can’t shake that icky feeling: I was being used by my church to further their goals, not mine.
It’s so clear to me because of my childhood experience: as an influencer or brand representative, you’re often trying to push The Message on anyone and everyone, even when they’re not a good fit.
If you have a lot of friends, you’re a huge asset to the cause.
But if you sell too hard, you may not have said friends for long.
Not to mention, it starts to feel icky.
You Shouldn’t Have to Sell to Friends & Family
Don’t get me wrong. I give you a ton of credit if you are working in direct sales or network marketing and making money.
It can be a tough racket, and if you have the energy, marketing skills and extensive connections to people who will buy from you repeatedly, you’re making it happen.
But I encourage you to always vet and avoid the potentially unethical or disadvantageous company by asking this simple question in your job interview.
“Where will my leads come from?”
If you agree to a job as a salesperson with a reputable company, they will supply you with a list of targeted leads. The leads are generated by the company’s marketing department, through advertising, phone leads or online marketing.
- The leads are potential customers who have already expressed some interest in the product or service.
- Instead of investing all their time in convincing people to “join up” as salespeople, a legitimate company will invest in creating an awesome product and convincing a unique, targeted customer they need it.
- By contacting a list of targeted leads, supplied by the company, as a salesperson, you are providing a service to these people. You are helping them buy something they need, or have expressed interest in.
You’re not twisting their arm, using your friendship or relationship as leverage to get them to buy.
As a legit salesperson, you have the opportunity to help your prospective customer understand the unique value your company can provide, give them the information they need to make a decision and educate them on the buying process.
On Being “Your Own Boss”
A boss provides something for you, in exchange for having some control over you.
For example, at one of my early sales jobs, my company flew me all over the country to sell a software product to companies of a certain size.
- They paid me a commission when I closed a deal, and had control over where geographically I was allowed to sell their product.
- They did all the heavy lifting on marketing their product, filed taxes on my behalf, gave me a nice place to work, benefits, salary and all my leads.
- They also reserved the right to fire me for underperformance, alter my commission structure and change my sales territory at any time.
When my company changed my sales territory so frequently that I felt I wasn’t able to reap the rewards of all the hard work I was doing, I was free to leave. I did so, and had to find another job. But I was able to leave with my finances and my personal relationships intact.
When you work for someone else, they can always change terms on you. This is nothing new, but it is also why working in direct sales, multi-level marketing or network marketing is not true “self-employment”. Many of these companies are known for:
- Pressuring you to invest more (buy more inventory than you initially agreed to buy).
- Subjecting you to unexpected credit checks.
- Changing your sales territory.
- Changing prices or quality of their product.
This happens at reputable companies as well, but there’s a big difference when you work for a network marketing company or as an influencer: you may have invested your own money or personal relationships with the company.
Like my teenage Youth Group gaffe, the cost of selling to your friends is high. When you put your reputation on the line as an influencer, you might still be hearing about it years later at your High School reunion.
At my sales job with the ever-changing sales territory, I wasn’t asked to try and sell my friends and family on our product. That would be ridiculous!
Of my friends and family, exactly one at the time could have used this software product. Trying to sell anyone else on that product would have meant putting a square peg in a round hole.
Also, it’s bad for the customer. If your company asks you to agree to one thing and later persuades you to accept another, it will always affect your customer the most. And your customer is the whole reason you’re in business.
When the company you work for continually brings less to the table (in terms of quality, terms and conditions, sales territory etc.) yet you’re expected to continually bring more to the table, it will end up cheapening what you’re selling.
So instead of “the opportunity of a lifetime,” you might up worse off than when you started.
My friends and family are just that: my friends and family. Maybe I have some business contacts I can leverage, or a company or two I’ve worked for in the past who might be a good candidate.
But if you’re working for someone else, the overwhelming majority of your sales leads should always come from inbound marketing.
When your company is doing marketing correctly, the prospective customer will almost always tell you when they need you.
Whether you work in the Marketing department at a big company or market your own product or service, I think my recent article on marketing will be useful to you. Read it here:
If you’re ever asked to sell to “your network,” that’s not good enough.
- There needs to be more qualification around “prospective customer” than “has a pulse.”
- How many times can you push out the same message to the same family and friends before you piss them off, or make them think you’re only in the relationship with them for your own gain?
What’s the Value Prop?
For some reason, many of us, women especially, get suckered into these types of arrangements because — guess what? — these companies do have a fantastic marketing department.
- It’s about empowerment!
- It’s about setting your own hours!
- It’s about making more money than you ever dreamed of, working from home!
- It’s about community!
But if their message isn’t about the unique value of their product, or about the unique problems it can solve — RUN — because it’s probably not a very good or unique product.
If it were, why would they need you or your connections?
Why did a famous leggings company put all of their marketing energy into convincing us how wonderful it would be to throw parties, host trunk shows and sell their product online?
Because you, the salesperson, were always the target end customer.
The company didn’t care where the product went after you invested in inventory.
If your company asks you to make a significant investment in product to get started and you’re not an owner or partial owner of the company, it’s because the company doesn’t care where the product goes after you, the salesperson, buys it.
Even if they do care, by asking for your investment they have just created a huge economic incentive for themselves not to care.
Many network marketing professionals who invest in product “to get started” end up with stockpiles of product sitting in basements, garages, and attics.
I believe that’s because, for these companies, the only business model is to unload their product on their distributors or salespeople.
They don’t care where it goes after you buy it!
When you’re asked to make an upfront investment like this, you will end up losing money because: 1) depreciation, and 2) you invested in a product for which there was no real demand.
These companies also rely on you to recruit other people as salespeople. (Of course they want this, because the salespeople are really their most valuable customer).
These salespeople “under you” in your “downline” sell the exact same things you do, and you get a percentage of what they sell.
Sounds great on the face of it, but if you think about it, is totally counterintuitive.
If you’re recruiting from your friends, family or social circle, you’ve just created a competitor who is now also selling to those friends, family or social circle — and you get a smaller percentage when she’s successful.
Typically, the company will teach you to recruit your best customers, which only turns one of your best assets, a repeat customer, into a competitor. This type of behavior is more proof that these types of companies don’t care about you, your social circle or your income potential.
All Work & No Play …
As a small business owner, here’s something I’ve learned. If your business relies too much on your personality, you’ll never get free from it.
Maybe a social media account focused on you, you, you makes sense if you’re a yoga teacher, or if you’re working for someone else, or if you never plan to sell your business. It makes total sense if you’re providing a service and you provide it every time.
But anyone who’s been even marginally successful as a business owner knows that if you’re working around the clock at the expense of everything else, you’ll work yourself into the ground.
The way to get free of this is to remember what it takes to create a sustainable, enjoyable life.
There is more to life than work, and the goal is to create something sustainable, something you could eventually walk away from, sell or take a vacation from (or even just a day off).
At the end of the day, it’s all just work. Eventually, you’ll want to have a life outside of your work. You’ll need to take a break from making the donuts. I promise. I wrote more about this concept here:
Entrepreneurs: Make Yourself 100% Replaceable
“Doing what you love” can kill you with hustle, if you’re not careful. Learn how to create a REAL business.
The “Empowerment” Movement
Companies have always marketed to women with images of impossible beauty and enviable lives.
This is nothing new.
The problem with our modern influencer culture is that now, individual women are doing this to each other. We are marketing images of our supposed enviable lives to our friends and family, in the name of the almighty dollar.
Network marketing is harmful because it invites comparison and feeling less-than.
There have always been marketing professionals out there who will invent problems, make you afraid, then sell products to ameliorate that fear.
Because women have historically had systemic disadvantages in the workplace (lower pay, less education and more childrearing responsibilities for three), the word “empowerment” is a big catchphrase out there to get you to buy.
It’s how pyramid schemes are built.
This psychological targeting is particularly unethical when it’s used to lure lower-income folks, young stay-at-home Moms, women and people who have been systematically oppressed and for whatever reason feel “unqualified” to apply for a sales position with a legitimate company.
I don’t think enough female entrepreneurs are calling this out for what it is.
Improving the individual by turning her into a supposed “ideal” woman (beautiful, fit, organized, present with her family, domestic goddess or whatever that looks like for you) isn’t empowerment.
It doesn’t do one thing to address the big, systemic issues faced by entire groups of people.
Systemic issues need system-level solutions, not individual-level solutions. Empowerment is about system-level solutions.
- Advocating for better maternal leave policies is a system-level solution
- Helping someone become an entrepreneur is not a system-level solution
To top it off, many multi-level marketing companies use cult-like indoctrination ceremonies and exciting social gatherings featuring motivational speakers.
The tough-love sales culture can leave members blaming themselves for not generating a profit, rather than allowing them to consider the possibility that the system itself is flawed.
The company gets to pretend it is empowering masses of women, yet is doing nothing to further actual social justice issues.
Here’s the acid test. If the company you work for or want to work for is giving lip service to social justice issues, then they also should be:
- Advocating policy change
- Providing donations, or discounted products or services to groups for whom they also advocate
- Offering scholarships, educational opportunities and the like
- Doing things to empower actual marginalized people
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
Ladies … we’re not alone. Men fall for all kinds of schemes, too.
They take crappy jobs, fall for “fake news” and get polarized, invest in pyramid schemes, fall for false promises regarding their physical fitness and more.
What do we all have in common?
Our psychological needs for survival, belonging, job security, recognition, and self-actualization. Our insecurities and worries that we will never get these needs met.
There are some great, mission-oriented for-profit companies out there making people’s lives better. Doing good work in the world. There are also some great foundations, nonprofits, yoga studios, faith-based organizations, even government organizations.
So when you’re considering what sounds like “the opportunity of a lifetime,” ask yourself:
- What would truly make your life meaningful?
- Would selling to friends and family fundamentally alter your relationships with them?
- What would a typical day look like working for this company? What types of activities do you dream of doing day-to-day?
If you have a bunch of great business ideas but aren’t sure which one to choose, I wrote an article about how to decide which one is worth it:
Some of the products sold via network marketing companies are awesome.
The parties are fun.
The startup costs are low.
But always remember that you are spending something even more valuable, your “social capital” for those initial sales by exploiting your friends and family.
The profits you’ll get from your downline might be overstated, and you’ll have to have a lot of people working under you before you see much money “passively” in most of these scenarios.
And once you’ve spent your social capital, you’ll likely have to spend real marketing money to acquire more customers.
Is it really worth it?
About the Author
Hi there! I’m Amanda Jenkins, Creative Director at MarketIQ, a Multi-Business Owner, Digital Nomad, Yoga Instructor and Mom. If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my personal blog. I’ll also keep you posted on publication of my forthcoming book, How to Go From Hustle to Flow. You can connect with me on these social platforms, too: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.