An issue in determining the legitimacy of a multi-level marketing company is whether it sells its products primarily to consumers or to its members who must recruit new members to buy their products. If it is the former, the company is a legitimate multi-level marketer. If it is the latter, it could be an illegal pyramid scheme. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating multi-level marketing companies for several decades and has found many that blur the lines between the two. According to industry data, there are 90 million members worldwide, but relatively few earn meaningful income from their efforts. To some observers, that reflects the characteristics of a pyramid scheme.
WHEN NANCY CRAMER WAS A young mother, she wanted to stay at home with her kids. It wasn't long, she says, before the multilevel marketing community found her and got her on board to start selling a line of vitamins and skincare products. She was intrigued by the sales pitch: She could be at home with her kids, make extra income on the side, and all she had to do was call 10 people per day.
“The two years I was supposedly building my Amway business, I lost nearly $10,000 on tapes, seminars, books, gas, and travel expenses for out-of-town seminars. My earnings? Less than $500 total. Since I was unemployed — and pretty much unemployable for any nonburger-flipping job — those $10,000 came exclusively from my grandmother, who was also my biggest (and only) Amway customer, buying expensive, ‘concentrated’ Amway products she didn’t need, every month to support me.”
MLMs have been made illegal in some jurisdictions as a mere variation of the traditional pyramid scheme, including in mainland China. In jurisdictions where MLMs have not been made illegal, many illegal pyramid schemes attempt to present themselves as MLM businesses. Given that the overwhelming majority of MLM participants cannot realistically make a net profit, let alone a significant net profit, but instead overwhelmingly operate at net losses, some sources have defined all MLMs as a type of pyramid scheme, even if they have not been made illegal like traditional pyramid schemes through legislative statutes.
Representatives for direct selling companies affirm that most participants in their companies aren't making much. "Earnings are typically quite small," says Joe Mariano, president and CEO of the Direct Selling Association. He notes that nearly three-quarters of people involved in direct selling are "discount customers," meaning they're buying the products for themselves – not selling them. For that majority, earnings aren't just small: They're nonexistent.
The Internet has made it so easy now. In the old days you had to actually visit people, or at least call them, to pitch your fabulous new opportunity. Face-to-face marketing is still practiced, but it is not so common these days. Besides, no one really loves the idea of having someone over, so they go online where everyone can be as safe as they want. They create sites with videos, testimonials, and pictures.
Want to know where the best skincare products in the land of the MLM world are? Right here with Rodan and Fields. A pair of dermatologists founded this company as an expensive department store product before emerging onto the scene of network marketing. They are the ones who made and created Proactiv and they hit success and ended up with the best skincare products of all time (every teenager’s savior, as it became the solution that worked for everyone). Their one product line rakes in almost $1 billion in yearly sales.
I initially spoke to a retired friend who said she joined a health and beauty direct selling company as a means of meeting new people. She had recently remarried and moved to a new location, so she combined the practice of meeting new people with making extra money. After almost a decade in the business, she’s built a small niche business with family and friends despite switching to from one company to another competitor after three years.