The Hard Sell


The buying opportunities seem to multiply like mushrooms: Younique. Usborne. It Works. Avon. Young Living. Jamberry. DoTerra. Beach Body.

If you’re a parent in Portland, odds are you’ve been approached to buy into these product lines, everything from essential oils to fitness programs. And an ever-growing number of you are signed up to sell them. We talked to nearly a dozen local moms both on and off the record who have either sold or are currently selling products through direct-sales (a straightforward transaction where salespeople collect profits for items they sell) or multilevel marketing programs (where salespeople are compensated for both their own sales and those of salespeople they’ve recruited), and found their levels of success and reasons for getting involved are about as varied as the participants themselves.


However, they do have one thing in common: The wish to financially support their families while doing something they personally enjoy.

The word “sales” is noticeably absent from many of the websites and marketing materials for multi-level marketing (MLM) companies. Instead, they invite prospective recruits to become “independent consultants,” “beauty guides” or “flexible entrepreneurs;” attractive titles for new stay-at-home moms, especially, who may be struggling with the unexpected and often sudden loss of a professional identity. (MLM is overwhelmingly marketed toward and participated in by women.)

MLM websites feature bright, cheery colors, playful fonts, and upbeat declarations that joining their salesforce can be “uplifting,” “empowering” and “validating.” The companies promise that direct and network sales are a solution for moms struggling with work/life balance, or who may face educational or ability-based barriers to finding work outside the home. It’s a flexible business, the companies say. You can “fit work around your family;” “still work but spend time with your children while they grow up.” It’s an irresistible pitch for many parents. But does it really work?

As with most jobs, one’s mileage may vary. For both MLM and direct sales, participants pay money up front in return for the privilege of selling a company’s products. The buy-in usually consist of a package, called everything from a “business portfolio” to a “presenter’s kit,” ranging from as low as $45 all the way up to the thousands, usually containing a range of product, samples and a catalog. In the case of MLM, if participants successfully recruit people to also sell product, they get a cut of their recruits’ profits. If the recruits in turn hire others to sell (in order to get a cut of their profits), then the original participant also get a cut, as does the original recruit. These recruits — and recruits of recruits — are called a “downline.” The larger the downline, the more money one can make by basically sitting back and having her recruits do all the work.

Walters, a Hillsboro mom, sells Beachbody products.

Elementary school teacher and Hillsboro mom Kim Walters participates in the Beachbody MLM, which encompasses a range of fitness programs and supplements. She has 40 people in her downline, and looks forward to the day when her Beachbody income surpasses her teaching salary. “I’m currently making 16 percent of my teaching income through Beachbody,” she says, “I’m in this for the long-term, and that is when MLMs are actually successful.”


An uphill battle
For people at the end of a downline, however, actually making an income can be an uphill battle. Nine years ago, Portland mother of four Victoria Cieslewski was recruited into her former mother-in-law’s downline for USANA, a nutritional-products MLM based in Utah. “I was pregnant with my oldest and [my mother-in-law] talked me into spending $1,400 to buy into the business. She guaranteed me that I’d make about $500 a week, but I made a total of $100 after hours of talking to people and family and going to tons of seminars,” Cieslewski says.

Some MLMs, like USANA at the time, work on a points system. In those cases, “you cannot make money on direct sales,” says Cieslewski. “Whenever you get 1,000 points from both your downstream and yourself, you get about $100. It was hard.” Direct-sales companies, in contrast, don’t require the recruiting of a downline to rake in the cash, but often require a higher buy-in, which can be difficult for stay-at-home moms who may be strapped for disposable income.

Jessica Gray, a Hillsboro stay-at-home mom, has been selling LimeLight by Alcone, a line of makeup and skincare products, since March. Her buy-in for direct sales was $169, nearly twice as expensive as the average MLM kit, but she feels it was worth it both because she didn’t have to worry about building a downline and because it was merchandise she could enjoy using herself.

Jessica Gray sells beauty products from home.

“[When I bought the kit], I knew that even if I felt that selling wasn’t for me, that I was getting great product for a good deal,” she says. Gray originally got started selling LimeLight because of a sample a friend gave to her. Pregnant at the time, she had been looking for chemical-free skincare products. She liked the sample, and decided buying the sales kit was a way to get a range of product for a decent price. She put up a Facebook business page to gauge interest, and to her surprise found many were just as interested in the product as she was. “I put out a couple [Facebook] posts over a couple weeks showing a selfie with my makeup done and said, ‘Hey, I have this group,'” Gray says. “A lot is friend-based business. They spread the word … it was very organic. I earned back what I put in probably about one week in.”




Tupperware and beyond

Direct sales have been around for ages through institutions like Amway and the California Perfume Company (now Avon), but not until the mid-20th century did companies realize the potential of harnessing the considerable social networks of the modern American woman. In 1948, Brownie Wise came up with the idea of home parties for the Tupperware kitchenware brand, where women demonstrated the usefulness of the then-innovative kitchenware under the guise of a social gathering.

The concept was so successful that existing companies, like the cosmetics company Mary Kay, eventually adopted the in-home demonstration model, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today there are nearly too many sales companies to count. In fact, whatever women are interested in, odds are there’s a specific direct-sales or MLM company marketed to their demographic — from fitness (Beach Body) and health (doTerra, Young Living, It Works) to makeup/cosmetics (Younique, Jamberry, Avon, Rodan + Fields, Alcone), children’s books (Usborne) and accessories (Stella + Dot).

However, unlike the Tupperware parties and Avon ladies of yore, today’s reps mine for customers mostly online, using platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat to share photos and generate interest through giveaways and posts about how the products have benefited them and enhanced their lives.

Lisa Banks, mother of two, sells Younique make up products.

Lisa Banks, a Beaverton mother of two who sells Younique makeup, regularly posts selfies and video tutorials on Facebook and Snapchat. “We Younique girls do all our business on Facebook and social media,” she says. “Our platform is a Facebook makeup ‘Beauty Bash,’ where we post videos and tutorials for people and their friends and earn hostess freebies.”

However, those lured by the idea of throwing up a few Facebook posts and watching the orders roll in are likely to be disappointed, say more experienced reps. According to a 2011 report by the Consumer Awareness Institute, nearly 99 percent of MLM participants lose money after their initial investment. So, which of the lucky few are making money, and how are they doing it?



Belief and passion
According to many of the women we spoke with, passion and a genuine belief in the product were integral to a successful MLM/direct sales enterprise. “Sharing your own experience is vital,” says local mom Elizabeth Lane, who’s been selling Plexus, an MLM weight-loss supplement, for several months. “When I ‘sell,’ I’m not really trying to push the product, but sharing health tips [where I’ve seen] improvement in myself. I see too many reps never sharing their own experience but constantly pushing the products. You have to personally be the result if you want people to believe it.”

The amount of time spent on the business also seems to help improve the odds of an enterprise making it past the first few months. “It’s more time consuming than a 9-to-5,” says Lane. “You have to hustle so much. Unless you truly 110 percent believe in and love the product you’re selling, it’s not close to worth it because you will likely have a very slow start, which is what discourages most right off the bat.” Banks agrees. “I probably give, at this point, 25 hours a week minimum,” she says — no small feat for an already busy parent. “I’m working hard to grow my business, as I love it that much.”

With all the MLM and direct-sales reps and companies out there, it’s difficult to imagine that there are enough customers for all the essential oils, eyeshadows, and 21-Day Fix kits flooding the market. At what point, one has to wonder, does the market reach saturation?

Walters, for one, thinks the attrition rate is high enough that the market for MLM products will always stay more or less even. “Although it’s true that many people are doing this, it’s a very small percentage of people who actually stick with it long-term and are able to make an income from it,” Walters says. “The biggest reason people give up [is] because they think it will be a get-rich-quick thing, and it isn’t.”

At the end of the day, Walters adds, this is a business and “it takes time and energy to build a business.”

Kat Merck
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