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Dear Random Acquaintance from High School,
Thank you for sliding into my DMs. I appreciate your compliments about my life and social media feed. Yes, I do like to have a good time and yes, I did get new bangs. I’m glad you like them.
But I must admit, your message has me immediately on edge. You kicked it off with the telltale “hey hun,” and frankly, no one calls me “hun” but someone who’s about to ask me for somethin’. My second clue? I’m pretty certain you never gave two fucks and a lash boost about me in the first place. Still, I will respond to see if you actually have a question about that hike I just went on.
Just as you’ve checked out my feed, I’ve seen yours. It’d be hard not to. Your Pinterest-ready #girlboss images punctuate my online experience. I’ve seen many iterations of the same message from the bounty of women I know who are leveraging their social networks to sell anti-aging potions, frankincense oil, wellness shakes and pills, patterned leggings, and press-on nail decals, to name a few. There’s a social media playbook out there, and by now, I could probably write the thing myself.
But hey, if receiving the occasional, cloying Facebook message was the worst that ever happened, I wouldn’t think twice about it. Truly! I’m a small business owner, too, and know how helpful it is to have the support of your community to get started. All the sugarcoated sales messages in the world wouldn’t matter if the financial reality of your business model wasn’t so dire.
A multilevel marketing (MLM) company, also known as a “direct sales company” or “pyramid scheme,” works in such a way that you, the seller (sometimes called a “consultant”) makes a commission on what you sell and by recruiting additional sellers to work beneath you. Often, you’re making a helluva lot more money on the recruiting than the selling. That’s why it’s pyramid-shaped.
MLMs operate upon a mathematical equation that ensures that only a few successful people will “summit” the pyramid while the majority will struggle to make a living wage. In fact, a study commissioned by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that 99% of participants in MLM business models lose money after costs of business are accounted for. 99%!! My sweet baby angel warrior, this is SO, SO, SO BAD. This is why I write you a note in distress. (Using a quill pen, by candlelight.)
And just as MLMs have proliferated due to our hyper-connectedness on social media, so have everyday horror stories: Women (and men) who were told by their MLM recruiters to drain their savings, take on debt, quit their day jobs, and engage in sleazeball sales tactics at the cost of their own personal relationships and reputations. But of course, you’ll never hear this from the MLM companies themselves. Instead, you’ll hear testimonials recounting wild successes; monster bonus checks, exotic vacation prizes, and freshly empowered women walking out of dumb, stiff, corporate jobs to spend all that newfound free time hoovering down vino and raising the kiddos! Abound are tales of MLM side hustles that resulted in paid-off student loans (and Cadillacs)!!
And hey! Some of these stories could be true-ish, but they’re certainly not true for a great majority of participants in an MLM. That’s why MLMs often talk about success in terms of inspirational anecdotes (Kim, the Top Seller in 2017, went to Hawaii), not numerical evidence. (Which can be found by looking at a company’s “earnings disclosure,” which usually requires the got damn Rosetta Stone to decode.) Have you ever seen footage from an MLM company’s annual sales conferences? These people give me incurable heebie-jeebies. Anyone who claims to have all the answers or who guarantees success should scare you, not inspire you.
IT GETS WORSE. MLM companies target women; specifically, women who are in desperate need of belonging, purpose, and money. Now of course, not all MLM sellers are women, but many MLM companies are notorious for promising underemployed, underpaid women (and minorities) the opportunity to make tons of money as a business owner and be part of an enduring #bossbabe community. This is why so many MLM companies have their roots in the Mormon community, with their many homebound moms. But the wrenching desire for jobs that allow women to have a purposeful career while raising children from home is not limited to only Mormon women. MLMs take advantage of a world where women simply don’t have good options.
Darling acquaintance from some arbitrary cranny of my past, are you sure you wanna do this? And more importantly, is this what you want for the women you intend to recruit? Think of the conversations you’ll have: You’ll sing the praises of your own success while failing to mention that your success actually depends on recruiting women just like her—whether or not you think she’ll succeed. Will you tell her that you’ll cash in when she purchases inventory, even if she’s never able to sell it herself?
As a business model, this should feel unsettling at best, and immoral at worst. Also, it’s just a shitty, unscalable business model (for you). Don’t believe me? What happens after your social network runs drier than an Herbalife Chocolate Healthy Meal Replacement Bar™? No successful business relies on selling only to the people you know. Also, um, you’re recruiting your own fucking competition. This market saturation is how women end up with garages packed to the rafters with expired eyeshadow and molding tunic dresses and no one to sell them to. Worst of all, you’re putting your own social capital on the line, and our social capital is one our most important assets!! I’m going to be brutally honest, here: I probably wouldn’t pass along a resume or give a glowing reco to someone who, months earlier, pestered me through Instagram messenger to buy protein shake powder while making dubious medical claims about its ability to trigger weight loss. Like I said, I’m not so worried about your cotton-candy attempts to sell me The World’s Best Lipgloss, but you should be. Your interactions with your community matter.
Recently, there was an ABSURD exposé on one of these companies that made me l.o.l. but also cry hot tears while clutching myself in the fetal position. The company requires sellers to buy and maintain thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory—a surefire sign that you’re involved in an MLM. One woman says she was told to sell her vehicle, cut her cable, and go into debt to afford her initial inventory. Then, profits must be continually funneled back into the purchase of more inventory to keep the business afloat. Women often buy inventory just to keep some “special status.” *rolls eyes* I beg you to read the article, at least until the part where they talk about “Tijuana Skinnies,” and TELL ME these people aren’t the scariest fucking scammers of all fucking time.
There’s another aspect to some of these women-focused MLM companies that really grates: Many of them revolve around beauty and weight loss, and consultants are not shy about making claims as to the wildly transformative power of their products. First of all, no product alone is going to Benjamin Button away these premature-ass wrinkles and second, stop capitalizing on the garbage reality that women feel like they’re not allowed to age or be anything other than a size 4!!!! The patriarchy wants us to believe that our primary value rests in our beauty, thinness, and our youth; as women, we must reject this notion!! If your business model, on any level, requires that you make women feel insecure (and yes, posting those miraculous before-and-after photos counts), you should take some time to examine what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But hey, don’t take it from me, take it from the Ten Financial Commandments All Women Should Live By from my good friend Kara over at Bravely. The ninth commandment? “Allow no profit off self-hatred.” Stop making women hate themselves so you can earn a buck.
(If not from me and Kara, take it from John Oliver.)
Please know, above all else, that I understand where you are coming from. I’m genuinely on your team and am only bein’ a lil butthead because I detest businesses that prey on their workers—especially women. (I’ll fuckin’ go to battle for you broads, even though ya probs called me flat-chested and annoying in High School.) We’re all living during this difficult time where incomes are stagnant, where college, real estate, and childhood costs have exploded to the moon, where women still don’t get paid as much as their male counterparts and face discrimination in the workplace, and where wealth inequality is growing like that earthquake fault line busting open in A Land Before Time. Most of all, I am so sympathetic to the unfair expectation that women do the majority of the work at home (a full-time job) while bringing in an income. There is absolutely no shame in doing the best you can while exploring opportunities to make it work. I am endlessly disappointed in the dearth of reasonable employment options available to mothers—especially low-income mothers. More than anything, I want the system to be better.
Just because the system is broken does not mean we should further contribute to its brokenness. The participation in MLM businesses will create even more problems for working women, not less. Even if you don’t directly participate in the nefarious aspects of an MLM (recruiting downtrodden women, selling shame), you’re still providing the bad guys with a warm place to sleep. More than anything, I promise you that this business model is not your only option, even if it feels like the most attractive at the time. (Cause really, nothing’s sexier than having health insurance.) If you want to talk about what else you can do with all your talents, brainstorm, or rant, please send me a message. (Not accepting “my MLM is different” emails at this time.)
Even though we don’t really know each other, I care about you. Be well.
That One Chick You Knew From High School