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I Was a Modern Avon Lady, Kind Of

Shilling for Rodan + Fields products online put selling myself in a whole new light

I am searching Pinterest, desperately and hopelessly, for an adorable tool.

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What I find is a photo of baby wrapped up in two bath towels, silently squealing beneath white block letters, which I’m supposed to identify with:

The baby lives on a Pinterest page dedicated to Rodan + Fields, a multilevel marketing company that sells its skincare products through individual consultants. It has built a cavalry of nouveau Avon ladies, only you won’t find them knocking on your door with a makeup kit in hand; you’re more likely to read a sales pitch in a Facebook message, instagram caption, text, or email. Through this new generation of saleswomen, Drs. Rodan and Fields — the dermatologists behind Proactiv — have built the fifth-largest skincare company in the world.

On Facebook I’d seen a few of my former sorority sisters promoting R+F products with peppy, eager, encouraging posts. There were pictures of beautiful, clear faces; there were before and after photos with yucky skin on the left and perfect skin on the right; there were affirmations and exclamation points galore; there were so many women wearing so little makeup.

The easiest response to all of this is to laugh. When we see people using social media in ways that we don’t, we’re often quick to reach for mockery as a first response. Plus we’ve all heard about diet pill scams, Nigerian prince scams, those old school chain letter scams from the 1930s. Maybe the only individuals we trust to sell things these days are the Kardashians and their tea.

When I bring it up to friends, their first response is most likely to be: "Isn’t that a pyramid scheme?" I respond, "Yeah, but it’s the good kind!"

But my cynicism always shrouded a curiosity about what it would be like to try my hand at selling. How different would it be from that time I sold tropical Milly and Trina Turk dresses to sorority girls at a boutique in Chapel Hill, NC? How hard would it be to make a little extra money? How nice would it be to take myself on a vacation with said money and a tropical dress of my own? How scammy is it, after all? I resolved to find out.

A few months ago, I called one seller I knew — we’ll call her Sarah — and asked her a few questions about the whole Rodan + Fields setup. Did she actually like these products (yes, they cleared up her acne!), and did she actually sell them (yes), and how did it work (that’s a little more complicated)? I wanted to know if I could do it, if there was a world in which I could succeed at selling products to my friends and acquaintances.

A handful of odds were in my favor: I’m used to selling myself as a freelancer; I have a small amount of retail experience; I love talking about things I love; I love using the internet!!! If I decided to turn back and give it all up after a few months of failure, I could get almost all of my money back (you have to pay to sell; more on that later). I started imagining the way I’d explain it to people: Like how your aunt used to be an Avon lady, only trendier, and online!

When I bring it up to friends, their first response is most likely to be: Isn’t that a pyramid scheme? I respond, Yeah, but it’s the good kind! Which means nothing, of course. But it’s a soft and pithy defense to the suggestion that I’ve been swindled, or that I’m just dumb.

By most definitions, though, Rodan + Fields isn’t a pyramid scheme. According to the SEC, a pyramid scheme is a setup where "participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new participants into the program." At Rodan + Fields, consultants are encouraged to recruit new consultants and make a commission off of their team’s sales. But they’re also selling a physical product.

Images: Rodan + Fields

Starting is easy: They recruit you, you buy in, you try to sell. You can start with a $45 business kit, or you can — as you’re encouraged to do — buy a kit that includes a few regimens, plus extra products, and maybe some sales materials. They run all the way up to $995, if you want to go all in. (You’re told that you’re saving money; the average regiment costs around $170.) I went for the conservative $395 Personal Results Kit, which included two regimens, some microdermabrasion scrub, makeup removing wipes, and plenty of pamphlets. Sarah and her sponsor walked me through everything on an introductory call, helped me make my purchase, and poof, I was a saleslady. The anxiety appeared like an Avon lady at my door, unexpected and persistent.

Sarah had thrown two launch parties — with great success, she told me. I thought maybe I could do the same, invite some ladies who love products to my house, supply them with booze and snacks, and spend a few minutes casually chatting about a brand I liked.

The anxiety appeared like an Avon lady at my door, unexpected and persistent.

But then I just… couldn’t. I felt itchy every time I attempted to come up with a plan. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, to advertise the event openly, give a sales pitch in front of a (presumably small, slightly inebriated) crowd of friends. So I did the cowardly thing and started reaching out — via Facebook Messenger, God bless it, and email — to individuals, mostly friends who made more money than me. I emailed my mom, and a few of my mom’s friends. Each time I had to psych myself up before typing, before pressing send.

We are, of course, miming the act of a sale every day: We post photos of restaurant dishes on Instagram, we share links to our favorite publications on Facebook, we tweet photos of ourselves wearing sheet masks, an army of aspirational beauty ghosts. We blur the lines between curating and promoting. We sell ourselves, too, particularly in creative fields: If I write something, I want my friends to not only see that I wrote it, but also to read it and to engage with it and, ideally, congratulate me on how excellent it is. Both of these actions — the sharing of Good Things and the self-promotion — feel natural, at least now, in 2016. So why does their amalgamation — promoting ourselves as sellers of a product we think is good and valuable — feel so different, and so icky?

It comes down to identity, I think. We’re not used to identifying as sellers, unless it’s our career that we’re peddling. The casual selling we do (of ourselves, of things we love that we don’t profit from) is simply an extension of our personhood through our social media accounts. So stepping into the role of salesperson— a figure who has historically been painted as cheesy or pushy or, at worst, deceitful — feels like a threat to who we are, and to our credibility.

Both of these actions — the sharing of Good Things and the self-promotion — feel natural, at least now, in 2016.

I asked my friend Gabriella, a very kind cynic, to explain why she thought it would be strange for a friend to try to sell her something. "It feels weird because it turns a personal relationship into a commercial one," she explained. The potential buyer must, at least for a transactional amount of time, add "seller" to all the words they associate with that friend, that friendship.

As I understand it, many of these saleswomen frame their enterprise as their "new business." I want to tell you about my new business. I’m so excited to share my new business. The sheer act of writing these words turns friends into emotional investors. But it’s our job to turn them into financial ones, too. These are two different messages to send. Both of them petrified me.

I resolved to find ways to post about these products that didn’t feel like a complete departure from the human and digital identities I’ve developed for myself. Very pleased with my new cleansing mask and the cat-ear headband I’d recently bought on Amazon, I snapped a selfie and posted it to Instagram, pushed it through to Facebook. I got a few curious messages on Facebook, asking what face mask I used, which never once resulted in a sale; ditto a few Instagram messages. There was usually some expression of curiosity, a response from me with some more information, and then silence or a polite decline.

Facebook messages, too, were a hustle and a hassle. For a week I told myself I’d reach out to 10 people a day. I didn’t reach this goal but got close, maybe 50 people or so. I scrolled through my friends and picked out those most likely to purchase, all women, all interested in beauty, at least in my mind. And sent them some iteration of:

Hey love/bb/dear/[name]! How are you? [Maybe something here about what was going on in their life.] I recently got hooked on Rodan + Fields skincare products, and have started selling them—they’re really great, and started by the ladies behind Proactiv. Would you be interested in hearing more? lmk! xx

I maybe had a 5% response rate. A few people said they already used the brand loyally — a small victory for my ego. A few people politely declined. One friend said she didn’t want to get involved with a pyramid scheme, a misnomer that I politely did not correct. I followed up with a few of the non-responders, but only got more silence and more polite declines. Even my mom wasn’t getting back to me.

Looking for help, I browsed the Rodan + Fields boards — I don’t think I’d used Pinterest since 2011? — for pretty graphics to use in social post (Sarah had mentioned it offhandedly as a popular resource). There was the towel-wrapped baby, there were a smattering of homemade someecards riffs. And then there was a nice clean overhead photo of a magazine surrounded by a few R+F products. Julia Roberts stared out at me from the cover, wise and wrinkle-free: "Allure named 5 Rodan & Fields products in their Best of Beauty Issue — October 2015"

I bullied myself into a Facebook post:

Just saw that five Rodan + Fields products were mentioned in Allure's 2015 best of beauty issue! Hit me up if you want to try some [smile emoji]

One person said "is this a pyramid scheme?" and another expressed interest with a waving emoji. That was about it. I felt the same sort of dejection you usually feel when you post something expecting a response and get (close to) nothing.

It was all very Willy Loman Tries Instagram.

My lack of success quickly became a lurking source of anxiety for me. I talk to my therapist a lot about trying to avoid self-judgment so like, I get that I shouldn’t be doing it, but still: it was a constant reminder that there was one more thing in my life that I was failing at. It was all very Willy Loman Tries Instagram.

At the time of writing this, I haven’t sold a single product except for the second regimen I received in my Business Kit which I sold for a discounted price. I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules but I’m just trying to make some money here! I don’t think this means that the company is bad; I think it means that I’m not a great salesperson and not committed enough to the enterprise to make it work for myself.

There are, of course, women making buckets of money doing this. It seems like something you have to fully commit to, and be cut out for, and I’m not. I used to work at a high-end boutique in my college town and always felt guilty for trying to sell things on people, even when they were wealthy peers toting along wealthy parents. If they didn’t want something, who was I to tell them otherwise?

I used to work at a high-end boutique and always felt guilty for trying to sell things on people... If they didn’t want something, who was I to tell them otherwise?

I talk to Sarah about all my reservations and my failings, and she’s unfailingly supportive. Tells me I’m doing all the right things, that a launch party could still be a good idea down the road. That I’m planting a seed in people’s minds, and maybe they’ll hear a friend talk about how much she loves her R+F regimen, and then finally call me up and make a purchase.

The first time we spoke she gave me her why; your why is something that the Rodan + Fields literature suggests as an important first step in developing your sales pitch. Maybe you’re a single mom, looking for a way to make money from home; maybe you, like Sarah, are a small business owner who figures she can earn some extra cash for an extra vacation or two each year; maybe you, like me, are a freelance writer hungry for any sort of dollar. Sometimes, she told me, she does her work at the pool, from her phone, a true digital luxury. After every time we talk I feel invigorated, ready to carry on trying, ready to keep the hustle up.

And then I perform all my other hustles: my writing hustle, my social hustle, the hustle to keep myself from falling into traps of despair or loneliness or ennui or self destruction. The hustle to keep the floor in my bedroom visible and our kitchen counter free of grime. When I hit an exhausted point I think, maybe I don’t need an additional hustle. Maybe I have enough of them already. Maybe I can supplement my writing income with… more writing income.

Sometimes I still believe that maybe things will change and people will start to want to buy from me.

I haven’t sent back my business kit yet. I’m still wearing a face mask for a total of four minutes a day, and my skin is very soft, and sometimes I still believe that maybe things will change and people will start to want to buy from me. But mostly I just feel discouraged and frustrated and ready to throw in the towel. I won’t be buying a BMW with my earnings like the company’s top earners do and I don’t plan on writing the word "mogul" into a 5-year plan anytime soon. I will probably quit.

But I will probably try to reach out to 10 more people before I do. You never know unless you try. And a Facebook message only takes a few quick seconds to send. You can even do it from your bed.

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