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We’ve all known at least one. That friend who wants to tell you about the new company that changed her life or the one new product you just have to try.
Multilevel marketing companies know them, too, and they count on their army of sellers to turn their friends, family, and social networks into buyers. And it’s worked — MLMs like Avon and Amway have been around for decades.
In general, this is how multilevel marketing (sometimes called direct marketing) companies are structured: Aspiring sellers (often referred to as consultants or stylists) buy into a company either through purchasing inventory they then have to sell or through an educational program after which they are required to meet monthly, yearly, or quarterly sales goals. Most also have “team leader,” “coach,” or “mentor” aspects to the business, whereby consultants build teams of sellers and a percentage of their team’s profits trickle up.
It’s a highly competitive business model, especially in areas like fashion and beauty, which are already saturated markets. Many who sign up with MLMs — often with the hope of owning their own business and having control over their schedule — don’t find the level of success they hoped for. (It’s one reason why some direct-marketing companies, especially those dependent on massive buy-ins from hopeful sellers who ultimately end up holding the bag, have been accused of running pyramid schemes.)
But with for some multilevel marketing companies — those with relatively low buy-ins, reasonable sales requirements, and financial motivation to help sellers succeed — there’s a real chance for participants to see that promise of more money, more freedom, and more fulfilling work come true.
We spoke with a handful of women (and one man!) who are killing it at some of the more popular and rapidly growing direct-marketing companies to get a sense of who they are and how they became top earners at their companies.
From getting a fresh start to changing careers to working a side hustle (so maybe don’t quit your day job just yet), these sellers have uncovered the trick to making bank in this business. For them, success didn’t come from posting a thousand times on social, begging their friends to attend parties, or recruiting like crazy. Instead, their deep connections to their company, customers, and teams are what drive their success.
They come from various backgrounds and have paved differing paths to success, but they all have one major common approach: Loyalty to and belief in the products and companies that changed their lives.
JESSICA BERENS, 32
Company: Stella & Dot
Title: Independent Stylist & Director
Location: New York City
Motto: Personalized Customer Service Is Everything
Five years into her career as a D.C.-based tax accountant, Jessica Berens says she “hit a wall. I started thinking about my future and looking at the women above me and realized it was not somewhere I wanted to be.”
She moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and started out slowly, “doing a Stella & Dot trunk show here and there.” The jewelry and accessories company offers an option to become a “hostess”: fans of the jewelry can host a trunk show with no buy-in requirement in exchange for free and discounted jewelry and accessories.
In a few months, she became a stylist at Stella & Dot (which requires a $199 buy-in) and it soon became her full-time job — one she says “seamlessly transitioned” to New York City when she moved there with her boyfriend.
Now a director at the company (a title that indicates she and her team of 200 stylists have reached specific personal and team sales targets), Jessica is listed in the company’s top 1 percent for sales.
Reaching that status required a pretty fast-paced schedule. “Mondays I focus on my personal business,” says Jessica. That includes booking trunk shows, coaching her team, and gearing up for the week. “I call it Mojo Mondays.” Tuesdays are for the coaching side of her business, and on Thursdays and Sundays she hosts trunk shows.
“I’ll do a pop-up in the morning, say at a blow-dry bar, or if it's during fashion week I might host a pop-up at a hotel in the city” she explains. “Thursday nights I usually do an in-home show either at my apartment or maybe in a back-room restaurant.” Friday mornings she ties up loose ends and “Friday nights are off,” says Jessica. “That's date night.”
A good chunk of her sales are based around the wedding business. (“I’m 32 and people are still getting married. I feel like I’ve been going to weddings for for like seven freaking years!” she jokes.)
Jessica uses social media and email to promote her line, but says, “I have found a personal reach-out, such as texting, is just more effective. People can be so much more appreciative with personal service. It’s why customers continue to shop with me.”
Jessica does focus on recruiting, which can increase earnings for Stella & Dot consultants. “I enjoy the sales and styling women,” says Jessica, “But I've really fallen in love with the mentoring side of this business. Yes, I do make money off of my team, but there's so much more to it than that.”
“I initially thought of this as a side gig, or a stepping stone to something else,” she says. “But after almost six years it's just been a great success.”
Which isn’t to say she’s mastered everything. “I just had a trunk show and I took a decent amount of items,” she recalls. “I forgot to ask about the building situation and ended up lugging the trunk up a four-story walk-up! Rookie move.”
KELLY NELSON, 36
Title: Educator + Manager
Motto: Always Be Prepared
It was nearly a decade ago, when she was pregnant with her oldest daughter, that Kelly Nelson became aware of the name Mia Davis. “A year and a half ago I was going a horrible divorce — I had no idea where my life was headed,” she recalls. “My mom mentioned to me she had a few friends working for Beautycounter. I had never heard of it, but just so happens that Mia Davis, who was integral in getting BPA removed from baby bottles, was an integral part of creating Beautycounter's ‘Never List.’” The company’s list compiles “1,500 questionable or harmful chemicals” Beautycounter vows to “never use as ingredients in our products.”
The company’s mission so spoke to Kelly that she found a mentor and “signed up without even trying a product,” she says. To join Beautycounter, educators pay $85 for the enrollment kit (which includes a personalized website a training platform) and commit to an annual $50 renewal fee. Soon Kelly was working for the company full-time.
Now single mom, Kelly says she found both success and financial freedom through her role as a Beautycounter consultant and educator — though she hesitates to call herself a salesperson. “I don't really need to ‘sell’ anybody,” she says. “Some people want to be educated on product safety; others want to try something new. I listen to their needs and get the products into their hands.”
When she invites friends over for spa nights, sets up shop in local stores, or hands out samples, she approaches her mission as education.
“I may start a conversation through social,” Kelly explains, “but that quickly turns into a face-to-face meeting, an order being placed, or samples being mailed. I always carry samples and literature in my bag so that if I'm at the grocery store or the park and I strike up a conversation, I'm ready.”
Kelly describes her days as “pretty planned out.” On Sunday nights her preschool-aged son and 9-year-old daughter help put together the sample boxes Kelly mails out. Her weekdays are spent “sending thank-you notes, following up on emails, and dropping off samples” before picking her son up from preschool.
She’s not required to recruit, but Kelly explains that in order to “maximize the compensation plan,” building a team is a good way to increase earnings. “Mentoring will pay off in the long run.” After one year, Kelly has already built a team of five and says it’s growing quickly. (While there is valid skepticism around companies where individuals earn the majority of profits via recruiting new sellers, Beautycounter educators earn much more from personal sales than they do from mentoring.)
And for Kelly, mentoring is an aspect of the business with which she connects deeply. “I love the friendships I've made.” she says. “I love watching women's lives change and the empowerment that comes with it. Women, myself included, have come from rock bottom and with sheer will and determination have turned their lives around while simultaneously creating major social impact.”
She’s driven by passion, not profit. “Whether a customer spends $25 or $500, it doesn't matter,” she says. “What matters is that they’re now armed with more knowledge and [are] part of our movement for more health-protective laws.” She compares each dollar spent to a vote cast for cleaner beauty products. “I do believe we can change this market one person by one person.”
ALEX & MATTY LAIGLE, 29
Title: Independent Fashion Retailer and Coach
Location: California, Maryland
Motto: Host Parties and Have Fun!
Husband-and-wife team Alex and Matthew Laigle, known as Alex and Matty in the world of LuLaRoe, became some of the brand’s top sellers in under two years. “We started in 2015 without even owning a LuLaRoe product,” says Alex. She was first introduced to the brand when a close friends from her online moms group hosted a party. “We all just had babies; we all had postpartum bodies. I saw these women transformed when they found clothes that fit their new figures and made them feel beautiful. I knew instantly this was big and I wanted to be part of it.” She talked to her husband, and they hit the ground running.
“We started with a bang,” says Alex. Almost immediately, they hosted six in-home parties a week. They’ve since scaled back and now mainly focus on Facebook sales. “We do an online party every Wednesday on our VIP page,” says Alex, referring to their LuLaRoe Facebook Page. (There is no non-VIP page.) “That’s our album release.” The couple posts their new items in the Albums section of their Facebook group “on release night,” and shoppers then claim the items in the comments.
They also host Facebook Live sales three times per week. “Our customers call our live sales ‘Laigle TV,’” says Alex. “It’s about so much more than just selling product. It’s a community event where we all joke around, have some girl talk, and sell some gorgeous clothes! They’re fun, interactive, and an amazing way for us to build relationships with our customers.”
LuLaRoe makes a limited number of each print to keep the styles unique and exclusive-feeling, and part of every retailer’s job is to choose styles they think their customers will love. At the Facebook Live sales, which can often last a few hours, Alex and Matty show and discuss each piece individually; the item goes to the first person to write “sold” in the comments. (LuLaRoe has a higher buy-in than the other brands we profiled — retailers start with $5,000 in inventory — but allows consultants to sell unsold inventory back to the company if they want to get out of the business.)
With so many customers and so much inventory to manage, the couple puts a basic structure in place for their week that allows them to divide and conquer the business and grow their sales. “We have an album release every Wednesday,” says Alex. “Every Thursday we pull and organize the items we sold during our online sale. We invoice on Friday and Monday everything ships out.”
Staying on top of the thousands of daily emails has become Matty’s job. “It a takes up a huge portion of our time,” says Alex, who explains she focuses on “team stuff” like “in-home pop-up hostess training.” (As with many MLM brands, hosts help consultants move inventory and make connections to buyers in exchange for free product.) But it’s paying off. “I understand from LuLaRoe that this year my Independent Fashion Retailer business is ranked among the top 1 percent of Independent Fashion Retailer businesses,” says Alex. The company has more than 80,000 Independent Fashion Retailer businesses selling LuLaRoe products.
And though she certainly has a knack for selling clothes, Alex didn’t start out in fashion or retail. “I had an amazing career working in the Department of Defense,” she says. “I have my MBA. And until LuLaRoe I didn’t think I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.” But after her second child was born, she craved flexibility: “I hated the rush of the mornings.” She says she started at LuLaRoe to have something for herself, but, when it became clear it could be a full-time job, “Matty quit his job first. Then I went on maternity leave and never went back.”
Alex can work while her youngest plays on the floor and will have friends over for playdates in the afternoon. “I have more control over my time,” she says. “I can decide to work more that day or to drop everything and have a beach day with my friends. I work with my husband, my kids are home… Just saying it out loud makes me giddy. I realize how lucky I am.”
RACHEL BARON, 41
Company: Rodan + Fields
Title: Independent Consultant
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Motto: Make It a Part of Everyday Life
“Skincare was the furthest thing from my mind,” Rachel Baron says when recalling her introduction to Rodan + Fields, a dermatologist-developed line from the founders of Proactiv. “I mean, I followed Phish around and barely washed my face.”
But after a friend and consultant invited Baron to over for a sales event, it got her thinking. “I live in apartment in Brooklyn, in an expensive neighborhood with two kids,” she says. “I do well but I have school to pay for, a nanny to pay for, a car to pay for. I thought ‘If I could just make 300 extra bucks for shoes, that would be awesome. Or save a little for vacation.’”
“Now,” she says proudly, “I’m a leader in the field.”
Baron refers to Rodan + Fields as her “side hustle” (the music industry exec declares, “I live for my full-time job”), and she built her client base pretty organically.
“I talk to people. It's very natural,” she says. Her days start with getting her kids dressed (“a whole thing in itself”) and out the door. On the way to school drop-off, Rachel says she often finds herself chatting with potential clients. “I’ll run into a mom on the bus and we just have a regular conversation. When you’re happy and excited about something, you talk about it.”
She posts on social media about products but says, “I don’t want to sound like an infomercial. I weave these products into the fact that I have something to say.” Rachel also promotes BRCA education, and Rodan + Fields has become part of that personal narrative. “For me it’s about feeling good, feeling healthy, and feeling positive about your life. So I use social media as a way to educate people about what I'm doing.”
Plus, with no need for inventory or event hosting (Rodan + Fields handles all processing shipping on their end, and parties are not required for sellers) it’s a low-maintenance gig. The purchase of a $45 “business portfolio” is the only requirement to enroll as a Rodan + Fields consultant. “I run my entire business from my phone,” says Rachel. “I focus on this at night after putting my kids to bed. I'll sit with a laptop while watching a show.”
Her genuine interest in the product, and her belief that it’s helped her life, is her only sales hook. “I go out to dinner with my girlfriends, we are talking about the fact my lashes look amazing,” she says. “The moms I meet care more about skincare then they do my job in the music business. It's very organic. It comes up naturally. This is really me. I’m really excited about skincare. This business was super-far out of my comfort zone and not something I ever thought I would be doing. But I truly believe in it.”