JoDee Watkins, Audrey Cook and Natasha Greer have been working from home for years, long before “WFH” became a Twitter hashtag and well before a global pandemic made it, for many, a requirement.
“I just thought I would like to make an extra $500 a month,” says Watkins, 50, an independent consultant for a skin care line. “And so I’m going to tell all my friends because I know all my friends would love to make an extra $500 a month.”
Watkins sells Rodan + Fields skin care products. Cook, also an independent consultant, offers Arbonne’s beauty, health and wellness merchandise. And Greer is one of those “Avon ladies” — a term coined in the 1950s for one of the best-known so-called MLMs.
The dreaded ‘P-word’
Call it direct selling, network marketing, a side hustle or stay-at-home-mom work — but don’t call it a pyramid scheme, at least not around the Upstate women interviewed here.
“I let people know, ‘Hey, I built my business from the ground up,’” Cook, 40, says of her full-time job selling Arbonne’s makeup, skin care, hair, nutrition, and bath and body products. “If someone were to join my team, I’m not going to make money off of them just for signing up.”
She and others explain that a pyramid scheme typically focuses on recruitment, usually with easy-money, get-rich-quick promises: A promoter harvests distributors, who pay potentially exorbitant buy-in fees and often must purchase large amounts of inventory or both. Pyramid schemes are illegal in the U.S.
Even MLMs can give multilevel marketing a bad name.
Among the recent headline-grabbers: Last year, 190 consultants joined a class-action suit against LuLaRoe, a popular clothing retailer. One distributor said she ultimately invested — and lost — $10,000, including the $5,000 initial startup kit.
“That really gives the rest of us hardworking people a bad rap,” says Cook, regional vice president, as well as an independent consultant, for Arbonne. “I definitely do not sit back and just make money.”
For the love of people
The half-dozen women interviewed for this article unanimously agree with Cook that they enjoy the work, even those who have moved on.
Watkins is by far the most successful. She has 20,000 team members spread across at least three countries; by comparison, Nancy Tiller, who also sells for Rodan + Fields, has about 400.
The cost to join Rodan + Fields is $45 for the “basic business kit.” As is typical with many other such companies with “downline” salespeople, Rodan + Fields consultants earn 5% commissions from their teams’ sales.
“My team has been as high as $2.1 million per month” in total sales, Watkins says.
That’s a long way from 2013, back in Virginia, near Fredericksburg, where her husband was a cop and she worked three nursing jobs at the same time: a nursing supervisor, a cardiac-care nurse and a nurse caring for victims of sexual assault.
“I was missing a lot of putting my kiddos to bed,” Watkins, 50, says of her four children, one of whom, AnneDee, 13, has special needs. “I thought if I could work one less shift in all those things I was doing, that would be great.”
In 2017, she invested $540,000 from her Rodan + Fields earnings to open Pet Commander Kennels, which can accommodate up to 30 dogs on a 106-acre Gray Court property. She and her husband, Jonathan, 42, opened the kennel largely to give their daughter a job. Today, the now-self-sustaining company employs five people with special needs.
“I love direct sales,” she says. “I love network marketing. As long as you care about people and love people — not when it starts being something that’s serving you and you’re using people to serve yourself.”
‘We are the advertising’
Like Watkins, Tiller fell in love with Rodan + Fields’ products. She credits her complexion — luminescent — to the products she began using and now counts as many as 50 customers who purchase products at any given time.
“We are the advertising,” she says. “We market our faces. Our friends say, ‘Who, what are you using? Your skin looks amazing.’ There’s a need for high-end skin care.”
Greer, in her “mid-40s” and also supporting a daughter with special needs, says she started two years ago with Avon because she hadn’t heard about any representative in the area.
Why didn’t she simply continue ordering what she wanted online?
“Well, you don’t get top quality if you get it off eBay,” she says. “You have no clue how old it is. It could be expired. One time, I ordered some eyeliner off eBay and it was not any good.”
She also cites Avon’s reputation for personalized selling — she includes free samples with her shipments to customers — as well as the fabled history of the company whose founder began selling books door to door in 1886.
Other marquee MLMs include Tupperware, started in 1946, and Fuller Brush Co., launched in 1906.
As with Fuller Brush’s lifetime-guaranteed hairbrushes, Greer says Avon’s variety appeals to her: clothing and hair dryers, shampoo and conditioners, skincare products, jewelry and more.
Conversations are key
Stella & Dot, founded in 2004, primarily offers jewelry and accessories.
Until Catherine Carter fell in love and eventually moved to Greenville in 2013, she sold real estate in Houston, selling Stella & Dot on the side.
“There are some people who do really well, and then there are some people who don’t,” she says. “You do have to be a person who gets up there and talks to people, wear the jewelry, wear the clothes. If somebody says, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love that necklace,’ you start up a conversation.”
She kept going pretty much until she met her future husband, Jon-Michial Carter, who went on to become co-founder and CEO of ChartSpan, a chronic-care management company that in 2017 closed a $16 million round of venture capital.
Now Catherine Carter, 50, is ChartSpan’s director of administration.
Of Stella & Dot, she says, “Oh, my gosh, it was fun! I was doing house parties, going to friends’ houses and doing parties. It’s a great organization — especially if you want that kind of sorority, rah-rah kind of friendship.”
That’s how and why, when the couple first moved to Greenville, they became acquainted with Sallie Holder.
Holder says she doesn’t sell Stella & Dot anymore, mostly because she got burned out. But the onetime lawyer and now motivational speaker and author says, “It was a great way for me to learn a different skill set while I was still practicing. It was a great way for me to just get some different experience.”
Know your goals
All of the women here agree MLMs aren’t for everyone, and that research is a must.
Holder says she asks curious wannabes about their goals and what they hope to achieve — the same sorts of questions facing those who could choose to work at home.
“They can be great opportunities,” she says of MLMs’ promises and potential, “but people have to realize that they have still a drive to be in the business world.”
Vee Daniel, president of the BBB of Upstate South Carolina, says the Better Business Bureau doesn’t investigate distributors’ or former direct sellers’ complaints against MLMs, although they do look into bogus product claims — especially now those related to COVID-19.
An example is “last week, where they’re saying that essential oils are a cure,” she says, referring to nonexistent antidotes to coronavirus. “When it comes to unfounded product claims, we investigate businesses.”
Reputable MLMs’ independent consultants, as they’re widely known, are generally 1099 employees for IRS purposes. If a distributor feels she has been ripped off — unfair or unpaid commissions, lost investments of, say, $2,500 start-up fees and the like — those claims are forwarded to wage-and-hour labor authorities, Daniel says.
In a nutshell: She and regulatory authorities, as well as some of the women interviewed for this story, urge due diligence.
First, they say, any entrepreneurial enterprise benefits from a business plan; the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is capturing a lot of headlines these days, offers tips about how to write one.
As for MLMs, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, while also defining pyramid schemes and their red flags, offers the following suggestions, among others:
- Do your research: Research the company. Research what other distributors are saying. Ask about refunds. Read the fine print. Check with the South Carolina Attorney General’s office for any complaints.
- As you would when creating a business plan, ask yourself: Do you want to be a salesperson? Do you have a solid sales strategy? What are your income goals? Can you afford to risk the money and time?
- Talk with current and past distributors: “Ask tough questions and dig for details,” the FTC advises. “Don’t consider it nosy or intrusive; you’re thinking about starting a small business. A good businessperson needs those answers.”