Multi-level marketing businesses and vague entrepreneur training using a “sales funnel” method that entices you by presenting the ideal life you want, has been a topic I have been exploring and researching for a couple of years. I get it, things are hard out there, money is tight, and we do what we need to do. Maybe you want to stay home with your kids or quit your 9-5. Perhaps you love essential oils, skincare, make-up, nutrition, and you found something that aligns with your values. MLM’s and online entrepreneur trainings are pretty good at honing in on pain points to get people to buy in.
Full disclosure, in the not so distant past, I too, went down the road of multi-level marketing. I also wanted to bring in some extra money, and what they promise felt tangible and doable, especially if you believe in the product or training, and I did. I was naive when stepping foot into this area, but I quickly realized that the hype of these businesses mimicked an evangelist preaching to a congregation, except this time it was essential oils, vitamins, a makeup line, or a sales funnel entrepreneur training, easily interchangeable, and concerning for many reasons. This was at a time in my life when I was in a large amount of debt, and it is not a coincidence that I was feeling vulnerable and worried that I would not be able to continue as is unless I made more money. I had also just broken up with my longterm boyfriend, and was feeling lost and confused about what to do next. The MLM and sales funnel entrepreneur training offer up the perfect solution, and they do an excellent job of it. Seeing pictures of “perfect” families, lavish holidays, flawless faces smiling into the sun, creating community, six-figure freedom chants. Why not? If they can do it, so can I.
My goal isn’t to shame people who decide to go this route. There are thousands upon thousands of people that pile into convention centres every year with cranked to the hilts hype music, the glitz and glam, and no expenses spared by your MLM business of choice. Usually people are there with the goal to create a community with like-minded people; some people are working through a life transition, or want to get pumped up about selling a product or training that will set them up for a better life, but most of the time people are looking for an alternative way to earn money, sometimes people are in desperate situations, and that clouds their judgement. My goal is to spark a truthful, hard conversation about how these business models can be misleading, confusing, and how despite people’s best intentions for it not to hurt their relationships, and violate people’s boundaries, often, it does.
I see the benefits in seeking out a business model that provides more flexibility, to “be your own boss,” but you are not your own boss, you are a sales rep - an independent contractor for a million or billion-dollar company making people at the top very rich. I see its glaring flaws, numerous people do. Sadly, people are so desperate to find something to fit their lifestyle that discernment goes out the window. A need for more cash flow, to make things work, that motivator trumps all, and these businesses know that. People have children to provide for and bills to pay. Being sold the idea of financial freedom, to be able to work from home and outside of a standard business structure is seductive. That desire can be used to manipulate people into going all in, and it works.
I have plenty of experience in the realm of online business. You know, “boss babe life” and all that? All jokes aside, I have twelve years of experience being in online entrepreneurial spaces, and in the wellness industry for even more. I created an online lifestyle business, dabbled with nutrition coaching, started up and sold a medicinal tea company, and currently run a writing platform with over 24 thousand followers, all while working as a Massage Therapist. I have been self-employed for most of my working life. I have developed a keen gut response to all of this.
I want to lay down facts so that people who feel a gut response like I did many years ago, have concrete validation. I am unsettled when people sign on with these businesses, throw caution to the wind and spout off misinformation while lacking the educational background to be advising people on critical life and health decisions and offering their products while doing so.
These businesses have a team to masterfully curate the image of their brand, to target certain people and align them with utopian verbiage that is easy to regurgitate. They put out fires swiftly, pay large amounts of money to highly educated doctors, celebrities, influencers, and scientists to preach their philosophies and praise their products, not to mention the lawsuits we don’t hear about that go away quickly and quietly. People are taught to “go all in”, to shoot for six figures or more, “the world is your oyster” mentality and use shame-based tactics when you don’t meet your goals. Keeping people focused on their “why” can make them lose sight of what is really going on.
Desperation and uncertain times breed a rise in being less perceptive; these businesses inspire you to fully trust that this is the right choice because “they said so,” no questions asked.
What is a multi-level marketing business?
Multi-level Marketing (MLM) is a business model in which a company distributes products through a network of distributors, often known as representatives, leaders, change-makers, or advocates, that earn an income from retail sales and recruitment. There is usually an initial fee or product buy-in; people are often times required to buy a certain amount of product every month to maintain their status. That is how I ended up with more essential oils than I knew what to do with, I just finished off my last bottle, four years later. Your upline is the person that recruited you, and you are their downline, and then you do the same.
By Pyramid8Ball.svg: Traced by User:Stanneredderivative work: JohnDoe0007 (talk) - Pyramid8Ball.svg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7136580
What is an online entrepreneurship training sales funnel? (internet marketing)
If you are familiar with Internet Marketing, you will see everywhere you turn, sales funnels disguised as "online training." Can you make money? Sure, but it can be deceiving and a little vague. Most people are attracted to the idea of making money from home, but not actually interested in becoming an entrepreneur or have a product in mind. What usually happens is that people get sold the training, the "rinse", and then get people to "repeat" that same training as well.
Why does it work? They sell you the lifestyle you desire, to be your own boss, and that six/seven-figure incomes can be quickly obtained from the comfort of your own home if you hustle hard enough. Funnels are designed to bring in potential leads, providing that lead or website visitor with a small commitment, like a free webinar. The website visitor then enters their email address, known as "opting in" in exchange for the free offer. From here, they will provide more content and offers to the leads, hoping to upsell them. This can be highly effective, and on its own is a useful business tool. Most people have no interest in becoming an entrepreneur, so they sell the sales funnel training as their business. Using words and phrases like, “freedom”, “no alarm clock needed”, “quitting your 9-5”, “spend more time with your family”, “help pay for your children's expensive sports”, “live life on your terms” - these are all catch phrases commonly seen in these realms. The people who are generating leads for this training have little to no experience in the world of entrepreneurship, so their ability to be discerning is difficult when they, too, are learning as they go.
Paraphrasing from the fine print of one of these websites
Income results are based on a lot of different factors. We have no way of projecting how well you will do this, as we do not know your background, work ethic, or business skills. We cannot guarantee that you will get rich or make any money at all. If you rely upon our figures, do so at your own risk. Only risk capital should be used. Use caution and seek the advice of qualified professionals before acting on this information.
Like all things, including humans, there is a shadow side, and there is a multitude of shadow sides to these business models, let’s go through some together.
Peer to peer sales, what I like to call, sisterhood commodification since a good majority of these companies attract women.
The way to make money with an MLM business is not by selling the product, but by recruiting others. So even if you believe in the product wholeheartedly, which many do, pushing product isn’t how you make decent money, it’s recruiting others to do the same as you. This is part of why MLM's are only profitable for those at the top. Eventually you run out of people to recruit. In smaller regions, not to mention that these markets become saturated, sales start to decrease as the market expands, and new recruit potential plummets as other people start up their own team from a different upline making more competition, and less chance to reach your goals. Great for the people at the top of the pyramid, not so much for people starting out at the bottom or who have worked their way to the middle and trying to stay there.
Depending on the MLM or online training, women in particular are getting inundated with “invitations”, both online and offline, for “get-togethers” or a “free class”, but what they truly are is a recruitment hub for oils, vitamins, those weird wrap things, or whatever else. I have seen women skirt around this by saying they are teaching “self-care routines” or offering up ways to learn to love yourself more through these products. Pairing products or training together with other people’s ”expertise” for an informational talk is par for the course in MLM land, be it hormonal education, weight loss, grief literacy, astrology, yoga, entrepreneurship and/or business training.
What do I see? A breeding ground for misinformation, peer pressure, and people lacking the proper credentials to be talking about what they are talking about, or if they do, have aligned with a sales rep who convinced them it was a good fit. I know because I was taught how to do precisely this.
Peddling sisterhood for sales is hard to get around when selling something is involved. The model urges women to be over the top friendly to potential recruits and buyers; however, this becomes a hotbed for inauthenticity and forming false bonds. A lot of women are seeking out new friendships, to belong to something outside their home life, and this naturally becomes a good fit; however, they risk estrangement, isolation and depression if they decide to stop with the product or business. I have heard countless heartbreaking stories from women that as soon as they quit the business; all of their friendships ended as well, or they stayed in the business out of fear of losing their friendships and social status.
Toxic positivity culture (critical thinking not welcomed)
MLM’s are known for their “good vibes only” mentality. Conditioning recruits to believe their attitude is the reason they may be failing rather than the fact that the majority of people that do the business lose money. MLM’s indoctrinate recruits by bombarding them with information to get them excited about their new path, and to treat family members and friends who point out the fundamental flaws in the business structure as “negative people” who “aren’t on the same level”. This is why people compare MLM’s to cults. What can happen is that you slowly start to replace your friends or even your partner with the new ones that “get you,” who are part of your MLM or support your choice. That is the reason these companies push you to attend the conventions; so you start connecting with like-minded people who are embodying a similar mindset and leave those “negative Nancy’s” behind.
People who are religious flock to this model, why?
Religion goes hand in hand with the MLM and the internet marketing business model. Many of the well known MLM’s are based in Utah, and so is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Morman church). The LDS community takes care of each other, and have plenty of connections within the church and sell to products.
Religious people are naturally trusting, and the Mormon community, who go on two-year missionary trips, are already conditioned to become the ideal MLM sales reps because they are used to sharing and attempting to recruit people to their religion. Another reason this model works so well for some religious people; they favour conservative gender roles, where the women are stay at home moms. Mormons and other religious people are also used to ignoring criticism, and spiritually bypassing issues that don’t line up with their beliefs. Blocking out “negativity,” and outside influence perfectly aligns with the MLM model.
Misinformation and Heedless Rhetoric
Acting as if some of these products are "cure-alls" makes me uneasy, not to mention the promotion of diet culture, the obsession with shrinking our bodies and overburdened by ways to be ageless everywhere you turn. You see a post on Facebook that starts with, "HEY GUYS, I just did something BIG, I have a passion for health and wellness and I just joined this company …”
When speaking with a friend, she told me that shortly after the tragic death of her father, a friend in the oil business offered her an oil blend for her grief, and was pushing for a get together. Although intentions may have been good, saviorism is hardwired into these women, to help people in tough situations by offering companionship, and support. However, there always seems to be a motive to start up a conversation about their products, and integrity is almost always lost, along with trust. Coming from someone who is currently dealing with grief, I would be appalled and offended by this, especially if someone tried to recruit me. Grief is a vulnerable time; this is a breach of boundaries on many levels and a misguided attempt at supporting someone. Offering an essential oil blend for grief may seem nice, but in my opinion, not the time or place to plug a product or to recruit. A little different if it was part of a care-package, or from a close friend, but the fact is, these companies promote selling their oils to grieving people like that will help their pain, and it’s concerning. Encouraging people to promote their product alongside someone else’s tragedy unabashedly? Also not ok, but this says more about the business model and not so much the people in them.
And here are a few examples found on the Internet
When I was doing research for this article I also stumbled on an essential oils leader who had just gotten back from the 2019 convention in Utah. This is where they roll out new products for the year, and in her YouTube recap there was a part where she talks about people wanting to get off their SSRI drugs used to treat anxiety and depression. She urged people to bring their essential oil self-care plan in to their doctor, and if the doctor was not on board with their plan to get off their meds with the help of essential oils, to "fire that doctor." Not knowing the complex issues around people’s mental health conditions and nudging them to incorporate alternative health products is one thing, but saying if they want to get off their meds to use oils to help them, and fire the doctor who doesn’t comply, is another. She is a Canadian lead earner in the company.
This is a comment from a nurse about people misusing the oils in a hospital setting on my Instagram page.
The Misleading And Confusing Earning Projections
MLM’s try to distance themselves from the term “pyramid scheme”, but like I said above, on average, 99% of MLM reps lose money once business expenses are taken into account. That means that only 1% are making most of the capital.
People get confused when looking at their earnings disclosure summary because it is unclear and confusing how the numbers are put together. Once you start taking apart the numbers and averages, you begin to see that the odds are stacked against people. The way in which they share this is intentionally deceptive.
The Recruitment Tactics
MLM’s use similar tactics as cults to condition people. I know how extreme that sounds, but the similarities are too obvious to ignore. They exploit people's desire to have the freedom to create the life they want, exploit the longing to belong and be accepted, and the desire to be your own boss. If you don’t quite get to your goals, that it is your fault - you aren’t working the system properly, or you aren’t trying hard enough.
Love Bombing: Who doesn’t want to be showered with love, support and acceptance? This is what is happening at these free classes or get-togethers, and depending on the nature of the product or training, the details of the business are kept indeterminate until the end. People say things like, “come learn about self-care rituals,” “find your freedom,” or “Become a boss lady”... Sometimes you don’t know until the very end that it is a sales pitch. How clever.
Faking Success and Happiness:
Uplines often urge their downlines to “fake it till they make it,” or to manifest their success, and in this business, I call that bulldozing to get what you want. To give the impression that they are living their best life because of the business.
Using emotional stories to access people’s vulnerabilities: Using sympathy, and heart-wrenching stories to sell and recruit is commonplace and encouraged. That is huge boundary violation especially if you didn’t give permission to share yours or feel pressured to “share your why” in order to make your sales targets.
The Healing Journey Trope: “I am healing, and you can, too.” Bringing people along in the name of self-care and love and purchasing your products? People need to learn better boundaries, and communication skills, to work through their trauma and wounds and to be more discerning; that is the healing journey, and sometimes what people truly need is professional help.
Below you will see one of the essential oil companies offering up blends for mental health issues and traumatic events.
Guilt and Shame Tactics to keep you quiet if you end up leaving:
Some people are shamed into silence by their uplines and people in the company. If you are still in the business, you can’t have someone telling other people about your experience, so people are taught to discredit them in hopes they don’t speak out.
Let’s also refer to the BITE Model:
(Full article: How MLMs And Cults Use The Same Mind Control Techniques)
Behavior Control: This type of control is all about dictating who a person is and what they do. Behavior control can include restricting what types of food a person eats, what they wear, when they sleep and who they are allowed to associate with. Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence is also often a key component of behavior control. Individualism is discouraged and groupthink is encouraged.
Information Control: To exert undue influence, cults will often withhold or distort information to make it more acceptable (or simply flat-out lie). Information control involves using deception, discouraging access to non-cult sources of information, encouraging spying on each other and producing propaganda such as newsletters, YouTube videos, movies and other media.
Thought Control: Cults will also seek to control how members think so that the group’s doctrine is accepted as the truth. Loaded language and clichés are used to stop critical thinking and reduce complex ideas to platitudes and buzzwords. Often, only positive thoughts are allowed; constructive criticism or questions are immediately shut down.
Emotional Control: Members of cults experience extreme emotional highs and lows; they’re showered with praise one moment and then made to feel guilty, fearful and unworthy the next. They’re told that any problems they experience are their own fault and never that of the leader or group. The cult instills irrational fears about leaving or questioning the leader’s authority.
These are just some of the examples of how cults and other mind-controlling organizations employ the BITE model of undue influence. They likely sound very familiar to current and former MLM participants.
Talking up product quality and ethical sourcing
Across the board product quality and pricing vary, always on the higher side. We will use one of the essential oil companies as an example. Since there is no official oil grading system for essential oils, they made up their own, inventing the term “Pure Therapeutic Grade,” and creating an elitism amongst their competition to their superior product. Although they are right inthat some essential oils are low quality, their “high-grade” product claimed its celebrity status by way of making shit up. And shall we talk about the environmental impacts of sourcing that amount of plant matter? Their Cō-Impact Sourcing initiative reeks of the white saviour complex.
Essential oils manufacturers Young Living and doTERRA battle it out in court over alleged theft of trade secrets, phony lab tests and false advertising
People deserve transparency in all aspects of their life; how we are sold products or recruited into these businesses is no different. Teaching people to sell a lifestyle is not an actual business, and yet people eat it up, and it’s a slippery slope.
If the numbers are out that 99% of people are losing money (after buying the products for themselves to maintain their status, tax deductions, marketing promotions, and business expenses, airfare to yearly conventions, etc), chances are the people you try to recruit to be part of your team are going to be screwed over. Mind you, the MLM's get around this guilt by making you believe in the product or lifestyle so much that you forget they are, in fact, teaching you to use manipulative and deceiving tactics for you to “live your best life,” then sell that to others.
The Dream podcast takes you through a journalist approach into the heart of MLM’s, listening to real people’s experiences, respectfully and critically. If you found this article helpful, this podcast may further your knowledge on the subject.
About This Show
What if we told you that with zero experience and only a few hundred dollars down, this podcast could change your life? Well, we’d be lying. This season on The Dream, Jane Marie dives into the world of pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, and all the other businesses that require their members to recruit their nearest and dearest in hopes of a commission. Join us as we trace the path of get-rich schemes from Jane’s roots in rural Michigan all the way to the White House.
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